More upon knights in this post (for some reason, my readers like posts about knights and who am I to disappoint them?). Child Ballad no. 2 is The Elfin Knight. It has a certain overlap with The Outlandish Knight (Child Ballad no. 4), but this knight isn’t interested in abduction or murder but is willing to marry the maid if she can perform the tasks he sets. He’s not that honourable a figure, since these are clearly impossible. Nor, fortunately, is the maid a fool, retorting with her own, equally outrageous demands. She’s right to be wary as, at its end, he goes back to the wife and bairns. Yet another perfidious knight (maybe an ancestor of the man in Soldier, soldier won’t you marry me, who takes all the clothes from her grandfather’s chest before heading back home?).
Actually I’ve got you here under false pretences. This post isn’t about knights at all, but upon variation in songs and how a full story can be reduced to a series of images and ideas. Perhaps reflecting the imperfect transmission of the oral tradition, the framing device is gone from many versions of the ballad, leaving only the conversation; as an example here’s The Cambric Shirt sung by Dr Faustus (do listen, it is a wonderful song). As Scarborough Fair, perhaps the best known folksong beyond the folk circuit, it is reduced even further, leaving only one side of that conversation. In this form, a story without its context, it must rely on the singer to conjure images and atmosphere if it’s to be more than series of pretty images – that evocative list of impossible tasks: shirts without stitches, gathering it with a wildflower, threshing it in a mouse’s hole and so on. Sung well, by Martin Carthy, say, or Chris Wood, it’s still one of my favourites (and here’s an example of it being done well, Scarborough Fair from The Imagined Village) but I must admit to a preference for The Elfin Knight.