Wer reited so spat durch Nacht und Wind? …
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear? …
Johann Wolfgang von Geothe
We are walking with our golden retriever Bentley twice a day. House is located within impressive and beautiful North Carolina woods, we call it enchanted forest. Our walking path goes almost a mile to the main road, mostly being surrounded by maple, oak and evergreens. During the day is very pretty, at dark is very dark.
One night on our late walks road was dark and painfully quiet. There was no leaves movement and I could hear my footsteps on the pavement. Bent was becoming frightened – you could see it. We kept walking, but mood was becoming more and more ghastly. Should we turn around and come back home? Suddenly we heard short bout of rustling in trees to our right. Bent’s head jumped. Then another. And another. Dog was visibly excited and frightened and I was getting uneasy. There was a strange feeling and I realized I had it before.
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. It was a dark night and road was empty. Feverish boy started noticing strange movements in the trees,voices and shadows. Father didn’t see these and was trying to calm his son saying : the wind, the fog, just your imagination. Boy was becoming more and more confused and disconnected. He was hearing this voice. It was a mythical, supernatural being King of Elfs calling on him.He was wooing the boy to come to his kingdom and meet his daughters. Father was trying to calm his son and run 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 very powerful and popular in romantic era. Goethe’s poem was widely known. Writing music to it was only natural and tempting. Several composers tried. Beethoven tried, but was unsuccessful. Franz Schubert’s rendition was the best known. Very dramatic. Ludwig Spohr’s version with violin obligato is also very dramatic.
I see the poem as desperate yet unsuccessful efforts by father to save his dying son. By the end of 18th century not much could be done to help. Having your son dying in your hands is probably the worst thing to happen to any parent. Especially powerful for me , since I have two boys of my own.
We came home with Bentley immediately.
The next day I was talking with my neighbor. He knows the area. It was deer in the woods making rustling noises. Happens all the time. Late at night they are going for a late snack.And always are very friendly.