Erlkönig in the novels Nord by Louis Ferdinand Céline
and Le roi des aulnes by Michel Tournier
In the second entry in his diary, Abel Tiffauges, the fictious narrator of Michel Tournier’s Les roi des aulnes ( 1970), which earned him the Prix Goncourt, paraphrases Baudelaire when he first mentions the name of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, and who becomes so important in the context of the Earl King in his novel. Tournier brilliantly combines the German myth of the marauding Erlkönig of Goethe’s poem, made famous by Schubert to music lovers worldwide, who kidnaps children taking them away with him to the forest and the Christian saint. Hence the title of the article, as Tournier takes the famous lines ‘La nature est un temple oú de vivants piliers Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;’ and evoking as he does Saint Christopher, the name of his school when he was a child, to evoke what is to become the iconic saint of his book, a book that I feel compelled to confess that I discovered in 1988 when I met my first wife, who was French, and who became the mother of my son in 1992 in whose company, while walking up Boulevard Saint Michel when Paris once again opened after Covid 19 (2021), I came across a first edition published by Gallimard in the iconic collection blanche. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered the song mentioned not just once, but twice, in Louis Ferdinand Céline’s novel Nord ( published posthumously in1969), the second instalment in his German Trilogy of novels set during the collapse of the Third Reich when the notorious French author was in exile. The correspondences were too dazzling not to explore, such is the content of the article now below.
In Céline’s novel Nord there are two references to the song by Schubert Erlkönig which the German composer composed in 1815 using the poem by Goethe and which was published in 1782. The music is so atmospheric so full of brooding dread evoking the terror of the father as the mysterious creature from the forest attempts to entice the child from him, speaking to him of his daughters, only to eventually mortally wound the boy who is to die in his father’s arms. It is not difficult to see how the song, possibly Goethe’s most famous poem, should be so emblematic in Céline’s novel set in the final months of the war in eastern Prussia where the French writer now finds himself in the company of his wife Lilli, their cat Bébert and the actor Le Vigan, all who have previously been with him in the previous novel which instigates the trilogy D’un château l’autre ( 1957) and which I have already written about on more than one occasion.
The song is first mentioned when the character Harras is driving the intrepid trio through the desolation of war- torn Germany. Harras, who is modelled on Doctor Hauboldt who looked after Céline while he was in Berlin, is driving a Mercedes through the war thorn landscape leading out of Berlin into eastern Prussia where Harras wants to bring Céline and his small entourage far from the desolation of the bombed out German capital. This is the setting that Céline deliberately depicts before introducing the Erlkönig, which we must understand is perfectly orchestrated by Céline. I deliberately use the musical term as the writer often referred to the style of his written compositions as musical, a fact which many commentators have remarked upon but perhaps most poignantly the pianist and composer Yannick Gomez ( 2023) in his wonderful study D’un musicien l’autre, De Céline à Beethoven in which Gomez traces the many different correspondences between the 20th century French writer and the 19th century German composer.
Before I refer to this particular scene, it would be useful I think to remind the reader of the setting in the song poem of Schubert. So, in the song, the singer, like the novelist, takes on many voices. Firstly, the voice of the father who is travelling through the forest with his son on a horse and who is being pursued by the Erlkönig. While the father tries to escape, pushing the horse harder and harder, as the music becomes more and more urgent, we hear also the voice of the boy who sees the Erlkönig who calls out to the boy whom we also hear and whose daughters also appear to the boy enticing him to come with them and yet who is father dismisses as mere optical illusions created by the mist. The voice of the singer, as can be evidenced in the recording, for example, by the baritone Hermann Prey, attached below in the notes who is conducted by James Levine in Vienna ( 1986), flits from deep bassy tones when he is taking the role of the father and the Erlkönig, and the strident strains of the cellos and violins come in heralding the approaching menace ahead, to the lyrical flights and high notes of the boy’s voice and the daughters of the Erlkönig, who are trying to be desirous.
All of this is, of course, not lost on Céline. The fact that Harras is driving a Mercedes is not idle. We are all aware of the famous newsreels of Hitler parading around Nurenburg and Berlin in his fleet of custom- made Mercedes cars. The iconic black car is synonymous with the Third Reich. Céline in D’un château l’autre is at pains to point out how his neighbours must consider him to be such a looser and an oddball not to drive a car, he being a Doctor, after all, and the ultimate sign of post-war success was to be seen driving a quality car. Mercedes being the very apex of success, ironically. This irony would not have been lost on a writer as socially aware as Louis Ferdinand Céline. And so, in the scene just before Doctor Harras starts singing lines from the famous lieder by Schubert, Céline first describes the route that they have been travelling on and it is indeed worthy of the most brooding strains of German romanticism.
First, we are privy to the sight of refugees from the east, possibly Polish or Russian women who are also barefoot in the middle of winter. This is on the way to eastern Prussia during the dying weeks of 1944 when the Red army are pushing in from the east towards Berlin in what will become a monumental battle for the city in which hundreds of thousands of women will be raped in one great orgy, a fact which Céline already alluded to in the first instalment of his German trilogy but which very few people paid any heed to, at least in the English speaking world, as it wasn’t really until 2002, when Antony Beevor published Berlin: The Downfall 1945 having being granted access to previously undisclosed German and Russian files that the scale of the rape became apparent to the reading public and which was quite shocking at the time. So, Céline really was way ahead of his time, yet again, from a historical point of view and of course this to be expected by a writer who, rather like Dante, decides to travel through the Third Reich while it is being systematically annihilated by both the Red armies in the east and by the allied armies in the west.
There is an almost Shakespearean motif at play in both scenes when the song Erlkönig is evoked in Nord. I am referring to the three witches at the beginning of Macbeth, as in both scenes there are three women and this fact is far too symbolic to pass unnoticed. For example, in the first scene, when Harras is driving in the Mercedes, they come across three barefoot women who fall upon their knees supplicating Harras to have pity on them and to take them with them in the car as they merely want to flee from where they are as they have been raped.
Il les laisser parler…une chose, elles ont pas eu
peur…ni de la Mercédes ni d’Harras ni de son
revolver…dans les sanglots elles nous racontent
…que leurs pères et mères sont morts, qu’elles
sont seules à Felixruhe, que tous les hommes
veulents les violer…
Harras listens unmoved as he has heard it all before, he tells his French companions. Only the other week, the very same thing happened, he tells them. And without any further ado, he gets back in the Mercedes and they speed off continuing on their journey, and this is the very first time that Schubert’s song, Goethe’s famous poem, is mentioned.
“Vous avez été à Berlin ?
-Nein ! nein ! »
Hereureusement Harras avait des forts bras,
pour tenir la route, il fallait…de plus en plus
de fondrières !...de ces embardées, d’une à l’autre !
il la fait voler, cette énorme ! plein gaz par-
dessous les crevasses ! moins vite, à aller !...le
retour, on peut dire, on chargeait ! il chantonne…
Vater ! ô Vater !
Ö père ! ô père !
Le roi des Aulnes !
« Il faut cher Céline ! il faut !...je me m’amuse pas ! »
The contrast of the scene which has just happened with the three kneeling women, terrified for their lives appealing to Harras to take them with them for fear of being raped, and the almost mundane discussion which follows between Harras and Céline in the car is beautifully contrasted, and of course the fact that Céline has Harras singing Erlkönig, a song which is about a mysterious creature which lives in the woods and who kidnaps people, particularly children, and kills them, all helps to create a very troubling mood. The motif of the three women, indicative of Macbeth, further underscores the very operatic atmosphere in the novel and so when this motif reappears in the second appearance of the song, it creates in the mind of the reader a kind of recall, so that this first scene is evoked again.
 Céline, Louis Ferdinand: Nord, Collection Folio, Gallimard, Paris, 2022, 145.