Although Fae Awareness Month began with us wanting to defend humanity against the dangerous attitudes of the Romantics, we have to admit, they were awfully pretty — and sometimes scary. So here’s Alexandra Seidel to discuss one of my favorites, Goethe’s ‘Der Erlkönig’. (And if you dig this, check out a recording of Schubert’s lieder ‘Der Erlkönig’.)
Another Beginning: Fae, Death, and the Romantics
By Alexandra Seidel
The Fae world and the human world are alike yet not the same, Fae are known to abduct, harm and play tricks on humans. As mythical creatures, they warn us of the darkness out there, because darkness is real even if the Fae are not; we must be wary.
Romantics such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were only too aware of the darker sides of our existence, and this awareness translates into their work. A classic element of romantic poetry is an environment that mirrors the feeling of the protagonist from bright sunshine in spring to the abysmal dark torrents of an overflowing river.
But where do the Fae fit in with the oversensitive world view of the romantic mind? One possible answer is escapism. The Fae are invoked to overcome the darkness of reality, the bleaker sides of life, with their fictional brightness.
This can be nicely seen in Goethe’s poem ‘Der Erlkönig’. In the poem, we witness the conversation between a father and his son, the son is sick (you can interpret this sickness in different ways, but here it will be taken more literally as a physical ailment), very possibly feverish (which is why the father has to keep him warm), and the father is carrying him on his horse to get him to safety:
Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
Who is riding through the windy night at this hour?
It is the father with his child;
He is holding the boy safely in his arm,
He is holding him tightly, he is keeping him warm.*
In his delirious state, the son starts speaking about the Erlkönig, a stunning creature that tries to seduce the boy to come with him. However, while the Erlkönig appears impressive, the son’s initial reaction is fear:
“Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?”–
“Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?”–
“Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.”
“My son, why are you hiding your face?”–
“Don’t you see him, Father, the Alder King?
The Alder King with crown and cape?”–
“My son, it is just wafting fog.”
[Schweif might also imply long hair worn in a pony tail]
“Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel’ ich mit dir;
Manch’ bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.”–
“You sweet boy, come away with me!
I would play some nice games with you;
Several colorful flowers are on that shore,
my mother keeps several golden gowns.”
[The second line in this stanza is as ambivalent in its original German as it is in this translation. The last two lines seem to be just descriptive of what the boy may expect. The ‘bunte Blumen’ (“colorful flowers”) could indicate beautiful women, the golden gowns riches.]
The father never sees or hears anything unusual, let alone supernatural. He tries to calm his boy, thereby he also tries to make him see reality instead of delirious visions.
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?”–
“Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.”–
“My Father, my Father, and don’t you hear,
what the Alder King silently promises me?”–
“Be quiet, stay quiet, my child;
the wind whispers in those scrawny leaves.”
But the son is already too far gone (or the Erlkönig is too powerful) and he does not hear wind, he hears the Erlkönig’s voice:
“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehen?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.” —
“Do you want, sweet boy, to come with me?
My daughters will graciously wait on you;
my daughters lead the nightly roundelay,
and they will rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”–
The father never gives up on his son and tries to get him to hold on just a little longer:
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?”–
“Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.–“
“My Father, my Father, and don’t you see over there
Alder King’s daughters in the dark place?”–
“My son, my son, I see it quite clearly:
The old willows are shining oh so gray.–“
This is the last thing the father speaks to his son, the Erlkönig, however, is not quite done yet:
“Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.”–
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!”–
“I love you, your beautiful form attracts me;
And if you are not willing, I will use force.”–
“My Father, my Father, now he is touching me!
Alder King has hurt me!”–
The whole thing ends dramatically with the child’s death:
Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh’ und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.
The father feels fear welling up in him, he is riding hard,
He is holding in his arms the moaning child,
He reaches the courtyard just barely;
And in his arms the child lies dead.
The most obvious interpretation of ‘Der Erlkönig’ is that the König is a personification of death and that the dying boy sees death approaching him in the night. The alder tree even was associated with death (it was also associated with Fae, and Goethe may have taken the name from the translation of a Danish legend that influenced him; wherever he got it from, Goethe was well educated and he certainly chose this name for a reason. A mistranslation, as some scholars claim, seems unlikely to me).
Another interpretation is that it is not just death that takes the boy that night, but another creature altogether, a king of the realm of the dead, not unlike Hades, who loves the boy so much that he takes his soul and leaves the body behind. True, the Erlkönig is shown as dark and sinister, and Goethe uses the natural world in his poem to stress that, but there is an element of magic to him.
It is just that little bit of magic, the idea of more than just death (more than just facts) that allows for escapism. The notion that the dead boy was ‘just’ taken, after all, would be something that the father might easier deal with, because it implies that his son might come back, that the Alder King might let him go home one day. The idea of something out there in the dark that you can name makes the dark that much less scary.
In his poem ‘The Stolen Child’ William Butler Yeats has uses similar words:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Those who go–who die–have gone away with the Fae and the Fae take them away from the harshness of that which is real (note also how in ‘Der Erlkönig’ the son is either unable or unwilling to see reality as his father keeps pointing it out to him). As logic will have it, Fae must therefore be benevolent.
In his ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’, Yeats describes what those travelers might expect:
… the Land of Faery, where nobody gets old and godly and grave, where nobody gets old and crafty and wise, where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue.
For the romantics, this may have been a way to confront and idealize death, because while the typical over-emphasis of all feelings may have made suicide appealing to a romantic author (see Goethe’s ‘Die Leiden des jungen Werther’, “The Sorrows of Young Werther”), the finality of death certainly held no appeal. Instead Fae could appear, like a deus ex machina, to remove the one who suffers from this world and take them elsewhere, where things are brighter and sweeter and where love and lust are as natural as sunlight or mist.
Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
–Yeats, ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’ 1894
As such Fae make death a different thing that is less final and holds the promise of a new beginning, a possibility that is testimony to what we all long for: hope.
*Translation by Alexandra Seidel; note that this is a literal translation. The original rhyme and meter were not maintained. I would strongly encourage every reader to find a translation that keeps rhyme and meter intact, such as this one: http://poemsintranslation.blogspot.com/2010/04/goethe-elvenking-from-german.html This even gives you a passable audio version of the original German.
Alexandra Seidel has often been out in the windy night at the strangest hours. The things you see at night…! She is still not dancing with the Fae, although she is a poet and writer. Read her work at Strange Horizons, The Red Penny Papers, Cabinet des Fées, Mythic Delirium and others. Her regular reviews of the strange and beautiful want to be read at http://www.fantastique-unfettered.com. Alexandra is a poetry editor for Fantastique Unfettered and Niteblade, and in between all that, she manages to keep a blog with fairy wings: http://www.tigerinthematchstickbox.blogspot.com
All images link to their source at Wikipedia or Goethezeitportal–lots of other awe-inspiring illustrations at the latter, too.