Goethe: The Elvenking (From German)

The Elvenking1
By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Hear me recite the text in German and English on youtube here

Who's riding so late on a night so wild?
A father, through darkness and wind, with his child.
He holds the youngster tight in his arm. 
He clasps him safely, he keeps him warm.

"What's wrong? Son, why are you hiding your eyes?"
"Look Father, can't you see Elvenking rise?
The Elvenking there, all gowned and crowned?"
"My son, that's mist on marshy ground."

Dear little child, come away with me.
We've games to play. And what games they'll be!
I've gorgeous gardens along the shore.
My mother will clothe you in gold galore.

"O father! My father: oh can you not hear
The promise the Elvenking breathes in my ear?"
"Son, easy. Take it easy there.
It's dry leaves sighing in windy air."

So, sweet little boy, will you come along?
My daughters will wait on you all day long, 
My daughters will dance all night in a ring.
You'll rest as they rock you and sleep as they sing.

"O Father! My father: oh can you not see
His daughters in darkness looking at me?"
"My son, my son. I see plain as day.
It's just old willow-trees shimmering gray."

I love you! Your beauty is stirring my lust.
And if you're unwilling, I'll take as I must!
"O father! My father! I feel his touch.
The Elvenking's hurting me so much."

The father shudders. He spurs his horse on,
His arm still clasping his groaning son.
He made it home with stress and dread
And there in his arms the boy was dead.

1 The coinages Erlkönig and Erlenkönig in German, which actually mean "the king of the alder-trees" are in fact Herder's fortuitous mistranslations of the Danish word ellerkonge: elf king. Erlkönig therefore became associated with trees. In his folksong collection, Herder published his rendering of a Danish ballad in which a knight, riding through the forest is taken by a sprite who introduces herself as "the elf king's daughter." Goethe adopted Herder's hybridized form.

The Original:


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.

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.

"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 güldne Gewand."

Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?-
Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blätern säuselt der Wind.

"Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein."

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.

"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!-

Dem Vater grauset's, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.


  1. Thomas Jesse Vögele WinterJuly 7, 2013 at 3:21 AM

    A really good translation, as good as it is possible to translate poems and texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. But as a German I have to say, it is impossible to translate Goethe, Schiller or Nietzsche with all the beauty and melody in their words and the German language

    But my highest respect for the good work!!! :-)