The following article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book 'Travelling the Fairy Path'. It looks at material from the ballad 'The Elfin Knight' and what we may learn from it as people interested in fairylore. I find it particularly valuable in what it may teach is about the importance of consent for witches when dealing with the Fair Folk in certain situations, particularly sexual ones. We see themes of such compulsion appearing in some of the stories we have in folklore, most often relating to female fairies like the selkie brides, so I thought this example of a human woman or girl compelling a male fairy was a good example to use here.
In the context of the book it appears in a chapter discussing the ballad material more generally and what we can learn by analyzing it. Much of the book itself is focused on more practical and experimental material; this is the most academic chapter but I think offers a nice balance with the more practical and philosophical parts.
The Elfin Knight
This ballad is more familiar to most people in its later song form as ‘Scarborough Fair’ but in this older ballad the context is clearly supernatural. Later versions slowly lose this aspect and become a simpler song: in one example, variant I, about a woman trying to avoid marriage to an older man, and in others of one lover asking a person to remind another of them and ask them to complete impossible tasks. In the older versions the supernatural is clearly on display, telling the tale of a woman who wishes for an Elf Knight as her true love, and he responds by giving her a series of seemingly impossible tasks to complete to win him. She in turn gives him a series of equally impossible tasks to earn her as his wife. Below I will include one of the oldest versions which dates to 1670 (Caffrey, 2002). Then I’ll discuss some of the variations; as with many of the ballads there are multiple versions and some have significant differences.
The Elfin Knight Version 2B
1My plaid7 away, my plaid away
And over the hills and far away
And far away to Norway,
My plaid shall not be blown away.
The Elfin knight stands on yonder hill,
Refrain: Ba, ba, ba, lillie ba
He blows his horn both loud and shrill.
Refrain: The wind has blown my plaid away
2He blows it east, he blows it west
He blows it where he likes it best
3 ‘I wish that horn were in my chest,
Yes and the Knight in my arms next!
4 She had no sooner these words said
Than the Knight came to her bed.
5 ‘You are too young a girl’, he said
‘Married with me that you would be.’
6 ‘I have a sister younger than I
And she was married yesterday’
7 ‘Married with me if you would be
A courtesy you must do for me.
8 ‘It’s you must make a shirt for me,
Without any cut or seem’, said he.
9 ‘And you must shape it knife- and sheerless,
And also sow it needle and threadless.’
10 ‘If that piece of courtesy I do for you
Another you must do for me.
11 'I have an acre of good untilled land,
Which lays low by yonder sea shore.
12 'It’s you must till it with your blowing horn,
And you must sow it with pepper corn.
13 ‘And you must harrow with a thorn
And have your work done before the morning.’
14 ‘And you must shear it with your knife
And not lose a stack of it for your life.’
15 ‘And you must stack it in a mouse hole
And you must thresh it in your shoe-sole.’
16 ‘And you must prepare it in the palm of your hand
And also stack it in your glove
17 ‘And you must bring it over the sea
Fair and dry and clean to me.’
18 'And when you've done, and finished your work,
You'll come to me, and you’ll get your shirt.'
19 ‘I’ll not abandon my plaid for my life;
It covers my seven children and my wife.’
20 ‘My maidenhead I’ll then keep still
Let the Elfin Knight do what he will.’
(modified from Child, 1898)
This is a complex ballad and one that stands in stark contrast to others like Tam Lin and Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight. Like the latter though we see this one beginning with a young woman hearing an Elfin Knight blowing his horn and wishing aloud that she had him for her own, and like ‘Lady Isabel’ the elf seems compelled to immediately respond by going her. He does not seem to want to do this and we can gather his reluctance since his first comment is that she is too young for him, which she counters by saying that her younger sister was just married. In most versions the girl’s age is unspecified although she does seem to at least be of marriageable age; only in version D is her age given as the very young 9 years old and we may interpret his challenge to her there as a way to put her off until she’s older. In version A the Elf Knight says not only that she is too young but that ‘married with me you ill would be’ and in version C he asks her ‘Are you not over young a maid; with only young men down to lay?’ (Child, 1898). When she insists despite his concern over her age that she is acceptable – by referring to the marriage of her younger sister – he issues her a challenge, more kindly worded in version B above and more bluntly said in C ‘married with me you shall never be; until you make me a shirt without a seam [etc.,]’.
Looking at this section several things are clear. The Elf Knight seems to have no choice in responding to the young woman when she hears his horn and wishes for his company. He also seems unable to simply refuse her advances when she expresses a desire to marry him, or at the least to have sex with him. Instead he responds to her insistence by giving her a list of things she must do to earn him as a spouse, in all versions this seems to include making a shirt that is not sown or cut, and not touched by iron. In several alternate version there are additional requirements including:
D: '…wash it in yonder well,
Where the dew never wet, nor the rain ever fell
And you must dry it on a thorn
That never budded since Adam was born.’
Or alternately from version C:
‘And you must wash it in yonder cistern
Where water never stood nor ran
And you must dry it on yonder Hawthorn
Where the sun never shone since man was born.’
In both of these we see the key to the additions being the idea of washing the shirt in water that is not ordinary water and drying it on an ancient thorn tree that has either never flowered or never seen the sun for as long as humans have existed.
The girl responds to these challenges with a set of her own which in most versions are more complex than what she has been asked to do and involve plowing, planting, harvesting and preparing an acre of land in ways that are just as impossible as the shirt she has been asked to make. In some versions the land is said to ‘lay low by yonder sea strand’ but in some others it is specifically ‘between the sea and the sand’ (Child, 1898). We may perhaps assume the challenges are more difficult and numerous because the Elfin Knight is assumed to have a greater ability to achieve the impossible tasks than the girl is.
In the later variations the ballad ends with the young woman telling the Knight that when he has completed his task and is ready to present the literal fruit (or at least grain) of his labor he can return for his shirt. However in the two earlier versions, A and B, the woman responding with challenges of her own seems to free the elf of the compulsion he was under (or at least a portion of it), as he replies to her telling him when to come for the shirt by saying he won’t ‘abandon his plaid for his life; it covers his seven children and his wife’. In other words he doesn’t want to give up his own bed and family for this young woman. She at least has the good grace then to reply that she will keep her virginity and he can do as he will, certainly setting him completely free at that point.
There are also variations of the refrain which is presented here in the oldest form of ‘ba ba ba lillie ba; the wind has blown my plaid away’ which is found in variants A and B; versions C, D and E are fairly similar with the second line saying ‘and the wind has blown my plaid away’ but the first line varies from ‘over the hills and far away’ to ‘blow, blow, blow wind blow’ except version E which uses the opening line of the refrain from versions A and B. the refrain for version F is ‘sober and grave grows merry in time; once she was a true love of mine’ and marks the first version with no mention of the Elfin Knight. G introduces the famous lines ‘Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme; and you shall be a true lover of mine’ and H blends the previous two giving us ‘every rose grows merrier with thyme; and then you will be a true lover of mine’. I returns to the older version with ‘Hee ba and balou ba’ as the beginning but the reference to the wind blowing away the plaid to finish; J uses nonsense words. K’s refrain is ‘Sing ivy, sing ivy; sing holly, go whistle and ivy’ while L uses the variant ‘Sing ivy, sing ivy; sing green bush, ivy and holly’; finally M returns to a version of ‘Every rose springs merry in its time; and she longed to be a true lover of mine’. It is likely that the earliest refrains which rely on references to the wind blowing away the plaid are symbolic and that the plaid in this case was meant to represent either a loss of innocence or security. Caffrey in his article ‘The Elfin Knight Child #2: Impossible Tasks and Impossible Love’ suggests that the plaid is meant to have sexual connotations and that is certainly likely throughout the ballad. The other versions of the refrain include a selection of herbs: ivy, holly, rose, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Ivy was used in love magic and had protective qualities; holly is favored by fairies and also has protective qualities but interestingly was known as a plant that protected the heart against love (MacCoitir, 2006; MacCoitir, 2003). Rose not surprisingly has a long history as a symbol of love and also of beauty. Parsley is associated with lust and fertility; sage for fulfilling wishes; rosemary for love and lust; and thyme for love and attraction (Cunningham, 1985). All of these plants then have significance relating to the meaning of the ballad itself and for our purposes should be considered in the use of magic relating to working with or drawing the Fair Folk or love magic generally.
I think we can see from this that it is possible for a person to compel a Fairy being, particularly an Elfin Knight, if they hear his horn being blow and wish for him in that moment. However I think that this ballad along with ...‘Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight’ make it clear that it may be either unwise or dangerous to make such a wish. You may get what you wish for but in one case the result is a homicidal lover, while in the other it is a deeply reluctant one. Many of us may wish we had an Otherworldly lover or spouse but these ballads show us that forcing Fairy beings into these relationships does not work out well.
7A plaid is a length of cloth that can be worn as mantle but also serves as a bedcovering. In this context I might suggest the bedcovering meaning is intended although one might also see it as applying to a mantle being worn.
8In this version as well note that she does not claim that she has a younger sister who is already married but that she ‘has a sister eleven years old; and she to the young men’s bed has made bold’. This does not seem to be a persuasive argument for the Elf Knight however who continues to put her off.
Caffrey, N., (2002) The Elfin Knight Child #2: Impossible Tasks and Impossible Love
Child, F., (1898) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
Cunningham, S., (1985) Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs
MacCoitir, N., (2003) Irish Trees
--- (2006) Irish Wild Plants