Personal Psychopomp: Goethe’s “Erl-King”


While Halloween was not part of my growing-up experience, I’ve always associated the story of the Erl King with that time of year. I don’t recall when I was first introduced to this ghostly tale, it must have been fairly early. It’s a short poem (by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) that tells the story of a father riding through a (dark and stormy) night. He is holding his son who is clearly sick with a fever. The father is trying to get him to safety, but the son insists he sees, then hears, then finally even feels the Erl King. When the father reaches his destination, he finds his son is dead.

I’ve found several animations that illustrate the tale (which was set to music by Schubert), and they are interesting in their different approaches. In each, the Erl King is frightening and surreal, but in some he is portrayed as the devil himself, whereas in others he could be seen as a (not necessarily evil, albeit frightening) psychopomp — one who comes to guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

The reason I’m intrigued by this is that while I grew up hearing / knowing the poem exactly as Goethe wrote it, I never thought of the Erl King as a type of devil. In fact, in my eight year old imagination (and for the longest time, until I saw these animations recently) he was a strange, non-corporeal being that could take on the shape of a man, and that would speak to the boy with a sweet, tempting, but faint voice (so that to the father, it does sound like the wind in the trees). Yes, he was frightening, but nowhere near as dark as these animations.


I asked myself why I got such a different idea of this character when we all worked with the same text. I think it’s in part because the Erl King does not threaten the boy until the very end of the poem. Up to that point, he promises the boy games, finery, the adoration of his daughters who want to dote on him. Only at the very end does the Erl King make clear that the boy has no choice — if he does not come along of his own will, he will be taken against his will.

In a larger part, I think, the difference in interpretation is Schubert’s doing: as soon as the poem is set to music and sung by a baritone with the accompaniment Schubert’s put together, the story becomes dramatic in an operatic sense. The Erl King, today, could also easily be read as a sexual predator, but when I heard the poem as a child (not the music — I didn’t put the two together in my head until fairly recently) it was a magical story, eerie but more sad than terrifying. I guess I always assumed that the Erl King’s promises were genuine. In the after-life, the boy would get to play, there would be lots of flowers, and the king’s daughters would take good care of him. Maybe the threat at the end wasn’t a real threat, more a statement of inevitability: every life ends at some point.

I personally like the psychopomp version best, because it’s closest to what I “remember” the story to be, but that’s clearly a matter of personal preference and imagination.

In either case, I love this poem because it is spooky and strange and it’s always fascinated me. I hope you’ll also find it intriguing! An English language version of the poem is below the videos, for your reading pleasure.

Another post on spooky reading can be found here.

Gorgeous shadow / paper animation that shows the Erl King as a psychopomp:

A painted animation that shows him as the devil:

An eerie sand animation, with a significantly older father and very young son:

And for good measure, a real-life interpretation of the story by a creative YouTube user:

Below, I’ve pasted the text from the Wikipedia page for the poem, where you’ll also find the original German text. (There’s an alternative translation here.)

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 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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

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.

(“The Erl-King”. The Poems of Goethe, translated by Edgar Alfred Bowring. Wildside Press 2008.)

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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