Creature Feature: The Alder King

Erlking Fresco by Carl Gottlieb Peschel

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 Erl-King is close by our side!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem,  Der Erlkönig (as translated by Edgar Alfred Bowring) depicts an elven king that would leave most little kids sleeping with the lights on for weeks, and their parents checking on them every hour. But Goethe’s vision of an Erlking,or Alder King, who entices little children away from their disbelieving parents in order to murder them, isn’t really in keeping with the original Scandinavian mythology.

Instead, the Alder King, or sometimes his daughter, seduces a grown member of the opposite sex, kidnapping them from forests or roadsides. What he does with them later ranges from romance, to debauchery, to long, drawn out, yet creative torture. Dance marathon to the death anyone? In any scenario, the human usually doesn’t fare well in the end. While definitely not Tinker Bell, it’s more in line with my concept of Fae royalty, and the superstitions of Goethe’s era.

Still other traditions say the Alder King is the Fae leader of the wild hunt who rides the skies seeking out oath-breakers. The Erlking character in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files urban fantasy series is based on this morally ambiguous interpretation. Aren’t the characters who teeter between hero and villain always the most engaging?

So perhaps Goethe wanted a less sexualized retelling, or maybe he just liked to scare little kids. Either way, don’t read his poem to your preschoolers at bedtime. And if the child insists they see a handsome man with a crown of leaves while you’re out hiking, running doesn’t work.

“I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
For sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”

The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread, –
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.


I apologize for the delayed post.  The perfect storm of novel and day-job deadlines, combined with the creeping crud the kids brought home just about did me in. Hopefully, I’m back on track now, as long as I’m not kidnapped by the Fae. Though, some days I wish for it. Just for a few hours. Like 9am to 5pm. And when the laundry rises up like a tsunami.  And…


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