Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight

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"Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight"
Writer(s) Traditional
Recorded by

"Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" (Child #4; Roud #21) is the English common name representative of a very large class of European ballads. The subject matter is frequently associated with the genre of the Halewyn legends circulating in Europe. There are a number of variants with different names (see Textual Variants, below).


The song appears in many variants but the main theme is that the knight of the title woos the lady with music (i.e. blows a magic horn, or in some variations sings a magic song), or abducts her, and carries her off to a deep wood or seaside, where he tells her that he has killed seven (or more) other women and plans to do the same to her. In many European versions it is made explicit that he proposes to "dishonour" her as well. She, however, distracts him by one of a number of means and then contrives to kill him in her stead.

The lady of the title is named variously as "Lady Isabel", "the King's daughter" "May Collin", "May Colven", "pretty Polly", or not named at all. Variants of the song usually imply that she is rich and beautiful. The knight is, in some versions, a normal, but villainous, mortal man, but in others he is an "elf knight". The term "outlandish knight", which appears in several variants might imply something supernatural about the character, or may be a reference to the border regions between England and Scotland.

Depending on the characteristics of the knight, he may woo the lady by the usual human practices or by supernatural powers. For instance, in some variations he blows a magic horn or sings a magic song, causing the lady to profess love to him:

If I had yon horn that I hear blawing,
And you elf-knight to sleep in my bosom.[1]

She is made to leave her parents' house and go with the knight, either by persuasion, coercion, or magical enchantment. In some versions the knight persuades her to steal money from her parents before she leaves.

"Now steal me some of your father's gold, and some of your mother's fee,
And steal the best steed in your father's stable, where there lie thirty three."[2]

They arrive at their destination, which in some versions is explicitly named (e.g. "Bunion Bay" or "Wearie's Well") and may be beside the sea or a river, or in a deep wood. He tells her about his previous victims and that she will be the next.

"Loup off the steed," says false Sir John, "Your bridal bed you see;
For I have drowned seven young ladies; the eight one you shall be."[3]

In most versions, he then orders the lady to undress and remove her jewels. In some variants, she then asks him to turn away while she undresses, giving her the opportunity to surprise him and, for example, push him in the sea or "tumble him into the stream". In other variants, she tells him to "lay your head upon my knee", in some cases offering to de-louse the knight. He agrees, on the condition that should he fall asleep, she shall not harm him while he sleeps. However, she sings a magic song: "Wi a sma charm she lulld him fast asleep". While he sleeps, she ties him up, sometimes with his own belt, then wakes the knight and either stabs him with a dagger or beheads him:

If seven king's-daughters here ye hae slain,
Lye ye here, a husband to them a.[1]

Some variants end at this point, but several include a curious final section in which the lady returns home and engages in conversation with a parrot in a cage. She usually makes a bargain with the bird that she will give it a golden cage if it refrains from telling her father of the escapade with the knight.

"Oh hold your tongue, my favourite bird, and tell no tales on me;
Your cage I will make of the beaten gold, and hang in the willow-tree."[2]

Historical background[edit]

The balance of opinion amongst scholars is that the ballad variants all stem from Germanic songs and folklore of the Nix, shapeshifting water spirits who usually appear in human form and lure women to their doom with music.[4] Common features between the ballad and these legends include the lord or elf who appears in human form but is actually "otherworldly"; the enchanting of women with music (the horn blowing or fiddle playing of many ballad variants); and the drowning of victims in water.

The ballad also pulled in many elements from the "Heer Halewijn" song and the Bluebeard legends of the 13th century,[4] and the stories of a beheading may have also roots in the apocryphal story of Judith and Holofernes (see Book of Judith).[5][6]

There have been various other rationalisations, attaching the story to specific locations and historical events: for example to Gilles de Laval in the early fifteenth century.[7] The variant May Collean has been attached, as a legend, to the coast of Ayrshire, where the heroine was said to come from the family Kennedy of Colzean.[8] A rocky promontory called Gamesloup, on the Ayrshire coast, is pointed to by local people as the spot where the knight drowned his victims. This local association is noted by A. L. Lloyd who quotes it as an example of a ballad which "so strikes the common imagination that people want to make the piece their own by giving it a local setting".[9]

Lloyd also refers to a suggestion, by Leon Pineau, that the ballad is an ancient solar myth, relating to the sun and the seasons of the year. In this interpretation, the villain represents the spirit of night and winter, and the murdered victims are the months of the year: the heroine of the song represents the sun who brings winter to an end.[10]

There has also been an attempt at a psychoanalytical interpretation, by Paul de Keyser. He suggests that, in the singer's subconscious, the villain is the sister of the heroine. His beheading (in some versions) symbolises castration—the punishment for the singer's own incestuous desires.[11]

Lloyd gives much more credence to the Hungarian scholar, Lajos Vargyas, who has suggested that the origins of the song are much earlier and are based in Asia, having then been taken into Europe by the Magyars. One scene which appears in some variants of the ballad is that in which the lady sits beneath a tree whilst the villain places his head in her lap, to be de-loused. She looks up and sees his bloody weapons hanging from the branches of the tree. This image is very close to that depicted in medieval church paintings in Hungary and Slovakia, of St. Ladislaus being de-loused by a woman, beneath a tree from which his weapons and helmet hang. An almost identical image has been found on a sword scabbard, originating from Siberia, dating from 300BC, and now in the Hermitage collection in Leningrad. It is claimed that the scene crops up in epic ballads of the Mongols, relating to the abduction of a woman by another tribe. If correct, the basis of the ballad may have survived over 2000 years of oral tradition, and a journey from the mountains of Western Mongolia, to the villages of England.[12]

Cultural relationships[edit]

Standard references[edit]

The song has also appeared in several published collections of folk songs and ballads, for example:

  • Arthur Quiller-Couch, (ed.) The Oxford Book of Ballads, 1910.
  • Cecil Sharp, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, Oxford University Press, London, 1952. vol. 1, p. 7.
  • R. Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd, The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, Penguin Books, 1959, pp. 80–81 (as "The Outlandish Knight")
  • Geoffrey Grigson (ed), The Penguin Book of Ballads, Penguin Books, 1975. ISBN 0-14-042193-9. pp. 40–41

Textual variants[edit]

Several variations of the ballad were classified by Francis James Child that feature a "Lord" instead of an elf knight.

Some variations have a parrot at the end, who promises not to tell what happened. In some of these, the parrot is eaten by the cat.

The variations of the ballad vary on some of the key characters and details:

Lady Isabel variants per Child[14] Heroine Villain # Dead Women Setting Parrot Notes & Source(s)
The Gowans sae gay or Aye as the Gowans grow gay Lady Isabel Elf-Knight 7 Greenwood Buchan's Ballads I:22 of N. Scotland; Motherwell's MS p. 563
The Water o Wearie's Well King's daughter Luppen 7 Wearie's Well Buchan's Ballads of the N. of Scotland II:80; Motherwell's MS, Harris MS 19
May Colvin or May Colvin, or False Sir John May Colvin False Sir John 7 Sea-side Yes year 1776. Herd's MSS I:166; Herd's Ancient & Modern Scottish Songs 1776:193, Motherwell's Minstrelsy p67
May Collin , May Collean or Fause Sir John and May Colvin May Collin Sir John, bloody knight 8 Bunion Bay Yes year 1823. Sharpe's Ballad Book 1823, 17:45; Buchan's Ballads of N. Scotland II:45
The Outlandish Knight Lady Outlandish knight 6 Sea-side Yes Note: This version is "a modernized version" - from "Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England" by Dixon:74. The story is performed by UK folk group Bellowhead on their album Burlesque.
The False Knight Outwitted Lady Knight 6 River-side Yes Roxburghe Ballads, III:449
Comparable song
"Heer Halewijn" (Dutch) Princess Halewijn many Forest & gallowfield 13th century. (compared to Outlandish Knight and May Colvin or False Sir John)[15]

Other titles:

  • An Outlandish Rover[16]
  • The Highway Robber[16]
  • The Old Beau[16]
  • The False-Hearted Knight[17]
  • If I Take Off My Silken Stays[17]

Non-English variants[edit]

The ballad is known throughout Europe and is described by Child as the ballad which "has perhaps obtained the widest circulation".[18] He notes that the Scandavian and German versions (both Low and High German) are the fullest versions, while the southern European ones are rather shorter, and the English versions somewhat brief.[18]

The Dutch song "Heer Halewijn" is one of the earlier (13th century) versions of this tale, fuller and preserving older elements, including such things as the murderer's head speaking after the heroine has beheaded him, attempting to get her to do tasks for him.[19]

At least 60 French, or French-Canadian versions have been collected and these almost all end in the same location as the English version, on a riverbank or by the sea, a motif only found elsewhere in the extensive and widespread Polish variants.[20][21]

Numerous German variants are known. Child says 26 German variants[22] but Lloyd, writing more than a century later, claims over 250.[21] In some, the heroine rescues herself; in others her brother rescues her; and in still others, the murderer succeeds but her brother kills him after the fact.[23] In some of them, the dead women reappear as doves and attempt to warn the latest victim.[24]

Eleven Danish variants are known, often including the heroine's meeting with the sister or the men of the murderer and dealing with them as well.[25] An Icelandic version has a very short account of the tale.[26] Other variants are northern Italian,[27] Spanish,[28] Portuguese,[29] and Magyar.[29]

Songs that refer to Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight[edit]

The dialogue between the Lady and the parrot, which appears in some versions, was made into a comic song: "Tell Tale Polly", published in Charley Fox's Minstrel Companion (ca. 1860).[30]


Another related ballad, "Hind Etin" (Child Ballad #41), also begins with abduction and rape by an elf, but ends with the pair falling in love and living happily together.

Many of the same motifs are found in Child Ballad 48, "Young Andrew".[31]


Various forms of these ballads show great similarity to the fairy tales Fitcher's Bird and Bluebeard.[32]


Arthur Rackham's "May Colvin and the Parrot" illustrates this ballad.[33]

Kentucky artist and ballad singer Daniel Dutton has a painting of this ballad, titled "False Sir John", on his Ballads of the Barefoot Mind website.[34]


Variants of the song are commonly sung to several different tunes. The following tune was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from Mr Hilton of South Walsham, Norfolk, England, in 1908 from Mr Hilton in South Walsham, Norfolk. It was published in the Folk Song Journal of English Folk Dance and Song Society (IV 123), and included in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.[35]



Album/Single Performer Year Variant Notes
Love, Death and The Lady Shirley and Dolly Collins 1970 The Outlandish Knight
Ballads and Songs Nic Jones 1970 The Outlandish Knight Version from Cecil Sharp's English Folk Songs
Shearwater Martin Carthy 1972 The Outlandish Knight
Black-edged Visiting Card Broadside Electric 1993 False Sir John The parrot was left out
Time Steeleye Span 1996 The Elf Knight The tune used here is by Bob Johnson
Play On Light Sileas 1999 May Colvin
Think Before You Think Danú 2000 The Outlandish Knight
Sae Will We Yet Tony Cuffe 2003 The Water o Wearie's Well Tune by Cuffe
The Ballad Tree Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre 2003 May Colvin
Bellow Spiers and Boden 2003 The Outlandish Knight
Burlesque Bellowhead 2006 The Outlandish Knight
Too Long Away Emily Smith 2008 May Colvin
The Voice of the People: Good People, Take Warning Fred Jordan 2012 Six Pretty Maids 1952 recording previously issued on LP
Sing a Full Song Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston 2013 Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight
The Legendary J. E. Mainer Vol. 12 J. E. Mainer c.a. 1950 Six King's Daughters The lead here is sung by banjoist Morris Herbert
The Same Way Down Annalivia 2012 False Sir John An upbeat, musically creative version of this ballad
Mountain Hearth & Home Jean Ritchie 2010 False Sir John
Reformation House Galley Beggar 2010 The Outlandish Knight Shortened version with two verses


  1. ^ a b Per variant 1, The Gowans sae Gay. "Scottish Ballads Online".
  2. ^ a b Child. Version 4G
  3. ^ Child. Version 4C
  4. ^ a b Meijer 1971:35.
  5. ^ R. Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd: Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, Penguin Books, 1959
  6. ^ W. J. Entwistle, European Balladry, Oxford, 1939. Note however that Lloyd (in Folk Song in England p.143) categorises Entwistle as one of those "who might have known better" than to make this connection.
  7. ^ Lloyd p.141
  8. ^ Child 1965(v1):24.
  9. ^ Lloyd, A. L. Folk Song in England, Paladin, 1975
  10. ^ Lloyd p.143
  11. ^ Lloyd p.143, quoting Paul de Keyser, "Het Lied van Halewijn Een psychoanalytisch Onderzoeck" in Nederlandsch Tijdschrift voor Volkskunde, XXVII, 1922
  12. ^ Lloyd p.144 quoting Lajos Vargyas, Researches into the medieval History of Folk Ballad, Budapest, 1967, pp.129-165
  13. ^ "Vaughan Williams Memorial Library - Roud Folksong and Broadside indexes". Retrieved 2015-05-04. 
  14. ^ "Scottish Ballads Online"
  15. ^ compared by Meijer 1971:35
  16. ^ a b c "The Elf-Knight (Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight)". 2003-10-15. Retrieved 2015-05-04. 
  17. ^ a b Lloyd p.144
  18. ^ a b Child 1965(v1):22.
  19. ^ Meijer 1971:35; Child 1965(v1):24-5.
  20. ^ Child 1965(v1):22,38.
  21. ^ a b Lloyd p.142
  22. ^ Child 1965 (v1): 29
  23. ^ Child 1965(v1):37.
  24. ^ Child 1965(v1):35.
  25. ^ Child 1965(v1):26-7.
  26. ^ Child 1965(v1):28.
  27. ^ Child 1965(v1):43.
  28. ^ Child 1965(v1):44.
  29. ^ a b Child 1965(v1):45.
  30. ^ R. Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd: The Penguin Book of Folk Songs, Penguin Books, 1959.
  31. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 432, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  32. ^ Child 1965(v1):47.
  33. ^ [1] Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  34. ^ [2] Archived November 27, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  35. ^ Williams, Ralph Vaughan; Lloyd, A.L., eds. (1959). The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-85418-188-1. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume 1, New York: Dover Publications, 1965.
  • Meijer, Reinder. Literature of the Low Countries: A Short History of Dutch Literature in the Netherlands and Belgium. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971, page 35.
  • Marcello Sorce Keller, "Sul castel di mirabel: Life of a Ballad in Oral Tradition and Choral Practice", Ethnomusicology, XXX(1986), no. 3, 449-469.

External links[edit]