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The Elfin Knight (Child #2)
Impossible tasks and impossible love
- by
Nick Caffrey Issue 47 March 2002




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The Elfin Knight is one of the few ballads to gain international popularity in recent years when Paul Simon adapted an arrangement of Scarborough Fair and added a lyrical counter melody in his pleasant variation of the ballad. This is a riddling song but in this ballad the riddle is more in the form of impossible tasks. Riddles and conundrums have long been a popular theme in folktales and songs throughout Europe and Northern America. The riddles in British folksongs and ballads usually take the form of a confrontation with the supernatural (or the Devil in some versions), or potential lovers. In the case of supernatural ballads the soul of the mortal may be the prize; with the lovers' marriage or seduction the prize. I intend to explore the tradition of riddles when I look at the ballad "Riddles Wisely Expounded" in a future article.

Background

The earliest noted versions of "The Elfin Knight" tell of a young maiden who magically summons the Elfin Knight into her bedroom, but he tells her she is too young and sets her impossible tasks to perform before he will become her lover and she counters this by setting him equally impossible tasks. When the Elfin Knight declares that he is already married with children, she quite rightly rejects him and so he disappears. It is important to establish this full story because many of the later versions retain only the tasks and these do not always make any obvious sense. As the song has passed through the community and down the ages the story frame has been lost leaving the tasks to stand by themselves this is especially true of English versions of the song. "Scarborough Fair" (aka Whittingham Fair or other variations) has a very simple frame that seems to reflect on a lost love:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Remember me to one who lives there.

By the time the song has reached the nursery even this pretence has gone:

My Father has an acre of land,
Hey ho sing Ivy,
My father has an acre of land,
A bunch of green holly and ivy

The earliest recorded form of the ballad dates back to a broadside version printed in the 1670s and the earliest version collected from a traditional singer is from M Kinnear, a native of Mearnshire on 23 August 1826 and printed in Kinloch's "Ancient Scottish Ballads". Unfortunately when these early version were collected it was the words that attracted the attention and the tunes were ignored. In more recent times only the simplified tasks versions of the song have been found both in Britain and in North America.

Refrains

The early form of the ballad usually has the first refrain as 'Ba-ba-ba lily ba' and the second as 'The wind it blows my plaid awa.' I have read of several theories on the meaning of these refrains: on one hand they have sexual connotations and on the other that the first refrain is a corrupt form of some ancient protection spell. As I am not an expert on these things I leave the reader to make their own choice and research. The more recent herb motifs such as 'Parsley (or Savoury) Sage Rosemary and Thyme', and 'A Bunch of green Holly and Ivy' have also been subjected to some study. Lucy Broadwood in an article for the Journal of the Folk Song Society 1907 and Anne Gilchrist in a further article in Journal of the Folk Song Society 1930 tells us that traditionally each of the herbs was protection against evil or sorcery.

Tunes

Bertrand Bronson in his extremely helpful and important work "The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads" identifies three specific musical groups. The first relates to the older form of the ballad and its link with the tune known as 'The Wind hath blawn my Plaid awa' which itself is related to 'Over the Hills and Far Awa'. Bronson feels that we have some difficulty in clearly linking the tune to the words because there are no early examples of both words and tune collected together. He thinks that they may have been linked through the broadside singers based on an earlier traditional tune. Versions of this form have been collected throughout Scotland and Northern America

With the second group Bronson is much more sure that they belong within the tradition; these are the Scarborough Fair group of songs. He tells us that all the variants of this group are in triple rhythm. Versions of this have been collected throughout the British Isles

The third group appeared around the middle of the Nineteenth century and is the Sing Ivy versions of the song and is wholly English.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this ballad is that which ever form or variation the singer may choose the song is always enjoyable to sing and offers deeper tones and themes the more often the singer performs it. The earliest known text of "The Elfin Knight" is in the Pepysian Library and dates from around 1670, probably from a black letter broadside. The words and format is typical of the other versions where the older text is used.

My plaid awa my plaid awa
And ore the hills and far awa
And far awa to Norrowa* *(Norway?)
My plaid shall not be blown awa

The elfin knight sits on yon hill
Ba, ba, ba, lilli ba
He blaws* his horn both loud and shrill *(blows)
The wind hath blown my plaid awa

He blowes it east he blows it west
He blowes it where he lyketh best

I wish that horn were in my kist* *(chest)
Yea, and the knight in my armes two

She had no sooner these words said
When the knight came to her bed

Thou art over young a maid, quoth he
Married with me thou il wouldst be

I have a sister younger than I
And she was married yesterday

For thou must shape a sark* to me *(shirt)
Without any cut or heme*, quoth he. *(hem)

Thou must shape it knife and sheerlesse *(sheers -less)
And also sue it needle- threedlesse

If that piece of coutesie I do thee
Another thou must do to me

I have an aiker*of good ley-land *(acre)
Which lyeth low by yon sea-strand

For thou must eare* it with thy horn *(plough)
So thou must sow it with thy corn

And bigg* a cart of stone and lyme *(build)
Robin Redbreast he must trail it hame

Thou must barn it in a mouse holl
And thrash it into thy shoes soll*. *(sole)

And thou must winnow it in thy looff* *(palm of the hand)
And also seck* it in thy glove *(sack)

For thou must bring it over the sea
And thou must bring it dry home to me

When thou hast gotten thy turns done well
Then come to me and get thy sark then

I'l not quite my plaid for my life
Ba, ba, ba lillie ba
It haps my seven bairns and my wife
The wind shall not blow my plaid awa

My maidenheads I'l then keep still
Ba, ba, ba lillie ba
Let the elphin knight do what he will
The wind's not blown my plaid awa.


Recommended reading:
Versions of The Elfin Knight appear in most collections of ballads, sometimes with a tune. The list below refers to some of the books and articles to which I have consulted in writing the above

Although many of the following are currently out of print (OP) they can sometimes be found in the local library or second hand bookshops. I quote the most recently know editions, as it is likely that these can be still be picked up.

The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
ed. Francis James Child (5 volumes) (OP) Dover Publications paperback editions can still be found. See Volume 1 for other Elfin Knight ballads.

The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads
ed. Bertrand Harris Bronson (4 volumes) (OP). Princeton University Press, New Jersey. 1959 - 1972. An abridged one-volume edition was printed in 1976

Northumbrian Minstrelsy
ed. Bruce and Stokoe. Paperback edition in print from Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach, Lampeter, Ceredigion SA48 8PJ

The Greig - Duncan Folk Song Collection.
Ed Patrick Shuldham- Shaw, Emily Lyle et al. Aberdeen University Press and Mercat Press 1981 - 1997. (7 volumes with volume 8 still eagerly awaited). The Elfin Knight can be found in volume 2.

Journal of the Folk Song Society 1907 & 1930.
(OP). Members of the English Folk Dance and Song Society can obtain photocopies of the Journals on a payment per sheet basis.

A Song For Every Season
by Bob Copper. Heinmann Ltd. 1971. Several book club editions were printed as well as a paperback edition. This excellent book can easily be found. I would also recommend Bob's other books Early To Rise and Songs and Southern Breezes, which contain songs and ballads from the South of England.

 

Nick Caffrey

Links, further information and recordings: