Babylon, or The Bonnie Banks of Fordie is a tragic ballad about a ruthless killer who fails to recognize his own close family members. It is also the English/Scottish variation of the ballad that would eventually inspire the films The Virgin Spring and The Last House on the Left. The lyrics to all versions are here.
All of the variations that Child collected tell the story of three sisters who go out “to pull a flower,” and are confronted by a robber or outlaw in the woods. The robber gives them this ultimatum:
‘It’s whether ye be a robber’s wife,
Or will ye die by my wee pen-knife.”
The first two choose to die and he kills them one at a time. The third proclaims that she has an outlaw brother who will retaliate if she is murdered. The outlaw then realizes that he is the brother she is talking about and kills himself.
There is some variation between the versions. Version B ends with the surviving sister lamenting that her brothers weren’t there to save her sisters and apparently there are some lost verses where the robber finds out that he has killed his brothers as well as sisters and then kills himself.
In version C he meets the sisters one at a time instead of all together, which I think makes more sense in explaining why the third sister didn’t mention her brother earlier.
In version D the youngest sister goes out first and the other two go out one at a time to look for her when she doesn’t come back.
Version E stands out the most from the others. The wording is fancier than the other versions and the story is also suspiciously coherent. The robber is first described as a “Loudon lord, wi Loudon hose, and Loudon sheen.” Most of all it is different because the robber is not the long lost brother of his victims and their brother shows up at the end just in time to save the last sister. It is listed as being from “Kinloch’s Ancient Scottish Ballads.”
Child first describes a Danish version called “Hr. Truels’s Døttre,” in which three sisters riding through the forest on their way to church meet with three robbers who threaten to kill them if they do not become “robbers’ wives.”
Much rather death, say they. The two elder sisters submitted to their fate without a word; the third made a hard resistance. With her last breath she adjured the robbers to seek lodging at Herr Truels’ that night.
That seems like a strange thing to say with your last breath as you are being murdered, but who am I to judge? The robbers take her advice, I guess because good lodgings are hard to find and recommendations from people you are murdering are as good as any. They drink the girls’ father to bed and than ask their mother to sleep with them.
She agrees on the condition that they let her look in their packs first. I’m curious about the reason given for this. Is she suspicious that the men murdered her daughters, or is there another reason? Anyway, she finds her daughters’ clothes, informs her husband, and he calls his men to arrest the robbers. While he is questioning them, it comes out that the robbers are his long-lost sons. He offers to help them escape, but they feel so remorseful for killing their sisters that they choose to be executed.
The Swedish versions are very similar except that the father kills the first two robbers himself before the third reveals his parentage. The father builds a church as penance for killing his sons, and in one version also goes to the smith to have a band of iron fastened around his middle.
In a version from the Faroe islands there are only two sisters and only one of them rides out. Like the girls in the other ballads, she meets a man who threatens to kill her if she doesn’t sleep with him.
He cut off her head, and wherever her blood ran a light kindled; where her head fell a spring welled forth: where her body lay a church was [afterwards] built. The rover came to Torkild’s house, and the father asked if he had seen Katrine. He said that she had been at Mary Kirk the day before, and asked for lodging, feigning to be sick.
After this, he stupidly offers the murdered girl’s clothes to the remaining sister as a bribe for sleeping with him. She recognizes her sister’s clothes, tells her father, and the man is burned to death in the morning. No revelation of him being a long-lost son this time.
Child describes some Icelandic versions with very similar stories to the Faroe ballad, though with some added details about a “miraculous light” burning over the place where they have been buried and the bells ringing by themselves when the bodies are taken to the church.
Child finishes by discussing some of the real places connected to this ballad:
“The mains and burns of Fordie, the banks of which are very beautiful,” says Aytoun, lie about six miles to the east of Dunkeld.” Tradition has connected the story with half a dozen localities in Sweden, and, as Professor Gruntvig informs me, with at least eight places in the different provinces of Denmark. The Kerna church of the Swedish ballads, not far from Linköping (Afzelius), has been popularly supposed to derive its name from a Catherina, Karin, or Karna, killed by her own brother, a wood-robber, near it’s site.