CHILDE ROWLAND – English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs

Childe Rowland and his brothers twain

Were playing at the ball,

And there was their sister Burd Ellen

In the midst, among them all.


Childe Rowland kicked it with his foot
And caught it with his knee;
At last as he plunged among them all
O’er the church he made it flee.

Burd Ellen round about the aisle
To seek the ball is gone,
But long they waited, and longer still,
And she came not back again.

They sought her east, they sought her west,
They sought her up and down,
And woe were the hearts of those brethren,
For she was not to be found.

So at last her eldest brother went to the Warlock Merlin and told him all the case, and asked him if he knew where Burd Ellen was. “The fair Burd Ellen,” said the Warlock Merlin, “must have been carried off by the fairies, because she went round the church ‘wider shins’—the opposite way to the sun. She is now in the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland; it would take the boldest knight in Christendom to bring her back.”

“If it is possible to bring her back,” said her brother, “I’ll do it, or perish in the attempt.”

“Possible it is,” said the Warlock Merlin, “but woe to the man or mother’s son that attempts it, if he is not well taught beforehand what he is to do.”

The eldest brother of Burd Ellen was not to be put off, by any fear of danger, from attempting to get her back, so he begged the Warlock Merlin to tell him what he should do, and what he should not do, in going to seek his sister. And after he had been taught, and had repeated his lesson, he set out for Elfland.

But long they waited, and longer still,
With doubt and muckle pain,
But woe were the hearts of his brethren,
For he came not back again.

Then the second brother got tired and sick of waiting, and he went to the Warlock Merlin and asked him the same as his brother. So he set out to find Burd Ellen.

But long they waited, and longer still,
With muckle doubt and pain,
And woe were his mother’s and brother’s heart,
For he came not back again.

And when they had waited and waited a good long time, Childe Rowland, the youngest of Burd Ellen’s brothers, wished to go, and went to his mother, the good queen, to ask her to let him go. But she would not at first, for he was the last of her children she now had, and if he was lost, all would be lost. But he begged, and he begged, till at last the good queen let him go, and gave him his father’s good brand that never struck in vain. And as she girt it round his waist, she said the spell that would give it victory.

So Childe Rowland said good-bye to the good queen, his mother, and went to the cave of the Warlock Merlin. “Once more, and but once more,” he said to the Warlock, “tell how man or mother’s son may rescue Burd Ellen and her brothers twain.”

“Well, my son,” said the Warlock Merlin, “there are but two things, simple they may seem, but hard they are to do. One thing to do, and one thing not to do. And the thing to do is this: after you have entered the land of Fairy, whoever speaks to you, till you meet the Burd Ellen, you must out with your father’s brand and off with their head. And what you’ve not to do is this: bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit, while in Elfland you be and never will you see Middle Earth again.”

So Childe Rowland said the two things over and over again, till he knew them by heart, and he thanked the Warlock Merlin and went on his way. And he went along, and along, and along, and still further along, till he came to the horse-herd of the King of Elfland feeding his horses. These he knew by their fiery eyes, and knew that he was at last in the land of Fairy. “Canst thou tell me,” said Childe Rowland to the horse-herd, “where the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower is?” “I cannot tell thee,” said the horse-herd, “but go on a little further and thou wilt come to the cow-herd, and he, maybe, can tell thee.”

Then, without a word more, Childe Rowland drew the good brand that never struck in vain, and off went the horse-herd’s head, and Childe Rowland went on further, till he came to the cow-herd, and asked him the same question. “I can’t tell thee,” said he, “but go on a little farther, and thou wilt come to the hen-wife, and she is sure to know.” Then Childe Rowland out with his good brand, that never struck in vain, and off went the cow-herd’s head. And he went on a little further, till he came to an old woman in a grey cloak, and he asked her if she knew where the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland was. “Go on a little further,” said the hen-wife, “till you come to a round green hill, surrounded with terrace-rings, from the bottom to the top; go round it three times, widershins, and each time say:

Open, door! open, door!
And let me come in.

and the third time the door will open, and you may go in.” And Childe Rowland was just going on, when he remembered what he had to do; so he out with the good brand, that never struck in vain, and off went the hen-wife’s head.

Then he went on, and on, and on, till he came to the round green hill with the terrace-rings from top to bottom, and he went round it three times, widershins, saying each time:

Open, door! open, door!
And let me come in.

And the third time the door did open, and he went in, and it closed with a click, and Childe Rowland was left in the dark.

It was not exactly dark, but a kind of twilight or gloaming. There were neither windows nor candles, and he could not make out where the twilight came from, if not through the walls and roof. These were rough arches made of a transparent rock, incrusted with sheepsilver and rock spar, and other bright stones. But though it was rock, the air was quite warm, as it always is in Elfland. So he went through this passage till at last he came to two wide and high folding-doors which stood ajar. And when he opened them, there he saw a most wonderful and glorious sight. A large and spacious hall, so large that it seemed to be as long, and as broad, as the green hill itself. The roof was supported by fine pillars, so large and lofty, that the pillars of a cathedral were as nothing to them. They were all of gold and silver, with fretted work, and between them and around them, wreaths of flowers, composed of what do you think? Why, of diamonds and emeralds, and all manner of precious stones. And the very key-stones of the arches had for ornaments clusters of diamonds and rubies, and pearls, and other precious stones. And all these arches met in the middle of the roof, and just there, hung by a gold chain, an immense lamp made out of one big pearl hollowed out and quite transparent. And in the middle of this was a big, huge carbuncle, which kept spinning round and round, and this was what gave light by its rays to the whole hall, which seemed as if the setting sun was shining on it.

The hall was furnished in a manner equally grand, and at one end of it was a glorious couch of velvet, silk and gold, and there sate Burd Ellen, combing her golden hair with a silver comb. And when she saw Childe Rowland she stood up and said:

“God pity ye, poor luckless fool,
What have ye here to do?

“Hear ye this, my youngest brother,
Why didn’t ye bide at home?
Had you a hundred thousand lives
Ye couldn’t spare any a one.

“But sit ye down; but woe, O, woe,
That ever ye were born,
For come the King of Elfland in,
Your fortune is forlorn.”

Then they sate down together, and Childe Rowland told her all that he had done, and she told him how their two brothers had reached the Dark Tower, but had been enchanted by the King of Elfland, and lay there entombed as if dead. And then after they had talked a little longer Childe Rowland began to feel hungry from his long travels, and told his sister Burd Ellen how hungry he was and asked for some food, forgetting all about the Warlock Merlin’s warning.

Burd Ellen looked at Childe Rowland sadly, and shook her head, but she was under a spell, and could not warn him. So she rose up, and went out, and soon brought back a golden basin full of bread and milk. Childe Rowland was just going to raise it to his lips, when he looked at his sister and remembered why he had come all that way. So he dashed the bowl to the ground, and said: “Not a sup will I swallow, nor a bit will I bite, till Burd Ellen is set free.”

Just at that moment they heard the noise of some one approaching, and a loud voice was heard saying:

“Fee, fi, fo, fum,
I smell the blood of a Christian man,
Be he dead, be he living, with my brand,
I’ll dash his brains from his brain-pan.”

And then the folding-doors of the hall were burst open, and the King of Elfland rushed in.

“Strike then, Bogle, if thou darest,” shouted out Childe Rowland, and rushed to meet him with his good brand that never yet did fail. They fought, and they fought, and they fought, till Childe Rowland beat the King of Elfland down on to his knees, and caused him to yield and beg for mercy. “I grant thee mercy,” said Childe Rowland, “release my sister from thy spells and raise my brothers to life, and let us all go free, and thou shalt be spared.” “I agree,” said the Elfin King, and rising up he went to a chest from which he took a phial filled with a blood-red liquor. With this he anointed the ears, eyelids, nostrils, lips, and finger-tips, of the two brothers, and they sprang at once into life, and declared that their souls had been away, but had now returned. The Elfin king then said some words to Burd Ellen, and she was disenchanted, and they all four passed out of the hall, through the long passage, and turned their back on the Dark Tower, never to return again. And they reached home, and the good queen, their mother, and Burd Ellen never went round a church widershins again.

Source.—Jamieson’s Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, 1814, p. 397 seq., who gives it as told by a tailor in his youth, c. 1770. I have Anglicised the Scotticisms, eliminated an unnecessary ox-herd and swine-herd, who lose their heads for directing the Childe, and I have called the Erlkönig’s lair the Dark Tower on the strength of the description and of Shakespeare’s reference. I have likewise suggested a reason why Burd Ellen fell into his power, chiefly in order to introduce a definition of “widershins.” “All the rest is the original horse,” even including the erroneous description of the youngest son as the Childe or heir (cf. “Childe Harold” and Childe Wynd, infra, No. xxxiii.), unless this is some “survival” of Junior Right or “Borough English,” the archaic custom of letting the heirship pass to the youngest son. I should add that, on the strength of the reference to Merlin, Jamieson calls Childe Rowland’s mother, Queen Guinevere, and introduces references to King Arthur and his Court. But as he confesses that these are his own improvements on the tailor’s narrative I have eliminated them.

Parallels.—The search for the Dark Tower is similar to that of the Red Ettin, (cf. Köhler on Gonzenbach, ii. 222). The formula “youngest best,” in which the youngest of three brothers succeeds after the others have failed, is one of the most familiar in folk-tales amusingly parodied by Mr. Lang in his Prince Prigio. The taboo against taking food in the underworld occurs in the myth of Proserpine, and is also frequent in folk-tales (Child, i. 322). But the folk-tale parallels to our tale fade into insignificance before its brilliant literary relationships. There can be little doubt that Edgar, in his mad scene in King Lear, is alluding to our tale when he breaks into the lines:

“Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came….” His word was still: “Fie, foh and fum, I smell the blood of a British man.” King Lear, act iii. sc. 4, ad fin.

[Footnote: “British” for “English.” This is one of the points that settles the date of the play; James I. was declared King of Great Britain, October 1604. I may add that Motherwell in his Minstrelsy, p. xiv. note, testifies that the story was still extant in the nursery at the time he wrote (1828).]

The latter reference is to the cry of the King of Elfland. That some such story was current in England in Shakespeare’s time, is proved by that curious mélange of nursery tales, Peele’s The Old Wives’ Tale. The main plot of this is the search of two brothers, Calypha and Thelea, for a lost sister, Delia, who has been bespelled by a sorcerer, Sacrapant (the names are taken from the “Orlando Furioso”). They are instructed by an old man (like Merlin in “Childe Rowland”) how to rescue their sister, and ultimately succeed. The play has besides this the themes of the Thankful Dead, the Three Heads of the Well (which see), the Life Index, and a transformation, so that it is not to be wondered at if some of the traits of “Childe Rowland” are observed in it.

But a still closer parallel is afforded by Milton’s Comus. Here again we have two brothers in search of a sister, who has got into the power of an enchanter. But besides this, there is the refusal of the heroine to touch the enchanted food, just as Childe Rowland finally refuses. And ultimately the bespelled heroine is liberated by a liquid, which is applied to her lips and finger-tips, just as Childe Rowland’s brothers are unspelled. Such a minute resemblance as this cannot be accidental, and it is therefore probable that Milton used the original form of “Childe Rowland,” or some variant of it, as heard in his youth, and adapted it to the purposes of the masque at Ludlow Castle, and of his allegory. Certainly no other folk-tale in the world can claim so distinguished an offspring.

Remarks.—Distinguished as “Childe Rowland” will be henceforth as the origin of Comus, if my affiliation be accepted, it has even more remarkable points of interest, both in form and matter, for the folklorist, unless I am much mistaken. I will therefore touch upon these points, reserving a more detailed examination for another occasion.

First, as to the form of the narrative. This begins with verse, then turns to prose, and throughout drops again at intervals into poetry in a friendly way like Mr. Wegg. Now this is a form of writing not unknown in other branches of literature, the cante-fable, of which “Aucassin et Nicolette” is the most distinguished example. Nor is the cante-fable confined to France. Many of the heroic verses of the Arabs contained in the Hamâsa would be unintelligible without accompanying narrative, which is nowadays preserved in the commentary. The verses imbedded in the Arabian Nights give them something of the character of a cante-fable, and the same may be said of the Indian and Persian story-books, though the verse is usually of a sententious and moral kind, as in the gâthas of the Buddhist Jatakas. Even as remote as Zanzibar, Mr. Lang notes, the folk-tales are told as cante-fables. There are even traces in the Old Testament of such screeds of verse amid the prose narrative, as in the story of Lamech or that of Balaam. All this suggests that this is a very early and common form of narrative.

Among folk-tales there are still many traces of the cante-fable. Thus, in Grimm’s collection, verses occur in Nos. 1, 5, 11, 12, 13, 15, 19, 21, 24, 28, 30, 36, 38a, b, 39a, 40, 45, 46, 47, out of the first fifty tales, 36 per cent. Of Chambers’ twenty-one folk-tales, in the Popular Rhymes of Scotland only five are without interspersed verses. Of the forty-three tales contained in this volume, three (ix., xxix., xxxiii.) are derived from ballads and do not therefore count in the present connection. Of the remaining forty, i., iii., vii., xvi., xix., xxi., xxiii., xxv., xxxi., xxxv., xxxviii., xli. (made up from verses), xliii., contain rhymed lines, while xiv., xxii., xxvi., and xxxvii., contain “survivals” of rhymes (“let me come in—chinny chin-chin”; “once again … come to Spain;” “it is not so—should be so”; “and his lady, him behind”); and x. and xxxii. are rhythmical if not rhyming. As most of the remainder are drolls, which have probably a different origin, there seems to be great probability that originally all folk-tales of a serious character were interspersed with rhyme, and took therefore the form of the cante-fable. It is indeed unlikely that the ballad itself began as continuous verse, and the cante-fable is probably the protoplasm out of which both ballad and folk-tale have been differentiated, the ballad by omitting the narrative prose, the folk-tale by expanding it. In “Childe Rowland” we have the nearest example to such protoplasm, and it is not difficult to see how it could have been shortened into a ballad or reduced to a prose folk-tale pure and simple.

The subject-matter of “Childe Rowland” has also claims on our attention especially with regard to recent views on the true nature and origin of elves, trolls, and fairies. I refer to the recently published work of Mr. D. MacRitchie, “The Testimony of Tradition” (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.)—i.e., of tradition about the fairies and the rest. Briefly put, Mr. MacRitchie’s view is that the elves, trolls, and fairies represented in popular tradition are really the mound-dwellers, whose remains have been discovered in some abundance in the form of green hillocks, which have been artificially raised over a long and low passage leading to a central chamber open to the sky. Mr. MacRitchie shows that in several instances traditions about trolls or “good people” have attached themselves to mounds, which have afterwards on investigation turned out to be evidently the former residence of men of smaller build than the mortals of to-day. He goes on further to identify these with the Picts—fairies are called “Pechs” in Scotland—and other early races, but with these ethnological equations we need not much concern ourselves. It is otherwise with the mound-traditions and their relation, if not to fairy tales in general, to tales about fairies, trolls, elves, etc. These are very few in number, and generally bear the character of anecdotes. The fairies, etc., steal a child, they help a wanderer to a drink and then disappear into a green hill, they help cottagers with their work at night but disappear if their presence is noticed; human midwives are asked to help fairy mothers, fairy maidens marry ordinary men or girls marry and live with fairy husbands. All such things may have happened and bear no such à priori marks of impossibility as speaking animals, flying through the air, and similar incidents of the folk-tale pure and simple. If, as archaeologists tell us, there was once a race of men in Northern Europe, very short and hairy, that dwelt in underground chambers artificially concealed by green hillocks, it does not seem unlikely that odd survivors of the race should have lived on after they had been conquered and nearly exterminated by Aryan invaders and should occasionally have performed something like the pranks told of fairies and trolls.

Certainly the description of the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland in “Childe Rowland,” has a remarkable resemblance to the dwellings of the “good folk,” which recent excavations have revealed. By the kindness of Mr. MacRitchie, I am enabled to give the reader illustrations of one of the most interesting of these, the Maes-How of Orkney. This is a green mound some 100 feet in length and 35 in breadth at its broadest part. Tradition had long located a goblin in its centre, but it was not till 1861 that it was discovered to be pierced by a long passage 53 feet in length, and only two feet four inches high, for half of its length. This led into a central chamber 15 feet square and open to the sky.

Now it is remarkable how accurately all this corresponds to the Dark Tower of “Childe Rowland,” allowing for a little idealisation on the part of the narrator. We have the long dark passage leading into the well-lit central chamber, and all enclosed in a green hill or mound. It is of course curious to contrast Mr. Batten’s frontispiece with the central chamber of the How, but the essential features are the same. Even such a minute touch as the terraces on the hill have their bearing, I believe, on Mr. MacRitchie’s “realistic” views of Faerie. For in quite another connection Mr. G. L. Gomme, in his recent “Village Community” (W. Scott), pp. 75-98, has given reasons and examples for believing that terrace cultivation along the sides of hills was a practice of the non-Aryan and pre-Aryan inhabitants of these isles. [Footnote: To these may be added Iona (cf. Duke of Argyll, Iona, p. 109).] Here then from a quarter quite unexpected by Mr. MacRitchie, we have evidence of the association of the King of Elfland with a non-Aryan mode of cultivation of the soil. By Mr. Gomme’s kindness I am enabled to give an illustration of this.

Altogether it seems not improbable that in such a tale as “Childe Rowland” we have an idealised picture of a “marriage by capture” of one of the diminutive non-Aryan dwellers of the green hills with an Aryan maiden, and her re-capture by her brothers. It is otherwise difficult to account for such a circumstantial description of the interior of these mounds, and especially of such a detail as the terrace cultivation on them. At the same time it must not be thought that Mr. MacRitchie’s views explain all fairy tales, or that his identifications of Finns = Fenians = Fairies = Sidhe = “Pechs” = Picts, will necessarily be accepted. His interesting book, so far as it goes, seems to throw light on tales about mermaids (Finnish women in their “kayaks,”) and trolls, but not necessarily, on fairy tales in general. Thus, in the present volume, besides “Childe Rowland,” there is only “Tom Tit Tot” in his hollow, the green hill in “Kate Crackernuts,” the “Cauld Lad of Hilton,” and perhaps the “Fairy Ointment,” that are affected by his views.

Finally, there are a couple of words in the narrative that deserve a couple of words of explanation: “Widershins” is probably, as Mr. Batten suggests, analogous to the German “wider Schein,” against the appearance of the sun, “counter-clockwise” as the mathematicians say—i.e., W., S., E., N., instead of with the sun and the hands of a clock; why it should have an unspelling influence is hard to say. “Bogle” is a provincial word for “spectre,” and is analogous to the Welsh bwg, “goblin,” and to the English insect of similar name, and still more curiously to the Russian “Bog,” God, after which so many Russian rivers are named. I may add that “Burd” is etymologically the same as “bride” and is frequently used in the early romances for “Lady.”
By Anonymous