I’ve made a new tag titled “messed up family dynamics.” I get the feeling I will be using it a lot. It is clear that many of these ballads are about a time and place where people have values different from my own. Since I am not an expert on any of these times or places, I feel it is more honest for me to judge the characters based on my own values than it would be to pretend that I actually know how earlier audiences would have responded to the actions of the characters.
What I can say about Earl Brand is that it is both a tragic love story and a story about a rebellious teenage girl who finds herself regretting her decisions. I find a surprising amount of emotional complexity in all versions of this ballad. The lyrics can be found here.
I think the heroine’s family is meant to be seen as cruel and controlling, choosing to send armed men after her rather than to let her elope with her low-status lover. However, in the versions of the ballad where the armed men are her father and brothers, her grief at seeing her lover kill her family creates the central tragedy of the story. She comes across as a realistically flawed and painfully human character.
Version A is the one where the heroine comes across as the least conflicted and least sympathetic. This is because it is also the only version where her father sends generic armed men after the lovers instead of coming after them himself with her brothers.
This version specifies that the heroine is the daughter of the king of England and “scarcely fifteen years of age,” when “brave Earl Bran” seduces her and convinces her to ride off with him.
Then they run across this figure:
Until they met with old Carl Hood;
He comes for ill, but never for good.
Carl Hood? My first thought was to wonder whether he is Robin Hood’s evil twin. According to Child’s notes, he is the god Odin in disguise:
This malicious personage reappears in the Hrômund saga “Blind the Bad” and “the Carl Blind, surnamed Bavís,” and is found elsewhere. His likeness to “old Carl Hood,” who “comes for ill, but never for good,” and who gives information of Earl Brand’s flight with the king’s daughter, does not require to be insisted upon. Both are identical, we can scarcely doubt, with the blind [one-eyed] old man of many tales, who goes about in various disguises, sometimes as beggar, with his hood or hat slouched over his face, — that is Odin, the Sí∂höttr or Deephood of Sæmund, who in the saga of Hálf and his champions is called simple Hood, as here, and expressly said to be Odin. Odin, though not a thoroughly malignant divinity, had his dark side, and one of his titles in Sæmund’s Edda is Bölverkr, maleficus. He first caused war by casting his spear among men, and Dag, after he has killed Helgi, says Odin was the author of all the mischief, for he brought strife among kinsmen.
The heroine wants to get rid of him so he won’t give them away.
“Earl Bran, if you love me,
Seize this old carl, and gar him die.”
That’s one bloodthirsty fifteen-year-old girl. Ok, so she’s obviously afraid he’ll tell her father, and she’s right. But still…
“O lady fair, it would be sair,
To slay an old man that has grey hair.
“O lady fair, I’ll no do sae;
I’ll gie him a pound and let him gae.”
Bribery is nicer than murder!
“O where hae ye ridden this lee lang day?
O where hae ye stolen this lady away?”
“She is my only, my sick sister,
Whom I have brought from Winchester.”
According to the notes, Winchester refers to a nunnery.
“If she be sick, and like fo dead,
Why wears she the ribbon sae red?”
So Carl Hood goes to her house and alerts her father, who then sends out fifteen men after them. Earl Brand kills all but one of the men, and the last one gives him a fatal wound. He lives long enough to go home to his mother who doesn’t react well to her new daughter-in-law:
“O my son’s slain, my son’s put down,
And a’ for the sake of an English loun.”
Earl Bran tells his mother to marry her to his youngest brother. I think there are a few verses missing, but the last one says that seventeen people died in all. Going by the end of some of the other versions, this may refer to the fourteen men Earl Bran killed, Earl Bran himself, the heroine and his mother who dies of grief.
In all of the other versions, it is her father and brothers who come after them, and the heroine regrets her decision when her she sees that her lover has killed her brothers and is about to kill her father. Versions B-E all contain some variation of this line:
‘O hold your hand, Lord William!’ she said,
‘For your strokes are they are wondrous sair;
True lovers I can get many ane,
But a father I can never get mair.’
I think it is implied in most of these versions that he kills her father, but that she has distracted him long enough for her father to inflict the fatal wound.
‘O chuse, O chuse, Lady Margret,’ he said,
‘O whether will ye gang or bide?’
‘I’ll gang, I’ll gang, Lord William,’ she said,
‘For ye have left me no other guide.’
– Version B
’For to go home to my mother again,
An unwelcome guest I’d be; But since my fate has ordered it so,
I’ll go along with thee.’
– Version D
So it is implied that she resents him for what he’s done and that she would go home if she could. She apparently forgives him by the end of the ballad.
He lifted her on a milk-white steed,
And himself on a dapple gray;
They drew their hats out over their face,
And they both went weeping away.
Sir William he died in the middle o the night,
Lady Margaret died on the morrow;
Sir William he died of pure pure love,
Lady Margaret of grief and sorrow.
– Version D
So they are buried in different places that are apparently separated by a wall, a rose grows out of her grave and a brier out of his. The plants symbolically grow together in a “lover’s knot.” In most of the ballads the story end’s there, but version B ads this verse:
But bye and bye rade the Black Douglas,
And wow but he was rough!
For he’s pulld up the bonny brier,
And flang’t in St. Mary’s Loch.
In this version “Lord Douglas” is her father. I’m not sure if this “Black Douglas” is supposed to be her father, who survived after all, or another relative. From a modern writer’s standpoint, it makes more sense not to introduce a new character at this point, but going by previous ballads, I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of this being a completely different person.
According to the notes, Child was particularly impressed by how well preserved this ballad was and how consistent the details were in various versions found around Europe.
Most of the versions from recitation are wonderful examples and proofs of the fidelity with which simple people “report and hold” old tales; for, as the editor has shown, verses which had never been printed, but which are found in old manuscripts, are now met with in recited copies; and these recited copies, again, have verses that occur in no Danish print or manuscript, but which nonetheless are found in Norwegian and Swedish recitation, and, what is more striking, in Icelandic tradition of two hundred years standing.
In many of these versions, the hero is named Hildebrand, which Child believes is the basis for the name “Earl Brand.”
In the Scandinavian versions that Child talks about, the lover’s name has some sort of magic power and the heroine saying it allows him to be killed, as opposed to the English and Scottish versions where it is implied that she just distracted him long enough for her father to get in the fatal blow.
“Though thou see me bleed, name me not to death; though thou see me fall, name me not at all!”
“No sooner was his name pronounced than Ribold received a mortal wound.”
Many of these versions also begin with the hero promising to take the heroine to a magical paradise:
“He said he would carry her to a land where death and sorrow came not; where all the birds were cuckoos, and all the grass was leeks, and all the streams ran wine.”
Child sees this as evidence that this part of the story migrated from another story about a demonic being trying to lure off a mortal woman. He explains that saying the name of a magical or demonic creature is a traditional way to defeat it, and implies that this trait carried over to the hero of this story.
In many of the Scandinavian versions that Child describes, the heroine survives her lover long enough to be locked up and sold into servitude by her family, usually in exchange for a church bell. She tells her story to the queen who is her employer and then dies of grief.
Then there are other versions where:
- They both survive and get married
- They both end up killing themselves in a sort of Romeo and Juliet like misunderstanding
- The hero dies, but the heroine survives to marry someone else, sometimes his younger brother
In a Neapolitan-Albanian ballad the hero has convinced the heroine’s mother and father to let them get married, but fails to convince her brother, who attacks them with an assortment of other relatives and kills them.
The notes also touch on the possible real-life locations for this story:
“The ballad of the ‘Douglas Tragedy,’” says Scott, “is one of the few to which popular tradition has ascribed complete locality. The farm of Blackhouse, in Selkirkshire, is said to have been the scene of this melancholy event. There are the remains of a very ancient tower, adjacent to the farm-house, in a wild and solitary glen, upon a torrent named Douglas burn, which joins the Yarrow after passing a craggy rock called the Douglas craig… From this ancient tower Lady Margaret is said to have been carried by her lover. Seven large stones, erected upon the neighboring heights of Blackhouse, are shown, as marking the spot where the seven brethren were slain; and the Douglas burn is averred to have been the stream at which the lovers stopped to drink: so minute is tradition in ascertaining the scene of a tragical tale, which, considering the rude state of former times, had probably foundation in some real event.”
It is a bit strange to read about it possibly being “based on a true story” after seeing all of the alternate versions of the story from other countries. Of course, just because there are alternate versions doesn’t mean nothing like this ever happened. It’s possible that either an old ballad could have been re-written to reflect real events, or a true story could have been changed as it was re-told.
Here is my recording: