I was listening to Franz Schubert’s musical concert of "Erlkönig", and the music was perfect. The lyrics were quite plain and simple, but why is it so famous? I read the poem, heard Schubert and to me it seems to be meant for children, but that contradicts my thoughts that such a fine piece of music was developed for a children’s poem and also the event of ‘death’ is generally omitted in children’s poems.

Is there some hidden depth in ‘Erlkönig’? If yes, then present its central summary.

2 Answers 2


Erlkönig is not a children's poem. In the poem, a boy is assaulted and killed by a supernatural specter, while his father cannot even perceive the threat and is thus unable to defend him. That would be quite unsettling for children. Also the poem is mostly dialog, and the son, the father, and the eponymous Erlkönig speak in turns, with no indicator whose turn it is. I don't think many children would understand that.

I learned this in school (precisely because it was not considered a children's poem, but an example of great literary achievement that we should aspire to) 40 years ago; back then the naive interpretation was that the son fell sick while traveling with his father and suffered from delirium and hallucinations. The father was comforting his son, while trying to get him home for rest and medical care, but the son dies before they arrive.

Other interpretations focus more on the different perspectives of children and adults. The son is more susceptible to a more animistic world view; nature is alive and conscious, and speaks to him in voices both tempting and threatening. The rational father only hears the wind and the weather, and thus cannot understand what frightens his son that much.

Even other interpretations are build on the most unsettling lines from the poem, "Mein Sohn mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt // und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt" ("I love thee, I'm charm'd by thy beauty, dear boy! And if thou'rt unwilling, then force I'll employ", which is definitively not something you would write in a children's poem ). There are three speakers (father, son, Erl King), but only two persons present (father and son), and some people take this as a sign of the double nature of the father, as both the protective adult and the pedophile threat (who, it is implied, might have killed his own son).

You do not have to buy into any of these interpretations, but the fact that they are supported by the text means that this is not a naive children's rhyme, but an abyss that gazes also; whatever fear you bring with you will be reflected back upon you by the lines of the poem, and that is the reason why it is famous.


There's not a hidden sub-text as far as I'm concerned. Just because it's a "children's poem" doesn't mean good music can't be made out of it! For other examples, check out Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev, or Little Red Riding Hood by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Also, the lyrics of the poem were written by Goethe, who's known for his dark imagery and poetry. With that being said, "Erlkönig" isn't really meant for children. It was originally written to be a part of a broader singspiel. The summary of the song is as follows:

A child and a father are riding in the middle of the night. The father asks the child why he looks so afraid, and the child responds by saying that Erl-King is chasing them. The Erl-king speaks to the child and the child repeatedly tells his father, telling him the Erl-King is speaking to him, and asking why the father does not see the Erl-King. The father dismisses them as natural phenomenons like fog, wing, and the willow tree. The Erl-King attempts to take the child by force, and the child dies in his father's arms.

There's not really much else sub-text. This is also further exemplified by the time period in which this was written. Written in the 1780s, and put to composition by 1815, this time period was a period of music known as the "Classical Era". One of the key focuses of the classical era was an emphasis on simplicity, elegance, and balance, as well as short well-balanced melodies and clear-cut question and answer phrases (known as the "antecedent" and the "consequent"). It would, therefore, make sense why such a piece of poetry would be just "simple and plain" - it fits within the context of the era. Classical-era music was a focus on making good music for the sake of good music, without overtly fancy or unnecessarily flourishes.

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