The Elfin Knight

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"The Elfin Knight" (Roud 12, Child 2) 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] The ballad has been collected in different parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, the US, and Canada.[2] As is the case with most traditional folk songs, there have been countless completely different versions recorded of the same ballad. The first broadside version was printed before 1674, and the roots of the song may be considerably older.

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.[3])

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[4] 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.


'The Fairy Knight'

Buchan's Ballads of the North of Scotland, II, 296.

 
1 THE Elfin knight stands on yon hill,
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
Blawing his horn loud and shrill.
And the wind has blawin my plaid awa
 
2 'If I had yon horn in my kist,
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
And the bonny laddie here that I luve best!
And the wind has blawin my plaid awa
 
3 'Ye maun make me a fine Holland sark,
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
Without ony stitching or needle wark.
And the wind has blawin my plaid awa

4 'And ye maun wash it in yonder well,
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
Where the dew never wat, nor the rain ever fell.
And the wind has blawin my plaid awa
 
5 'Now sin ye've askd some things o me,
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
It 's right I ask as mony o thee.
And the wind has blawin my plaid awa

6 'My father he askd me an acre o land,
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
Between the saut sea and the strand.
And the wind has blawin my plaid awa

7 'And ye maun plow 't wi your blawing horn,
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
And ye maun saw 't wi pepper corn.
And the wind has blawin my plaid awa

8 'When ye've dune, and finishd your wark,
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
Ye'll come to me, luve, and get your sark.'
And the wind has blawin my plaid awa

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,[5] a fairy tale making use of this motif is The Wise Little Girl.

In Celtic folklore, in common with many other European traditions, impossible tasks are often given to a suitor as part of a wedding trial - a well known example would be Culhwch and Olwen from Welsh Brittonic tradition where the 40 impossible tasks are set by the father-in-law (in this case the giant Ysbadadden Pen Cawr).

Variants, including "Scarborough Fair"[edit]

This ballad was one of 25 traditional works included in Ballads Weird and Wonderful which was published by John Lane's The Bodley Head in 1912 and illustrated by Vernon Hill.[6]

The song "Scarborough Fair" is considered a relatively recent variant of "The Elfin Knight", and both are officially classified as the same ballad.[7] Mark Anderson (1874-1953), a retired lead-miner from either Newbiggin-by-the-Sea[8] or Middleton-in-Teesdale,[9] County Durham, England, sang "Scarborough Fair" to Ewan MacColl in 1947. Martin Carthy learnt the song from MacColl's songbook, and included it on his eponymous debut album in 1965. He taught the song to Paul Simon the same year, and Simon & Garfunkel released their own version, which was hugely successful.[10] Prior to this, Bob Dylan used Martin Carthy's version as the basis of his song "Girl from the North Country" from his second album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963).

A similar variant is "Whittingham Fair", a song that was popular in the north and west of Northumberland,[11] not far from Mark Anderson's County Durham. 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". Several recent Scottish recordings have preserved the "blaw winds blaw" refrain from the earliest written versions of the ballad.

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

Recordings[edit]

Following are some of the notable recordings of the ballad, including the artists, titles, albums, and years:

Artist Title Album Year
Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick "Scarborough Fair" Martin Carthy 1965
Joel Frederiksen "Whittingham Fair (The Elfin Knight)"

"The Lovers' Tasks (The Elfin Knight)"

"Scarborough Faire (The Elfin Knight)"

The Elfin Knight: Ballads and Dances 2007
Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger "The Elfin Knight (Child #2)" Classic Scots Ballads: Tradition Years 1959
Omnia "The Elven Lover" Alive! 2007
Kate Rusby "Elfin Knight" The Girl Who Couldn't Fly 2005
BOANN "Elfin Knight" Old Celtic & Nordic Ballads 2012

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ Francis James Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, "The Elfin Knight" Sacred-texts.com
  2. ^ See here.
  3. ^ Child, notes to Ballad #2, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
  4. ^ a shirt
  5. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 8, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  6. ^ ""Ballads Weird and Wonderful" (1912), illustrated by Vernon Hill (Spirit of the Ages)". spiritoftheages.com. Retrieved 2017-11-23.
  7. ^ Child, Francis James (1894). The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Part 9. Vol. 9. Boston / Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Company / The Riverside Press. p. 206.
  8. ^ "Can you decipher long-lost verse of historic dale song?". www.teesdalemercury.co.uk. Retrieved 2020-08-10.
  9. ^ "Alan Lomax Archive". research.culturalequity.org. Retrieved 2020-08-10.
  10. ^ "Sold on Song - Song Library - Scarborough Fair". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2020-08-10.
  11. ^ Peter Shepheard. "Child 2: The Elfin Knight". Springthyme.co.uk. Retrieved 2015-04-16.

Further reading[edit]

  • "American Versions of the Ballad of the Elfin Knight." The Journal of American Folklore 7, no. 26 (1894): 228-32. doi:10.2307/532838.
  • Niles, John Jacob, Ron Pen, and WILLIAM BARSS. "The Elfin Knight (Child No. 2)." In The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, 11-20. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2000. doi:10.2307/j.ctt130jnj1.7.

External links[edit]