The first time you read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1782 poem ‘Erlkönig‘ your initial reaction is horror. A father racing, for what is assumed to be help for his ill child, only to fail to reach his destination in time and finds his son has died in his arms. It is a very heart breaking poem. The Erlkönig is a supernatural character who is trying to persuade the little boy to follow him, it is presumed that following this figure would lead to worldly death. Many people read this poem as a horror story, just as was my first impression. However, had not the dying been a child, and had he not took his final breath in his fathers arms, would this story be so scary? Doesn’t what the Erlkönig offer sound grand and exciting? Perhaps like heaven to a sick and dying child? Was this supernatural character really trying to hurt him? Or comfort him (in a rather overbearing way I’d admit) during his last minutes? Whatever Erlkönig’s real intentions were, the story is undoubtedly upsetting, and most interpretations view the Erlkönig as a seductive and evil creature.
Below are three verions of the poem:
1. The original German text
Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
“Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?”
“Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?”
“Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.”
“Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel’ ich mit dir;
Manch’ bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.”
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?”
“Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.”
“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehen?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.”
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?”
“Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.”
“Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.”
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!”
Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh’ und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.
2. A literal translation
Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He holds the boy in the crook of his arm
He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.
“My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?”
“Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and cloak?”
“My son, it’s a wisp of fog.”
“You lovely child, come, go with me!
Many a beautiful game I’ll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the shore,
My mother has many golden robes.”
“My father, my father, can’t you hear,
What the Elfking quietly promised me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind rustles through dry leaves.”
“Do you want to come with me, dear boy?
My daughters shall wait on you fine;
My daughters lead the nightly dances
And will rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”
“My father, my father, can’t you see there,
The Elfking’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it well:
The old willows they shimmer so grey.”
“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, I shall use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s grabbing me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!”
The father shudders; he rides swiftly,
He holds the moaning child in his arms.
He can hardly manage to reach his farm;
In his arms, the child was dead.
3. An english adaptation, with rhyming verses. (“The Alder King” Edgar Alfred Bowring 1853)
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.
“My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Elf King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Elf King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.”
“Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!
For many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”
“My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Elf King now breathes in mine ear?”
“Be calm, dearest child, thy fancy deceives;
the wind is sighing through withering leaves.”
“Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care
My daughters by night on the dance floor you lead,
They’ll cradle and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”
“My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Elf King is showing his daughters to me?”
“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
‘Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight.”
“I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou aren’t willing, then force I’ll employ.”
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
For sorely the Elf King has hurt me at last.”
The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He holds in his arms the shuddering child;
He reaches his farmstead with toil and with dread,–
The child in his arms he finds motionless, dead.
According to this site this was the inspiration for this poem:
One story has it that Goethe was visiting a friend when, late one night, a dark figure carrying a bundle in its arms was seen riding past the gate at high speed. The next day Goethe and his friend were told that they had seen a farmer taking his sick son to the doctor. This incident, along with the legend, is said to have been the main inspiration for the poem.
The Erlkönig vs. Goethe’s Erlkönig
Der Erlkönig has been translated into English several different ways. The Erlking, the Elfking, and the Oak or Alder King.
The Erlking - The Erlking as a character has its origins in a common European folkloric archetype, the seductive but deadly fairy or siren. In its original form in Scandinavian folklore, the character was a female spirit, the elf-king’s daughter (Elverkongens datter). Similar stories existed in numerous ballads throughout Scandinavia in which an elverpige (female elf) was responsible for ensnaring human beings to satisfy their desire, jealousy and lust for revenge.
The Erlking’s Daughter – Johann Gottfried von Herder introduced this character into German literature in Erlkönigs Tochter, a ballad published in his 1778 volume Stimmen der Volker in Liedern. It was based on a Danish folk ballad published in the 1739 Danske Kaempevisor. Herder undertook a free translation but mistranslated the Danish name elverkonge as “Erlkönig”, “alder king”; the confusion appears to have arisen with the German word elle, “alder”. It has generally been assumed that the mistranslation was the result of error, but it has also been suggested that Herder was imaginatively trying to identify the malevolent sprite of the original tale with a woodland demon (hence the alder king).
The story, as retold by Herder, portrays a man named Sir Oluf riding to his marriage but being entranced by the music of the elves. One of the elf maidens, the Elverkonge’s daughter, appears and invites him to dance with her. He refuses and spurns her offers of gifts and gold. Angered, she strikes him and sends him on his way, deathly pale. The following morning, on the day of his wedding, his bride finds him lying dead under his scarlet cloak.
Goethe’s Erlking - Although inspired by Herder’s ballad, Goethe departed significantly from both Herder’s rendering of the Erlking and the Scandinavian original. The antagonist of Goethe’s Der Erlkönig is, as the name suggests, the Erlking himself rather than his daughter. Goethe’s Erlking differs in other ways as well: his version preys on children, rather than adults of the opposite sex, and the Erlking’s motives are never made clear. Goethe’s Erlking is much more akin to the Germanic portrayal of elves and valkyries – a force of death rather than simply a magical spirit.
The ‘Erlking’ translation comes directly from Erlkönig, könig = king. The ‘Elfking’ translation comes from the similar Danish story of the Elverkonge’s daughter. This story about the Elfking’s Daughter was mistranslated into German as the ‘Erlkönigs Tochter’. It makes sense that the ‘Alder King (and sometimes Oak King) are frequent translations due to the supernatural character being a woodland spirit in Scandinavian folklore. But all these guesses presume that Goethe himself got caught up in this translation conundrum.
Another theory which takes a completely different course insists that perhaps Goethe knew what he was doing all along. There may be some validity to this idea. A lot of folklore probably does have similar origins.
In the German language essay “Die Erlkönigin” by Burkhard Schröder the case is made that this stories probably originated in ancient Greece and Mesopotamia and that through migrations of peoples those tales came with them and transformed. This is a very intriguing idea to me because I’m very interested in the migrations of peoples around the world and the traditions they spread. So whether the origin of these stories really is traceable to the Mediterranean, or just an artistic output of a common human psyche, I do not know.
Schröder believes that the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary Reference both incorrectly allege that Goethe mistranslated the title, and that it should have been Der Elfenkönig, to coincide with popular English translations of ‘The Elf King’. While Goethe probably did borrow from the ‘Erlkönigs Tochter’ story, Schröder say that he also probably did immense research into the origins of the story and pulled from those original Mesopotamian themes.
We learned previously that many believe the Alder King or Oak King translations come from the word elle, literally German Alder. Elves and oaks/alder may have nothing in common other then the fact that they both live in the forest.
Here is an English translation of a good portion of the essay (my additions to the text are in red)…
The words “Eller könig” or Elberich ( “rich” means “king”) and Alberich have the same ethymological root. The dwarf Alberich, the king of the underworld and has appeared in the German national epic ‘The Nibelungenlied,’ or The Song of the Nibelungs. [This may sound familiar because this saga served as source materials for Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen] The root “alb” originally meant “white” and described the color as well as “the fruit”. The Greek word “alphos” is the “white leprosy” (Latin “albula” – from “albus,” white “). An entire chapter of the novel “Moby Dick” by Herbert Melville on the hunt for the white whale is devoted to the question why the color white evokes eerily associations …
That said, it is no coincidence that historical evidence points to one of the oldest myths of the Mediterranean: the legend of the sinister goddess Alphito [according to this site, the Goddess Alphito was the "Arcadian White Grain Goddess who was given sole rights over the ability to inflict leprosy. Also note a plant named 'Alphitonia excelsa' whose name an Austrailian government website says comes from Greek meaning pearly barley.]. Alphito terrorized people in ancient Greek times. The words “nightmare”[German 'Albtraum'] and “Albino” (for “white”) were derived from the name of this goddess, and also the name of the river “Elbe”.
Even a Bible passage is possibly encrypted for a sacrifice to Alphito: In the 3rd Book of Moses, verse 10 [I had the hardest time trying to find out where this was referenced because the chapter wasn't posted. Finally, I discovered that the first five books of the Bible are refered to as the Books of Moses 1-5 in Germany. The verse is Leviticus 14:10] is arranged that the person of leprosy has been cured, a bushel of barley (in the original text: barley, Luther used Rusk [from the Martin Luther 1912 Bible, the Bibles I frequently use, the New King James Version, and The New Oxford Annotated Bible, refer to flour for the offering]) had to be sacrificed to the goddess. The Albdrücken is a synonym for Nightmare, formerly also Incubus, a demon.
The Roman writer Pliny knew even the old word “Albion” refered to the “British Isles”, and the historian Nennius, who around 820 BC published the Historia Brittonum, claimed that the name “Albion” came from “Albina”, the White Goddess of the Greek Danaan, the legendary ancestors of Mycenae.
What did the elves and the alder have in common? The Danish “Ellerkonge” was in truth of the Old God Bran, the king of the alders, writes Robert von Ranke-Graves in “The White Goddess.” The answer to the riddle is hidden in an ancient Welsh legend, the Battle of the Trees, which the Celtic Druids, and then the later minstrels transmitted orally. This legend describes, in an encrypted form, of the conquest of a dead city on the plain of Salisbury during the invasion of Britain by the Celts – the ancestors of the Gauls – during the Iron Age. The gods of the victors and the vanquished are fighting against each other as trees. Centuries later the meaning of the story has really yet to be deciphered.
The Celtic Druids use a finger alphabet: the letter F (for “Fearn”, the alder) was the tip of the middle finger is displayed, like in today’s sign language. Julius Caesar, the conqueror of Britain, complained later that the Druids had nothing written , but by secret characters they talked with each other and, what neither he nor subsequent Christian missionaries understood is that they allegedly used Greek letters. The English historian Edmund Spenser claimed in 1596 that the British Druids got their letters from a people that came from the Mediterranean Sea and travelled through Spain and had come to Britain.
Another indication that the Druid’s traditional myths and gods come from the peoples who migrated from the Mediterranean region can be found in the ‘Romance of Taliesin’. There appears Gwion, the most famous bard of the Celtic myths. His counterpart is the dark goddess Cerridwen, the shape appears in the theory of the triple goddess [an interesting idea popularized by Graves, the author of ‘The White Goddess’ mentioned earlier, it is an idea of Goddess worship that is traced back to the Near East. This single goddess would symbolize birth, death and regeneration.] , and cauldron boils over [“Cerridwen used a blind man, Morda, to stir the cauldron in order to keep the knowledge of the ingredients and the process of making the potion secret from those who had no right to know” (Celtic Encyclopedia, which also corroborates the following sentences)]. The ancient Greek goddess Alphito is hidden behind the story of Ceridwen, who overseas the harvest of barley and can transform herself into a white, corpse-eating pig. The Old Irish and Welsh word “cerdd” means “white” [this is incorrect. Using the University of Wales English/Welsh dictionary I was able to determine that ‘cerdd’ means poem, and ‘gwyn’ means white. While searching for information on Cerridwen many baby name websites popped up in the search and confirm my translation.] And even in the Spanish language this folklore stays alive. Alphito aka Ceridwen still further: “cerdo” means pig, and the “Cerdaña” is the famous barley and cereal dance of the Spanish Pyrenees [I had a hard time finding much out about this dance, but this research comes from Robert Graves. The dance is called ‘Sardana,’ not Cerdaña which is the region (english translation is Cerdanya) and the festival is held in the capital city of Puigcerda, which translates to pig hill].
In Arles, France the role of death in this mysterious play of the triple goddess can be seen. This can be seen during the end of May when the festival of The Three Marys of Provence is celebrated. This ritual is rooted in the Christian interpretation of pagan tombstones in the cemetery of Alyscamps in Arles [all the research I did on this subject says the festival is in celebration of the tradition that three Marys arrived in France with Joseph of Arimethia after they fled Palestine due to the crucifixion of Jesus. The graveyard itself was for both Christians and Pagans- but the festival is Christian, and directly refers to the visitors from Palestine]. Albert Dauzat’s “étymologique Dictionnaire de la langue française” states that the syllable “Alys” from the Gaulish word ‘Alisia’, which occur in many place names is the Spanish word for alder.
The Legend of the alder-men and elven king shows us only shadowy memories of an age-old white female goddess of death and Trinity, whose original home was in ancient Greece and Spain before their cult emigrated to England, where Alphito aka Cerridwen changed their gender and became Bran.
The myth correctly reported that Bran lured children into another world as his alter ego Erlkönig. The Erlkönig in truth is a woman and she bears a crown and tail, as in Goethe’s poem, this figure is also known in Jewish mythology. The Greek goddess Alphito is much older – and she stole away little boys. The truth is hidden behind Alphito is Lilith, according to the Talmud, the first wife of Adam. Lilith was violated, because they refused to obey Adam. Because they do not return to Paradise as requested, Yahweh commanded three angels to kill one hundred of their children a day. And that’s why she still steals newborn babies. The goddess had transformed into a female night demon. From the revenge thirsty Lilith the following sentence is handed down:
“Know ye not that I have been created for the purpose of weakening and punishing little children, infants and babes. I have power over them from the day they are born until they are eight days old if they are boys.”
Lilith has been in folk mythology for a long time, and has been portrayed with wild hair and protruding wings, reports the venerable Encyclopaedia Judaica. Images of Lilith are already known from Babylon.
In Germany there are very few testimonies of Lilith. The Jewish cemetery in Vogelsberg Grebenau shows a winged creature with a human face. It is not the angel Rasiel, as often claimed, but Lilith, whose second name is Meyalleleth in the book “Sefer Rasiel”. There are also formulas, which would be written on amulets worn by newborns to protect them from the demoness. The crown and the tail of the Erlkönig is a parody of the popular iconographic hair and wings of Lilith.
The computer game Blade knows the character of “Lilith Meyalleleth”. She has been transported not only from literature through time but with the help of the internet these age old myths have also been transported into modern gaming culture. You may just be right to call “Lilith Meyalleleth” the “Erlkönigin”.
I think the research Schröder did was very interesting. I was previously familiar with the story of Lilith, but that people have been able to trace her story all over the world is just fantastic and I would like to do further research into this. My research into the story behind the Erlkönig poem has taken me much deeper into folklore than I had ever imagined, but I’m glad it did!
Schubert’s brilliant adaptation of the text into a composition captures the tone of the poem completely. I spent much longer than I care to admit searching YouTube for interpretations of the Erlkönig. These are the performances I enjoyed the most. Totally different videos. With the artistic differences, the experience of each video is completely different.
Anne Sofie von Otter sings Der Erlkönig
Real life home-made action video
Piano Solo. The way the sound echoed through the room must have created an awesome experience.
Super Artsy. Not set to Schubert’s composition like the others.
The absolute WORST interpretation- A pre-teen pop song?!? This captures nothing of Goethe. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJw2LsXHrzY&feature=related