According to Jacob Grimm, the term originates with a Scandinavian (Danish) word, ellekonge "king of the elves", or for a female spirit elverkongens datter "the elven king's daughter", who is responsible for ensnaring human beings to satisfy her desire, jealousy or lust for revenge.
Alternatively, the term may derive not from "elf-king" but from the name of Herla king, a figure in medieval English folklore, adapted as Herlequin, Hellequin in medieval French, in origin the leader of the Wild Hunt, in French known as maisnie Hellequin "household of Hellequin" (and as such ultimately identical with Woden), but re-cast as a generic "devil" in the course of the Middle Ages (and incidentally, in the 16th century also the origin of the Harlequin character). Sometimes also associated is the character of Herrequin, a 9th-century count of Boulogne of proverbial wickedness.
The derivation from either eller- or herla- has not been resolved. Alternative suggestions have also been made, Halling (1836) suggested a connection with a Mongolian god of death or psychopomp, known as Erlik Chan.
English Herla is cast in the role of a king of the Britons who ends up spending two centuries in the realm of the elves (and thus missing the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in Walter Map's De nugis curialium (12th century).
In German, the name was re-interpreted and associated with Erle, the name of the alder-tree (suggesting a spirit haunting the forest). This form is now primarily known due to the 1782 ballad by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (and Schubert's musical adaptation), Der Erlkönig. In this context, the term is also sometimes rendered in English as Erl-king.
In German romantic literature
The Erlking's Daughter
Johann Gottfried von Herder introduced this character into German literature in Erlkönigs Tochter, a ballad published in his 1778 volume Stimmen der Völker in Liedern. It was based on the Danish folk ballad Hr. Oluf han rider "Sir Oluf he rides" published in the 1739 Danske Kæmpeviser. Herder undertook a free translation where he translated the Danish elvermø ("elf maid") as Erlkönigs Tochter; according to Danish legend old burial mounds are the residence of the elverkonge, dialectically elle(r)konge, the latter has later been misunderstood in Denmark by some antiquarians as "alder king", cf Danish elletræ "alder tree". It has generally been assumed that the mistranslation was the result of error, but it has also been suggested (Herder does actually also refer to elfs in his translation) that he was imaginatively trying to identify the malevolent sprite of the original tale with a woodland old man (hence the alder king).
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.
Although inspired by Herder's ballad, Goethe departed significantly from both Herder's rendering of the Erlking and the Scandinavian original. The antagonist in Goethe's Der Erlkönig is, as the title 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.
Reception in English literature
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.
Charles Kinbote, a character in Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel, Pale Fire, alludes to "alderkings". One allusion is in his commentary to line 275 of fellow character John Shade's eponymous poem. In the case of this commentary, the word invokes homosexual ancestors of the last king of Zembla, Kinbote's ostensible homeland. The novel contains at least one other reference by Kinbote to alderkings.
- Das Kloster vol. 9 (1848), p. 171
- Lorraine Byrne, Schubert's Goethe Settings, pp. 222-228.
- Joep Leerssen, "On the Celtic Roots of a Romantic Theme", in Configuring Romanticism: Essays Offered to C.C. Barfoot, p.3. Rodopi, 2003. ISBN 90-420-1055-X
- harlequin, at etymonline.com
- Karl Halling, "Orientalisch, besonders persischer Ursprung deutscher Sagen", Anzeiger für Kunde der deutschen Vorzeit, vol. 5, 1836, 316.
- John R. Williams, The Life of Goethe: A Critical Biography, pp. 86-88. Blackwell Publishing, 2001. ISBN 0-631-23173-0