This ballad is my favorite so far. They lyrics can be found here.
Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight tells the story of a young girl who runs off with a strange knight after he either enchants her with music or promises her marriage and a life of luxury. When they come to their destination, he informs her that he is a serial killer who intends to make her his next victim. In all of the versions collected here by Child, she saves herself by tricking him into letting his guard down and then killing him.
Version A starts out with Lady Isobel hearing the elf knight’s horn and wishing to sleep with him. He then breaks into her window and tells her that she has to go the “greenwood side.” When they get there he tells her that he plans to kill her. She tricks him into taking a nap, apparently using magic, then ties him up and stabs him.
In version B an unidentified male character uses magic harp music to put everyone in the king’s household to sleep except for the king’s daughter whom he takes with him to “Wearie’s Well.” He then tells her to wade into the water until she is up to her neck, reassuring her when she protests:
Wide in, wide in, my lady fair,
No harm shall thee befall;
Oft times I’ve watered my steed,
Wi the waters o Wearie’s Well.
I have a hard time picturing this situation in my head. This guy is on a horse telling the princess to keep wading in the water and she just keeps doing it? What does she think is going to happen? I’m not even sure if she went with him willingly in this version or if he kidnapped her. I think it makes sense that she’s a kidnapping victim complying with her kidnapper’s demands in hopes of being let go eventually. Or maybe I should stop taking this story literally and look at it as a metaphor about getting into a bad situation or relationship where you find yourself making compromises until you are in over your head.
When she is finally up to her neck, he tells her
Seven king’s daughters I’ve drowned there,
In the waters o Wearie’s Well,
And I’ll make you the eighth of them,
And ring the common bell.
At this point she asks him to kiss her, throws him in the water when he leans down, and swims to shore. Again, I can’t quite picture this. How does she manage to pull him off his horse when she’s in water up to her neck? How does it work that she can swim to shore and he can’t? Is he wearing armor or something? Oh well, call it another metaphor.
Version C, False Sir John, actually tells a coherent story that is mostly plausible by comparison. False Sir John convinces May Colven, the only child of an apparently wealthy family, to steal her father’s best horse and run away with him. This time he takes her to a cliff by the sea and announces his intention to push her off. He tells her to take off her clothes first because they’re too nice to go to waste. She tells him to turn around because she doesn’t want him to see her naked. Here the story loses its plausibility a bit because he is stupid enough to believe her, and she pushes him off the cliff instead. The ballad ends with her going home and bribing her parrot to keep quiet.
Version D is the longest. It goes on for 30 verses, which is probably a bit much for modern attention span when it comes to music, but I think I like this one the best because all the verses end up serving as character development. I found myself reading it as a short story rather than a song.
After spending three verses unsuccessfully trying to convince May Collin (slight name variation) to go with him, false Sir John resorts to magic. This conveniently makes May unaccountable for her actions when she steals both a horse and money from her parents. When false Sir John announces his intention to kill her, May spends two verses reminding him of his promises while John spends two more telling her which clothes he wants her to take off.
To me this conveys that May is not only terrified, but heartbroken that Sir John wasn’t planning to marry her after all. She even pleads with him not to kill her “upon her wedding day.” Meanwhile Sir John is coldly informing her that he thinks it would be a waste for her nice clothes and jewelry to rot with her worthless corpse. When she pushes him off the cliff, she yells a retort about the fact that he still has his clothes.
May then goes home, lies to the groom in the stable and bribes the parrot to keep quite, and then tells her parents about what happened. They tell her to show them the body, which she does. The ballad ends with the family burying the body together “for fear he should be seen.” The family that buries evidence together stays together!
Here is my attempt at singing all 30 verses of version D:
Version E tells essentially the same story, but with 18 verses instead of 30. Here she doesn’t need magical persuasion to rob her parents, the unnamed knight tells her what clothes to take off in even more detail, she doesn’t tell her parents what happened and again bribes her parrot.
The story in Version F is almost identical to version E except for how she gets him to turn her back:
Go fetch the sickle, to crop the nettle,
That grows around the brim,
For fear it should tangle my golden locks,
Or freckle my milk-white skin.
Seriously, why would he fall for that? Is he one of those serial killers who is picky about how his victims look after they die?
Ok, as fun as it is to snark about the gullibility of this villain, Child does explain it in the notes:
The success of this trick no doubt implies considerable simplicity on the part of the victim of it; not more, however, than is elsewhere witnessed in preternatural beings, whose wits are frequently presented as no match for human shrewdness.
So the implication is that the elf knight and false Sir John not are just horrible people, but supernatural and possibly demonic beings. Though the only clear motivation he is given in the British and Scottish ballads Child collected is to steal the money of his victims, in the notes Child discusses versions of the story where the murderer has other motivations including spells that require blood sacrifice and deals with the devil that involve killing people. Does that mean that a deal with the devil renders a human very gullible, or am I reading too much into verses that probably just migrated into these songs from other ballads and stories?
Speaking of notes, did I mention that Child wrote 30 pages of notes for this ballad?
He starts out summarizing the English and Scottish versions collected here with some commentary, comparison, notes on where he found them, and interesting facts such as this one:
“Carlton Castle about two miles south of Girvan… is affirmed by the country people… to have been the residence of ‘the False Sir John:’ while a tall rocky eminence called Gameslope… is pointed out as the place where he was in the habit of drowning his wives…”
After that he dedicates the next 28 pages to different variations of this story from around the world. More on that next week.