Monday, November 30, 2015

The Erl King

"My son, say why you are hiding your face?"
"Oh father, the Erl King's coming apace,
The Erl King's here with his train and crown."
"My son, the fog moves up and down."

"Oh come, my darling, oh come with me!
Such good care my daughters will take of thee.
My daughters will dance about thee in a ring,
Will rock thee to sleep and will prettily sing."

"I love thee, thy beauty I covet and choose,
Be willing, my child or force I shall use."
"My father, my father, he seizes me fast.
For sorely the Erl King has hurt me at last."

The father now gallops, with terror half wild.
He grasps in his arms the poor, shuddering child.
He reaches his courtyard with toil and dread--
The child in his arms he finds motionless, dead."

The famous poem by the German writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe depicts a child and his father riding through the woods as a bogey man whispers to the child, promising to take him to a wonderful land, to be cared for by his beautiful daughters. As with most adults in a tale told from a child's POV, the parent doesn't believe the child until it's too late.

The Erl King has been featured in Holly Black's The Darkest Part of the Forest, in Raymond E. Feist's horrifying Faerie Tale, and in Angela Carter's 'The Erl King' and Elizabeth Hand's short story 'The Erl-King.' Anyone who's ever been in a deep forest can understand how such a shadowy horror could evolve. In Sara Maitland's From the Forest, the author writes of forests: 'A more promising contender for forest fear is 'panic', because the name itself originates in the woods. Classical Greek mythology defined panic as a specific kind of terror induced by Pan, the god of wild places and especially of woods and forests.' Alders, the trees from which the Erl King may derive his name, are known as witches' trees. Alder's inner wood turns red when cut and exposed to the air, which may be why it's also associated with the Erl King's daughter, a female spirit. The Erl King himself is a shadowy version of Shakespeare's fairy king Oberon and, perhaps, of the same ilk as the mysterious, murdering Long Lankin and the homicidal Elf Knight of the ballad 'Isobel and the Elf Knight.'

The Erl King dwells in the forest. He steals children. He's a malevolent presence. Unlike the more civilized English and French versions of the Elf King, the Erl King is a primitive spirit with no liking for mankind, and, like death, has no mercy for the young. Like Tolkien's Sauron, the Erl King is an unseen menace, ruler of a liminal world. In some stories, he is the leader of the Wild Hunt, antlered and wild, a force of nature.

But he is, first and foremost, a spirit of the forest in which the vulnerable become lost, the forest filled with teeth and claws.

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