Der Erlkönig

Der Erlkönig
The Erlking by Albert Sterner, ca. 1910

Der Erlkönig (often called just Erlkönig) is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It depicts the death of a child assailed by a supernatural being, the Erlking or "Erlkönig" (suggesting the literal translation "alder king", but see below). It was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 ballad opera entitled Die Fischerin.

The poem has been used as the text for Lieder (art songs for voice and piano) by many classical composers, with Franz Schubert's rendition, his Opus 1 (D. 328), arguably being the most well-known one. Many other settings survive.[1][2] Other notable settings are by members of Goethe's circle, including the actress Corona Schröter (1782), Andreas Romberg (1793), Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1794) and Carl Friedrich Zelter (1797). Beethoven attempted to set it to music but abandoned the effort; his sketch however was complete enough to be published in a completion by Reinhold Becker (1897). A few other nineteenth-century versions are those by Václav Tomášek (1815), Carl Loewe (1818) and Ludwig Spohr (1856, with obbligato violin). A 21st century example is pianist Marc-André Hamelin's "Etude No. 8 (after Goethe)" for solo piano, based on the Erlkönig.[3]



An anxious young boy is being carried home at night by his father on horseback. To what sort of home is not spelled out; German Hof has a rather broad meaning of "yard" or "courtyard". The Hof has been presumed to be a farmyard, although the long form Bauernhof would typically be used (in prose) to clarify this sense. The lack of specificity of the father's social position allows the reader to imagine the details.

As the poem unfolds, the son seems to see and hear beings his father does not; the father asserts reassuringly naturalistic explanations for what the child sees – a wisp of fog, rustling leaves, shimmering willows. Finally the child shrieks that he has been attacked. The father makes faster for the Hof. There he recognizes that the boy is dead.

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 great 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.

One may suppose the boy is simply feverish, delirious, and in need of medical attention. The poem itself leaves the question open.


Original German Literal Translation Adaptation

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.

Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

"My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?"
"Father, do you not see the Elf king?
The Elf king with crown and tail?"
"My son, it's a wisp of fog."

"You dear child, come, go with me!
Very lovely games I'll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the shore,
My mother has some golden robes."

"My father, my father, and don't you hear
What Elf king quietly promises me?"
"Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is rustling through withered leaves."

"Do you want to come with me, pretty boy?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters will lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing you to sleep."

"My father, my father, and don't you see there
Elf king's daughters in the gloomy place?"
"My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey."

"I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you're not willing, then I will use force."
"My father, my father, he's grabbing me now!
Elf king has done me some harm!"

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with trouble and hardship;
In his arms, the child was dead.

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 beach, 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 alright,
'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 dread,—
The child in his arms lies motionless, dead.

The legend

The story of the Erlkönig derives from Danish folk tales, and Goethe based his poem on "Erlkönigs Tochter" ("Erlkönig's Daughter"), a Danish work translated into German by Johann Gottfried Herder. It appeared as "The Elf King's Daughter" in his collection of folk songs, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (published 1778). Niels Gade's cantata Elverskud opus 30 (1854, text by Chr. K. F. Molbech) was published in translation as Erlkönigs Tochter.

The Erlkönig's nature has been the subject of some debate. The name translates literally from the German as "Alder King" rather than its common English translation, "Elf King" (which would be rendered as Elfenkönig or Elbenkönig in German). It has often been suggested that Erlkönig is a mistranslation from the original Danish elverkonge, which does mean "king of the elves."

In the original Scandinavian version of the tale, the antagonist was the Erlkönig's daughter rather than the Erlkönig himself; the female elves, or elvermø, sought to ensnare human beings to satisfy her desire, jealousy and lust for revenge.

The Franz Schubert composition

The first manuscript page of Schubert's "Der Erlkönig"

Franz Schubert composed his Lied, "Der Erlkönig", for solo voice and piano in 1815, setting text from the Goethe poem. Schubert revised the song three times before publishing his fourth version in 1821 as his Opus 1; it was cataloged by Otto Erich Deutsch as D. 328 in his 1951 catalog of Schubert's works. The song was first performed in concert on December 1, 1820, at a private gathering in Vienna, and received its public premiere on March 7, 1821, at Vienna's Theater am Kärntnertor.

The four characters in the song — narrator, father, son, and the Erlking — are usually all sung by a single vocalist; occasionally, however, the work is performed by four individual vocalists (or three, with one taking the parts of both the narrator and the Erlking). Schubert placed each character largely in a different vocal range, and each has his own rhythmic nuances; in addition, most singers endeavor to use a different vocal coloration for each part.

  1. The Narrator lies in the middle range and is in minor mode.
  2. The Father lies in the low range and sings both in minor mode and major mode.
  3. The Son lies in a high range, also in minor mode, representing the fright of the child.
  4. The Erlking's vocal line undulates up and down to arpeggiated accompaniment resulting in striking contrast and is in the major mode. The Erlking lines are typically sung pianissimo.

A fifth character, the horse, is implied in rapid triplet figures played by the pianist throughout the work, mimicking hoof beats.[4]

"Erlkönig" starts with the piano rapidly playing triplets of a repeated note in octaves to create a sense of urgency and simulate the horse's galloping. Meanwhile rising triplets in the base add a horror theme to the piece. These motifs continue throughout. Each of the son's pleas grows louder and higher-pitched than the previous ones. Near the very end of the piece the music quickens, as the father desperately tries to spur his horse to go faster, then slows down, as he arrives. The piano stops before the final line, "In seinen Armen das Kind war tot" ("In his arms the child was dead"). The piece then ends with a dramatic perfect authentic cadence.

The piece is regarded as extremely challenging to perform due to the vocal characterization required of the vocalist as well as its difficult accompaniment, involving the playing of rapidly repeated chords and octaves to create the drama and urgency in the poetry.

The song was transcribed for solo piano by Franz Liszt, and the piano accompaniment was orchestrated by Hector Berlioz. Hans Werner Henze created an Orchesterfantasie über Goethes Gedicht und Schuberts Opus 1 aus dem Ballett "Le fils de l'air". There is also a transcription for solo violin by the violin virtuoso Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, considered one of the most technically difficult pieces to play for the instrument.

The Carl Loewe composition

Carl Loewe's setting was published as Op. 1, No. 3 and composed in 1817–18, in the lifetime of the poem's author and also of Schubert, whose version Loewe did not then know. Collected with it were Op. 1, No. 1, Edward (1818; (a translation of the Scottish ballad), and No. 2, Der Wirthin Töchterlein (1823; The Innkeeper's Daughter), a poem of Ludwig Uhland. Inspired by a German translation of Scottish border ballads, Loewe set several poems with an elvish theme; but although all three of Op. 1 are concerned with untimely death, in this set only the Erlkönig has the supernatural element.

Loewe's accompaniment is in semiquaver groups of six in nine-eight time (as against Schubert's quaver triplets in common time) and marked Geschwind. The vocal line evokes the galloping effect by repeated figures of crotchet and quaver, or sometimes three quavers, overlying the binary tremolo of the semiquavers in the piano. In addition to an unusual sense of motion this creates a very flexible template for the stresses in the words to fall correctly within the rhythmic structure.

Loewe's version is less lyrically melodic than Schubert's, with an insistent, repetitive harmonic structure between the opening minor key, and answering phrases in the major key of the dominant, which have a stark quality owing to their unusual relationship to the home key. The narrator's phrases are echoed by the voices of father and son, the father taking up the deeper, rising phrase, and the son a lightly undulating, answering theme around the dominant fifth. These two themes also evoke the rising and moaning of the wind.

Into this structure issues the very ghostly voice of the Elf king, who sings always pianissimo and diminuendo, in rising figures in the home key, but in the major, over an una corda tremolo. This very simple figure, rising through the major triad, repeated four times with very minor variation in each of the three calls of the Elf king to the child, has an eerie and elfin quality like the very distant blowing of a horn. As he and the child become more urgent the first in the groups of three quavers are dotted to create a breathless pace, which then forms a bass figure in the piano driving through to the final crisis. The last words, war tot, leap from the lower dominant to the sharpened third of the home key, this time not to the major but to a diminished chord, which settles chromatically through the home key in the major and then to the minor.

This is a dynamic, dramatic and original setting of the full text, considered by some to rival the Schubert version. Loewe performed his own songs, and the original in G minor was for his baritone voice.

In popular culture

  • Referred to in Jim Butchers The Dresden Files series of novels.
  • Experimental filmmaker Raymond Salvatore Harmon created an 8-minute puppet animation titled Der Erlkönig using a remixed version of the Schubert composition as the score and based on the original text of the poem.[5]
  • The fictional annotator of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire offers a Zemblese translation of the opening lines: Ret woren ok spoz on natt ut vett?/ Eto est votchez ut mid ik dett. (note on line 662)
  • The Rammstein song "Dalai Lama" from the album Reise, Reise is a modernized version of the poem, taking place on an airplane.[6]
  • Sequester released "The Erlking," a metal rendition of Schubert's piece with English lyrics inspired by Goethe's poem. The track would be the namesake for the demo "Visions of the Erlking," and would later appear on the studio album Winter Shadows.
  • The Heavy metal band Pagan Altar's song "The Erl-King" was inspired by the Goethe poem.
  • The neofolk band Forseti has a song called Erlkönig that uses the poem as lyrics.
  • The band Carolina Chocolate Drops has a song called "Earl King" based on the poem.
  • The PlayStation Portable game Work Time Fun features a mini-game based on the poem, which plays the Schubert composition with a Japanese translation of the lyrics as background music.
  • In 1988, an interactive video was displayed at The Kitchen in New York City, which used a video of this song. [7]
  • In the 1988 film Burning Secret, Baron Alexander recites the final lines of Goethe's poem while holding the boy Edmund in a swimming pool (water itself being a symbol of birth and death). This moment represents the high point of their affection, whereafter the baron turns his attentions elsewhere. Here the quote also suggests the death of a child as such, on the way to maturity.
  • In his celebrated novel Le Roi des Aulnes (1970), Michel Tournier identified the Erlkönig with his protagonist, and in turn with the German people during World War II, in the deliberate appeal the Nazis made to youth, ultimately sending them to their deaths in battle. The Volker Schlöndorff film The Ogre is an adaptation of Tournier's story.
  • The British classical crossover singer Sarah Brightman released the song "Figlio Perduto" ("Lost Son") in 2000 on her album La Luna. The song is an Italian translation by Chiara Ferrau of Goethe's poem.[8]
  • Singer/songwriter Josh Ritter translated and set the poem to music under the name "The Oak Tree King" for his concert series with violinist Hilary Hahn
  • The E Nomine song "Die Schwarzen Reiter" begins with the line "Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? (Who rides so late through the night and wind?)", a reference to the poem.
  • A short story entitled "The Erl-King" written by Elizabeth Hand is inspired by the Goethe poem but is set in modern day. It first appeared in the anthology Full Spectrum 4 in 1993.
  • Theatre de Complicite use the poem in The Street of Crocodiles, a piece of theatre based on the stories of Bruno Schulz
  • In Philip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle the character of Mr. Baynes sings the first two lines in German while showering.
  • Jim Butcher's novel Dead Beat refers to a fictitious "Die Lied Der Erlking" [sic], a fictitious recollection of poems about the Erlkönig carrying an incorrect German title, as a part of its central plot. In the book, the Erlking was portrayed as a powerful fey being, separate from the Summer and Winter Queens of the Fey.
  • Canadian indie rock musicians Ghost Bees released the song "Erl King" on their 2008 album Tasseomancy.
  • The 1941 Norwegian mystery novel Historien om Gottlob (The story of Gottlob) by Torolf Elster weaves an intricate pattern of stories told by different people, involving a mysterious rebel leader who goes by the code name Erlkönig. In the NRK radio adaptation Schubert's piano accompaniment was used as incidental music.
  • Raymond E. Feist's book Faerie Tale also makes reference to "Der Erlkönig", as part of one of the character's research into faerie folklore.
  • The narrator of Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance references the poem in a conversation with his fellow travelers as they tell "ghost" stories while camping. The reference is self-reflexive, as the narrator is fleeing/chasing his own ghost (Phaedrus, whom he fears is coming for or "calling Chris", the narrator's son).
  • British author Angela Carter retells the legend in a short story called "The Erl-King", first published in her short-story collection The Bloody Chamber (1979).
  • The poem is used by the German Gothic band Dracul in their song "Erlkönig".
  • Norwegian experimental black metal-industrial band Sturmgeist uses shortened and slightly modified version of the poem as lyrics in a song with the same title.
  • German industrial-EBM band Kash uses the poem in the song "Erlkönig".
  • Norwegian band "Jackman" also uses the poem "Der Erlkönig" in a modern alternative treatment.
  • In the Japanese visual novel G Senjō no Maō, "Der Erlkönig", and the Schubert piece it inspired, play a prominent role as a recurring theme.
  • In the song "Tier in Dir", by the German punk band Jennifer Rostock, parts of the lyrics are the same as the words in the poem.
  • The song "Incarnated" from the album Cosmogenesis by Progressive Melodic death metal band Obscura is based on this poem.
  • The 2002 animated short film The ErlKing by Ben Zelkowicz illustrates the poem.
  • American novelist Kevin Flinn's 2009 novel, Through the Night and Wind, takes its name from the first line of the poem and features the first two lines as part of an elaborate dream sequence.
  • In Isaac Asimov's novel Second Foundation, an adolescent girl-protagonist has a teacher named Miss Erlking.
  • In Frank Tallis's 2008[9] crime novel Fatal Lies, the psychoanalyst Max Liebermann and police inspector Oskar Rheinhardt perform first Loewe's treatment of the text, then Schubert's. A discussion between the characters about the relative quality of Schubert's and Loewe's respective settings becomes an early pivot-point in the novel's plot.
  • Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's short story "The Erlking" appeared in the July 5, 2010, issue of The New Yorker as part of the magazine’s showcasing of twenty significant American fiction writers under the age of forty. In the story, a mother and her small daughter visit a fairy-themed fundraiser at a Waldorf School. There, the girl (whose name Ondine also stems from European folklore) becomes fixated on a mysterious man whom she perceives to be hiding a surprise for her under his cape. Bynum, in an interview on The New Yorker´s website, stated that the inspiration for her story came in part from Goethe´s "The Erlking".
  • The music (by Mort Shuman) and the lyrics (by Doc Pomus) of "Night Rider", sung by Elvis Presley shows influences from Schubert's "Erlkönig".


  1. ^ Snyder, Lawrence (1995). German Poetry in Song. Berkeley: Fallen Leaf Press. ISBN 0914913328.  contains a selective list of 14 settings of the poem
  2. ^ "Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?". The Lied and Art Song Texts Page. Retrieved 8 October 2008.  lists 23 settings of the poem
  3. ^ Hamelin's "Erlkönig" on YouTube
  4. ^ Machlis, Joseph and Forney, Kristine. "Schubert and the Lied" The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening. 9th Ed. W. W. Norton & Company: 2003
  5. ^ Der Erlkönig by Raymond Salvatore Harmon
  6. ^ A comparison of Rammstein's "Dalai Lama" to the original poem
  7. ^ "Grown-Ups' Video Game Is a Mazelike Journey" by Stephen Holden, The New York Times (2 January 1988)
  8. ^ "Figlio Perduto" ("Lost Son") on YouTube, Sarah Brightman performs her version of the poem to a modernized version of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, 2nd movement
  9. ^ Tallis, Frank: Fatal Lies, London: Arrow Books (ISBN 9780099471295), 2008, pp. 39-42.

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