A to Z: Erlkonig

Published April 5, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Y’know, “E” is a surprisingly under-represented in the MegaTen games at my disposal.  I only had three choices, counting Erthys, the elemental.  (And since elementals don’t have much of anything to say about them, Erthys was ruled out from the start.)  I wanted to go with Enku, but the sources outside of the game’s wiki were rather minimal, so I decided to go with this guy instead.

Image copyright Atlus. Provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

This is Erlkönig…but the English-language version of the games have no support for umlauts, so they just call him Erlkonig.  (Likewise, I don’t know how umlauts in the title of a post would reflect on its URL, so I figured I’d leave them out of the title…)

This is what Shin Megami Tensei IV and Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse have to say about him:

An evil wood spirit appearing in Germany’s Schwarzwald.  He charms people and leads them to their deaths.

His name means “Alder King,” and true to his name, he is the ruler of the alders of the forest.  It is said that the Erlkonig is the strongest of the alder trees.

(Turns out it’s also what Devil Summoner:  Soul Hackers has to say, too.  His is one of the wiki entries that does include a demon compendium entry.  I couldn’t check that game without restarting and playing long enough to get back to Victor’s place, though, because of where my only saves were…)

And the real myth?  Well, if you ask Jacob Grimm, the game pretty much got it right.

According to Herr Grimm, it comes from the Danish word “ellekonige,” meaning “king of the elves.”  In Grimm’s version, and that of 18th century poet (and philosopher) Johann Gottfried von Herder, the Erlkönig (or his female counterpart, called “Erlkönigs Tochter,” that is, his daughter) specifically targets adults of the opposite sex.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, arguably Germany’s most famous poet, took the Erlkönig in a slightly different direction, turning him into a spectre of death that primarily targets children.  The game’s text skates the line between these two versions, not committing to either version.

But there’s a much more intriguing possibility for who the Erlkönig really is.  A couple of them, actually.

Sadly, all I have on this is a quote from Wikipedia, but it’s still interesting:

It has been suggested,[by whom?] that the term may derive not from “elf-king” but from the name of Herla, a figure in medieval English folklore, adapted as Herlequin, Hellequin in medieval French, in origin the leader of the Wild Hunt, in French known as maisnie Hellequin “household of Hellequin” (and as such ultimately identical with Woden), but recast as a generic “devil” in the course of the Middle Ages (and incidentally, in the 16th century also the origin of the Harlequin character). Sometimes also associated is the character of Herrequin, a ninth-century count of Boulogne of proverbial wickedness.[6]

Herla is cast in the role of a king of the Britons who ends up spending three centuries in the realm of the elves and thus missing the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in Walter Map‘s 12th century De nugis curialium. The origin of the name Herla would be erilaz (“earl“, Old Saxonerl), also found in the name of the Heruli (so that German erl-könig would literally correspond to earl-king)

Alternative suggestions have also been made; in 1836, Halling suggested a connection with a Turkic and Mongolian god of death or psychopomp, known as Erlik Chan.[7]

I definitely like the version that makes him into a derivation of Odin better than the rather generic, malicious tree spirit the game advocates for.

Also, who knew that the original Harlequin was a perversion of Woden/Odin?  Not me, that’s for sure.  (A talented fanfic author could do all kinds of things with that and the character of Harley Quinn…)

2 comments on “A to Z: Erlkonig

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