Death and the ravens

More knights this time. Not murderous for a change, only dead. One song in particular caught my attention: The Three Ravens (Child Ballad no. 26). It’s an achingly sad tale set after some battle or other. The ravens are looking for their breakfast and spy a dead knight lying on the field. But there’s some consolation: the man’s hawk, hounds and lady have all stayed faithful even after death, he gets an honourable grave and the birds are baulked of their meal. Not a happy ending but one offering the possibility that love and honour are more than mere words, and the hope that death is not quite the end of all things.

In the Oxford Book of Ballads it’s paired with another song, Twa Corbies (OBB no. 67). This is the same scenario and all the same elements but without any of the consoling gloss:

His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s ta’en anither mate
So we may mak’ our dinner sweet.

This story is bleak and stark as winter snow: the knight’s fate is to be picked bare by the crows and his bones left lying forever where he fell. No comfort, no consolation, not even a grave.

Perhaps the first man was a parfit gentil knight and the second a murderous rogue and thus each got what he deserved. Perhaps, but such thoughts can be only speculation and stories made up after the fact. In neither case are we told anything about the knight nor how he came to his end, only what happened afterwards. In short, the two songs offer alternative views of death: one hopeful, the other hopeless. Whichever one you find the more realistic, I suppose, depends upon your wider world view.

*Should you want to listen there’s a heartrendingly beautiful version of Three Ravens, sung by Karine Polwart, on Malinky‘s 3 Ravens. Steeleye Span have a pretty good recording of Twa Corbies on The Lark in the Morning.

This entry was posted in animal, Child Ballad, death, folk music, folk song, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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