King Orfeo is a happy-ending version of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, with fairies in place of… well, death.
Child only collected one version, which can be found here, and there are several large portions missing. The notes explain that this is because the man who served as the source couldn’t remember them.
Mr Edmondston, from whose memory this ballad was derived, notes that though stanzas are probably lost after the first which would give some account of the king in the east wooing the lady in the west, no such verses were sung by him.
The king goes hunting and leaves his wife, Lady Isobel, at home. When he returns, he is told by someone that:
“…da king o Ferrie we his dart,
Has pierced your lady to da hert.”
Here there are some verses missing.
He had forgotten some stanzas after the fourth, of which the substance was that the lady was carried off by fairies; the king went in quest of her, and one day saw a company passing along a hillside, among whom he recognized his lost wife. The troop went to what seemed a great “ha-house” or castle, on the hillside.
The ballad picks up again when the king is chasing the company:
And aifter dem da king has gaen,
but when he came it was a grey stane.
He takes out his pipes to play some tunes. He is apparently very good.
And first he played da notes o noy,
An dan he played da notes o joy.
An dan he played do göd gadder reel,
Dat meicht ha made a sick hert hale.
The book indicates that there are some more verses missing here. The notes explain:
Stanzas after the eighth were also forgotten, the purport being that a messenger from behind the grey stane appeared and invited the king in.
It picks up again as someone is telling him to come into the hall and play for everyone. He plays the same tunes he did before, and an unidentified person asks him what he wants in return for his music.
‘What I will hae I will you tell,
An dat’s me Lady Isabel.’
The unidentified person agrees and the ballad ends with a surprising lack of conflict.
Child cites three sources from which more complete versions of this story can be found.
In Child’s summary of these ballads, king Orfeo is a great harper. One day, after taking an nap under a “ympe” tree, his wife Heurodis starts freaking out because she has had a nightmare in which another king insisted that she would come with him to his castle the next day. Orfeo tries to prevent this from happening by sending a thousand knights to guard her, but she simply disappears.
The king is so sad that he leaves his high steward in charge of his kingdom and goes to live in the wilderness for ten years.
His only solace was in his harp, and, when the weather was bright, he would play, and the beasts and birds would flock to him. Often at hot noon-day he would see the king of fairy hunting with his rout, or an armed host would go by him with banners displayed, or knights and ladies would come dancing; but whither they went he could not tell.
One day he sees a group of fairy women hunting, and Heurodis is with them. Orfeo follows the party into a rock, and sees them go into a castle. He gains entry to the castle by telling the porter that he is a minstrel. Inside the gate, he sees Heurodis sleeping under another “ympe” tree.
He plays for the king of fairy, and the king likes his playing so much that he promises Orfeo anything he asks for. He asks for “the lady tat sleepeth under the ympe tree.”
“Nay,” quoth the king, “ye were a sorry couple; for thou art lean and rough and black, and she is lovely and has no lack. A lothly thing were it to see her in thy company.” “Gentle king,” replied the harper, it were a fouler thing to hear a lie from thy mouth.” “Take her, then, and be blithe of her,” said the king.
Orfeo goes back home, but decides to test his steward by presenting himself as a homeless traveling minstrel to see if he is welcomed.
The loyal steward was ready to welcome every good harper for love of his lord. King Orfeo made himself known; the steward threw over the table, and fell down at his feet, and so did all the lords. Orfeo and Heurodis were crowned, and lived long afterward.
For a ballad with only one version collected and a good deal of the story missing, there are quite a few recordings of this one. Mainly Norfolk has a small overview of the various recordings and their history.
Some artists choose to record the exact words of the version that Child collected, missing chunks of the story and all:
Others fill in more of the story. This version, written by Fay Hield and Jon Boden based on a translation by J.R.R. Tolkien, uses every opportunity for drama and conflict that never appears in the traditional lyrics:
In this version recorded by Malinky the queen appears to die at the beginning, but then her corpse gets up and leaves during the night. The king seems to know that this will happen and trys to prevent it, but it is never explained why. It ends the same as the other versions with the queen being rescued from fairyland.
Harpans Kraft, or “The Power of the Harp,” is also listed here as a version of King Orfeo. The story is different from “King Orfeo,” but has many similarities. In this story a knight finds his bride crying on the way to their wedding because she knows that she is about to be kidnapped by a water spirit that has previously kidnapped her sisters. The groom does everything he can to prevent this from happening but she is unable to escape her fate. He then brings out his golden harp and plays so skillfully that the water spirit is forced to give back the bride as well as her sisters.
Version A, from the Percy manuscript, is the oldest version that Child collected and has an epic feel to it. While the other versions range from nonsensical to silly, this one is more of a serious adventure-romance with a focus on chivalry and honor.
Sir Egrabell had sonnes three,
Blow thy horne, good hunter
Sir Lyonell was one of these.
As I am a gentle hunter.
Sir Lyonell goes hunting. He rides over the plain and sees a dead knight. He rides further and sees a lady sitting in a tree.
She tells him that the knight was killed by a wild boar, and that she’s waiting in the tree for her friends who live in town to come and get her. He offers to go and get her friends, but as he is riding away he thinks to himself that his father would never leave a lady alone in that situation and that he should kill the boar himself.
At this point there are some verses missing, because the manuscript is missing half a page, and when they pick up again he is fighting a giant. The giant demands that Sir Lyonell turn over his possessions, his hawk and the little finger of his right hand. Sir Lyonell refuses and the giant hits him.
He said then, ‘if I were saffe and sound,
As with-in this hower I was in the ground,
‘It shold haue beene in the next towne told
How deare thy buffett it was sold;
‘And it shold be in the next towne said
How well thy buffet it were paid.’
At first I thought that this meant he would tell everyone how tough the giant was, but apparently it means that if he was not already so weak from fighting the boar he could easily beat the giant in a fight. The giant apparently feels insulted by this and tells him to take 40 days to heal, and then to meet him so that they can fight again. In the mean time the giant takes the lady as a hostage.
When 40 days was at an end,
Sir Lyonell of his wounds was healed sound.
He tooke with him a litle page,
He gaue to him good yeoman’s wage.
He blows his hunting horn and the lady comes over to talk with him. She says that the giant has heard his horn:
‘And bidds me of good cheere be,
The night heele sup with you and me.’
So either he’s going to eat them or they’re all going to a dinner party together. Probably the former. He puts the lady on a horse and tells her to run away if it looks like he is about to die. He then starts to tell her:
‘But lady, if you see that I must liue,’
And here the ballad cuts off because the manuscript is missing another half-page. Child laments in the notes that if the manuscript were complete it would be the only version where we find out what happens to the lady.
Version B starts with a knight asking his two sons “o sma fame,” Isaac-a-Bell and Hugh the Graeme, what they are going to do for a living.
The youngest says that he will not run a mill or keep pigs:
‘But it is said, as I do hear,
That war will last for seven year,
‘With a giant and a boar
That range in the wood o Tore.
He asks for a horse and armor, which his father provides, and rides into the woods of Tore. He meets the boar and kills it. He then meets a the giant, who asks:
‘O cam you through the wood o Tore,
Or did you see my good wild boar?’
He seems like a polite giant. Why is he the bad guy again?
‘I cam now through the wood o Tore,
But woe be to your grisly boar.
So the giant gives him thirty days to heal from the fight with the boar, after which he is expected to come back and fight to the death. The boy comes back and kills the giant. It’s pretty anticlimactic. The fight with the boar took two verses that went into a bit of detail, but the last verse only says:
So Graeme is back to the wood o Tore,
And he’s killd the giant, as he killed the boar.
Maybe the person singing the ballad got tired and just wanted to end it. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find any recordings of this version.
The hero of version C is Sir Ryalas, son of Sir Robert Bolton. He goes hunting and sees a lady in a tree. She tells him that a wild boar has killed her husband and thirty men.
Sir Ryalas, who is either very tough or not very bright, asks how he can see the wild boar. The lady tells him to blow his horn and it will come.
He blows his horn and the boar comes running, knocking down trees as it goes.
The boar, who can talk this time, asks him what he wants and they start to fight. Sir Ryalas eventually kills the boar. Then he meets the boar’s owner:
Then out of the wood a wild woman flew:
‘Oh, thou has killed my pretty spotted pig!’
‘There are three things I do demand of thee,
It’s thy horn, and thy hound, and they gay lady.’
So this must be what happened with the giant in version A. He gets into a fight with the wild woman and kills her.
In Bromsgrove church they both do lie;
There the wild boar’s head is pictured by.
Version D is very similar except that the hero is nameless and the first three verses are told in the first person.
As I went up one brook, one brook,
Well wind thy horn, good hunter
I saw a fair maiden sit on a tree top.
As thou art a jovial hunter
This time the girl in the tree is just a “fair maiden” and she doesn’t mention the boar killing anyone else. The woman running out of the woods this time is just described as an “old lady” making it even stranger when the hero fights her to the death. I think the ballad is officially supposed to be comedy at this point. The hero has gone from fighting a fearsome, evil, and strangely chivalrous giant to fighting a crazy old lady.
In the version recorded by The Demon Barbers the old woman is identified as a witch, possibly to make her a more worthy opponent.
Version E is just a fragment. This time the hero is a friar.
There was an old man and sons he had three;
Wind well, Lion, good hunter
A friar he being one of these three,
With pleasure he ranged the north country.
For he was a jovial hunter
He meets a lady under a tree who tells him about a boar that has wounded thirty men and “worried” her husband. The friar blows his horn, boar comes running and the ballad ends there. It’s a shame, I was wondering if a friar would handle the situation differently, though according to Child’s notes, it might not be different at all:
The friar in in E13, 41, may be a corruption of Ryalas, or some like name…
Or it may be a reference to a different story altogether:
The friar may also be borrowed from ‘The Felon Sow and the Friars of Richmond.’
The Felon Sow and the Friars of Richmond is a comedic ballad about a group of friars who are unable to kill a vicious sow that has been donated to them and eventually hire two mercenaries to do it for them. While the boar in the various versions of Sir Lionel is meant to be taken seriously as an enemy, the sow is not. In Child’s words, it is “a tame village pig; the old mettle is bred out.”
Version F is just one verse about how the hero’s father had three sons.
Sir Rackabello had three sons,
Wind well your horn, brave hunter
Sir Ryalash was one of these.
And he was a jovial hunter
Child compares Sir Lionel to ‘Sir Eglamour of Artois,’ a romance found in the Percy MS. The hero of this ballad is a knight who wants to marry the daughter of an Earl. The Earl does not want them to marry, and sends Sir Eglamour on a series of dangerous quests to get rid of him. One of these quests is “to kill a boar in the kingdom of Sattin or Sydon, which had been known to slay forty armed knights in one day.”
Sir Eglamour kills the boar, and is found in the forest by the king if Sydon “in a state of exaustion,” the king takes him home to recover. Just like in the English ballads, the boar belongs to a giant “who had kept him fifteen years to slay Christian men.”
The same giant has also demanded the king’s daughter and is coming to collect her the next day. As the giant approaches, Sir Eglamour goes to the castle walls accompanied by a squire carrying the boar’s head on a spear. The giant sees it and vows revenge:
‘Alas, art thou dead!
My trust was all in thee!
Now by the law that I lieve in,
My little speckled hoglin,
Dear bought shall thy death be.’
Then Sir Eglamour kills the giant as well. That is not the end of the story, but Child does not describe it any further.
I’ve found several modern recordings of a song called “Sir Eglamore” in which no giant is mentioned and the boar is now a dragon. I guess modern listeners just don’t find boars scary.
Child mentions a Danish ballad from the 16th century in which a girl who has rejected many suitors finally gets married and boasts about how attractive her children will be, only to give birth to a litter of nine puppies, a pig and one human boy. The pig grows up to be a monster which causes destruction throughout the country until it’s nine dog siblings jump down its throat and tear apart its liver, killing themselves in the process. Child remarks that “This ballad smacks of the broadside.”
“Hind Horn” in its popular form is a rather sweet ballad about the reunion of two long separated lovers. (All versions can be found here) Most versions start by introducing the hero, who has fallen in love with the king’s daughter.
In Scotland there was a baby born,
Lill lal etc…
And his name it was called young Hind Horn
With a fal lal etc…
He sent a letter to our king,
That he was in love with his daughter Jean.
None of these ballads mention the hero’s rank, or whether he is considered to be a good suitor for the princess, but he is able to talk to her and to give her gifts. In version A he gives her a silver wand with three live larks on it. She apparently likes him enough to give him a diamond ring with… magical “Dear John” powers?
‘When this ring grows pale and wan,
You may know by it my love is gone.’
Easier than sending a breakup letter in those days, I guess.
One day he looked the ring upon,
He saw the diamonds pale and wan.
Instead of just accepting that she is no longer interested and marrying someone else he decides to go back and see what’s up. When he comes to shore he learns from an old beggar that the princess is getting married. He asks the beggar to change clothes with him so that he can sneak into the wedding.
When he came to the King’s gate,
He sought for a drink for Hind Horn’s sake.
The princess comes down in person to give him a glass of wine and he takes the opportunity to show her the ring.
‘O got ye this by sea or land?
Or got ye it off a dead man’s hand?’
‘I got it not by sea, I got it by land.
And I got it, madam, out of your own hand.’
This is where we find out that her description of the ring’s power wasn’t entirely accurate. She still wants to marry him even though she believes that he has become a beggar.
‘I’ll cast off my gowns of brown,
And beg wi you frae town to town.
‘I’ll cast off my gowns of red,
And beg wi you to earn my bread.’
He then tells her that he is still rich and they run off together.
The bridegroom he had wedded the bride,
But young Hind Horn he took her to bed.
Child comments on the fact that the ring changing color doesn’t mean what the princess said it would mean, but he has no particular explanation for this discrepancy.
According to the letter of the ballads, should the ring given to Horn turn wan or blue, this would signify that she loved another man: but though accuracy would be very desirable in such a case, these words are rather loose, since she never faltered in her love, and submitted to marry another, so far as she submitted, only under constraint.
Probably just another victim of the folk process then.
The ballads bring up several questions for me. Who is Hind Horn and how does he get to talk to the princess in the first place? Why does he feel the need to disguise himself when going to the wedding? Did running off with the princess on her wedding day create an international incident?
Child’s notes hold some answers to these questions.
The popular ballads that Child collected were a shortened version of a much longer and more complicated story about an exiled prince.
The story of Horn, of which this ballad gives little more than the catastrophe, is related at full in
I. ‘King Horn,’ a gest in about 1550 short verses…
II. ‘Horn et Rymenhild,’ a romance in about 5250 heroic verses…
III. ‘Horn Childe and Maiden Rimnild,’ from a manuscript of the 14th century, in not quite 100 twelve-line stanzas…
In the first version that Child describes, (you can read the original text here, and another version retold for children here) Horn is the prince of Suddenne. His father, King Murry, is killed by “Saracens,” who put Horn and his friends on a boat “without sail or rudder.” They drift safely to shore and are taken in by Alimar, the king of Westerness. who has them brought up by his steward.
The king’s daughter Rymenhild falls in love with Horn, but he refuses her offer of marriage because he thinks his station is too low to marry her. She gets him and his friends knighted, but then he insists on going to sea so that he can prove himself as a knight.
Upon this Rymenhild gave him a ring, set with stones of such virtue that he could never be slain if he looked on it and thought of his leman. The young knight had the good fortune to fall in immediately with a ship full of heathen hounds, and by the aid of his ring killed a hundred of the best of them.
He goes back to Rymenhild and finds that she is very upset over an ominous dream.
She had cast her net into the sea, and a great fish had broken it: she weened she should lose the fish that she would choose.
The meaning of this dream soon becomes clear. Horn’s friend Fikenild tells King Alimar about Horn’s relationship with the princess. He then convinces the king that Horn is planning to kill him and take his throne. Horn is banished, but tells the princess to wait seven years before marrying someone else.
Horn sails to Ireland and takes service with king Thurston.
At Christmas came into court a giant, with a message from pagans newly arrived. They proposed that one of them should fight three Christians:
‘If your three slay our one,
Let all this land be your own;
If one of ours oercomes your three,
All this land then ours shall be.’
Horn scorned to fight on such terms; he alone would undertake three of the hounds; and so he did. In the course of a hard fight it came out that that these were the very heathen that had slain King Murry. Horn then looked on his ring and thought on Rymenhild, then fell on his foes. Not a man of them escaped; but King Thurston lost many men in the fight, among them his too sons. Having now no heir, he offered Horn his daughter Reynild and the succession.
Well, she’s only a few letters removed from his One True Love…
Horn replied that he had not earned such a reward yet. He would serve the king further; and when he asked for his daughter, he hoped the king would not refuse her.
I wonder if this is diplomacy on his part or pragmatism. Is he really considering marrying this other princess, or is he holding out for the one who made him invincible in battle and is still waiting for him to come back? Speaking of which, does the power of the ring depend on them being in love?
So Horn stays with king Thurston for seven years without so much as a letter to Rymenhild, who is having a hard time.
A sorry time it was for her, and worst at the end, for King Modi of Reynis asked her in marriage, and her father consented. The wedding was to be in a few days. Rymenhild despatched messengers to every land…
One of the messengers does manage to find him, and Horn sends back a message that he will be there soon, but the messenger drowns on his way back.
Horn then made a clean breast to Thurston, and asked for help. This was generously accorded, and Horn set sail for Westerness.
I can just imagine that conversation:
“Hey, I know you want me to marry your daughter, but I’m actually engaged to this other princess, except that her dad hates me and thinks I’m going to kill him and take his kingdom and she’s supposed to marry someone else tomorrow. Anyway, can you lend me a boat so I can go and stop the wedding?”
“Sure! Why not?”
Anyway, he meets a pilgrim:
He met with a palmer, and asked his news. The palmer had come for a bridal; a wedding of maid Rymenhild, who wept and would not be married, because she had a husband, though he was out of the land. Horn changed clothes with the palmer…”
Was it common to engage in clothing swaps with random strangers you met on the road in those days?
The porter would not let him in; Horn kicked open the wicket, threw the porter over the bridge, made his way into the hall, and sat down in the beggars’ row.
Poor guy! He was just trying to do his job. I hope it wasn’t too high a bridge.
Rymenhild was weeping as if she were out of her wits, but after meat she rose to give all the knights and squires drink from a horn which she bare: such was the custom. Horn called to her:
‘Skink us with the first,
The beggars ben athirst.’
She laid down her horn and filled him a gallon bowl; but Horn would not drink of that. He said mysteriously, “Thou thinkest I am a beggar, but I am a fisher, come far from the East, to fish at thy feast. My net lies near at hand, and hath full seven year. I am come to see if it has taken any fish.
‘I am come to fish;
Drink to me from thy dish,
Drink to Horn from horn!’”
Wait… Is that pun the entire reason for his name?
Rymenhild looked at him, a chill creeping over her heart. What he meant by his fishing she did not see.
I’m a bit confused as well. Was “Hey, it’s me!” not dramatic enough? Apparently so, because he decides to continue the drama further. He drops the ring into the horn, when she finds it she sends for the “palmer.” Instead of revealing himself then, he tells her that Horn died on the way to Westerness. It’s only after she grabs a knife to kill herself (it is mentioned that she originally planned to kill her new husband as well) that he takes off his disguise. I guess he wanted to test her devotion, but seriously dude, the lady sent messengers to every land to find you and was openly crying at her own wedding. This is all after she tried to marry you when you were only a steward, greatly increased your station in life, gave you a ring that made you invincible in battle and then waited seven years for you to come back from exile. If anyone needs to prove their commitment at this point it’s you!
Horn sprang from the hall,
And let his sclavin fall,
and went to summon his knights. Rymenhild sent after him the faithful Athulf, who all the while had been watching for Horn in the tower. They slew all that were in the castle, except King Alimar and Horn’s old comrades.
Sheesh, what did everyone in the castle ever do to him? I bet some people were glad that they weren’t invited to that wedding!
Horn spared even Fikenild, taking an oath of fidenity from him and the rest.
Yeah, so kill everyone who happens to be in the castle when your true love is getting married, but spare THE GUY WHO GOT YOU EXILED IN THE FIRST PLACE BY INTENTIONALLY SPREADING LIES ABOUT YOU. I know he’s a childhood friend, but there are some seriously messed up priorities here.
Then he made himself known to Alimar, denied what he had been charged with,
Uh huh. Committing a massacre at his daughter’s wedding clearly proves your innocence.
…and would not marry Rymenhild even now, not till he had won back Suddenne.
I’m starting to think Horn has commitment issues. This is the woman who made him invincible in battle. I don’t think marrying her first would slow him down, but then we couldn’t have the dramatic final act.
Horn takes back his father’s kingdom without much trouble, meanwhile Fikenild, the one guy he actually should have killed, betrays him again, kidnaps Rymenhild and forces her to marry him.
Horn disguises himself and his knights as musicians to get into the castle and then proceeds to kill Fikenild and his men. Horn marries Rymenhild (Don’t rush into it or anything. Are you sure you don’t want to wait another seven years?) and marries Reynild (the extra princess, if you’re keeping track) to his loyal friend Athulf.
The French romance contains very nearly the same story, extended, by expansions of various sorts, to about six times the length of King Horn.
It would be out of place to notice other variations than those which relate to the story preserved in the ballads.
In this version Horn wants to clear his name through trial by combat, but the king insists that he swear a loyalty oath instead. Horn refuses to do this because he is the son of a king.
The king says, then he may quit his land and go – to Norway, if he will. Horn begs Rimild to maintain her love for him seven years. If he does not come then, he will send her word to act therefore at her pleasure.
That would be one hell of a breakup letter. “Thank you for waiting seven years for my return, but I’ve decided this really isn’t going to work out. It’s not you, it’s me.”
Rimild responds be giving him a ring that is even more powerful than the one in the previous ballad.
… wearing which faithfully he need not fear death by water nor fire, battle nor tourney.
Ok, where did she get that? Is it a metaphor for the power of true love, or does she just happen to have a spare ring of invincibility lying around?
Horn uses the ring to avenge his father before getting word that Rimild is being forced to marry someone else, “through a friend, who had long been seeking him.” He changes clothes with a palmer and sneaks into the wedding like he does in the previous ballad. Again he goes through the ritual with the ring in the wine horn (and the pun), claims not to know anything about Horn, and then communicates who he is through a complicated metaphor:
For himself, he had been reared in that land, and by service come into possession of a hawk, which, before taming it, he had put in a cage: that was nigh seven years since: he had come to see what it amounted to. If it should prove to be as good as when he left it, he would carry it away with him; but if its feathers were ruffled and broken, he would have nothing to do with it. At this, Rimild broke into a laugh, and cried, “Horn, ‘t is you, and your hawk has been safely kept!”
He then tests her by pretending to be poor. She says she doesn’t care.
“Little do you know me,” was her reply. “I can bear what you bear, and there is no king in the East for whom I would quit you.”
‘Horn Childe and Maiden Rimnild portrays Rimnild’s father as much more violent and abusive towards his daughter then in the previous ballad. He responds to the false information by beating his daughter “until she bleeds” and he tells Horn that he will be “drawn with horses and hanged” if he is still in the country the next morning.
Rimnild gives him a ring and tells him that if the stone on the ring turns pale it will mean that she isn’t in love with him anymore, and if it turns red it will means she’s lost her virginity.
Horn, for his part, bids her every day look into a spring in her arbor: should she see his shadow, then he is about to marry another; till then his thought will not have changed.
Horn doesn’t change his mind despite another princess being in love with him, but after seven year he looks at the ring and sees that “its hue was changed.” This time the beggar he meets turns out to be an old friend, he changes clothes with his friend and forces his way into the castle.
This time there is no mention of a mass slaughter, instead he “[comes] onto the field with a hundred knights. A tournament follows… the royal bridegroom is unhorsed, but spared; treachery is punished and forced to confession.”
In a Scandinavian ballad called ‘Unge Hr. Tor og Jomfru Tore,’ the main characters’ names are Tor and Sølffuermord. There is no mention of Tor being exiled. He simply goes away and tells Sølffuermord to wait eight years for his return. When eight years pass and he doesn’t come back, her father decides to marry her to a rich count. Tor comes back the day of the wedding and is told by Sølffuermord’s brother that she “is even now drinking her bridal, but with tears.”
This time instead of pretending to be a beggar he takes his harp and chess board and starts playing outside the hall. The bride recognizes his playing, at which point he comes in and challenges her to a game of chess. They take turns winning and use the chess game to banter about the current situation in rhyme.
‘Full hard is gold to win,
And so is a trothless queen.’
‘Many were glad their faith to hold,
Were their lot to be controlled.’
They run away together on Tor’s ship. Sølffuermord’s mother, who is a “professor of the black art,” creates a storm that makes everyone but Sølffuermord seasick on the deck. Sølffuermord steers the ship to Norway where they celebrate their wedding.
In another ballad, ‘Herr Lovmand og Herr Thor’ the hero comes back late because he is sick. The heroine has refused to go to bed for nine days after the wedding and her brothers “begin to use force.” However, she convinces them to let her go to the look-out first where she sees his ships approaching. The ballad ends peacefully with the original groom agreeing to marry the hero’s sister instead.
Child mentions that there are many variations of this ballad in Sweden. In some of them the hero and heroine run off together, in some the hero kills his rival and in some the rival agrees to a peaceful solution.
He goes over some other ballads that have similar tropes. There are several ballads about a duke who goes away for many years, has trouble getting back due to various misfortunes, and then makes friends with a lion who is somehow able to get him home just in time to stop his wife’s wedding.
Some other ballads of this type involve deals with the devil. The devil is always forced to break the deal at the last minute, sometimes because of the hero’s actions and sometimes due to the interference of the hero’s lion friend.
Several ballads have the husband leaving to join the crusades and being taken prisoner. He gets back home with the help either of Saladin (who has magic powers), “a devil, acting under the orders of St. Thomas,” or divine powers that respond to his prayers.
He always has a roundabout way of revealing himself, some ways more polite than others. In one version:
He is invited to the wedding supper, and towards the close of it proposes to play cards to see who shall have the bride. The guests are surprised.
I’m sure they are!
His wife, however, is always happy to see him.
The lady, upon lifting the cover, saw the ring, knew her husband, and, upsetting the table in her ecstasy, threw herself into Torello’s arms.
The hero is usually portrayed as a devoted husband who is prevented by cruel fate from getting back to his wife, though in one ballad his behavior is so obnoxious and hypocritical that Child comments on it in a footnote.
Numerous as are the instances of these long absences, the woman is rarely, if ever, represented as in the least to blame. The behavior of the man, on the other hand, is in some cases trying. Thus, the Conde Dirlos tells his young wife to wait for him for seven years, and if he does not come in eighth to marry the ninth. He accomplishes the object of his expedition in three years, but stays fifteen, never writes, -he had taken an unnecessary oath not to do that before he started, – and forbids anybody else to write, on pain of death. Such is his humor; but he is very much provoked at being reported dead.
So that is my summary of Hind Horn and the thirty pages of notes that Child wrote for this ballad. It has had quite a journey from epic, bloody tale to the ballad equivalent of a romantic comedy.
Here is a happy little ballad about incest and… murder? suicide? death by childbirth? (Whichever it is, for some reason I feel that I have a better understanding of this ballad since I started watching Game of Thrones.) You can read the lyrics here.
Version A is the only complete version of this ballad that Child collected, versions C and D are just fragments and version B, which is from Sharpe’s Ballad Book, is missing half the story. In a footnote for this version, Sir Walter Scott is quoted as saying:
I have heard the ‘Broom Blooms bonnie’ sung by our poor old nursery-maid as often as I have teeth on my head, but after cudgelling my memory I can make no more than the following stanzas.
In this ballad, a princess or high-ranking lady gets pregnant by her brother, he takes her to his father’s “deer park” or some remote area and she gives him this instruction:
‘Now when that ye hear me gie a loud cry,
Shoot frae thy bow an arrow and there let me lye.
‘And when that ye see I am lying dead,
Then ye’ll put me in a grave, wi a turf at my head’
The first time I read this I assumed that she was giving him instructions to shoot her, but then in the notes Child compares it to a passage in “Robin Hood’s Death and Burial” where Robin Hood shoots a bow as he is dying and asks to be buried wherever the arrow lands.
‘But give me my bent bow in my hand,
And a broad arrow I’ll let flee,
And where this arrow is taken up,
There shall my grave diggd be.
If the arrow is just to determine where she will be buried, that means she either knows she is about to die in childbirth or she is about to kill herself noisily. I think it makes more sense that this is about him shooting her.
Her brother buries her, “wi her babe at her feet.”
He goes back to his father’s court where there is a party happening. From there it end the same way as version B of Leesome Brand.
‘O Willie, O Willie, what makes thee in pain?’
‘I have lost a sheath and knife that I’ll never see again’
‘There is ships o your father’s sailing on the sea
That will bring as good a sheath and a knife unto thee’
‘There is ships o my father’s sailing on the sea,
But sic a sheath and knife they can never bring to me.’
Child only wrote two paragraphs of notes for this ballad. I’m guessing that he thought that related ballads were covered well enough in the notes for Leesome Brand. The other ballads covered in those notes have similar plot points, such as a couple going to the forest where the woman gives birth, and instructions for the man to do something when the woman. “give(s) a loud cry.”
I still wonder why version B of “Leesome Brand” was not listed as a version of “Sheath and Knife.” Probably the lack of incest.
Child collected two versions of Leesome Brand. Both can be found here. I’m not sure why he classified them as the same ballad, since they look to me like two very different stories. Version A is an odd, and kind of disturbing story with an improbable happy ending, while version B is a murder ballad with absolutely no context or motive.
In the beginning of version A, a ten-year-old boy is sent away to serve in a strange court.
My boy was scarcely ten years auld,
When he went to an unco land,
Where the wind never blew, nor cocks ever crew,
Ohno for my son, Leesome Brand!
He meets a girl:
He hadna been in that unco land,
But only twallmonths twa or three,
When by the glancing o his ee,
He gaind the love o a gay ladye.
This ladye was scarce eleven years auld,
When on her love she was right bauld;
So… that means she went around kissing boys… right?
She was scarce up to my right knee,
When oft in bed with men I’m tauld.
Ok, where’s Chris Hansen when you need him? I understand that people used to marry young, but the ballad seems to be saying that this girl started sleeping around when she was a toddler, and that this is somehow a reflection in her character and not that of the men around her.
She gets pregnant and convinces Leesome Brand to take her back home with him. She goes into labor as they are riding through the forest. He offers to help, but she refuses to let a man see her in labor and tells him to go off and hunt.
‘Ye’ll take your arrow and your bow,
And ye will hunt the deer and roe.
‘Be sure ye touch not the white hynde,
For she is o the woman kind.’
He gets distracted hunting until he sees the white hind, (I’m not sure whether he is supposed to have shot it or just seen it) and returns to find both her and the baby dead. He goes back to his mother who asks him why he is so sad. He responds to her with a confusing metaphor:
‘O I hae lost my gowden knife;
I rather had lost my ain sweet life!
‘And I hae lost a better thing,
The gilded sheath that it was in.’
His mother, not realizing that the “knife” is his son and the “sheath” is his lady offers to get him a new knife. After going on with the metaphor for several verses, he finally just tells her what he means:
‘I’ve lost my ladye I lovd sae dear,
Likewise the son she did me bear.
His mother then tells him that she has a horn with three drops of Saint Pauls’ blood, and that these have the power to revive the dead. He revives the girl and their son, and they live happily ever after.
For all that the age of the characters disturbs me, I find this ballad oddly touching. While I think I am seeing certain aspects of the story differently than the people who originally sang it, there does seem to be an intentional theme of children growing up too fast. The mother laments in the beginning that her young son has been sent away to a strange court, and in the end she not only gets her son back, but fixes what has probably been the biggest trauma of his life up to this point. From the girl’s point of view, I could see it as a story of a victim of sexual abuse escaping from the place where she has been victimized and entering into a new life. Maybe I am grasping at straws, but I want to see this as a happy ending.
Version B is a very different story, and I’m not sure why Child decided to categorize it as a version of Leesome Brand instead of listing it as a version of the next ballad, “Sheath and Knife,” since is looks exactly like a shortened version of that ballad right down to having the same chorus.
In this song, a man takes his “lady” and his child to the woods, and she gives him instructions to shoot her.
‘When ye hear me give a cry,
Ye’ll shoot your bow and let me lye.
He does so, the arrow kills both mother and child, and he is sad about it.
It was nae wonder his heart was sad
When he shot his auld son at her head.
It is not made clear how or why any of this happens. In the notes, Child comments:
The shooting of the child is unintelligible in the mutilated state of the ballad. It is apparently meant to be an accident.
He buries them, continues to be sad and goes home. His father later asks him why he is so sad, and he uses the same metaphor as Leesome Brand did in the previous ballad.
‘Oh,’ said he, ‘Father, I’ve lost my knife
I loved as dear as my own life.
‘But I have lost a far better thing,
I lost the sheath that the knife was in.’
This time he never explains (probably to avoid being convicted of murder) but tells his father that his sheath and knife can never be replaced.
Moving on to the notes, Child describes several ballads from across Europe that bear a resemblance to version A.
This is one of those cases in which a remarkably fine ballad has been worse preserved in Scotland than anywhere else. Without light from abroad we cannot fully understand even as much as we have saved, and with this light comes a keen regret for what we have lost.
With an opening paragraph like that I’m surprised that there are only five pages of notes!
Child starts with a ballad that may relate to the heroine’s instruction not to shoot the white hind:
Grundtvig has suggested that the hind came from a lost Scottish ballad resembling ‘The Maiden Transformed into a Hind’… In this ballad a girl begs her brother, who is going hunting, to spare the little hind that “plays before his foot.” The brother nevertheless shoots the hind, though not mortally, and sets to work to flay it, at which point he discovers his sister under the hind’s hide. His sister tells him that she has been successively changed into a pair of scissors, a sword, a hare, a hind, by her step-mother, and that she was not to be free of the spell until she had drunk of her brother’s blood. Her brother at once cuts his fingers, gives her some of his blood, and the girl is permanently restored to her natural shape, and afterwards is happily married.
That story is easily resolved, at least. A less happy version was recorded by Gordon Bok on his album Other Eyes.
Child then summarizes a ballad called ‘Redselille og Medelvold’ which is found in several Scandinavian countries. This ballad begins with a mother learning that her daughter is pregnant. The mother threatens to kill or severely punish both her daughter and the father of the child.
The girl finds her baby’s father and runs off with him, but sends him away when she starts to give birth in the forest. He returns to find that she has died in childbirth, sometimes after being told that she is dead by a bird. He buries the mother and child(ren) and lies in the grave with them.
At this point Child’s summary starts to get disturbing.
It is not said whether the children are dead or living, and the point would hardly be raised but for what follows. In Danish D, P and Swedish F, is expressly mentioned that the children are alive, and in Q, R, S, T, U, six copies of V and Y, and also in ‘Bolde Hr. Nilaus’ Løn,’ and in ‘Sønnens Sorg,’ Danish A, Norwegian A, C, D, E, the children are heard, or seen to be heard, shrieking from under the ground. Nearly all the versions make the knight run himself through with his sword, either immediately after the others are laid in the grave, or after he has ridden far and wide, because he cannot endure the cries of the children from under the earth. This would seem to be the original conclusion of the story; the horrible circumstance of the children being buried alive is much more likely to be slurred over or omitted at a later day than added.
Child describes different variations on this story throughout Europe.
In some versions the hero is telling the story to his mother, father or a friend and falls dead at the end of it. Another involves the hero building the heroine “a hut of thistles, thorns, and high stakes,” in which to give birth.
In some versions from Germany, the tragedy happens because the heroine’s mother has placed a curse on her. At least this time the children are not buried alive but left with the their paternal grandmother instead. They grow up and set out to find their father (who I guess never went to visit his mother or his sons.) They find both their father and their maternal grandmother (who put the curse on their mother in the first place.) She makes peace with her grandsons and builds a convent.
There is also a French ballad that is similar to the others except that in the end it turns out that the heroine is only pretending to be dead to test her lover. Child refers to this as a “perverted” conclusion, which I take to mean that the happy ending has been tacked awkwardly onto the end of a tragedy.
I can not find any English recordings of Leesome Brand, though this page does list recordings of a few ballads in other languages, some of which can be found on iTunes.
Babylon, or The Bonnie Banks of Fordie is a tragic ballad about a ruthless killer who fails to recognize his own close family members. It is also the English/Scottish variation of the ballad that would eventually inspire the films The Virgin Spring and The Last House on the Left. The lyrics to all versions are here.
All of the variations that Child collected tell the story of three sisters who go out “to pull a flower,” and are confronted by a robber or outlaw in the woods. The robber gives them this ultimatum:
‘It’s whether ye be a robber’s wife,
Or will ye die by my wee pen-knife.”
The first two choose to die and he kills them one at a time. The third proclaims that she has an outlaw brother who will retaliate if she is murdered. The outlaw then realizes that he is the brother she is talking about and kills himself.
There is some variation between the versions. Version B ends with the surviving sister lamenting that her brothers weren’t there to save her sisters and apparently there are some lost verses where the robber finds out that he has killed his brothers as well as sisters and then kills himself.
In version C he meets the sisters one at a time instead of all together, which I think makes more sense in explaining why the third sister didn’t mention her brother earlier.
In version D the youngest sister goes out first and the other two go out one at a time to look for her when she doesn’t come back.
Version E stands out the most from the others. The wording is fancier than the other versions and the story is also suspiciously coherent. The robber is first described as a “Loudon lord, wi Loudon hose, and Loudon sheen.” Most of all it is different because the robber is not the long lost brother of his victims and their brother shows up at the end just in time to save the last sister. It is listed as being from “Kinloch’s Ancient Scottish Ballads.”
(Watch this video for a short comparative analysis of both movies. You can also watch The Virgin Spring for free here.)
Child first describes a Danish version called “Hr. Truels’s Døttre,” in which three sisters riding through the forest on their way to church meet with three robbers who threaten to kill them if they do not become “robbers’ wives.”
Much rather death, say they. The two elder sisters submitted to their fate without a word; the third made a hard resistance. With her last breath she adjured the robbers to seek lodging at Herr Truels’ that night.
That seems like a strange thing to say with your last breath as you are being murdered, but who am I to judge? The robbers take her advice, I guess because good lodgings are hard to find and recommendations from people you are murdering are as good as any. They drink the girls’ father to bed and than ask their mother to sleep with them.
She agrees on the condition that they let her look in their packs first. I’m curious about the reason given for this. Is she suspicious that the men murdered her daughters, or is there another reason? Anyway, she finds her daughters’ clothes, informs her husband, and he calls his men to arrest the robbers. While he is questioning them, it comes out that the robbers are his long-lost sons. He offers to help them escape, but they feel so remorseful for killing their sisters that they choose to be executed.
The Swedish versions are very similar except that the father kills the first two robbers himself before the third reveals his parentage. The father builds a church as penance for killing his sons, and in one version also goes to the smith to have a band of iron fastened around his middle.
In a version from the Faroe islands there are only two sisters and only one of them rides out. Like the girls in the other ballads, she meets a man who threatens to kill her if she doesn’t sleep with him.
He cut off her head, and wherever her blood ran a light kindled; where her head fell a spring welled forth: where her body lay a church was [afterwards] built. The rover came to Torkild’s house, and the father asked if he had seen Katrine. He said that she had been at Mary Kirk the day before, and asked for lodging, feigning to be sick.
After this, he stupidly offers the murdered girl’s clothes to the remaining sister as a bribe for sleeping with him. She recognizes her sister’s clothes, tells her father, and the man is burned to death in the morning. No revelation of him being a long-lost son this time.
Child describes some Icelandic versions with very similar stories to the Faroe ballad, though with some added details about a “miraculous light” burning over the place where they have been buried and the bells ringing by themselves when the bodies are taken to the church.
Child finishes by discussing some of the real places connected to this ballad:
“The mains and burns of Fordie, the banks of which are very beautiful,” says Aytoun, lie about six miles to the east of Dunkeld.” Tradition has connected the story with half a dozen localities in Sweden, and, as Professor Gruntvig informs me, with at least eight places in the different provinces of Denmark. The Kerna church of the Swedish ballads, not far from Linköping (Afzelius), has been popularly supposed to derive its name from a Catherina, Karin, or Karna, killed by her own brother, a wood-robber, near it’s site.
In this ballad, as with Lord Randal, the hero is again talking to his mother as she questions him about an incident that has just happened. This time, she is asking him why there is blood in his coat. He tries to convince her that he has killed various animals, but she refuses to believe him. Finally he confesses that he has killed his brother or his father. He then vows either to go into exile or to kill himself. Like the main characters in previous ballads, he makes a will to his wife, children and mother. This time, however, he leaves nothing his wife and kids and wishes for his mother to go to hell. Child collected two full versions of this ballad and one fragment.
In version A, the hero, named Davie, tries to convince his mother that the blood on his coat is that of his hawk. His mother replies:
‘Hawk’s bluid was neer sae red,
Son Davie, son Davie:
Hawk’s bluid was neer sae red,
And the truth come tell to me.’
He tries to tell her that the blood is that of his greyhound and gets a similar response before admitting that he has just killed his brother John.
‘What about did this plea begin,
Son Davie, son Davie?’
‘It began about the cutting of a willow wand
That never would be a tree.’
His mother asks him how he would like to die and he replies that he will “set my foot on a bottomless ship.”
She asks him to make his will. He leaves his wife “grief and sorrow all her life,” his son, “the weary world to wander up and down” and his mother “a fire ‘o coals to burn her wi hearty cheer.”
I supposed these are just common ballad lines that people liked to use, but in this version of the song the hero seems to have far more hostility for all of his family than they deserve. His ill will towards his mother makes a bit more sense in version B, but here the guy just seems angry at the world in general.
Version B has a similar format but tells a very different story. This time the murder is that of his father, and this time when he curses his mother to hell, it is for telling him something that lead him to commit the murder.
‘And what wul ye leive to your ain mither deir,
And what wul ye leive to your ain mither dier?
My deir son, now tell me O.’
‘The curse of hell frea me sall ye beir,
Sic counseils ye gave to me O’
There is a bigger story here than is told in the lyrics. The implication is that his mother has tricked him into killing his father, but we are never told how she convinced him to do it or why he changed his opinion after doing the deed.
In the notes, Child talks a bit about some controversy over whether the hero’s name in version B was changed by one of the collectors, only to dismiss it due to lack of evidence.
A b, “given from the recitation of an old woman,” is evidently A a slightly regulated by Motherwell. B, we are informed in the 4th edition of the Reliques, p. 61, was sent Percy by Sir David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes. Motherwell thought there was reason to believe his lordship had made a few slight verbal improvements on the copy he transmitted, and altered the hero’s name to Edward, — a name which, by the bye, never occurs in a Scottish ballad, except where allusion is made to an English king.” Darymple, at least, would not be likely to change a Scotch for an English name. The Bishop might doubtless prefer Edward to Wat, or Jock, or even Davie. But as there is no evidence that any change of name was made, the point need not be discussed.
Child also says this in the footnotes:
An eager “Englishman” might turn Motherwell’s objection to the name into an argument for “Edward” being an “English” ballad.
I find the way he talks about this a bit confusing. Why are “Englishman” and “English” in quotation marks? I get the impression that Child does not think much of this argument made by this theoretical “Englishman,” so why does he bring it up? Are the quotation marks supposed to be commentary about English vs. Scottish identity politics?
There is also discussion of whether ‘Edward’ is a ballad in it’s own right or part of a longer ballad. Child obviously thought it was a distinct enough ballad to deserve its own number.
Motherwell seems to incline to regard ‘Edward’ rather as a detached portion of a ballad than as complete in itself. “The verses if which it consists,” he says, “generally conclude the ballad of ‘The Twa Brothers’ and also some versions of ‘Lizzie Wan:’”
The Finnish parallel which Motherwell refers to, might have convinced him that the ballad is complete as it is; and he knew as well as anybody that one ballad is often appended to another by reciters, to lengthen the story or improve the conclusion.
Child says that similar ballads to this one are found in Swedish, Danish and Finnish. The first parts of most of these ballads are almost identical to the English story. The main difference he found is that these ballads end with the mother asking when he will come back, which leads to a string of verses about various “impossible” circumstances:
Finally, in all, the mother asks when he will come back, and he replies (with some variations), When crows are white. And that will be? When swans are black. And that? When stones float. And that? When feathers sink, etc.
Child is of the opinion that some of these verses go on far too long and get very silly.
Continuing with the theme of people who are murdered by their family members or loved ones, Lord Randal is a simple ballad in which a young man or child tells his mother how his “true love,” stepmother or grandmother poisoned him.
In the more coherent versions the mother figures out that her son has been poisoned after either learning that his dogs died after eating the leftovers or hearing the description or the “fish” that he ate. It is not said directly in the text of any of the versions that Child collected, but the implication is that the naive hero has been fed snakes and told that they were fish. I did find a few recordings, such as the video below, where it is explicitly stated that the hero ate snakes which he found himself and mistook for fish.
Child says in the notes,
There is all but universal consent that the poisoning was done by serving up snakes for fish.
This still doesn’t explain the “four footed fish” the hero describes in version M. Maybe that one is a newt.
Some versions don’t mention the fish/snakes and only have the hero tell his mother that he has been given poison.
Like the heroine of “The Cruel Brother,” the hero leaves nice things to various family members and asks that his murderer be executed and/or burn in hell.
In some versions he seems to have an unexplained grudge against several family members not involved in his murder. When asked what he wants to leave his sister, “King Henry” in version C says, “the world’s wide, she may go beg.” The unnamed hero of version H says the same about his children.
In the notes, Child mentions Alan Cunningham again. This time he isn’t completely sure that Cunningham has changed the words in the version he published, but doesn’t trust him enough to include them officially.
Three stanzas which are found in A. Cunningham’s Scottish Songs, I, 286 f, may be given for what they are worth. ‘The House of Marr,’ in the first, is not to be accepted on the simple ground of its appearance in his pages. The second is inserted in his beautified edition of Scott’s ballad, and has it’s burden accordingly; but there is, besides this, no internal evidence against the second, and none against the third.
He mentions a few interesting variations of the tropes in this ballad that are used in the folklore of various countries:
A Bohemian and a Catalan ballad which have two of the three principal traits of the forgoing, the poisoning and the testament, do not exhibit, perhaps have lost, the third, the employment of snakes.
The story of the first is that a mother who dislikes the wife her son has chosen attempts to poison her at the wedding feast. She sets a glass of honey before the son, a glass of poison before the bride. They exchange cups. The poison is swift. The young man leaves four horses for his brother, eight cows to his sister, his fine horses to his wife. “And what to me, my son?” asks the mother. A mill-stone and the deep Moldau is bequest to her.
The Catalan ballad seems to have been softened at the end. Here again the mother hates her daughter-in-law. She comes to the sick woman… and asks What is the matter? The daughter says, You have poisoned me. The mother exhorts her to confess and recieve the sacrament, and then make her will. She gives her castles in France to the poor and the pilgrims [and the friars], and to her brother Don Carlos [who, in one version is her husband]. Two of the versions remember the Virgin. “And to me?” “My husband [my cloak, rosary], that when you may go to mass you may remember me.
Child also discusses the trope of poisoning someone by feeding them a snake or pat of a snake. He cites ballads and stories from Italy, Eastern Europe and ancient Rome in which women poison their husbands, brothers, daughter-in-laws using snakes or snake heads. He also cites an English story of a monk who uses a toad to poison a corrupt king.
Once more we have a lovely ballad about messed up family dynamics and murder. In this ballad a man kills his sister on her wedding day because the groom failed to ask the brother’s permission to marry her. As the bride is dying she makes her will, leaving nice things to her various relatives and finally asking that her brother be hanged for killing her and that his wife and kids spend the rest of their lives in poverty.
All versions of this ballad start with the courtship. In some versions the heroine is playing ball with her sisters and is described as the youngest and the fairest, and thus the one chosen by the knight. In other versions the knight asks them all to marry him and the heroine is the only one who says yes. In version F there is only one lady and three knights. It never actually says which one she chooses.
Version K is a sort of “happy ending” version in that most of the plot doesn’t happen. Three ladies who are playing ball are courted by three knights. They all say “no” and go back to their ball game. I imagine that they have heard the other ballads and want to avoid the issue rather than trust an absent-minded suitor to remember all of their potentially homicidal family members.
In all of the other versions the heroine requires that the knight get permission from her family to marry her, and he proceeds to get permission from her mother, father and sister, but forgets about her brother.
In some versions she tells him to ask all of her family members and he simply forgets about her brother. In other versions he tells her that he has gotten permission from everyone but her brother and she doesn’t seem concerned.
On the wedding day, her brother either helps her onto her horse or asks that she lean down to kiss him and takes the opportunity to stab her through the heart. Oddly, no one else seems to notice and the bride is able to stay on her horse a while longer. Even though it is shown later in the ballad that she can still speak, she makes no attempt to call attention to what has just happened.
She rides on a way with the wedding party before anyone notices that something is wrong. When they do notice, they still fail to realize that she has been stabbed. In one version they even ask if she looks so pale because she’s in love with someone else.
She then asks to be taken somewhere so she can rest and make her will. She leaves nice things to her father, mother and sister, including her bloody wedding dress and in some versions her groom. She then asks that her brother be hanged, that his wife spend her life in poverty and that his children be sent out to beg in the street.
I find it a bit petty of her to wish misfortune upon her sister-in-law, nieces and nephews, who have not even been mentioned up to this point. It makes me wonder if there was an earlier version of the song where they were somehow also responsible for her murder. On the other hand, it seems just as likely that their association with the murderer is enough to damn them.
I get a strong sense from this story of marriage as political alliance. This is not a loving family, this is a political unit. The brother might be the villain, but I also detect a moral about the importance of checking with the whole family before getting married in order to avoid conflict and violence. Child does not say much about it in the notes except to reference Alexander Prior’s remarks on the subject.
Dr. Prior remarks that the offence given by not asking a brother’s assent to his sister’s marriage was in ballad times regarded as unpardonable.
What are “ballad times? Are they a particular point in history, or a mystical time when all ballads take place?
Child cites several of his sources as saying that this is one of the most popular ballads that they had collected.
Aytoun remarks (1858): “This is, perhaps, the most popular of all of all the Scottish ballads, being commonly recited and sung even at the present day.”
As usual, he also discusses other versions of the story from around the world.
In Rizzardo bello, it is the groom and not the bride that the brother kills.
In the German ballad “Graf Freidrich” the bride is accidentally killed by the groom when his sword slips out of it’s sheath and gives her a fatal wound. The groom is then killed by the bride’s father, after which a series of miracles literally spell out his innocence.
Three lilies sprang from the spot, with an inscription announcing that Graf Freidrich was in heaven…
Child also compares this to a Danish ballad in which a princess’ hand gets cut on the sword of a knight that she is dancing with when it slips out of it’s sheath. (I’m starting to wonder if some of these ballads were also meant as PSAs about sword safety.) She lies to her father and tells him that she cut her hand on her brother’s sword, and the knight is so touched that he marries her.
Child also gives various examples of stories where a murder victim leaves nice things to friends and wishes bad things to happen to his/her murderer.
The peculiar testament made by the bride in “The Cruel Brother” by which she bequeaths good things to her friends, but ill things to the author of her death, is highly characteristic of ballad poetry.
In “Frillens Hævn”:
a young man, stabbed by his leeman, whom he was about to give up in order to marry, leaves his lands to his father, his bride-bed to his sister, his gilded couch to his mother, and his knife to his leeman, wishing it in her body.
In “Møen paa Baalet”:
Ole, falsely accused by her brother, and condemned to be burned, gives her mother her silken sark, her sister her shoes, her father her horse, and her brother her knife, with the same wish.
In a ballad from Portugal called “Dona Helena”:
Helena leaves her husband’s house when near childbirth, out of fear of his mother. Her husband, who does not know of her reason, goes after her and compels her to return on horseback, though she has just born a son. The consequences are what might be expected, and Helena desires to make her shrift and her will. She leaves one thing to her oldest sister, another to her youngest. “And your boy?” “To your bitch of a mother, cause of my woes.” “Rather to yours,” says the husband, “For I shall have to kill mine.”
In another story from several different sources:
A lady instigates her paramour to kill her husband. The betrayed man is asked to whom he will leave his children. “To God Almighty, for he knows who they are.” “Your property?” “To the poor, for the rich have enough.” “Your wife?” “To young Count Frederic, whom she always liked more than me.” “Your castle?” “To the flames.”
Cunningham gives us a piece called ‘The Three Ladies of Leithan Ha,’ Songs of Scotland, II, 87, which he would fain have us believe that he did not know he had written himself. “The common copies of this tragic lyric,” he truly says, “differ very much from this; not so much in the story itself as the way it is told.”
This seems to be what Kittredge was referring to in the introduction when he talked about people passing off their own work as traditional ballads. I don’t know how many other writers did this, but Cunningham is the only one mentioned so far. I must say I am enjoying the snark.
Anyway, if you are reading this blog, I hope you enjoy murder ballads, because there are quite a few of them from this point on.
As part of this project, I have tried to sing these ballads at open mics as I write about them. I have been a bit lax about that for the last few entries, but in last week I found myself at an open mic and decided to sing a version of Twa Sisters that I learned as a kid. As this was a spur of the moment decision, I hadn’t taken any time to practice it at home and completely underestimated how long it was. I don’t know exactly how long I took, bit I realized later that the original track I learned it from was about 7 minutes.
I don’t think it went over too well with most of the audience. There were a lot of people waiting to perform, the audience was more in the mood for rock and roll than long unaccompanied ballads, I hadn’t heard the song myself for over ten years, and I suspect that even people who usually like me found their eyes glazing over a bit. However, I was approached afterwards by a man who told me that his grandmother used to sing this song and that he was crying tears of joy from hearing it again, so at least someone liked it.
Child collected 21 versions of this ballad. He probably found so many because it was still very popular at the time, even as the oral tradition was dying out as the main popular form of entertainment.
This is one of very few old ballads which are not extinct as tradition in the British Isles. Early drawing-room versions are spoken of as current, generally traced to some old nurse, who sang them to the young ladies.
So something about this story certainly had some staying power.
Basic plot: Older sister kills younger sister by pushing her in the water, usually because she’s jealous of younger sister’s suitor. The younger sister’s body is found by a miller or a musician who, for some reason, decides to make a musical instrument out of her corpse. Once the instrument is made, it plays a song about what happened.
At least, that is the most popular version of the story. In some versions the harp just says goodbye to her family and her boyfriend. In some versions the girl’s ghost appears to the miller and tells him to make the harp. In other versions the ghost cuts out the middle-man and appears to her boyfriend.
Then there are others where the supernatural element is cut out, the girl is almost rescued by the miller who then decides to rob her, throws her back in, and is ultimately hanged.
Many versions start by describing the rivalry between the sisters and the preference of the suitor for the younger sister:
There was twa sisters in a bowr,
There came a knight to be their wooer.
He courted the eldest wi glove and ring,
But he loved the eldest above a’ thing.
He courted the eldest wi brotch an knife,
But he loved the youngest as his life.
To the eldest he gave a beaver hat,
And the youngest she thought much of that.
To the youngest he gave a gay gold chain,
And the eldest she thought much of the same.
I’m not sure what’s happening between the suitor and the older sister in version H, but here he’s apparently gone from lack of interest in marrying her to outright death threats!
He courted the eldest with a penknife,
And he vowed that he would take her life.
Anyway, the elder sister convinces the younger sister to go for a walk by either the sea or a river and pushes her in.
The younger sister pleads with the older sister to help her get back to land. She sometimes offers various bribes sometimes including her fiancé, but the older sister refuses:
‘O sister, o sister that may not be,
Till salt and oatmeal grow both of a tree.’
‘Your cherry cheeks an yallow hair
Gars me go maiden for evermair.’
‘I did not put you in with the design
Just for to pull you out again.’
In some versions she even forcibly prevents her sister from swimming back to land.
She had a switch into her hand,
And ay she drove her frae the land.
In many versions, the miller and his daughter find her body and bring her to shore:
‘O father, father draw your dam,
Here’s either a mermaid or a swan’
The miller he spared nae his hose nor his shoon
Till he broucht this lady to dry land.
The miller comes across better in some of these versions than others. In version R, she is still alive and tries to bribe him to take her back to her father. For reasons that are not explained, he takes the bribe and then throws her back in the water.
‘I’ll give to thee this gay gold chain,
If you’ll take me back to my father again.’
The miller he took her gay gold chain,
And he pushed her back into the water again
In this version, the miller is punished, but not the older sister:
The miller he was hanged on his high gate
For drowning our poor sister Kate.
Version S, which is a fragment, gets a little strange:
She offered the miller a gold ring stane
To throw her into the river again.
Either something got lost as the ballad was passed from person to person, or she wanted to die. Either way, the miller is again punished for murdering her.
In the versions where the miller and his daughter are simply retrieving her dead body, there are usually several verses going into detail about how richly she is dressed:
They couldna see her waist so sma
For the goud and silk about it a’.
They couldna see her yallow hair
For the pearls and jewels that were there.
Maybe it’s not too surprising that she wasn’t able to swim to shore wearing all that.
Some versions end here, while others, (“all complete and uncorrupted forms of the ballad,” according to Child) go on to what many people consider it’s defining characteristic: the instrument made out of the dead girl’s body. In some versions her ghost appears to the miller or a musician and tells him to make the instrument , while in other versions he gets the idea to do it himself.
In most of the versions the instrument made from the girl’s body parts is presented in romantic language. In these versions, only part of her body is used such as her hair, fingers, and/or breast bone.
He’s taen three links of her yellow hair,
And made it a string for his fiddle there.
He’s cut her fingers long and small,
To be fiddle pins that might neer fail.
In a few of the versions collected, the instrument made from body parts is turned into a joke. These versions go into greater detail about the musician using a larger number of body parts:
What did he doe with her nose-ridge?
Unto his violl he made him a bridge.
What did he doe with her veynes so blew?
He made them strings to his violl thereto.
What did he doe with her eyes so bright?
Upon his violl he played at first sight.
What did he doe with her tongue so rough?
Upon the violl it spake enough.
What did he doe with her two shinnes?
Upon the violl they danced Moll Syms.
And what did he do with her legs so strong?
He made them a stand for his violon.
And what did he do with her arms so long?
He made them bows for his violon.
And what did he do with her eyes so bright?
He made them spectacles to put to his sight.
And what did he do with her pretty toes?
He made them a nosegay to put to his nose.
Child disapproves of the humorous verses and believes they were added by one of the people who wrote the songs down (he specifically suspects “Dr. James Smith, a well known writer of humorous verses” of writing the ones in version A) and not while they were still being sung as part of the oral tradition.
If the ballad were ever in Smith’s hands, he might possibly have inserted the three Burlesque stanzas, 11-13; but similar verses are found in another copy (L a), and might easily be extemporized by any singer of sufficiently bad taste.
Later in the notes, Child goes on to refer to these verses as “buffoonery.” He believed that the original story simply had the musician or the girl’s lover stringing his instrument with some of her hair, but that over the years more body parts were added until it changed from sad, romantic imagery to dark humor.
Some of the versions collected end with the instrument being made, but in the versions that complete the story the instrument begins to play by itself and tells the story of the murder.
And then bespoke the strings all three,
‘O yonder is my sister that drowned me.’
‘Now pay the miller for his payne,
And let him bee gone in the divel’s name.’
The first spring that the bonnie fiddle played,
‘Hang my cruel sister, Alison,’ it said.
The very first spring that the fiddle did play,
‘Hang my auld sister,’ I wad it did say.
‘For she drowned me in yonder sea,
God neer let her rest till she shall die.’
The firstand spring the fiddle did play,
Said, ‘Ye’ll drown my sister, as she’s dune me.’
Child gets a bit more opinionated and snarky in the notes for this ballad than in any of the others I have gone over so far. He mocks Allan Cunningham’s notes on a version of the ballad that he published in “Songs of Scotland,” in 1825. Cunningham claimed he was publishing a traditional version of the song that he had heard someone else sing, but Child believed that Cunningham had re-written it himself:
Cunningham has re-written Scott’s version, Songs of Scotland, II, 109, ‘The Two Fair Sisters.’ He says, “I was once deeply touched with the singing of this romantic and mournful song… I have ventured to print it in the manner I heard it sung.” There is, to be sure, no reason why he should not have heard his own song sung, once, and still less why he should not have been deeply touched with his own pathos.
Child discusses a few interesting variations of the story from other countries, including:
Norse ballads where the younger sister comes across as less sympathetic when she repeatedly taunts the older sister for being “black” and tells her that she will never have a lover.
Versions of the story where the instrument is made from a tree that grows over her body rather than parts of the body itself.
Versions where the older sister dies of guilt after hearing the harp play at her wedding, or is killed by the groom when he finds out the truth.
Happy ending versions where the sister either survives or comes back to life. Child does not like these endings. He refers to the ending of a Swedish ballad where the girl is rescued and forgives her sister as “an entirely perverted and feeble conclusion.” In “nearly all the Norwegian ballads” the younger sister comes back to life once the instrument is broken. Child is of the opinion that this ending, “like all good endings foisted on tragedies, emasculates the story.”
A story where the girl turns onto a tree that is made into a pipe which spurts blood onto the cheeks of her sister when she tries to play it.
So this ballad and the story it tells have multiple variations and the song is still very popular among folk musicians. The public loves murder ballads, and it seems they especially like ballads about instruments made from dead people.