The central story throughout all versions of this ballad is about a man having an epic fight with a boar and then having to fight the boar’s angry owner. The lyrics for all versions can be found here.
Version A, from the Percy manuscript, is the oldest version that Child collected and has an epic feel to it. While the other versions range from nonsensical to silly, this one is more of a serious adventure-romance with a focus on chivalry and honor.
Sir Egrabell had sonnes three,
Blow thy horne, good hunter
Sir Lyonell was one of these.
As I am a gentle hunter.
Sir Lyonell goes hunting. He rides over the plain and sees a dead knight. He rides further and sees a lady sitting in a tree.
She tells him that the knight was killed by a wild boar, and that she’s waiting in the tree for her friends who live in town to come and get her. He offers to go and get her friends, but as he is riding away he thinks to himself that his father would never leave a lady alone in that situation and that he should kill the boar himself.
At this point there are some verses missing, because the manuscript is missing half a page, and when they pick up again he is fighting a giant. The giant demands that Sir Lyonell turn over his possessions, his hawk and the little finger of his right hand. Sir Lyonell refuses and the giant hits him.
He said then, ‘if I were saffe and sound,
As with-in this hower I was in the ground,
‘It shold haue beene in the next towne told
How deare thy buffett it was sold;
‘And it shold be in the next towne said
How well thy buffet it were paid.’
At first I thought that this meant he would tell everyone how tough the giant was, but apparently it means that if he was not already so weak from fighting the boar he could easily beat the giant in a fight. The giant apparently feels insulted by this and tells him to take 40 days to heal, and then to meet him so that they can fight again. In the mean time the giant takes the lady as a hostage.
When 40 days was at an end,
Sir Lyonell of his wounds was healed sound.
He tooke with him a litle page,
He gaue to him good yeoman’s wage.
He blows his hunting horn and the lady comes over to talk with him. She says that the giant has heard his horn:
‘And bidds me of good cheere be,
The night heele sup with you and me.’
So either he’s going to eat them or they’re all going to a dinner party together. Probably the former. He puts the lady on a horse and tells her to run away if it looks like he is about to die. He then starts to tell her:
‘But lady, if you see that I must liue,’
And here the ballad cuts off because the manuscript is missing another half-page. Child laments in the notes that if the manuscript were complete it would be the only version where we find out what happens to the lady.
Version B starts with a knight asking his two sons “o sma fame,” Isaac-a-Bell and Hugh the Graeme, what they are going to do for a living.
The youngest says that he will not run a mill or keep pigs:
‘But it is said, as I do hear,
That war will last for seven year,
‘With a giant and a boar
That range in the wood o Tore.
He asks for a horse and armor, which his father provides, and rides into the woods of Tore. He meets the boar and kills it. He then meets a the giant, who asks:
‘O cam you through the wood o Tore,
Or did you see my good wild boar?’
He seems like a polite giant. Why is he the bad guy again?
‘I cam now through the wood o Tore,
But woe be to your grisly boar.
So the giant gives him thirty days to heal from the fight with the boar, after which he is expected to come back and fight to the death. The boy comes back and kills the giant. It’s pretty anticlimactic. The fight with the boar took two verses that went into a bit of detail, but the last verse only says:
So Graeme is back to the wood o Tore,
And he’s killd the giant, as he killed the boar.
Maybe the person singing the ballad got tired and just wanted to end it. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find any recordings of this version.
The hero of version C is Sir Ryalas, son of Sir Robert Bolton. He goes hunting and sees a lady in a tree. She tells him that a wild boar has killed her husband and thirty men.
Sir Ryalas, who is either very tough or not very bright, asks how he can see the wild boar. The lady tells him to blow his horn and it will come.
He blows his horn and the boar comes running, knocking down trees as it goes.
The boar, who can talk this time, asks him what he wants and they start to fight. Sir Ryalas eventually kills the boar. Then he meets the boar’s owner:
Then out of the wood a wild woman flew:
‘Oh, thou has killed my pretty spotted pig!’
‘There are three things I do demand of thee,
It’s thy horn, and thy hound, and they gay lady.’
So this must be what happened with the giant in version A. He gets into a fight with the wild woman and kills her.
In Bromsgrove church they both do lie;
There the wild boar’s head is pictured by.
Version D is very similar except that the hero is nameless and the first three verses are told in the first person.
As I went up one brook, one brook,
Well wind thy horn, good hunter
I saw a fair maiden sit on a tree top.
As thou art a jovial hunter
This time the girl in the tree is just a “fair maiden” and she doesn’t mention the boar killing anyone else. The woman running out of the woods this time is just described as an “old lady” making it even stranger when the hero fights her to the death. I think the ballad is officially supposed to be comedy at this point. The hero has gone from fighting a fearsome, evil, and strangely chivalrous giant to fighting a crazy old lady.
In the version recorded by The Demon Barbers the old woman is identified as a witch, possibly to make her a more worthy opponent.
Version E is just a fragment. This time the hero is a friar.
There was an old man and sons he had three;
Wind well, Lion, good hunter
A friar he being one of these three,
With pleasure he ranged the north country.
For he was a jovial hunter
He meets a lady under a tree who tells him about a boar that has wounded thirty men and “worried” her husband. The friar blows his horn, boar comes running and the ballad ends there. It’s a shame, I was wondering if a friar would handle the situation differently, though according to Child’s notes, it might not be different at all:
The friar in in E13, 41, may be a corruption of Ryalas, or some like name…
Or it may be a reference to a different story altogether:
The friar may also be borrowed from ‘The Felon Sow and the Friars of Richmond.’
The Felon Sow and the Friars of Richmond is a comedic ballad about a group of friars who are unable to kill a vicious sow that has been donated to them and eventually hire two mercenaries to do it for them. While the boar in the various versions of Sir Lionel is meant to be taken seriously as an enemy, the sow is not. In Child’s words, it is “a tame village pig; the old mettle is bred out.”
Version F is just one verse about how the hero’s father had three sons.
Sir Rackabello had three sons,
Wind well your horn, brave hunter
Sir Ryalash was one of these.
And he was a jovial hunter
Child compares Sir Lionel to ‘Sir Eglamour of Artois,’ a romance found in the Percy MS. The hero of this ballad is a knight who wants to marry the daughter of an Earl. The Earl does not want them to marry, and sends Sir Eglamour on a series of dangerous quests to get rid of him. One of these quests is “to kill a boar in the kingdom of Sattin or Sydon, which had been known to slay forty armed knights in one day.”
Sir Eglamour kills the boar, and is found in the forest by the king if Sydon “in a state of exaustion,” the king takes him home to recover. Just like in the English ballads, the boar belongs to a giant “who had kept him fifteen years to slay Christian men.”
The same giant has also demanded the king’s daughter and is coming to collect her the next day. As the giant approaches, Sir Eglamour goes to the castle walls accompanied by a squire carrying the boar’s head on a spear. The giant sees it and vows revenge:
‘Alas, art thou dead!
My trust was all in thee!
Now by the law that I lieve in,
My little speckled hoglin,
Dear bought shall thy death be.’
Then Sir Eglamour kills the giant as well. That is not the end of the story, but Child does not describe it any further.
I’ve found several modern recordings of a song called “Sir Eglamore” in which no giant is mentioned and the boar is now a dragon. I guess modern listeners just don’t find boars scary.
Child mentions a Danish ballad from the 16th century in which a girl who has rejected many suitors finally gets married and boasts about how attractive her children will be, only to give birth to a litter of nine puppies, a pig and one human boy. The pig grows up to be a monster which causes destruction throughout the country until it’s nine dog siblings jump down its throat and tear apart its liver, killing themselves in the process. Child remarks that “This ballad smacks of the broadside.”
There are a number of Americanized recordings of a ballad about a man hunting a monstrous wild boar, at least one of which was collected by Cecil Sharp in English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians. These versions often go by the title “Bangum” or “Wild Hog in the Woods.” Most of them seem to have lost all references to either the woman in the tree of the boar’s owner.