In German and Scandinavian folklore, an erlking or Erlkönig is a mischievous or malevolent sprite.
The word, meaning elf king, derives from German and Danish ellerkonge or elverkonge. In English the name became erlking.
The legend of Der Erlkönig appears to have originated in fairly recent times in Denmark and Goethe based his poem on Erlkönigs Tochter (Erlkönig's Daughter), a Danish work translated into German by Johann Gottfried Herder.
According to German and Danish folklore, the Erlkönig appears as an omen of death, much like the banshee in Irish mythology. Unlike the banshee, however, the Erlkönig will appear only to the person about to die. His form and expression also tell the person what sort of death they will have: a pained expression means a painful death, a peaceful expression means a peaceful death.
Erlkings often exercise a fatal influence, especially on children by means of alluring promises or visions that led to destruction. The Erlking has been interpreted as being a singular being, rather than a collective term, and has also been equated with the devil.
Art / Fiction
- The Erlkönig was introduced into German poetry in 1778 through the translation by Johann Gottfried von Herder of a Danish ballad. Herder mistranslated the title as "king of the alders" rather than "king of the elves."
- Goethe wrote a ballad, Der Erlkönig, which has been set to music by Franz Schubert, one of the most famous Romantic lieder. The ballad was translated into Russian by Vasily Zhukovsky.
- In the anthology Nocturnes by Irish writer John Connolly, there is a short story entitled The Erlking that tells of how the creature tries to ensnare a young boy.
- Angela Carter also wrote a short story called The Erl-King. In her version, it is a human woman the elf enchants. She plots to murder her captor, even knowing that his death will only pull her deeper under his spell.
- Jim Butcher's novel Dead Beat of the Dresden Files series has the hero Harry Dresden face off against the Erlking, who is a powerful fey being that leads the Wild Hunt.