Back in college, I took a fall-quarter introductory music course. We happened to have class on Halloween (an event quite seriously taken around the University of California, Santa Barbara, in case you didn’t know), and the professor held an especially memorable lecture that day. He had us study “Der Erlkönig,” music by Franz Schubert, words by none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. While I will not claim that this tale of the haunting of a moribund child, even with its driving score, genuinely frightened me, I will say that it put the fear into me in a more existential way, a blow which only a simple story can land effectively.
“Who rides, so late, through night and wind?” asks Goethe’s poem, translated from the German. “It is the father with his child. He has the boy well in his arm. He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.” The man feels concern for his ailing son, but the boy has troubles of his own: “Father, do you not see the Erlking?” The father explains his son’s vision of this menacingly regal figure away as the fog, as the wind, as the trees. But the child insists: “My father, my father, he’s grabbing me now! The Erlking has done me harm!” By the time their horse reaches home, indeed, the Erlking — or some obscure agent of mortality — has him. Hear this fable sung, and watch it vividly animated with sand on glass (no doubt a painstaking process) by Ben Zelkowicz above. Halloween itself may have just passed, but “Der Erlkönig” remains timelessly haunting.
We’ll add “Der Erlkönig” to the Animation section of our collection of Free Movies Online.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.