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Statue depicting the Erlking in the ancient graveyard of Dietenhausen, in Keltern, Germany.
Monument to Goethe's "Erlkönig" in Jena at the place where the rider in the poem supposedly met the Erlkönig

In European folklore and myth, the Erlking is a sinister elf who lingers in the woods. He stalks children who stay in the woods for too long, and kills them by a single touch.

The name "Erlking" (German: Erlkönig, lit.'alder-king') is a name used in German Romanticism for the figure of a spirit or "king of the fairies". It is usually assumed that the name is a derivation from the ellekonge (older elverkonge, i.e. "Elf-king") in Danish folklore.[1] The name is first used by Johann Gottfried Herder in his ballad "Erlkönigs Tochter" (1778), an adaptation of the Danish Hr. Oluf han rider (1739), and was taken up by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his poem "Erlkönig" (1782), which was set to music by Schubert, among others.[2] Goethe added a new meaning, as "Erl" does not mean "elf", but "black alder" – the poem about the Erlenkönig is set in the area of an alder quarry in the Saale valley in Thuringia. In English translations of Goethe's poem, the name is sometimes rendered as Erl-king.


According to early linguist Jacob Grimm, the term originates with a Scandinavian (Danish) word, ellekonge "king of the elves",[3] 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.[4][5] The New Oxford American Dictionary follows this explanation, describing the Erlking as "a bearded giant or goblin who lures little children to the land of death", mistranslated by Herder as Erlkönig in the late 18th century from ellerkonge.[6] The correct German word would have been Elbkönig or Elbenkönig, afterwards used under the modified form of Elfenkönig by Christoph Martin Wieland in his 1780 poem Oberon.[7]

Alternative suggestions have also been made; in 1836, Halling suggested a connection with a Turkic and Mongolian god of death or psychopomp, known as Erlik Khan.[8]

In German romantic literature[edit]

The Erlking's Daughter[edit]

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.[4] 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 elves 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).[9]

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.[4]

Goethe's Erlkönig[edit]

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 the Erlking himself rather than his daughter. The Erlkönig appears to a young boy in a feverish delirium – his father, however, identifies the apparition as a simple streak of fog. 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.[4]

Reception in English literature[edit]

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. Though she becomes aware of his malicious intentions, she is torn between her desire for him and her desire for freedom. In the end, she forms a plan to kill him in order to escape his power.

Charles Kinbote, the narrator of 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.

In Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files, there is a character called the Erlking, modeled after the leader of the Wild Hunt, Herne the Hunter.

In the author John Connolly's short story collection Nocturnes (2004), there is a character known as the Erlking who attempts to abduct the protagonist.

J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them lists a creature named an Erkling, very similar to the Erlking, as one of the many that inhabit the Wizarding World. Erklings are also present in the videogame Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, set in the same universe.

The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" issue of July 5, 2010 included the short story "The Erlking" by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum.

A version of the Erl-King is mentioned in Zoe Gilbert's Mischief Acts, implied to be a figure related to Herne the Hunter.[10]

In Andrzej Sapkowski's The Witcher saga, the highest leader of the Folk of the Alder elves, Auberon Muircetach, is also known as the Alder King. In the story, he maintains thematic ties to kidnapping: the Wild Hunt, known for abducting humans, is subordinate to him, and he orchestrates the imprisonment of Cirilla.


  1. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Erl-king". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  2. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  3. ^ Das Kloster vol. 9 (1848), p. 171
  4. ^ a b c d Lorraine Byrne, Schubert's Goethe Settings, pp. 222-228.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ New Oxford American Dictionary (second ed.). Oxford University Press. 2005.
  7. ^  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Erlkönig". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 9 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 749.
  8. ^ Karl Halling, "Orientalisch, besonders persischer Ursprung deutscher Sagen", Anzeiger für Kunde der deutschen Vorzeit: Organ d. Germanischen Museums. Germanisches Museum. 1836. p. 64.
  9. ^ John R. Williams, The Life of Goethe: A Critical Biography, pp. 86-88. Blackwell Publishing, 2001. ISBN 0-631-23173-0
  10. ^ Gilbert, Zoë (30 March 2023). Mischief acts. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. ISBN 978-1-5266-2879-4. OCLC 1363815385.

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