The Cryptid Elf-King

I had previously written about Der König in Thule, both Goethe’s poem and Franz Schubert’s musical adaption. That got me going, clicking around the Internet on songs written by Schubert, and I stumbled across this little gem that I had all but forgotten about since high school.

Goethe’s Erlkönig (Elf-King), composed in 1782, is probably his most famous ballad.  Like Der König in Thule, it too was adapted to music by Franz Schubert (c. 1815). I probably read this poem at least a dozen times in high school — in fact I probably had to memorize it in high school. I have to admit, though, it always creeped me out a bit and I never really understood it.

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Erlkönig by Carl Gottlieb Peschel (1838)

The German original is due to Goethe, the English translation to Edgar Alfred Bowring:

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.
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.
“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.”
“My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”
“Be calm, dearest child, ’tis thy fancy deceives;
‘Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”
“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.”
“Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;
My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”
“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.”
“My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”
“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
‘Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight.”
“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!”
“I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
For sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”
“Dem Vater grauset’s; er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.
The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread,
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.

Reading it now as an adult, I’m struck by how similar the account given by Goethe is to modern reports of missing persons from all around the United States. There is, across the entire world, a phenomenon of young children who suddenly disappear, or die, while out in the wilderness. These aren’t children who wander off and get “lost”, rather they’re often in the immediate presence of their parents or guardians at the time of disappearance or death — just like in Goethe’s story. Even Goethe’s account of strange lights and mists appearing in the forest are consistent with modern reports of missing children.

David Paulides, a former San Jose, California police officer, has investigated a number of these unexplained disappearances in U.S. national parks. To date, he has written eight books on the subject and, along with his son Benjamin, has produced a documentary film on the subject entitled Missing 411:

Wes Germer, the host of Sasquatch Chronicles, has likewise seen and reported on these strange “fairy” lights that appear deep in the woods at night:

Returning back to Schubert’s adaption of Goethe’s ballad, I found this clip on YouTube:

The first time I saw this clip I was a little put-off by the animation, which I thought was a bit jarring, but it’s grown on me after watching it a couple times. I agree with the commenters who say the boy should have been depicted as sitting in front of the father, in his lap, and looking backwards over his shoulder. Otherwise a great performance!

Jealous Nordic Elves

Ironically, Johann Gottfried Herder, Goethe’s good friend whom we met in the last post on Thule, also makes a cameo appearance here. It was Herder’s translation of the Danish original  that inspired Goethe to write his version of Erlkönig. Herder’s poem is named Erlkönigs Tochter (Elf-King’s Daughter) and is closer to the Danish version than what Goethe wrote.

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Erlkönigs Tochter hält den reitenden Oloff an, by Dresden artist Adrian Ludwig Richter

Herder’s plotline seems to have been quite popular in Nordic folklore during the Middle Ages, with similar variants appearing throughout what are now Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. In the Herder/Danish version, the hero of the story is a knight named Sir Olaf who is mortally wounded by a jealous elf-princess after he spurns her love.

Musical Adaptions

Numerous composers have written adaptions of Schubert’s Erlkönig:

  • Franz Liszt adapted Schubert’s piece for solo piano in 1837. [link]
  • Violin virtuoso Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst wrote a similar, and very challenging adaption of Schubert’s original for solo violin in 1854 (Grande Caprice on Schubert’s Der Erlkönig, Op. 26). [link]
  • Hector Berlioz adapted Schubert’s work for orchestra and solo singer in 1860 [link]

In addition to these adaptions, several prominent composers have made original attempts to set Goethe’s Erlkönig to music:

  • Beethoven made little-known attempt at Erlkönig in 1797, but left it unfinished. The work was eventually completed by Reinhold Becker a hundred years later in 1897. It’s not bad, but it’s probably not my favorite Beethoven work. [link]
  • Czech composer Václav Jan Křtitel Tomášek was a close personal friend of both Goethe and Beethoven. Indeed, Beethoven regarded Tomášek as one of the top piano instructors of his time. Tomášek set a number of Goethe’s poems to music, including Erlkönig (c. 1815). [link]

It’s also worth noting here that Mendelssohn once told Goethe that Erlkönig could never be successfully set to music — he believed the task of musically depicting a spiritual Elf-King to be too difficult.

Related Articles

Additional References

Cryptid Blogs

Nothing to do with Central European history per se, but if you like cryptids you may enjoy the following podcasts:

  • Sasquatch Chronicles – The Gold Standard for all things Bigfoot-related. The episodes featuring government “insiders” are the best! Hosted by Wes Germer.
  • Dark Waters – The Gold Standard for all things cryptid-related. Updates are infrequent, but are very high quality. Membership is worth the price.
  • The Confessionals — Focused more on Christianity, spirits and demonology, but includes a decent amount of cryptid content. Hosted by Tony Merkel.
  • Mattsquatch – Short, frequent updates. Covers a range of cryptid topics.
  • Word Bigfoot Radio – Probably the best resource available for learning more about the Mountain Giants of the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana. Hosted by Brian Sullivan.

In addition to these, I would also include anything written by author David Paulides, who writes about strange and unexplained disappearances in U.S. national parks. His books can be purchased at CanAmMissing.com.