Take care! Take care! Heed this warning when travelling through woods and forests, because the Erlking and his Daughter live there.
Traditionally, the Erlking is a malevolent spirit who preys upon travellers as they pass through the forest, ultimately carrying them to to their deaths. There have been numerous ballads inspired by this familiar figure from German folklore, but perhaps the most well known is Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s The Erlking. Goethe was inspired by the ballad The Erlkings’s Daughter by Johann Gottfried Von Herder, which was itself based on a Danish folk ballad, Sir Oluf he rides. In both of these earlier ballads the malevolent spirits are females, who haunt the woods and prey upon adult males. However in his poem, Goethe departs from the traditional archetype by presenting the malign figure as male and a stealer of children’s lives.
Below is a loose translation of Goethe’s poem by Sir Walter Scott, in which Scott successfully captures the eeriness of the original. It is suffused with dark and evocative imagery, reinforcing the folk tale idea of the wild wood as a marginal space. A place where the rules of society cease to exist, and where a life is easily forfeited.
O! Who rides by night thro’ the woodland so wild?
It is the fond Father embracing his child;
And close the Boy nestles within his lov’d arm,
From the blast of the tempest to keep himself warm.
“O Father! see yonder, see yonder!” he says.
“My Boy, upon what dost thou fearfully gaze?”
“O! ’tis the ERL-KING with his staff and his shroud!”
“No, my Love! it is but a dark wreath of the cloud.”
[The Phantom Speaks]
“O! wilt thou go with me, thou loveliest Child!
By many gay sports shall thy hours be beguil’d;
My Mother keeps for thee many a fair toy,
And many a fine flow’r shall she pluck for my Boy.”
“O Father! my Father! and did you not hear,
The ERL-KING whisper so close in my ear?”
“Be still, my lov’d Darling, my Child be at ease!
It was but the wild blast as it howl’d thro’ the trees.”
“O wilt thou go with me, thou loveliest Boy!
My Daughter shall tend thee with care and with joy;
She shall bear thee so lightly thro’ wet and thro’ wild,
And hug thee, and kiss thee, and sing to my Child.”
“O Father! my Father! and saw you not plain
The ERL-KING’s pale daughter glide past thro’ the rain?”
“O no, my heart’s treasure! I knew it full soon,
It was the Grey Willow that danc’d to the moon.”
“Come with me, come with me, no longer delay!
Or else, silly Child, I will drag thee away.”
“O Father! O Father! now, now, keep your hold!
The ERL-KING has seiz’d me – his grasp is so cold!”
Sore trembled the Father; he spurr’d thro’ the wild,
Clasping close to his bosom his shuddering Child;
He reaches his dwelling in doubt and in dread;
But, clasp’d to his bosom, the Infant was dead!
It is difficult when reading any of the ballads mentioned not to think of how the Erlking has been reinterpreted in more contemporary literature. Parity between the life stealing Erlking and Tolkien’s Nazgul and Rowling’s dementors is so easily found.