Wer reited so spat durch Nacht und Wind? …
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear? …
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
We are walking with our golden retriever Bentley twice a day. Our house is within impressive and beautiful North Carolina woods, we call it an enchanted forest. Our walking path goes almost a mile to the main road, being surrounded by maples, oaks, and evergreens. During the day it’s beautiful, at dark–very dark.
One night during our late walk, the road was hauntingly dark and silent. The leaves were still, and I could hear my footsteps on the pavement. Bent was becoming frightened—I could see it. We kept walking, but the mood was becoming more and more ghastly. Should we turn around and come back home? Instantly, we heard a short bout of rustling in trees to our right. Bent’s head jumped. Then another. And another. Dog became visibly excited and frightened, and I was getting uneasy. I recognized the odd feeling from a previous experience.
Then I understood. It was Goethe, Der Erlkoenig. The Erlking. I remember it from my high school class in romantic literature. The story of father riding horseback through the woods with his sick boy to see the doctor. The night was pitch black, and the road lay deserted. Feverish boy started noticing strange movements in the trees, hearing voices, and seeing shadows. Father tried to calm his son: it’s wind, fog, just your imagination. Boy was becoming more confused and restless. He was hearing the voice. The King of Elfs, a mythical and supernatural being, called him, inviting the boy to visit his kingdom and meet his daughters. Father tried to comfort his son and gallop faster and faster. To no avail. He knew he was losing him. Finally, the boy said “Father, father, don’t you see?—he is grabbing me!” and then father realized the boy is dead.
The legend of Elfking was powerful and popular in the romantic era. People commonly knew Goethe’s poem. It was only natural to feel tempted to write music for it. Several composers tried. Beethoven tried, but was unsuccessful. Franz Schubert’s rendition was the best known. Horrifyingly dramatic. Ludwig Spohr’s version with violin obligato is also very moving.
I see the poem as a desperate yet unsuccessful effort by a father to save his dying son. By the end of the 18th century, they could do not much to help. Having your child dying in your hands is undoubtedly the worst thing which could happen to any parent. Especially powerful for me, since I have two boys of my own.
We run home with Bentley as fast as we could.
The next day, I was talking to my neighbor. He knows the area. Rustling noises in the woods were made by a deer. Happens all the time. Late at night they are going for a late snack. And always are friendly.
But the impression was unforgettable.