The theme, setting, and mood of Goethe’s “The Erlking” capture the spirit of the Romantic period of the late eighteenth century. Characteristics of Romanticism include a love for nature, a fascination with the supernatural, and the recurring themes of love and death, all of which are contained in Goethe’s poem.
“The Erlking” begins with a narrator describing a father’s frantic ride home on horseback, through the woods, holding tightly his feverish child. The child begins to hallucinate and tells his father that he sees the Erlking:
“O father, see yonder!” he says;“My boy, on what do you so fearfully gaze?”“O, ’tis the Er’king with his crown and shroud.”“No, my son, it is but a dark wreath of cloud.”
The father’s rational explanation of what his son sees remains unheeded. The feverish child describes the luring of the Erlking, who invites him to come with him, promising toys and playmates. The fearful child hesitates, but the Erlking persists and finally takes him by force. At the end of the poem, the father arrives home with his son dead in his arms.
The Erlking symbolizes death, which is to the Romantic a source not only of fear but also of attraction to the unknown and the supernatural. Goethe’s poem embodies the universal theme of the loss of innocence. In this perspective, the Erlking becomes the monstrous maturity, which lures youth but destroys its innocence. The fatalistic tone of the poem suggests that innocence inevitably succumbs to, and is destroyed by, the socialization of adulthood.
Goethe’s poem reflects the Romantics’ view of society as the culprit in the destruction of innocence. They believed in the natural goodness of humankind and emphasized the expression of feelings, which they considered more important than intellect. In eighteenth century Germany, emotionalism burst forth in violent form in the Storm and Stress literary movement, of which Goethe was an integral part.