Mythical Creatures Series
The Earlking is often shown as a malevolent creature, haunting woodlands and carrying off people to their deaths.
What is it?
The Erlking appears to have originated in Denmark, as well as from Goethe.
The poem Erlkönigs Tochter (Elvrkonge’s Daughter), was a Danish work translated into German by Johann Gottfried Herder.
The story portrays Sir Oluf riding to his marriage but being entranced by the music of the elves. An elf maiden, in Herder’s translation the Elverkonge’s daughter, appears and invites him to dance with her. He refuses and spurns her offers of gifts and gold. Angered, she strikes him and sends him on his way, deathly pale. The following morning, on the day of his wedding, his bride finds him lying dead under his scarlet cloak.
Goethe was inspired by Herder’s ballad, but departed significantly from his rendering of the Erlking. The antagonist of Goethe’s Der Erlkönig is, as the name suggests, the Erlking himself rather than his daughter. Goethe’s Erlking differs in other ways as well: his version preys on children, rather than adults of the opposite sex, and the Erlking’s motives are never made clear. Goethe’s Erlking is much more akin to the Germanic portrayal of elves and valkyries – a force of death rather than simply a magical spirit.
The Erlking, according to German and Danish folklore appears as an omen of death, and will only appear to the person about to die. That person can tell what sort of death awaits them by the Erlking’s expression eg. a pained expression means a painful death. It has a particular lure to children, which does not end well.
Appearances In Culture
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (video game)
- Lord Dunsany’s novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) draws heavily on the ideas established by Herder’s poem.
- In Angela Carter’s short story ‘The Erl-King’, contained within the 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, the female protagonist encounters a male forest spirit. She is seduced by him before discovering his malicious intentions, and finally manages to escape.
- Jim Butchers’s novel Dead Beat of the Dresden Files series has the hero Harry Dresden face off against the Erling, who is a powerful fey being that leads the Wild Hunt.
- In the anthology Nocturnes by Irish writer John Connolly, there is a short story entitled The Erlking that tells of how the creatures tries to ensnare a young boy.
- Raymond E. Feist’s book Faerie Tale also makes reference to “Der Erlkönig”, as part of one of the character’s research into faerie folklore.
- Jenna Black’s book Shadowspell has an Erlking who is the leader of the Wild Hunt, which is a group of supernatural huntsmen.
Did you know? The word Erlking comes from the German and Danish words ellerkonge or elverkonge, meaning elf king.
 Lorraine Byrne, Schubert’s Goethe Settings, pp. 222-228.a
Previous Mythical Creature Posts:
Marchosias, Ningyo, Abatwa, Cait Sith, Anka, Huldra, iele, Manticore, Hantu Demon, Lich, Joan The Wad, Fomorian, Rakshasa, Hellhound, Sleipnir, Three-Legged Crow, Afanc, Tarasque, Echidna, Alkonost, Landvaettir, Hippocampus, Cockatrice, Shedu, Dryad