‘O where have you been, Lord Randal, my son?
And where have you been, my handsome young man?’
‘I ha been at the greenwood; mother make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting and fain wad lie down’
Continuing with the theme of people who are murdered by their family members or loved ones, Lord Randal is a simple ballad in which a young man or child tells his mother how his “true love,” stepmother or grandmother poisoned him.
In the more coherent versions the mother figures out that her son has been poisoned after either learning that his dogs died after eating the leftovers or hearing the description or the “fish” that he ate. It is not said directly in the text of any of the versions that Child collected, but the implication is that the naive hero has been fed snakes and told that they were fish. I did find a few recordings, such as the video below, where it is explicitly stated that the hero ate snakes which he found himself and mistook for fish.
Child says in the notes,
There is all but universal consent that the poisoning was done by serving up snakes for fish.
This still doesn’t explain the “four footed fish” the hero describes in version M. Maybe that one is a newt.
Some versions don’t mention the fish/snakes and only have the hero tell his mother that he has been given poison.
Like the heroine of “The Cruel Brother,” the hero leaves nice things to various family members and asks that his murderer be executed and/or burn in hell.
In some versions he seems to have an unexplained grudge against several family members not involved in his murder. When asked what he wants to leave his sister, “King Henry” in version C says, “the world’s wide, she may go beg.” The unnamed hero of version H says the same about his children.
In the notes, Child mentions Alan Cunningham again. This time he isn’t completely sure that Cunningham has changed the words in the version he published, but doesn’t trust him enough to include them officially.
Three stanzas which are found in A. Cunningham’s Scottish Songs, I, 286 f, may be given for what they are worth. ‘The House of Marr,’ in the first, is not to be accepted on the simple ground of its appearance in his pages. The second is inserted in his beautified edition of Scott’s ballad, and has it’s burden accordingly; but there is, besides this, no internal evidence against the second, and none against the third.
He mentions a few interesting variations of the tropes in this ballad that are used in the folklore of various countries:
A Bohemian and a Catalan ballad which have two of the three principal traits of the forgoing, the poisoning and the testament, do not exhibit, perhaps have lost, the third, the employment of snakes.
The story of the first is that a mother who dislikes the wife her son has chosen attempts to poison her at the wedding feast. She sets a glass of honey before the son, a glass of poison before the bride. They exchange cups. The poison is swift. The young man leaves four horses for his brother, eight cows to his sister, his fine horses to his wife. “And what to me, my son?” asks the mother. A mill-stone and the deep Moldau is bequest to her.
The Catalan ballad seems to have been softened at the end. Here again the mother hates her daughter-in-law. She comes to the sick woman… and asks What is the matter? The daughter says, You have poisoned me. The mother exhorts her to confess and recieve the sacrament, and then make her will. She gives her castles in France to the poor and the pilgrims [and the friars], and to her brother Don Carlos [who, in one version is her husband]. Two of the versions remember the Virgin. “And to me?” “My husband [my cloak, rosary], that when you may go to mass you may remember me.
Child also discusses the trope of poisoning someone by feeding them a snake or pat of a snake. He cites ballads and stories from Italy, Eastern Europe and ancient Rome in which women poison their husbands, brothers, daughter-in-laws using snakes or snake heads. He also cites an English story of a monk who uses a toad to poison a corrupt king.