The Elfin Knight

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Vernon Hill's illustration of this ballad

"The Elfin Knight" (Child #2; Roud #12) is a traditional Scottish folk ballad of which there are many versions, all dealing with supernatural occurrences, and the commission to perform impossible tasks.[1]

Synopsis[edit]

In the oldest extant version of this ballad (circa 1600-1650), an elf threatens to abduct a young woman to be his lover unless she can perform an impossible task; she responds with a list of tasks which he must first perform, thus evading rape. The plot is closely related to "Riddles Wisely Expounded" (Child Ballad #1), in which the Devil proposes to carry off a woman unless she can answer a number of riddles.

Later versions invert the direction of desire, with the elf proposing tasks which the lady must perform in order to be accepted as his lover. The first verse usually opens with the introduction of the title character:

The elphin knight sits on yon hill,
Blaw, blaw, blaw, wind blaw.
He blaws his horn both lewd and shril.
The wind hath blown my plaid awa.

(Note that this verse appears to be taken directly from "Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight", Child Ballad #4; in this ballad, the horn is magic and arouses desire in the hearer.[2])

Meanwhile a maid lies in bed, wishing she could marry the knight. Upon her speaking these words, the knight appears, telling her he will marry her if she will perform numerous tasks, all impossible.

"For thou must shape a sark[3] to me,
Without any cut or heme," quoth he.

She promptly responds with her own list of impossible tasks, and thereby gains her supernatural husband.

Commentary[edit]

The countering of impossible tasks with other impossible tasks is a common motif in the folktale Aarne-Thompson type 875, the Clever Girl;[4] a fairy tale making use of this motif is The Wise Little Girl.

Variants[edit]

This ballad was one of 25 traditional works included in Ballads Weird and Wonderful (1912) and illustrated by Vernon Hill.

The song "Scarborough Fair" might be a variant recorded later,[5] first by Martin Carthy, and later and more famously by Simon & Garfunkel. A similar variant is "Whittingham Fair", a song that was popular in the north and west of Northumberland.[6] There are also several American variants, which differ greatly, among them "My Father Had an Acre of Land", "The Parsley Vine", and "The Shirt of Lace".

The song also forms the basis for both the melody and lyrics for Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country" first recorded on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963.

A novel by Nancy Werlin, Impossible (Penguin/Dial, 2008), was inspired by the song.

Recordings[edit]

  • Ewan MacColl performed this song with Peggy Seeger on their 1961 album, Classic Scots Ballads
  • Kate Rusby performed it on her 2005 album, The Girl Who Couldn't Fly
  • Joel Frederiksen includes this song as "Whittingham Faire (The Elfin Knight)" on his 2007 album, The Elfin Knight – Ballads and Dances
  • Omnia Performed this song, on Alive! (2007), as "The Elven Lover"

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Francis James Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, "The Elfin Knight"
  2. ^ Child, notes to Ballad #2, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
  3. ^ a shirt
  4. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 8, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  5. ^ Child, Francis James (1894). The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Part 9 9. Boston / Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Company / The Riverside Press. p. 206. 
  6. ^ http://www.springthyme.co.uk/ballads/balladtexts/02_ElfinKnight.html

External links[edit]