The Erlking


Albert Sterner, Der Erlkönig, c. 1910

We have seen that the powerful and good elves of Norse mythology over time became the powerful and malevolent nightmares of later Germanic folklore. In that vein, I need to say a word or two about the legend of the Erlking. As a distinct figure, the Erlking is a relatively recent addition to elf-lore. Even so, he has deep roots.

The Erlking comes from Scandinavian folklore, from a time when, as in England, elves had become depicted as creatures of dread. Originally, though, “he” was apparently a “she”: a deadly but seductive elfin woman. In his 1778 ballad, Johann Gottfried von Herder freely translated the generic “elfin maid” (Danish, elvermø) as Erlkönigs Tochter (“Erlking’s daughter”). In Danish folklore, old burial mounds were feared to be the dwelling place of the Elverkonge, the king of the elves. Eventually, this figure and his daughter were collapsed into a single character.

“Erlking” is a roundabout translation from the original Danish Elverkonge, “Elf-king.” In a particular Danish dialect, Elverkonge becomes Ellerkonge or Ellekonge, which was later understood with reference to the elletrae or “alder tree.” In other words, the “Elf-king” became the “Alder-king.” Some argue that this is purely a mistranslation. Others suggest that the change is intentional, a euphemism of the sort we have already seen when the superstitious avoid explicit mention of elves once their nature has turned malevolent. For what it’s worth, the alder tree has long been associated with faeries in Celtic folklore.

At any rate, in German, the figure is called the Erlkönig, the “Alder-king.” From German, we get the English semi-translation “Erlking.” 

In the original tale, a knight named Sir Oluf is riding to his marriage but is bewitched by the music of elves in the woods. An elfin maiden appears and invites him to dance with her. When he refuses, she strikes him and sends him away. He is dead by the following morning, when his bride-to-be finds him.

The next version of the legend comes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his 1782 poem Der Erlkönig, the antagonist is the Erlking himself. In this version, the Erlking preys on children and his motives are never made clear. He is a force of death, not merely a magical woodland spirit.

There are a number of English translations of Der Erlkönig. Matthew G. Lewis (PDF) translated the poem in 1796. A contemporary translation has been done by A. Z. Foreman.

Goethe’s poem tells of a father riding through the forest with his feverish young son. The son is aware of the presence of the foreboding presence of the Erlking, who calls to him to leave his father and join him in his faery abode. The father, however, believes the son is merely hallucinating. In the end, the father arrives at home, but not before his son dies in his arms.

Franz Schubert used Der Erlkönig as the text for a Lied or art song for solo voice and piano in 1815. Here is a creepy animation of that piece: