(Poet's title: Erlkönig)
Set by Schubert:
Part of Goethe: The April 1816 collection sent to Goethe
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 gehn?
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 Noth:
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.
Who is riding so late through night and wind?
It is the father with his child;
He has the lad there in his arms,
He is holding on to him tight, he is keeping him warm.
“My son, why are you burying your face so anxiously?” –
“Father, can’t you see the Erl King?
The Erl King with his crown and tail?”
“My son, it is a streak of mist.”
“You dear child, come, go off with me!
I shall play such beautiful games with you;
There are so many bright flowers on the bank,
My mother has plenty of golden costumes [you can put on].”
“My father, my father, can’t you hear now
What the Erl King is quietly promising me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child:
It is the wind rustling in the dry leaves.”
“Do you want to go with me, you fine lad?
My daughters will look after you well;
My daughters lead the line dancing at night
And they will rock you and dance and sing for you.”
“My father, my father, can’t you see over there,
The Erl King’s daughters in that gloomy spot?”
“My son, my son, I can see it clearly:
It is the brightly shining grey [bark of the] old willow trees.”
“I love you, your beautiful face appeals to me;
And if you don’t consent, then I shall have to use force.”
“My father, my father, he is getting hold of me now!
Erl King has hurt me!”
The father becomes horrified, he rides at a gallop,
He holds the groaning child in his arms,
Having reached the courtyard exerting himself and in dire need:
In his arms the child was dead.
All translations into English that appear on this website, unless otherwise stated, are by Malcolm Wren. You are free to use them on condition that you acknowledge Malcolm Wren as the translator and schubertsong.uk as the source. Unless otherwise stated, the comments and essays that appear after the texts and translations are by Malcolm Wren and are © Copyright.
Themes and images in this text:
Alder trees  Arms and embracing  By water – river banks  Clothes  Crowns  Dancing  Daughters  Father and child  Flowers  Games and play  Gold  Grey  Horses  Journeys  Leaves and foliage  Mist and fog  Night and the moon  Riding – on horseback  Weeping willows  Wind
In the original context of Goethe’s Singspiel Die Fischerin, Dortchen sings this ballad to herself while waiting for her father and her fiancé to return from fishing. On stage there are fishermen’s huts by a stream under tall alder trees (Unter hohen Erlen am Flusse stehen zerstreute Fischerhütten). The ‘Erl’ King is therefore presumably intended to be the ruler of these alder woodlands. This was Goethe’s attempt to explain to the audience (and to himself) what was meant by the term ‘Erlkönig’.
His then friend and neighbour, Johann Gottfried Herder, had recently (1779) published a ballad called Erlkönigs Tochter (The Erl King’s Daughter) but he seems to have made a mistake when translating it from the original Danish. What should have been ‘Elverkonge’ (King of the Elves) turned into ‘Ellerkonge’ (King of the Alder trees). It appears that Goethe was inspired by the slip and happy to evoke the character of a newly created mythical figure.
The fact that the Erl King was not a well-known figure made him all the more disturbing for Goethe’s original audience and readers. As in all the best horror movies, it is the sense of unease and dread that frightens us; explicit depictions of the monster or the baddy run the risk of undermining the effect, since we can no longer project our own worries and hidden terrors onto the story.
In the spirit of this ambiguity and the need to avoid explicit clarifications about what is going on (something Goethe is clearly at great pains to achieve), here are four possible (but perhaps contradictory) readings of the text.
A) Nothing to worry about: it’s just a game
Boy: ‘Daddy, daddy, can I come with you when you ride through the woods?’
Father: ‘Aren’t you worried about the horrible king of the Alder trees?’
Boy: ‘Is he really, really horrible? Won’t you look after me?’
And so it developed. The boy plays scared as they approach the woods. The father enters into the spirit of the game and encourages the boy’s imagination. ‘Keep your head down now, it’s getting dark and we are coming into the alder trees.’ Perhaps the father puts on a silly voice as he pretends to be the Erl King. The lad, safe in the arms of a gentle, devoted parent, relishes the frisson of encountering the terrors of their fictional world.
They will have played this game before. The boy keeps his eyes closed tight and part of him wants to believe that the horrible voice promising him these naughty things is not that of his father. There is something thrillingly exciting about being picked out for special attention by the infamous (and elusive) King of the Alders. The tension mounts and at a crucial moment the father gives a squeeze, to which the boy replies (possibly suppressing giggles), “he is hurting me!”. The rest of the journey involves acting out carrying a corpse. When they get home the boy is put to bed (he is still playing dead). In fact the whole thing could have developed out of a going to bed game anyway. ‘Come on, lad! It’s your bed-time. Let’s take you to the inn. Are you ready for our ride through the dark woods? Come on, get on the horse with me.’ There may never have been a horse, just a shared game of putting the child to bed (the line about the Erl King’s daughters rocking the child as they sing and dance seems to fit the context of a lullaby exactly). There is no need to tell a bed-time story since the father and son always act out their own. We might find their game to be slightly macabre, but we also know that one of the vital functions of play is that it allows children to prepare for a genuinely hostile world but in a safe environment. In essence, there is nothing to worry about here.
B) Stranger danger
The reason why we tell children stories about the risks of encountering strangers (be they wolves, witches or spectral kings) in the woods is quite simply that the world is a dangerous place. There are well-founded fears of predatory figures. Children are particularly vulnerable since they are attracted to the unknown and the forbidden. It is this vulnerability that is exploited when they are groomed.
Goethe’s ballad presents the stages of grooming in vivid detail. The child is first offered new playmates and toys. There is an opportunity to try on fancy costumes, to dress up and pretend to be someone else. One thing leads to another and, before we know it, inappropriate new behaviours and experiences are being suggested or offered. If there is reluctance or revulsion, offers turn to threats. Threats turn to violence: harm is done.
All of this can happen under the nose of supposedly responsible adults. With the best of intentions, the father in this story keeps trying to re-assure the child that things are not as bad as they appear, that he is ‘seeing things’. There is no threatening figure, it’s just a trick of the mist. The supposed voice of the stranger is just the wind in the leaves. There are no attractive girls, it’s just the reflection of the moonlight on the bark of the willow trees. Survivors of abuse frequently comment on the agony that can result from this type of refusal to believe them. The terrible truth is, though, that many children are not ‘crying wolf’. There really is a wolf (or worse).
C) Hearing Voices
Perhaps we are not helping people if we always believe them. Through no fault of their own, some people are truly deluded. The phenomenon of hearing voices that are not audible to others is well-established, and is often related to conditions such as schizophrenia. Although serious psychological conditions often only develop in adolescence, they are not unkown in childhood. To this boy the voice of the Erl King was frighteningly real, and the failure of his father to realise this must have been extremely disturbing. How could anybody not hear that voice? Perhaps the fear brought on by the voice and the sense of having been abandoned to his fate by his father was enough of a shock to kill him.
D) Es ist der Vater – It’s the father
It will never be possible to collect reliable statistics in this area, but many specialists in child abuse believe that children are much more likely to be attacked by people they know than by strangers. It is understandable that parents worry about stranger danger, but we should never forget that a small number of fathers and step-fathers have something to hide, and it is in their interest to blame strangers. They want people to think that children are in more peril in the woods than at home.
We only have this father’s word for it that his son died as a result of an encounter with a malevolent stranger in the woods. When he arrives in the courtyard holding a dead child, what account is he going to give of what happened? Will he be able to explain what he was doing out so late with a small child? Was it necessary to take the dangerous route through the Alder woods? What sort of ‘games’ had the father been playing with his son? What had happened to bring about such a sudden death? Are people really going to believe his story about some King of the Alder trees? Doesn’t the evidence point to a much more likely perpetrator? ‘It is the father!’
Original Spelling Erlkönig 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? - Sey ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind; In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind. - "Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn? 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 gethan! - Dem Vater grauset's, er reitet geschwind, Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind, Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Noth: In seinen Armen das Kind war todt.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s probable source, Goethe’s sämmtliche Schriften. Siebenter Band. / Gedichte von Goethe. Erster Theil. Lyrische Gedichte. Wien, 1810. Verlegt bey Anton Strauß. In Commission bey Geistinger, pages 277-278; with Goethe’s Werke, Vollständige Ausgabe letzter Hand, Erster Band, Stuttgart und Tübingen, in der J.G.Cottaschen Buchhandlung, 1827, pages 183-184; and with Goethe’s Schriften, Achter Band, Leipzig, bey Georg Joachim Göschen, 1789, pages 157-158.
First published in 1782 in Goethe’s Singspiel “Die Fischerin” in the introductory scene (Dortchen’s song).
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 277 [291 von 418] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ163965701