All over the world, legends abound regarding spirits, monsters, and other supernatural beings with mysterious and horrifying connections with children. In ancient Greece, Lamia was a night-haunting monster that would find and eat children. The well-known story of Baba Yaga, according to the Slavic tales, tells of her seeking out and eating children. There are few notions more chilling and horrifying than a monster lying in wait for innocent children, looking to waylay and consume them.
Just such a monster, according to legend, is the Erlking. The Erlking also has the honor of being written by one of the consensus greats in the world of poetry, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a poem eventually translated to English by the great Sir Walter Scott. The fact that this poem was also put to song by another great in the world of music, Franz Schubert, makes the legend even more special.
Let us take a look at the legend of the Erlking and how Goethe’s poem “Erlkonig” does it justice.
The Mythology of the Erlking
The legend of the Erlking is an old Germanic one, where the Erlking, or the elf-king, is a dark and sinister elf who lives in the woods, stalks children, and kills them. From several origin stories and interpretations, it becomes clear that the Erlking lures children with promises of a land full of happiness, fun, and joy. This is exactly the spirit in which the Erlking mythology has been represented in Goethe’s poem.
The Erlking mythology has Danish origins and was first introduced into German literature by Johann Gottfried von Herder, who adapted a Danish folk ballad in which a nobleman refuses the advances of the dark elf and refuses to be swayed by her temptation. The dark elf them strikes him, making him go deathly pale. The following day, the day of his wedding, his bride finds him dead under a scarlet cloak.
In the original Danish legend, it seems that the true monster was not the Erlking himself, but his daughter.
Goethe’s Chilling Poem “The Erlkonig”
In Goethe’s spine-chilling adaptation, a father is bringing his boy back home with all haste on horseback. The weather is extremely inclement and the atmosphere is one of impending doom. The child seems delirious and the father extremely paranoid about dangers on the way.
The child tells his father that he can see and hear the “Erlkonig”, who keeps making promises to the child about a wonderful place with beautiful things, fun and games, and friendly companionship. While he tells his father about these promises, his father, who does not perceive the existence of the Erlking, is further bewildered and grows more perplexed, trying to offer the child simple, natural explanations of what he might be seeing or hearing.
According to Erlking mythology, the being keeps trying to lure the child, saying that his daughters will become his friends and play with him. He would get to enjoy beautiful flowers and rich clothes. When the child repeats these events to his father, his father successfully explains them away using natural phenomena. Finally, the Erlking loses patience, and through the child, informs the father that he will take the child by force. The child tells his father that the Erlking has touched him and done him harm.
Horrified, the father speeds up and, holding the howling and crying child tight in his arms, quickly manages to reach their farm home. However, when he dismounts the horse, he finds that his child is dead in his arms.
The Erlking by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Who’s riding so late where winds blow wild
It is the father grasping his child;
He holds the boy embraced in his arm,
He clasps him snugly, he keeps him warm.
“My son, why cover your face in such fear?”
“You see the elf-king, father?
He’s near! The king of the elves with crown and train!”
“My son, the mist is on the plain.”
‘Sweet lad, o come and join me, do!
Such pretty games I will play with you;
On the shore gay flowers their color unfold,
My mother has many garments of gold.’
“My father, my father, and can you not hear
The promise the elf-king breathes in my ear?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child, lie low:
In withered leaves the night-winds blow.”
‘Will you, sweet lad, come along with me?
My daughters shall care for you tenderly;
In the night my daughters their revelry keep,
They’ll rock you and dance you and sing you to sleep.’
“My father, my father, o can you not trace
The elf-king’s daughters in that gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clear
How grey the ancient willows appear.”
‘I love you, your comeliness charms me, my boy!
And if you’re not willing, my force I’ll employ.’
“Now father, now father, he’s seizing my arm.
Elf-king has done me a cruel harm.”
The father shudders, his ride is wild,
In his arms he’s holding the groaning child,
Reaches the court with toil and dread. –
The child he held in his arms was dead.
– 1782, translation by Edwin Zeydel, 1955
Finding Meaning in “The Erlkonig”
The somber and horrifying mood that Goethe quickly conjures up with a pen… picture of a father riding through a rough and windy night clutching his child in his arms immediately sets the tone for something bad about to happen. Interestingly, the father’s speed and haste to get home and his frantic attempts to explain away what the child is experiencing indicates that, to some degree, he is aware of what is happening and can understand the horrific, inevitable end his child would most likely suffer.
The cadence of the poem also helps, faithfully recreating the cadence of the hooves of a horse in a full gallop. Goethe’s masterful handling of the legend presents readers with a sobering, ominous view of the natural world, where supernatural elements abound that can easily affect and overwhelm humans. Even for all their strength, courage, and feats of intelligence, the humans then have to become mute spectators, fighting for their lives while knowing fully well that the doom that hangs over the head will be impossible to escape.
It is this chilling masterpiece that creates the feeling of inevitability that horror as a genre heavily draws on. While examples of it are seen regularly in modern horror masterpieces, Goethe’s “Erlkonig” is truly a masterclass of this notion, serving to fully represent its impact in only a few short lines of verse.
Cover Art by Moritz von Schwind.
Last Updated on August 16, 2021.