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Enchantment, Evil--and Innocent Children


I am always both haunted and horrified by Schubert's setting of the Goethe poem, "Die Erlkonig." If you don't know it, it's more than worth taking a listen to mid-twentieth-century baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's calmly chilling version. Note how he sings all four voices--the neutral narrator, the frightened son, the confused father and the evil elf king. And the piano's racing horse-hooves convey the mounting terror at the invisible, but inevitable danger. Read the English translation below the German and then take a listen:

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 gülden Gewand." – "Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht, Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?" – "Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind; In dürren Blättern 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 Müh' und Not; In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

The English translation:

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. "My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?" "Father, do you not see the Elfking? The Elfking with crown and tail?" "My son, it's a wisp of fog." "You dear child, come, go with me! Very lovely games I'll play with you; Some colourful flowers are on the beach, My mother has some golden robes." "My father, my father, and don't you hear What the Elfking quietly promises me?" "Be calm, stay calm, my child; The wind is rustling through withered leaves." "Do you want to come with me, pretty boy? My daughters shall wait on you finely; My daughters will lead the nightly dance, And rock and dance and sing you to sleep." "My father, my father, and don't you see there The Elfking's daughters in the gloomy place?" "My son, my son, I see it clearly: There shimmer the old willows so grey." "I love you, your beautiful form entices me; And if you're not willing, then I will use force." "My father, my father, he's grabbing me now! The Elfking has done me harm!" It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on, He holds the moaning child in his arms, Reaches the farm with trouble and hardship; In his arms, the child was dead.

Click on the link and take a listen. And then, when you've gotten through that, read the Yeats poem just below, "The Stolen Child." It puts me in mind of the unsettling Maurice Sendak children's book, Outside Over There. And I wonder, at the Yeats' poem, if the child is happier with the faeries than he is in the world "more full of weeping than he can understand." What do you think? The Stolen Child Where dips the rocky highland Of Sleuth Wood in the lake, There lies a leafy island Where flapping herons wake The drowsy water rats; There we've hid our faery vats, Full of berrys And of reddest stolen cherries. Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. Where the wave of moonlight glosses The dim gray sands with light, Far off by furthest Rosses We foot it all the night, Weaving olden dances Mingling hands and mingling glances Till the moon has taken flight; To and fro we leap And chase the frothy bubbles, While the world is full of troubles And anxious in its sleep. Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. Where the wandering water gushes From the hills above Glen-Car, In pools among the rushes That scarce could bathe a star, We seek for slumbering trout And whispering in their ears Give them unquiet dreams; Leaning softly out From ferns that drop their tears Over the young streams. Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. Away with us he's going, The solemn-eyed: He'll hear no more the lowing Of the calves on the warm hillside Or the kettle on the hob Sing peace into his breast, Or see the brown mice bob Round and round the oatmeal chest. For he comes, the human child, To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than he can understand.


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