General Writing

Harp and Carp: The Fantasy of Medieval Ballads

Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer

In the writing community, you often hear that Europe is exhausted as a source for fantasy. Europe, people say, has been the default for so long that not much original can be done with it any more. Instead, writers are advised to look to other cultures. Nothing is wrong with that advice — providing, of course, that you observe any rules in the culture about who can tell which stories, and familiarize yourself with your culture of choice. However, Europe still has plenty of untapped inspirations, and, among those, my favorite are the English and Scots ballads that flourished 1300-1700. In fact, I go so far as to say that some of the most evocative fantasy ever written can be found in some of those ballads.

Usually, these ballads are not closely tied to time or place. Even when they allude to historical events, they are not always bound by fact. However, they usually depict a land ruled by feuding lords who are a law to themselves, and where raiding and revenge are a way of life. Many seem to derive from the Anglo-Scots border, where lawlessness prevailed even after the unification of England and Scotland.

Even when fantasy is not a major element, a sense of the uncanny is rarely far away. Consider, for example, this verse from “The Battle of Otterburn“:

Last night I dreamed the drearest dream,
Beyond the isle of Skye,
I saw a dead man win a fight,
And I thought that man was I.

Some ballads may not have been considered fantasy at the time they were written, but would be considered fantasy now — although, even 800 years ago, prophecies and visitations by the devil were presumably not the stuff of everyday life. In “The False Knight on the Road,” a child meets the devil, and his only hope is to stand firm, answering promptly until morning forces the devil to withdraw:

“Methinks I hear a bell,” says the knight on the road,
“It’s ringing you to hell,” said the child where he stood,
And he stood and he stood, and ’tis well that he stood,
“It’s ringing you to hell,” says the child.

. And in “The Great Silkie,” a man who shape-changes into a seal comes to retrieve the son he got on a helpless woman, and leaves with this eerie prophecy (presented here , as all other quotes, with modern wording):

And you shall marry a proud gunner,
And a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And with the first shot that e’er he fires,
He’ll kill my son and me.

Others are murder ballads that could have come straight from The Game of Thrones, straying from the improbable to the fantastic. For example, in “The Famous Flower of Serving Men,” a woman’s husband and baby is killed for unknown reasons by her mother. After burying her husband, the woman disguises herself as a man and takes service with the king. The king discovers the murder after being led to the grave by the husband’s spirit in the form of a stag and a singing dove, and realizing that his court favorite is a woman, kisses her the next time they meet. and takes revenge on the mother:

“And don’t you think that her heart was sore
As she laid the mould on his yellow hair
And don’t you think her heart was woe
As she turned about, all away to go.

“And how she wept as she changed her name
From Fair Eleanor to Sweet William,
Went to court to serve her king
As the famous flower of serving men.”

Still others are outright fantasies. “The Elf Knight” is a Blackbeard-like story, while “Allison Gross” is about a spurned witch who turns the man who rejects her advances into a giant worm. In two of the most popular ballads, the elves feature prominently. In “Tam Lin,” a young pregnant woman rescues her lover from the elves by dragging him from his horse as the elven host rides by a lonely place at midnight, holding on to him as the Elven Queen transforms him into dangerous shapes:

Well they changed him then – it was all in her arms
To a lion roaring wild
But she held him tight, she feared him not
He was the father of her child, she knew that he was
The father of her child.

Similarly, in “Thomas the Rhymer,” Thomas of Ercildoune — a historical figure in Scotland — meets the Queen of Elfland and is carried off to her realm, after being given the gift of prophecy. The song ends with one of the loveliest expressions of medieval Christianity, in which the Queen shows Thomas three paths: one to Heaven, Hell, and Elfland:

And do you see yon narrow, narrow road,
All beset by thorns and briars,
That is the path of righteousness,
Though after it but few inquire.

Don’t you see yon broad, broad road
That lies across the lily leaven?
That is the road to wickedness
Though some call it the road to heaven

Don’t you see yon bonnie, bonnie road
That winds about the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elf land
Where you and I this night must stray.

I could go on and on, but I think I already have. For those interested in learning more, Child Ballads collects over three hundred of these ballads, complete with variations. Many recordings are available on Youtube from folk acts like Fairport Convention, The Corries, June Tabor, and Steeleye Span. Together they represent a rich source of mostly unused material in fiction, despite the current popularity of retold fairy tales. If you don’t find some inspiration in them, you might at least find some music to write by.

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