The forest has its hobgoblins.
One day, in my seventeenth year, we were wading through German music history at school, and we arrived at the Erlking.
The Erlking started out in Norse mythology as the daughter of an elven king, but transmuted somewhere along the way into a male hobgoblin, an elf of such acid malevolence that he has supernatural power to manipulate well beyond the grave.
And Schubert’s story runs thus: a little boy is riding home on the back of his father’s horse, clutching his father’s waist, when he sees the Erlking way in the distance behins him. But terrifyingly, the gap is closing. And somehow, the Erlking has the power to talk to the boy; to wheedle him and coax him into leaving his father and coming with him.
The boy is terrified, for malice is in every line of the elven face, hatred in every disfigurement. “My father, my father,” Schubert has him calling, again and again, “the Erlking’s getting nearer!”
And this deeply Teutonic tale ends badly. Horrifically, in the manner of nightmares. The father clutches ever tighter to the boy, listening and responding to his fear and plaintive cries. By a superhuman effort he gets them to their destination, an old farmhouse.
But the boy is dead in his arms.
It’s a very tangible metaphor, that one. Not difficult to read; unequivocal. In life fear happens. And when we have something of which we are really afraid, we spend our time looking over our shoulder and warding off the Erlking.
Sometimes we have a loved one with us; some times we are alone in that forest as the Erlking gets nearer, and nearer.
No one ever asks the question: what would happen if the father turned round and fought the Erlking for his son’s life? What then?
Life is not a fairy tale. Turning and walking head-on into your fears is a strategy advocated by the self-help books, and it sounds like an excellent idea. We are gripped by the idea that if we could just sum up the courage to turn round and roar in rage at our Erlking, why then, we would be victors.
But that is not always the case. Whatever the self-help books say, we have one mind and once it is broken it is very difficult to repair. There is a time to stay and fight; and a time to decamp. When the twelve apostles were sent out to preach in villages in the Christian gospels, their leader instructed them: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”
Wisdom is knowing the difference. When to stay and fight, when to turn and walk away.
I have been chased by the Erlking for a very long time. I know Erlking management. And I know now that sometimes you fight him, sometimes you take yourself out of that situation to a farmhouse. And make very sure you are not in that forest at dusk ,with the person you love most, ever again.
I realise, for my own part, that unconscious refrain: “My Father, My Father, the Erlking’s getting nearer!” has subsided in the last few months. I have been permitted a rest. In my daily life I experience both fear and pressure, just not the pernicious evil mind games of the Erlking.
From the safety of my farmhouse, I know he is a part of the world, a creature I must deal with. But he is far away for now.
And perhaps now is the thing that matters most of all.