The “courtship as job interview” theme continues in this ballad, though this time there is more explanation for it in the notes:
“A like ballad is very common in German. A man would take, or keep, a woman for his wife [servant, in one case] if she would spin brown silk from oaten straw.” (pg 7.)
It’s nice to see it acknowledged that this can be a song about either a courtship or a job interview with very little change to the lyrics.
Child discusses other versions of this ballad where a king wants to find a wife who is clever enough to be queen regardless of class. He also refers to stories where the king is threatening the girl’s family if she doesn’t solve the riddles, but marries her when she does. (A great start to a marriage, I am sure. At least she gets to be queen.)
Other stories are mentioned in which the king needs to find someone clever because a rival king is deciding whether to attack him based on how clever his advisors are, or they’ve just decided to bet the kingdom on a riddle contest.
Child also brings up a Russian story where a girl is told by a rusalka, or water nymph, that if she does not guess the answer to three riddles the rusalka will carry her off. The girl gives what sound like satisfactory answers, but the story ends:
“The girl did not guess the riddles: the rusalka tickled her to death.”
I have an image of an adult telling this story to a child as an excuse to start a tickle-fight.
In versions A-D of this ballad, the heroine is very straightforward about asking the knight for either marriage or sex. Not much is said about the fact that he is apparently an elf aside from it being established in one of the verses.
In A-C, the elfin knight tells the girl that she is too young to get married, to which she replies that her younger sister is married already.
In version D, she is only asking to sleep with him, and then says this:
I have a sister eleven years auld,
And she to young men’s beds has made bauld.
And I myself am only nine,
And oh! sae fain, luve, as I woud be thine.
I was hoping to find some commentary on this in Child’s notes, but there is nothing. I want to know what the original person who came up with these verses was thinking. I want to know what the people who repeated them were thinking. Was the idea of these two preteen sisters sleeping around supposed to be humorous? Social commentary? Was it considered normal? Really Mr. Child? You have nothing to say about this?
Well, I suppose as a language expert he was more interested in the history of the ballad than cultural commentary.
Anyway, none of these versions show the girl getting what she wants. The elfin knight tells her to make him a shirt through a series of impossible tasks, and she gives him a set of equally impossible tasks. Versions C and D end with her telling him that when he’s done what she asks he can come and get his shirt. Versions A and B end with him telling her that he’s married with seven kids. So, were the impossible tasks just a fancy way of saying “no?”
Well the tasks are the defining feature of this ballad, anyway. Versions F-H don’t mention an elfin knight at all. They are variations of what modern Americans will probably recognize as Scarborough Fair. In these ballads the set of impossible tasks are set as a way for a couple to test each other or for former lovers to reunite.
In version I an old man, implied to be the devil, gives a lady a set of tasks threatening to carry her off is she doesn’t answer him. When she replies with the equally impossible tasks, he exclaims:
“My curse on those who learned thee;
This night I weend ye’d gane wi me.”
K and L are about a character who goes about farming an acre of land through the seemingly impossible means given as a challenge to the men in the other ballads. These come across more as nonsense songs than riddle songs.
I decided to try singing a variation of A-D, though I shaved off most of the story this time, partly because I felt a bit self-conscious about attempting too much of the Scottish dialect with my American accent. I was tempted to leave in the part about him having a wife and seven kids, but decided against it.
Here are some other versions: