Erlkönig (ballad)

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Illustration by Albert Sterner

Erlkönig is a ballad by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that he wrote in 1782. It is one of his best known works and was set to music by Franz Schubert and Carl Loewe , among others .

History of origin

The material of the ballad comes from Danish, where the Erlkönig is called Ellerkonge ( subsidiary form of Elverkonge ), i.e. ' Elf king'. The ballad was originally translated by Johann Gottfried Herder . The term "Erlkönig" arose from the wrong translation of the word Eller as " Alder ". Goethe created the ballad as an insert to the Singspiel Die Fischerin , in which the actress sings the ballad at work.

For Erl King said to have been inspired Goethe during his stay in Jena by a message after a farmer from the nearby village Kunitz with his sick child to the doctor at the University rode. To commemorate this, an Erlkönig monument was erected between the present-day Jena districts of Kunitz and Wenigenjena as early as the 19th century . According to local tradition, the ballad is said to have been written in the Green Fir in Jena. In fact, Goethe was a guest at the inn several times, but he probably didn't discover it until later.

The Erlkönig in the context of its era

While the ballads of Sturm und Drang are almost all love ballads, Goethe was the first to develop natural magic ballads. In contrast to eighteenth-century poetry, nature is not depicted from its aesthetic or religious side, but in an alluring, enchanting, delighting and killing way. The unconscious and the emotional depths of the soul come up for the first time , in contrast to the time of the Enlightenment . In addition to the woman, the “simple man” and the poet, it is precisely the child who is receptive to the magical powers of nature. Opposite him is the enlightened person (here: the father). The child recognizes the gripping nature, the father does not, but it is dreadful . These attitudes are opposed to each other in the poem and are later used in Romanticism, e.g. B. by Novalis , further developed.

In addition to the fairy tale, the ballad represents the appropriate form for these natural magic themes . Fairy tales as well as ballads appear in folk poetry, but are also created artificially. Goethe can pick up on old folk ballads. These ballads are something new in their time, as they combine the realm of the unconscious with the natural magic. Goethe's preoccupation with the unconscious leads further to the psychology of romanticism .


Illustration by Moritz von Schwind

On a stormy night a father rides his little son in his arms through a dark forest. The child believes he recognizes the figure of the Erlkönig in the darkness and is frightened. The father reassures his son: what he sees is only "a streak of fog". But the child cannot let go of the ghostly figure. With seductive words, the Erlkönig asks the “fine boy” to come with him to his kingdom and let his daughters pamper him there. But the child becomes more and more restless. Again the father tries to find a natural explanation for his hallucinations: everything is only the rustling of the leaves and the reflection of the old willows. But the figure is becoming more and more threatening, and the son reacts more and more panic. When the Erlkönig finally tries to take the reluctant child by force, the father also loses his composure and tries as fast as he can ride to reach the home court. But too late - the child in his arms is dead.

What is remarkable is the author's technique, who lets the Erlkönig speak through the boy as if the boy were possessed by the Erlkönig. The eerie character of this technique is heightened by highlighting the Erlkönig's utterances with quotation marks, while the father and boy speak for themselves without emphasis.

Who rides so late through night and wind?
It is the father with his child;
He's got the boy in his arms,
he'll hold him securely, he'll keep him warm.

My son, what are you hiding your face so anxiously? -
Don't you see, father, the Erlkönig?
The Erlenkönig with crown and tail? -
My son, it's a streak of fog. -

“You dear child, come, go with me!
I play beautiful games with you;
There are
many colorful flowers on the beach. My mother has many a golden robe. ”-

My father, my father, and don't
you hear what the Erlking promises me quietly? -
Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind rustles in dry leaves. -

“Do you want to go with me, fine boy?
My daughters should wait for you beautifully;
My daughters lead the nightly ranks
And weigh and dance and sing you in. ”-

My father, my father, and don't you see
Erlkönig's daughters there in the dark place? -
My son, my son, I can see it clearly:
the old willows seem so gray. -

“I love you, your beautiful figure appeals to me;
And if you are not willing, I need force. ”-
My father, my father, now he's touching me!
Erlkönig hurt me! -

The father is terrified; He rides swiftly,
He holds the groaning child in his arms,
Reaches the court with difficulty and hardship;
In his arms the child was dead.


Alder forest

Goethe's ballad contains as most ballads vacancies that must be filled by interpretation by the reader:

  • It remains unclear how the boy knows the term “Erlkönig” and why this character immediately triggers fear in him despite its initial friendliness.
  • It is not explained why the narrative tense changes from the present to the past at the end . In a less dramatized story, the tenses would have to be used in exactly the opposite way: what was first described has passed while the boy remains dead. In Herder's Erlkönig's daughter (Herr Oluf) , however, there is a very similar change in tense.
  • What "the child" (the person or the childhood of the son?) Dies or has died of is not explicitly stated.

Most interpretations of the poem assume the non-existence of what the boy perceives. They see (like the father) the Erlkönig as a mere figment of dreams of fear and high fever and as an expression of the boy's illness, which kills him at the end of the ballad.

A second group of artists criticized the enlightened attitude of the father in the poem and those performers who share his point of view: that of alder swamps rationally comprehensible, natural magical energy, in the form of black magic , went out, being believed by many people for a long time. Therefore, the reference to alders is not a translation error (the Danish word ellerkonge actually means 'elf king', see above), but rather intended by Goethe. It is therefore possible that “unknown forces had the life and limb of a defenseless person”, in this case the child. Goethe, as "one of the founders of the natural magic ballad", had the Erlkönig summoned a person from the afterlife who had gone into his kingdom.

There are some verses like “You dear child, come with me!” Or “I love you, your beautiful figure appeals to me; / And if you are not willing, I need violence ”, remind of the sexual abuse of children , some interpreters tend to believe that the poem is about rape. This view is shared by the sociologist Rüdiger Lautmann , who assesses the “Erlkönig” not as a pedophile but as a “rapist”. During the 55th Lindau Psychotherapy Weeks 2005, Luise Reddemann put forward the thesis that the poem was about a nightmare of a victim of sexualised violence, which divides the perpetrator into two people, namely the father as the "good father" and the Erlkönig as the "bad father" . The fact that the perpetrator in the form of the “good father” persuades the victim that the act is only imagining is typical for the behavior of perpetrators close to children. In this interpretation, the death of the child is often a spiritual death, in that the child is in a lost state.

According to other interpreters, the figure of the Erlkönig embodies the first unconscious adolescent premonitions: He represents the male nature of the boy. This lure the stubborn boy into her realm, first with maternal, then with erotic fantasies, and finally by force gain the upper hand. The nocturnal excursion into demonic life deprives the boy of his innocence and ultimately forces him to abandon his well-protected childhood. His death symbolizes the inexorable end of his naive integrity and his inevitable entry into the adult world. His masculine nature literally caught up with the fleeing boy. No matter how fast the father's gallop would help, who wanted to bring his son back to his parents' protective home and thus save him. The father's attempts at appeasement and desperate struggle would have to succumb to the child's natural instincts. The advancing time and awakening sexuality cannot be escaped.

A simple interpretation would be based on the assumption that the dying child in the delusional fever sees in the Erlkönig the approaching death that finally brings the boy. Death presents itself in a tempting royal mask, but the child soon sees through the mask and is frightened of the deadly horror that lies behind it. After the initial sweet promises, the Erlkönig death finally seizes the child and snatches his life from the arms of the father, who keeps a clear, realistic look and does not understand his son's agony.



First page of the setting by Franz Schubert (3rd version with lighter accompaniment)

The text became popular very quickly and was often set to music:

In pop music, too, the poem was often the template for various settings:

  • In 2002 a version of Achim Reichel's poem appeared on the Wilder Wassermann CD .
  • The new German hardship band Rammstein wrote an adaptation, Dalai Lama , to the Erlkönig.
  • The band “Hypnotic Grooves” processed this ballad on the album Rosebud: Songs of Goethe and Nietzsche (1999), which was created against the backdrop of “Weimar - World Cultural City 1999”, and had it interpreted by Jo van Nelsen .
  • In 2000, the Swiss actor Daniel Bill set the Erlkönig to music as a rock version on the CD Scream in the night .
  • The Jenzig album by the Neofolk group “Forseti” also contains a setting of the ballad.
  • Josh Ritter performed with The Oak Tree King at the Verbier Festival in 2007 .
  • Other settings come from the band Leichenwetter and from "Dracul", a side project of Umbra et Imago in collaboration with Oswald Henke, the front man of Goethe's heirs on the Dracul album Follow me .
  • The Paganfolk project Falkenstein interpreted the ballad on their 2008 album Urdarbrunnen .
  • A pop version comes from the songwriter Erlkönig and the video artist VJ Vanessa .
  • The German a cappella band Maybebop released an adaptation of Schubert's Erlkönig in 2013 .
  • The German singer Peter Sebastian set the Erlkönig to music together with Marco Kloss for the CD Die Kraft der Emotion (stories that touch) in 2008 . A visual interpretation of this version was released on July 25, 2017.
  • In 2005 the experimental thrash metal band Sturmgeist released the Erlkönig on the album Meister Mephisto .
  • The Catalan songwriter and singer Roger Mas set to music a Catalan version of the Erlkönig in 2015 under the title El rei dels verns , which appeared on his album Irredempt (German: Without Reue).
  • In 2018 Café del Mundo released an arrangement for two flamenco guitars on the album Beloved Europa . In it, the flamenco singer Rosario la Tremendita takes on the voice of the Erlkönig in a duet with the bass-baritone Henryk Boehm.

Literary works

Well-known parodies

  • A humorous version dates from the 1940s in which the ride on horseback was changed to a motorcycle excursion.
  • The Leipzig dialect poet Lene Voigt published a humorous Saxon version of this poem in her book "Säk'sche Balladen"
  • Heinz Erhardt shortened the original to a total of eight lines and called it “ The King Erl ”, with the final verse: “[…] the boy lives, the horse is dead! "
  • Otto Waalkes was happy to perform Heinz Erhardt's version in an extended version.
  • Otto Waalkes wrote the version: “Who rides so late through night and wind? It's the butcher, he's looking for his beef. "
  • In the GDR , a sketch by Eberhard Cohrs and Heinz Kunert with the name Der Erlkönig was popular, and it was also published on phonograms. There Kunert tries in vain to explain the content of the ballad to the somewhat dubious Cohrs.
  • The parodic Erlkönig lecture by the Swiss comedian Marco Rima is mainly characterized by onomatopoeic and facial exaggerations.
  • One version of the Austrian group “ First General Uncertainty ” reads “Who rides so late through night and wind? It's the father with his child! He keeps it warm, he holds it tight until he drops it - all at once. "
  • Another version of the First General Uncertainty is: "Who smells so badly through night and wind? It's the diaper from the foundling! You hold it tight, you keep it warm, but it smells that God has mercy! From head to toe smeared with feces that would never have happened to Pampers! "
  • The Wellbappn kindergarten rally, which Hans Well and his children Sarah, Tabea and Jonas Well published on the CD unterbayernüberbayern in 2013 , is a parody of the Erlkönig in which the roles of father and son are reversed.
  • In the book Sams in Danger from his series Sams , Paul Maar lets his character Sams verballhorn the poem Erlkönig in the form of a teacher. Instead of in the forest, the scene takes place in "Alleys and Streets" and the Erlkönig is replaced by a lawnmower.
  • With the saying “Who is in the garden so late, in the cool? - It's the table with its chairs! ”IKEA advertised weatherproof garden furniture in Germany in the 1980s.
  • Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) Print Edition page 4 of July 4, 2019, “Vorsprung durch Versmess”. Mocking poem from 2003 about the manipulation of the Audi exhaust gas.


Reprint of the poem in an edition of Bertelsmann Verlag
  • Brigitte Buberl: Erlkönig and Alpenbraut. Poetry, fairy tales and legends in pictures from the Schack Gallery. (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen. Studio exhibition 12) Lipp, Munich 1989, ISBN 3-87490-621-3 .
  • Werner-Joachim Düring: “Erlkönig” soundtracks. A historical and systematic investigation . Bosse, Regensburg 1972 (sheet music: 1977), ISBN 3-7649-2082-3
  • Wilhelm Kühlmann: The night side of the Enlightenment. Goethe's “Erlkönig” in the light of contemporary pedagogy (CG Salzmann's “Moralisches Elementarbuch”). In: Gesellige Vernunft (1993), pp. 145–157
  • Ann Willison Lemke: Inspired by Goethe. Songs by women composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Kassel 1999
  • Hans Lösener: The rhythm of the uncanny in the Erlkönig . In: The same: The rhythm in speech. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1999. pp. 113-153.
  • Marita Richter: The “Erlkönig” syndrome. A cultural and criminal study . Karin Fischer Verlag, 1998, ISBN 3-89514-142-9 .
  • Robert Stockhammer: poet, father, child . In: Bernd Witte (Ed.): Interpretations. Poems by Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Reclam, Stuttgart 1998, pp. 97-108.
  • Wilhelm Tappert: 54 Erlkönig compositions . Leo Liepmannssohn , Berlin 1898. (rare)

Web links

Wikisource: Erlkönig  - Sources and full texts
Commons : Erlkönig  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Johann Gottfried Herder: Erlkönig's daughter (Danish) ; also known under the title Herr Oluf and set to music by Carl Loewe. In: Folksongs, Part Two, Book Two, No. 27.
  2. Erlkönig, m. . In: Jacob Grimm , Wilhelm Grimm : German Dictionary . Volume 3. Hirzel, Leipzig 1862, Sp. 906 ( , University of Trier).
  3. Erlkönig on
  4. Heinz Voigt: Did Goethe write the Erlkönig in the "Tanne" in Jena? In: Ostthüringer Zeitung . September 14, 2013, accessed October 27, 2018 .
  5. Commentary by Erich Trunz in: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Goethe's works . Volume 1. Poems and Epics 1. Critically reviewed and commented on by Erich Trunz. CH Beck Verlag: München, 1996, 16th ed., Pp. 563-564. ISBN 3-406-08481-8 .
  6. Jacques Andreas Volland: The alder in legend and legend . Bavarian State Institute for Forests and Forestry. P. 6
  7. Martina Gollner: Revenant in Scandinavian Literature ( Memento of the original from August 20, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. . Thesis. 2008 p. 78 (PDF; 556 kB) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  8. Rüdiger Lautmann: The scenario of the modeled pedophilia ( Memento of the original from January 20, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  9. Luise Reddemann: Between sleep and wake states: Of elves, druids, night mares, goblins and other monstrosities: nightmares . Lecture, April 21, 2005, as part of the 55th Lindau Psychotherapy Weeks 2005. P. 12f. (PDF; 66 kB)
  10. Beethoven's sketches for a setting WoO 131. In The Unheard Beethoven
  11. ^ Hsiao-Yun Kung: Carl Loewes Goethe settings. An analysis of selected songs in comparison with the Berliner Liederschule and Franz Schubert. Tectum, Marburg 2003, ISBN 978-3-8288-8463-2 , p. 33.
  12. TOI TOI TOI RECORDS: Peter Sebastian - Der Erlkönig (The power of emotion). In: The Erlkönig. TOI TOI TOI RECORDS, July 25, 2017, accessed July 26, 2017 .
  13. Official video clip v. Roger Mas (2015): El rei dels verns / The Erlkönig . See also , accessed on May 19, 2018
  14. Text (PDF; 251 kB)
  15. Urs Jenny: I smell human flesh . In: Der Spiegel . No. 38 , 1995, p. 198–202 ( online - September 18, 1995 , about Volker Schlöndorff's German-French film project “Der Unhold”).
  16. Who rattles through night and wind so late? ; on, accessed October 2, 2010
  17. Der König Erl (based on Johann Wolfgang von Frankfurt) on the website of the Heinz Erhardt community of heirs, accessed on April 13, 2013
  18. ^ Album "Otto": König Erl by Otto Waalkes - text in the original (2002) , accessed on January 2, 2009.
  19. Erlkönig interpretation by Marco Rimas on YouTube
  20. EAV - Who smells so strong ... (Lyrics). Retrieved February 15, 2020 .
  21. Maar, Paul .: Sams in danger . Oetinger, Hamburg 2002, OCLC 57530428 , p. 82 .
  22. “Vorsprung durch Versmess” on (subject to a fee), July 4, 2019, accessed on November 12, 2019