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The Unconvincing Elf King

Let’s look at another poem today, again by a well-respected poet – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Der Erlkönig is his most famous ballads and translates as The Elf King, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s for children. It was written in 1782 as part of a piece called Die Fischerin (The Fisherwoman), which was a kind of drama with music and some spoken dialogue – apparently it’s called a Singspiel and that’s now regarded as a genre of opera, but sounds like a musical to me.

Der Erlkönig is about a father riding home holding his son, who starts to hear a strange voice. We know it’s the elf king who is trying to convince the child to go away to fairyland with him; the father keeps trying to dismiss what the child sees and hears as, for example, dry leaves in the wind or a wisp of fog. Neither are very convincing.

The poem is written in German, which isn’t my first language, so feel free to correct my translation or make any suggestions for improvements. I’ll add the English and the German for clarity.

So, you think of magical characters like fairies as having the gift of the gab, right? Persuasive creatures who lure away all but the cleverest, the most astute. A small child should be easy to bring round to thinking it’s a good idea and entice away, right?

Not in this case. And it isn’t that the child is particularly cunning – Goethe never says it but clearly the elf king is just rubbish at this.

Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel’ ich mit dir;
Manch’ bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.

You dear child, come, go with me!
Nice games I’ll play with you;
Many colourful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has many a golden robe.

I appreciate this is 1782 and the kid doesn’t have access to Netflix or any computer games or anything, but seriously? He starts off okay, pretty sure kids like playing games (although ‘nice’ is a bit vague and I reckon he really should have gone into more detail), but he’s trying to get the child to come with him by briefly describing the beach flora and what his mother wears? What?

The dear child is not interested in these crap promises. So, the elf king tries again.

Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein
.

Do you, fine lad, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you nicely;
My daughters lead the nightly ranks,
And will rock and dance and sing to you.

Why is he going on about his daughters now? Who cares how they spend their time? Not this fine lad, certainly.

So, how does the elf king deal with this lack of interest? Does he up his game, offer the kid anything he might actually be interested in?

Nope, he just gets even creepier and starts threatening the boy.

Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch’ ich Gewalt.

I love you, I’m excited by your beautiful form;
And if you’re not willing, then I need to use force.

…Yeah.

So, there’s no happy ending here. It doesn’t end well for anyone.

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One thought on “The Unconvincing Elf King

  1. I am not sure if “Reihen” should be translated as ranks. “Reihen” (or “Ringelreihen” ) here probably refers to a game, where children hold hands and dance in a circle. ( I may be wrong, perhaps “ranks” can have a similar meaning in English.)

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