Der Erlkönig

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?
Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?
Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.

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."

Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig, mir leise verspricht?
Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.

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."

Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?
Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.

Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt."
Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!

Dem Vater grausets, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind
Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

Der Erlkönig, or The Elf King was a poem written by rennaissance man Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. A master of lyrical poetry, this ballad evokes the wonder and terror humanity felt, and sometimes still feels, for the unknown. A father rides his horse, his child cradled in his arms. The galloping rhythm of the poem, difficult to recreate in English, underscores the urgency of this trip through the night. In his fever dream the child takes the stern and forboding landscape rushing past him and weaves its elements into a sickly sweet demon dogging him. His father desperately tries to pull his son back into reality, but the child is unreachable within his nightmare. There is no Elf King, he is only a phantom of mind, yet the power this imaginary being exerts over the child is enough to kill him.

Through metaphor, Goethe makes a powerful statement about the nature of humanity's fascination with the supernatural. The main occurance of the poem is simple. A child dies of a fever. It happened often during the author's time. Yet this mundane force is unknown and uncontrollable. Human beings project patterns on even that which they cannot understand, resulting in a supernatural being to which one can at least relate unlike the disinterested physical progression of disease. Whether or not this phantom really exists is irrelevent, it still holds just as tight a grip on the child's psyche as the purely materialistic disease. Der Erlkönig expresses with precise technical skill and deep emotional comprehension the paradox of the human mind's immense power and terrifying helplessness.

Through the pipelinks above I gave you a literal gloss, but the differences between German and English are great enough to cause that to be somewhat nonsensical, and certainly far less beautiful than the original. A more finessed translation that accurately brings across most of the meaning (though not the full meaning) can be given, but then the rhyme is lost. A translation which tries to keep to the rhyme and rhythm is bound to deviate in literal equivalency from the original, sometimes by a significant amount. I am not a poet, nor a master of the German language by any means, but for the purposes of comprehension I wrote both a translation that tries to approximate the rhyme and rhythm, and one that's truer to the literal meaning. Both follow (hint: Goethe was a master of concise wording. It shouldn't take much to figure out which one shows that your dear noder is not).

The Elf King

Who rides so late through night and winds wild?
A father, racing with his dearest child;
He has his boy wrapped safely in arm;
He holds him sure, he keeps him warm.

Your face is so fearful, Son, what do you hide?
Don't you see, Father, the elf king beside?
With robe train and crown, Lord of Elvenkind?
My son, it's only the mist of your fevered mind.

"With me, dear child, you should come away!
Such lovely games together we'll play;
Colorful flowers line my land's shore,
My mother has garments gold as in lore."

My father, my father, didn't you hear,
What promise the elf king whispered in ear?
Be still, my child. Cause me no grief;
It's only the Autumn wind rustling leaf.

"Don't you, fine boy, wish with me to go?
My daughters will wait on you, cheeks all a-glow
My daughters will dance and through the night leap
They'll rock you and whirl you and sing you to sleep."

My father, my father, don't you see there
In yon gloomy clearing the daughters so fair?
My son, my son, I see nothing fay:
Only the time-weary willows so grey.

"You charm me, your youth should not run its course;
And if you're unwilling, I'll take you by force."
My father, my father, I cannot break free!
The elf king takes hold, he's hurting me!

The father shudders and all the more speeds,
Held tightly against him, the child moans and pleads,
With pain and struggle he reaches his farm;
The child's limp body lies dead over arm.

The Elf King

Who rides so late through night and wind?
It is the father with his child;
He has the boy safely in arm;
He holds him surely, he keeps him warm.

My son, your face is so fearful, what do you hide?
Don't you see, Father, the Elf King?
The Elf King with crown and train of robe?
My son, it is a rising mist.

"You lovely child, come away with me!
Delightful games will I play with you;
Many colorful flowers are on the shore;
My mother has many golden garments.

My father, my father, and don't you hear,
What the Elf King quietly promised to me?
Be quiet, remain still, my child;
The wind rustles through dry leaves.

"Do you want, fine child, to go with me?
My daughters should well serve you;
My daughters lead the nightly ring dance,
And they will rock you and dance you and sing you to sleep."

My father, my father, and don't you see there
The Elf King's daughters in that gloomy place?
My son, my son, I see it exactly:
The old willows there seem so grey.

"I love you, your beautiful form charms me;
And if you are not willing, then I will need to use force."
My father, my father, now he grabs at me!
The Elf King has done me pain!

The father shudders, he rides quickly,
He holds in arms the moaning child,
He reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms the child was dead.