Literature: The Erl-King

aka: Der Erlkoenig
Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.
One of the most famous sentences in the German language.

"Erlkönig", by Hermann Plüddemann (1852)

"The Erl-King" or "The Alder King" ("Erlkönig" in German) is a German ballad written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1782.

It tells the story of a father who is carrying his sick son, while riding homewards after dark on horseback. The son is convinced that they are being pursued by the Erl-King, who speaks to him to persuade him to come away with him, while the father insists that the Erl-King doesn't exist — what he sees, so he tells the boy, are only trees, bushes and fog. Yet the boy will not be calmed, finally screaming that Erl-King is touching him. Even the father is horrified now, and rides the horse as fast as possible. When he arrives, he realizes that the boy is dead.

The poem was inspired by a Danish folk tale, which was translated to German as "Erlkönigs Tochter" ("Daughter of the Arlen King"). However Erlkönig is a mistranslation (by Johann Gottfried Herder) of the Danish "ellerkonge", which actually means "King of the elves" (that would be "Elfenkönig" in German, in case you wondered). It is possible that Goethe went with the "wrong" translation consciously, as the Erl-King does not fit in with what most people of the era would have recognized as an Elf-King; in the ballad, he seems to serve as a substitute to the Grim Reaper or Death. The "rational" interpretation is that the boy is hallucinating from fever.

"Erlkönig" is one the most recognizable of Goethe's works for Germans, thanks to its time-honored status as an inevitable school study medium. So is Zhukovsky's adaptation (see below) for Russians.

The poem was set to music (for solo voice and piano) by Franz Schubert in 1815. In Germany in the 20th century the word "Erlkönig" came to denote a car prototype on a nightly Autobahn test drive (speeding, like the father in the ballad, "through night and wind" and fog) in an attempt to evade photojournalists.

For a literal translation of the ballad, visit the synopsis page. A rhyming translation (as "The Alder King") can be found on Wikisource.

Some works and artists that reference the "Erl-King":

  • Russian XIX-century poet Vassily Zhukovsky translated (or perhaps adapted, it wasn't a very literal translation) Goethe's ballad into a Russian-language poem "Лесной царь" ("The Forest Tsar") with the same plot.
  • The Dresden Files - A powerful member of The Fair Folk goes by this name and the poem is acknowledge to be about him in universe.
  • Sarah Brightman - Her song Figlio Perduto uses an Italian adaptation of this poem for lyrics.
  • Rammstein - Has a song titled Dalai Lama which is the Erlkönig on a plane.
  • Roommates - Also has the Erlkönig as character, and a meta webcomic adaptation of the poem, which is his official backstory. He would also love to hear about that Alternate Character Interpretation mentioned in the main tropes.
  • Doom Metal band Pagan Altar's "The Erl King" is an adaptation of the Goethe poem. Also, the Erl King is mentioned in "Armageddon" as being quite pleased with the nuclear war that destroys humanity.
  • There is a quite famous Surreal Horror Labyrinth Dark Fic by Subtilior tiled "Erlkönig". Let's just say the references don't stop at the title.

"Erl-King" provides examples of the following tropes:

Alternative Title(s):

Erlkonig, Erl King, Der Erlkonig, Der Erlkoenig, Erlkoenig, The Erlkonig