Who rides so late in a night so wild?
A father is riding with his child.
He clasps the boy close in his arm;
He holds him tightly, he keeps him warm.
"My son, you are trembling. What do you fear?"
"Look, father, the Erl-King! He's coming near!
With his crown and his shroud! Yes, that is he!"
"My son, it's only the mist you see."
"O lovely child, oh come with me,
Such games we'll play! So glad we'll be!
Such flowers to pick! Such sights to behold!
My mother will make you clothes of gold!"
"O father, my father, did you not hear
The Erl-King whispering in my ear?"
"Lie still, my child, lie quietly.
It's only the wind in the leaves of the tree."
"Dear boy, if you will come away,
My daughters will wait on you every day;
They'll give you the prettiest presents to keep;
They'll dance when you wake and they'll sing you asleep."
"My father! My father! Do you not see
The Erl-King's pale daughters waiting for me?"
"My son, my son, I see what you say--
The willow is waving its branches of gray."
"I love you--so come without fear or remorse.
And if you're not willing, I'll take you by force!"
"My father! My father! Tighten your hold!
The Erl-King has caught me--his fingers are cold!"
The father shudders. He spurs on his steed.
He carries the child with desperate speed.
He reaches the courtyard, and looks down with dread.
There in his arms the boy lies dead.
--Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1782)
tr. by Louis Untermeyer
The Erl-King (Der Erlkoenig) was a very popular ballad by Goethe, illustrated and set to music many times. The literal translation of the title is The Alder King; it is sometimes translated as The Elf-King, and it is typical of the old tales of the dangerous elves or fairies who lure mortals (drawn by their human beauty) into their perilous realm. It is a fine example of Gothic romanticism, with its mix of death and beauty, and its influence trails into modern literature, from Goethe to Lord Dunsany (The King of Elfland's Daughter) to Neil Gaiman (Stardust).