Goethe and Angela Carter’s Erl-king

“The Erl-King” is a short story by Angela Carter based on an old ballad by Goethe, one of the most famous ballads ever told. Carter’s re-visioning doesn’t take the plot from Goethe’s ballad, but borrows some of the atmosphere, inverting the gaze, turning it into something new. As you might expect from Angela Carter, her re-visioning expands notions of gender.

Below I take a look at both, as a compare and contrast exercise.

GOETHE’S ERL-KING

Goethe’s ballad can be found easily online.

Goethe’s Erl-King (“Der Erlkönig”) is a terrifying narrative poem written by a German called Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1782. The Erl-King was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel (light opera) called Die Fischerin.

What Happens In “Der Erlkönig”

  • A boy and his father are out riding one windy night.
  • The boy is safe and secure, wrapped warmly in his father’s arms.
  • Suddenly the boy hides his face.
  • The boy has seen the Erl-King, or fairy king, who he recognises by the Erl-King’s cloak and crown. The Erl-king is King of the Elves and is hideous.
  • The father reassures the boy, telling him there’s nothing around them but mist. Perhaps he even persuades himself there’s nothing there. The father’s shortcoming is that he has learned not to trust his senses. He is probably doing that very adult and logical thing by relying on past experience, in which he thinks he sees some terrible creature out of the corner of his eye but it always turns out to be nothing.

Who’s riding so late, in the night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He grasps the boy in his arm.
He holds him securely; he keeps him warm.

My son, why do you hide your face so fearfully?
“Father, don’t you see the Erl-King there?
The Erl-King with his crown and train?”
My son, it’s a streak of mist.

  • But the Erl-King starts to sing right into the little boy’s ear, asking the boy to come with him. He promises to play games and find bright flowers together on the shore. We never learn why the Erl-King wants the boy. As in Rumpelstiltskin, we just assume that everyone wants children, especially boy children, fantasy creatures included.
  • Only the boy can hear the Erl-King speak. The father insists there’s no sound but dry leaves in the wind.
  • The Erl-King keeps promising things to the boy daughters who will dance for him all night, holding him and rocking him and loving him. (There are realworld religions which promise feminine care and sex to male followers in the after life.)
  • Now the Erl-King’s daughters beckon to the boy.
  • The father doesn’t see (or acknowledge) these supernatural creatures and insists the beckoning girls are nothing but willows.
  • The Erl-King becomes desperate for the boy and says if he won’t come willingly, he’ll take him anyway.
  • The boy tells his father the Erl-King is gripping him.
  • Finally the father believes the son. (It’s not clear why he suddenly believes the boy now. Why not before?)
  • The father quickly dashes home with his son in his arms.
  • But when the father reaches home, he discovers his son is dead in his arms.

RESONANCE OF GOETHE’S ERL-KING

The trope of the adult who lies to children hoping to protect them from very real fears is utilised frequently to this day in stories. This kind of adult dishonesty continues to be punished in the majority of these narratives, if only because the child is proven correct, exposing the adult as a fool and a liar.

[Goethe’s] ‘Erlking’ … personifies death as a danger above all to the young, who are credited with a more intense perception of the other world in the first place; this intimacy with the supernatural makes them vulnerable to its charms and its desires. Fear is the child’s bedfellow.

Marina Warner, No Go The Bogeyman

Goethe’s ballad has been set to music by several composers, most notably by Franz Schubert.

Many artists have illustrated Goethe’s “Erl-King”. The etching below evinces an unmistakably scary, Gothic tone.

Etching by Anders Zorn, Storm, 1891, The Erl-King. This etching accurately showing the gallop gait, new at the time.

But other artists, long before Angela Carter got to it, saw the erotic potential in Goethe’s ballad. The natural target for this objectification was not The Erl-King himself, because these classic artists were largely heterosexual men, but the Erl-King’s daughters.

Erl-king illustration by Jessie Bayes (1878 – 1970) “The Erl Kings Daughter sending faery servants to their several tasks”. Again the daughter is beautiful. (So is the white stag.)

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