"Childe Rowland" is a fairy tale, the most popular version being by Joseph Jacobs in his English Folk and Fairy Tales, published in 1892. It was based on a Scottish ballad, which is why the text alternates between prose and rhyming stanzas. Joseph Jacobs called the King of Elfland's palace "the Dark Tower" in his version, an addition he made that was not part of the original ballad. This harks to Shakespeare's "King Lear" and Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," but neither of those references have any relation to the fairy tale.
The story tells of how the four children of the Queen (by some accounts Guinevere), Childe Rowland, his two older brothers, and his sister, Burd Ellen, were playing ball near a church. Rowland kicked the ball over the church and Burd Ellen went to retrieve it, inadvertently circling the church "widdershins", or opposite the way of the sun, and disappeared. Rowland went to Merlin to ask what became of his sister and was told that she was taken to the Dark Tower by the King of Elfland, and only the boldest knight in Christendom could retrieve her.
The eldest brother decided he would make the journey, and was told what to do by Merlin. He did not return, and the middle brother followed, only to meet the same fate. Finally Childe Rowland went forth, having been given his father's sword, which never struck in vain, for protection. Merlin gave him his orders: he must chop off the head of anyone in Elfland who speaks to him until he sees his sister, and he must not eat or drink anything while in that realm. Rowland obeyed the orders, dispatching a horseherd, a cowherd, and a henwife, who would not tell him where his sister was. The henwife would only say he had to circle a hill three times widdershins, and say each time "Open, door! open, door! And let me come in." Following the instructions, a door opened in the hill and Rowland entered a great hall, where sat Burd Ellen, under the spell of the King of Elfland. She told him he should not have entered Elfland, for misfortune befell all who did, including their brothers, who were prisoners in the Dark Tower, nearly dead.
Rowland, forgetting Merlin's words, was overcome with hunger and asked his sister for food. Unable to warn him, she complied. At the last moment, Merlin's words returned to Rowland and he threw down the food, upon which the King of Elfland burst into the hall. Rowland fought with the King, and with the aid of his father's sword beat him into submission. The King begged for mercy, and Rowland granted it, provided his siblings were released. They returned home together, and Burd Ellen never circled the church widdershins again.
The synopsis of Childe Rowland is found in a Scandinavian medieval ballad. Although the hero and heroine appear under different names, and the elf-king is replaced by a mermaid, the story is essentially the same: The youngest brother rides out to rescue his sister, and succeeds. The sister in this ballad has lived under a different name, probably oblivious of her background until her brother revives her.
"Childe Rowland" is referenced briefly in King Lear, by Gloucester's son, Edgar, disguised as mad Tom, in one of his mad ramblings:
- Child Rowland to the Dark Tower came,
- His word was still 'Fie, foh, and fum,
- I smell the blood of a British man.
Stephen King has also written about the character Rowland (spelled Roland) in his Dark Tower series, though this explicitly references the Robert Browning 1855 poem. In this sci-fi/fantasy tale, Roland is the last gunslinger on a tireless mission to reach the Dark Tower, the nexus of all worlds. It is perhaps worth noting that, while King seems to have based the novels more on the Browning poem, there are some similarities between Roland's tale and "Childe Rowland," such as the sorcerer "Maerlyn" and an antagonistic "king" figure (represented in the novel by the Crimson King). Also his father's sword is represented by Roland's large .45 revolvers and the Door Upon The Hill is referred to many times as "doors to other whens and wheres", a prominent theme that is explored thoroughly during The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, when by way of physical doors in his world, Roland can see into and interact with other worlds via the mind of a person whose door he has opened.
The story has influenced several lesser known fantasy novels as well. Lord Dunsany's 1924 novel The King of Elfland's Daughter shares many similarities with it, while Alan Garner drew heavily on the tale for his novel Elidor (1965), using it as the start of his story. American fantasy and science fiction author Andre Norton retold the fairy tale in her novel Warlock of the Witch World (1967) with the setting moved to her Witch World. Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men (2003) introduces a character named Roland de Chumsfanleigh, who is kidnapped by the Queen of the Elves. Gordon R. Dickson's unfinished science fiction series Childe Cycle (1959) was named for the Browning poem.
English folk singer Martin Carthy used an adaptation of the tale for the basis of his song Jack Rowland, which appeared on his 1982 album Out of the Cut.
The Irish poet and playwright Louis MacNeice wrote a radio play, The Dark Tower, based on the Childe Rowland story. In it, Rowland, the youngest son, is sent to face the Dark Tower. After many adventures he arrives and raises the trumpet to his lips... A major theme of the play is the notion of free will. Initially Rowland is impelled through duty and his mother's driving will. Eventually he breaks the shackles she has imposed on him and makes his own free choice. The play was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service (now Radio 4) on 26 January 1946. The original music was composed by Benjamin Britten.
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- Louis MacNeice, The Dark Tower and Other Radio Scripts, Faber Finds, 2008. ISBN 0-571-24341-X