“Der Erlkönig” by Albert Sterner
The Pagan Blog Project: E is for Erlkönig
I sang a choral version of Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig” in my pre-pagan high school days. The song is based on a poem by Goethe, which in turn is based on a Danish folktale (though, as the story goes, Goethe’s inspiration for the poem was when, late one night, a rider passed him with a bundle in his arms – he later found out it was a father rushing his son to the doctor).
There’s actually a lot of historical information on Wikipedia about the story, poem, and song. I posted some of the performances of Schubert’s piece along with some information by Grumpy Lokean Elder on my Tumblr awhile back, too. All are worth looking at if you are wanting a little more background on this story and character.
When I was first introduced to the song, I was completely fascinated with it. From the panicked repetitive nature of the “hoofbeats” in the music, to the tones and modes of the voices for each character, the music truly brought to life a story that already drew me in. I had dreams about the Erlking, and around that time was when I started having that intense realization that Death is going to happen. It also spoke to that part of me that has this extremely painful sensation of being either cast out or otherwise blocked from returning. To what? I don’t know, it’s just a sensation, and whenever I hear a song or a story that strikes that specific chord in me, I know there is something significant about it that I can’t understand (or maybe I just can’t remember).
I’ve never worked with the Erlking as an actual spirit, but he is one of my favorite personifications of Death in literature and music. Wikipedia has printed out Goethe’s original German poem, but I’m going to put the English adaptation here for you to read as found in the same place. Note that “Erlkönig” is often translated as “Elf King” or “Alder King”. I generally prefer the English-ized version of the German, “Erlking”.
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 Alder King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Alder 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 Alder 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 Alder King is showing his daughters to 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 aren’t willing, then force I’ll employ.”
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
For sorely the Alder 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 poem is haunting for many reasons, but to me it speaks to the insatiability of Death and how beautiful and luring Death can seem and possibly be. Depending on personal interpretation, Death is either luring the child with sweet lies, or is acting out of some sort of selfish love.
There’s another beautiful song about Death that is much more modern and speaks to Death’s sympathies. The song “Fiddler on the Green” by Demons & Wizards (a combination band of Blind Guardian and Iced Earth) is the story of Death taking a young boy too early, and realizing that Death left the boy’s would-be soulmate alive, ends up luring her as well to be what will be paradise for her if she can only give up life.
Sad voices they’re calling,
“Our precious girl she can’t be gone.”
How bitter this morning
When daddy’s darling
Went out and started her day.
Wasn’t there a dream last night
Like a spring never ending?
Still the water runs clear
Through my mind,
On the field I can see a fiddler,
The fiddler on the green and the sad boy.
I took him too early.
Would you mind
Would you mind
Would you mind
If I take you?
(To be with you)
(To be with you)
(To be with you)
The sun seemed bright,
The air was clear,
The air was clear.
A trick of light
Turned red into green,
She saw the light.
Her face was pale,
Her body smashed,
Her beauty’s gone.
“Isn’t it a shame?”
The reaper said.
“He is quite alone here,
And still waiting for you.
Oh I really did fail for the first time,”
Spoke the fiddler, poor old fiddler,
The fiddler on the green,
The fiddler on the green.
“It would be nice,
Take my hand.”
“Just hold my hand,
I’ll take you there.
Your pain will go away.”
The two stories are similar in that there are promises of something better on the other side, though the second is much more believable. What strikes me even more about the second one is that the girl has no idea that the boy is her soulmate, and has only the trust in those sweet words of Death promising her that she will be complete. To use a phrase much overused, it is a leap of faith, and it’s straight into the void. We know from the beginning at her parents’ mourning of her what decision she has made.
This post has been a little more morbid than I intended. This is again a failing of my own ability to describe feelings and sensations. To me, these stories are inspiring, and not because I have any desire to end my life or otherwise die. I am quite happy being alive, though I do feel something unfulfilled that I can’t place. And though the two Death personifications are quite different, the inspirations behind them feels like the same hand.