Another riddle song. I’m starting to get tired of riddle songs, though I will admit this one is a bit of a childhood favorite.
Once again the devil is disguised as a knight and challenging someone to a game of riddles. This time it is a young boy. Once again there is the implication that the devil will carry him off if he doesn’t answer correctly, and this time there is no alternate version where the challenger is not the devil.
When I was a kid I was always a bit confused by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior’s version of this song. There is nothing in the lyrics about the knight being the devil. Without the background information it just sounds like a grown-up and a kid having an odd conversation that suddenly turns hostile when the boy wishes the knight to hell.
In all of the versions collected by Child the conversation is clearly hostile, though the identity of the knight is never made explicit. Apparently, in order to avoid being carried off by the devil, the boy is supposed to stand his ground and not let any remark go unanswered. The first “riddles” in the one main version of this song that Child lists consist of ordinary questions, which then turn into the devil asking for something from the boy and the boy refusing, and then to the devil wishing harm on the boy and the boy either saying how he will be saved from harm or giving the devil a version of “I know you are, but what am I?”
Come to think of it, this ballad does resemble some conversations I had on the playground in elementary school.
Child also includes the lyrics to “Harpkin” which is a ballad of the same format, but the conversation takes place between two characters names Harpkin and Fin, with no identifying features except for their names. Fin is supposed to be the devil-like character, Child describes him as:
an ancestor of Woden, a dwarf in Völuspá 16 (19), and also trold (otherwise a giant), who is induced by a saint to build a church.
but they sound more like two ordinary guys who are going to start punching each other in a second than a demonic or supernatural being challenging a mortal to a riddle game. Maybe the test in this case is that Harpkin needs to keep his temper or the devil will carry him off.
Child doesn’t have much to say about this ballad, though there is this interesting footnote:
“At the last moment I come upon this: “The only safe guard against the malice of witches is ‘to flight wi dem,’ that is, draw them into a controversy and scold them roundly:” (Mrs Saxby, in an interesting contribution to folk-lore from Unst, Shetland, in The Leisure Hour, for March 27, 1880, p. 199) This view, which has apparently affected ‘Harpkin,’ is clearly a modern misunderstanding. Let no one trust to scolding for foiling a witch, unless he “knows more words.”
Well, I guess that explains why Child was so interested in languages and language history. He wanted to be prepared in case he met any witches.
I based my recording this time on the tune used in The Muckle Sangs because I wanted a tune that was meant to be sung unaccompanied.
‘Where are you going?’
Said the false knight upon the road:
‘I’m going to the school’
Said the small boy and still he stood.
‘What is that on your back?’
‘My bundles and my books.”
‘Whose are these sheep and cattle?’
‘They are mine and my mother’s.’
‘How many of them are mine?’
‘Those that have blue tails.’
‘I wish you were on that tree.’
‘And a good ladder under me.’
‘I wish you were in the sea.’
‘And a good boat under me.’
‘And the boat for to sink.’
And you to be drowned.’