Elf-king: Memories of My Father

Kate Farrell (author of Story Power) takes us on a terrifying journey to revisit the desperate father and his dying child.

One late night when I was four years old, back in Gulfport, Mississippi, Daddy was inspired to read to me. It wasn’t a lullaby or a nursery rhyme, it was the famous poem by Goethe, the “Erlkönig” or Elf-king that told of a desperate father and his dying child. Holding me on his lap with the book clasped between us, Daddy began to read in German and in sonorous tones, the terrifying tale:

In the dark of night, a father rode on horseback with his very young son in his arms. The boy was ill, close to death, and the father spurred the horse on to reach the farm on the other side of the forest, for help in treating the boy’s ailments. But the child was feverish, delirious, and saw the Elf-king in the foggy night reach out to touch him, to draw him to his kingdom of fairies, to kill him.

The father spoke to his son, told him of his love, reassuring him of good times to come when he would be well. But no matter how fast the horse galloped, or how many endearing words the father said, when they reached the farmhouse, the boy was dead.

            Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
            It is the father with his child.
            He has the boy well in his arm
            He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

As a young daughter in my own father’s arms, I felt the tragic drama of the old story seep within me. Daddy paused from time to time to translate the action, and to read with such urgency, so I knew without a doubt that at the end, the child had died.

Yet I was alive and held in Daddy’s lap, a survivor. Intuitively I understood, between the lines of this strange, sad poem, that Daddy cared for me, that he was able to communicate his vulnerability within the framework of an 18th century, German ballad.


Source: An excerpt from the draft manuscript of my memoir that frequently combines motifs of legends, myths, and fairy tales with personal stories. Maybe I got the idea from my father that night.

Note: The Erl-King, also called The Elf-King, dramatic ballad by J.W. von Goethe, written in 1782 and published as Der Erlkönig. The poem is based on the Germanic legend of a malevolent elf who haunts the Black Forest, luring children to destruction. It was translated into English by Sir Walter Scott and set to music in a famous song by Franz Schubert.

Story Power by Kate Farrell

Story power

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Stories are everywhere. The art of storytelling has been around as long as humans have. And in today’s noisy, techy, automated world, storytelling is not only prevalent—it’s vital. Whether you’re interested in enlivening conversation, building your business brand, sharing family wisdom, or performing on stage, Story Power will show you how to make use of a good story.

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