Child 4: Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight Part 2

As I mentioned in part 1, Child had plenty to say about this ballad.  In his notes he describes a rich folkloric history and very different versions of the ballad and the story it tells from all over Europe.

Of all the ballads this has perhaps obtained the widest circulation.  It is nearly as well known to the southern as to the northern nations of Europe.  The Germans, Low and High, and the Scandinavians preserve it.

He starts with what I find to be one of the most fascinatingly bloody stories mentioned so far.

Far better preserved than the English, and marked with very ancient and impressive traits, is the Dutch ballad ‘Halewijn…’

Heer Halewijn starts with a king’s daughter being seduced by Halewijn’s magic song and asking her family for permission to go see him.  Her mother, father and sister say no, because “those who go that way never come back,” but her brother says, “I care not where you go, so long as you keep your honor.”

Sure, go and visit the mysterious guy who might be a serial killer.  Just don’t sleep with him!

So she puts on her best clothes, goes to see him and then rides with him to a gallows where “many women were hanging.”  He then offers to let her choose whether she wants him to hang her or behead her.  She says that she would rather be beheaded, by suggests that he take off his coat first so he doesn’t get blood in it.  He apparently puts down his sword so to take off his coat, and she grabs it and cuts his head off.

His severed head then starts talking to her and says:

 ‘Go yonder into the corn,

And blow upon my horn,

That all my friends you may warn.’

‘Into the corn I will not go,

And on your horn I will not blow:

A murderer’s bidding I will not do.’

‘Go yonder under the gallows-tree,

And fetch a pot of salve for me,

And rub my red neck lustily.’

It is made clear in other versions that this is supposed to bring him back to life.  Why he thinks she would do this is not clear, maybe he thinks she’ll be too surprised by a talking severed head to think about the fact that he just was trying to kill her.  I guess it never hurts to ask.

‘Under the gallows I will not go,

Nor will I rub you red neck, no,

A murderer’s bidding I will not do.’

She then takes the head and goes back to her father’s palace where:

Thereupon they held a feast,

The head was on the table placed.

Well… naturally.  Who wouldn’t want a severed human head on the dinner table?  I guess it would make for some interesting dinner conversation, especially if it was still talking.

I want to find where this rhyming English translation comes from.  I have found a few recordings of people singing Halewijn, but not in English and I am sadly monolingual.

EDIT:  I don’t understand all the words, but going by the dramatic interpretation in this video, I think this is the right ballad:

In many of the versions of this story discussed by Child, the girl cuts off the murderer’s head, takes it with her and shows it to various members of his family along the way.  His family is apparently also in on the serial killer gig.  In some versions they have gold that he stole from his other victims.

The prospective victim and her family are kind of bloodthirsty as well.  In the Flemish version, “Roland,” the heroine seems to like holding the severed head too much for my comfort.  I wonder what the onlookers thought of her dangling the severed head out of the window and yelling, “Now I am Roland’s bride!”

“Hey, is that the princess?”

“Looks like it.”

“Is she dangling a severed head out the window?”

“Yep.”

“What is she yelling?”

“She’s saying the severed head is her husband.”

“What??!!”

“Just smile and nod.”

In the Danish versions Child discusses, the killer promises to take the heroine to “a paradise exempt from death and sorrow.”  When he takes her out into the forest he starts digging a grave about her size, which makes her suspect that not all is well.

In these versions she talks him into taking a nap with his head on her lap but makes her promise not to “betray” him in his sleep.  She follows this promise to the letter (if “betray” means “kill”) and ties him up in his sleep before waking him up to kill him.

Woman fashion she drew his sword, but man-fashion she cut him down.

There are other versions in the notes where the heroine is rescued by her brother, who then tells her to, “stay at home, and trust no man.”

In some German versions described, doves representing the spirits of previous victims try to warn the heroine:

Be not beguiled, maiden,

The knight is beguiling thee,

We are eleven already,

Thou shalt be the twelfth.

The knight says, “Fear not: the doves are singing a song that is common in these parts.”

In these versions the murderer has the bodies of his previous victims hung in a tree as part of a magic ritual.

The reciter of this ballad gave the editor to understand that if the robber had succeeded in his twelfth murder, he would have attained such power that nobody after that could harm him.

He tries to comfort her with the fact that she will have the top place:

Weep not too sore, my Anneli,

‘Tis true that thou art doomed

the twelfth to be;

Up to the highest tip thou must go,

And a margrevine be to all below;

Must be an empress over all the rest,

And hand the highest of all as the best.

Well, that makes it all better then!

I won’t summarize all thirty pages that Child wrote about this ballad, but the notes also mention:

  • versions where the heroine kills herself so he won’t rape her
  • versions where she is already married but reconciles with her husband after she has beheaded the killer
  • comparisons to Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard”
  • variations where the killer is trying to cure his leprosy with the blood of  virgins
  • a sex addict who has made a deal with the devil that involves killing his partners after sleeping with them
  • Quintalin, a half-supernatural being that lures women into the forest with his harp and sends them home pregnant

Child makes an interesting remark about the versions where the heroine saves herself versus the ones where she needs to be rescued:

That the woman should save her life by her own craft and courage is certainly a more primitive conception than that she should depend upon her brother…

So a more capable heroine is the mark of an older story or ballad?  Interesting…

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3 Responses to Child 4: Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight Part 2

  1. Pingback: Update | Better Know A Child Ballad

  2. Phil says:

    This is fascinating stuff – do keep going, I’m sure I’m not the only reader who’s following along at a slight distance!

    Up to the highest tip thou must go,
    And a margrevine be to all below;
    Must be an empress over all the rest,
    And hand the highest of all as the best.

    Reminds me a bit of Gilderoy – “They hanged him up above the rest, he was such a handsome boy”

    We discussed the gullibility (or good manners) of the Elf Knight a while ago on Mudcat:

    The Nice But Dim Knight

  3. djiril says:

    I know it’s been a while since you posted this, but thank you, I do need the encouragement.
    And that thread was fun.

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