Literature: Child Ballads

Burd Isabel and Billy Blind, from Young Bekie

Has nothing to do with children.

In the late 19th century, Harvard professor Francis James Child was concerned that the tradition of folk songs in the British Isles was endangered—songs were dying out, unrecorded. He made it his personal mission to collect as many traditional folk songs as he could from England and Scotland. (Including Ireland, he felt, was way too ambitious a goal.)

He got about 300 of them, not including variants; many of the ballads have a dozen variants, or more, and most have several — though some are only fragmentary. (Some versions you may be familiar with have had verses created by the person performing them, to make the song make sense.) Even today, ballads are often referred to by the numbers Child assigned them. See here for the full text of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

They range, as ballads often do, from Fairy Tales in verse form all the way through to accounts of historical events, with historical characters, perhaps a little refined for story form. Many are recognizably popular forms of medieval Chivalric Romances.

Many of them are heavy on dialect, especially the Border Ballads, those collected on the English-Scottish border. Metrical considerations means that using standard English often requires a total rewrite. This also helps keep the number of Evil Matriarchs high; unlike a Fairy Tale, you can not merely Bowdlerise her into a Wicked Stepmother, because the terms change and no longer fit the meter. A Wicked Stepmother appears in different ballads than the Evil Matriarch.

Many Murder Ballads are Child Ballads. Robin Hood has so many that Child lumps them all together in their own volume.

Child Ballads may be thought of as the Scottish/English branch of a larger collection of Medieval Ballads. Medieval ballads are found in all countries around the North Sea, from Iceland to Sweden.

Those interested in a more thorough and detailed discussion might wish to check out this post and comment thread.

Child Ballads with their own page:

Tropes common in the Child Ballads:

  • Attempted Rape: In "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" (Child #4), the knight tricks the protagonist into running off to him, only to reveal that he intends to rape and kill her. Fortunately, she kills him instead.
  • Being Evil Sucks: The bandit learns this the hard way "Bonnie Banks o'Fordie" (Child #14)
  • Beware Of Hitch Hiking Ghosts: "The Suffolk Miracle" (Child #272) has this plot (with a horse instead of a car). In the ballad, the hitchhiker is the protagonist's lover, who died of grief when her father prevented him from seeing her; it also makes use of the reappearing garment device (in this case, a handkerchief which shows up in the man's grave).
  • Brother-Sister Incest: "Sheath and Knife" (Child #16), "The Bonny Hind" (Child #50), "Lizie Wan" (Child #51), "The King's Dochter Lady Jean" (Child #52), and "Brown Robyn's Confession" (Child #57)
  • Creepy Crows: Several ballads depict ravens and crows as creepy, but most especially "The Three Ravens" and its more cynical variant, "The Twa Corbies" (both are Child #26).
  • Death by Childbirth: In "Sheath and Knife" (Child #16), the pregnant woman goes with her brother to give birth
  • Death by Sex: Very common.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: In the versions of the ballad that give him a motive, Lamkin is a stonemason who brutally murders a lord's wife and infant son because the lord didn't pay him.
  • Distressed Dude: Tam Lin
  • Double In-Law Marriage: "Rose the Red and White Lily" not only ends with a pair of sisters marrying a pair of brothers, the brothers are their stepbrothers.
  • Downer Ending: Many ballads play this trope straight, others have endings that would have been considered happy in days past, but fall short of the mark by today's standards. Some "happy endings" are pretty horrific to modern audiences.
    • Ballad 110, wherein we learn that if a young woman is raped and the perpetrator is single, she will be forced to marry her rapist, whether she wants to or not.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones/My God, What Have I Done?: "Bonnie Banks o'Fordie" (Child #14). An outlaw comes upon three sisters in the woods. He threatens each one in turn to make her marry him. The first two refuse and are killed. The third threatens him with her brother or brothers. He asks after them and discovers that he is the brother. He commits suicide.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: "Willie O'Winsbury" (Child #100), also known as "John Barbour" or "Tom the Barber." In each version, the king's daughter becomes pregnant by the title character, and the king decides to give his blessing to the match after seeing how handsome the young man is. The version recorded by Pentangle contains this lyric:
    But when he came the king before,
    he was clad all in the red silk.
    His hair was like the strands of gold;
    his skin was as white as the milk.
    "And it is no wonder," said the king,
    "That my daughter's love you did win.
    If I were a woman, as I am a man,
    My bedfellow you would have been."
  • The Fair Folk: True to older folklore, most of the fairies and elves who appears in the ballads are right bastards.
    • In "King Orfeo" (Child #19), the king of the fairies kidnaps the protagonist's wife, Heurodis, just because he can.
    • In "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" (Child #4), the Elf knight entices the protagonist to run away with him (thought whether by means of flattery or magic depends on the version) and turns out to be The Bluebeard who intends her to kill her partially for her jewels and partially just For the Evulz.
    • In "The Queen of Elfan's Nourice" (Child #40), a woman is kidnapped to nurse the children of the Fairy Queen.
    • In "Hind Etin" (Child #41), Lady Margaret is abducted by the eponymous Hind Etin and bears him seven sons.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: To Eleanor of Aquitaine and William Marshal in "Queen Elanor's Confession." Whatever their faults (and there were many), they never had an affair, killed Rosamund de Clifford, or plotted to poison Henry II.
  • Ice Queen: Barbara Allen in "Barbara Allen" (Child #84). She only starts to defrost after a young man dies because of her.
  • Impossible Task:
    • "The Elfin Knight" (Child #2) is pretty much the Trope Codifier: a pair of ex-lovers challenge each other to impossible tasks which they want the other to fulfill before they would love them again.
      Ask him to find me an acre of land
      Between the salt water and the sea-strand,
      Plough it with a lamb's horn,
      Sow it all over with one peppercorn,
      Reap it with a sickle of leather,
      And gather it up with a rope made of heather ...
  • Infant Immortality: Averted in many ballads:
    • "The Maid and the Palmer" and "The Cruel Mother" are about mothers who killed or kill their own infants.
    • "Sir Patrick Spens" (Child #58) may be based on the ill-fated voyage of seven-year-old Margaret, Maid of Norway (and heiress to the Scottish crown) from Norway to Scotland. As in real life, she dies in the ballad—though in a shipwreck rather than of an illness.
    • "Lamkin" (Child #93) goes into graphic detail about the murder of a baby and his mother.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: In "Gil Breton", the child's birth comes with magical affirmation of his paternity, to avert this.
  • Morality Ballad: The constant use of Death by Sex in many of the ballads results in this trope.
  • The Mourning After: "The Unquiet Grave" (Child #78) initially plays this straight. In the end, though, it's subverted: The living lover's incessant grief prevents their beloved from resting in peace.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: The older sister in "Twa Sisters" and the Nut-Brown Maid in "Lord Thomas and Fair Annet" (Child #73) both do this.
  • Offing the Offspring: "The Cruel Mother" (Child #20), "The Maid and the Palmer" (Child #21)
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Though, in ballads, it's always a bad idea to be in love with a dead person, they're not necessarily evil per se. Ghosts and other revenants can pop up to drive their killers crazy ("The Cruel Mother", Child #20), or just to say goodbye ("Sweet William's Ghost", Child #77; "The Wife of Usher's Well", Child #79).
  • The Pardon: Often asked for, not always granted.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: Some ballads are clearly variants of older stories—"King Orfeo" (Child #19), for instance, is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. With Fair Folk.
  • Robin Hood: All of Book V, or ballads #117-154.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: The bandit does this to three sisters in "Bonnie Banks o'Fordie" (Child #14)
  • Secret Test of Character: Lovers are very fond of this, feigning poverty, or their own deaths, to discover whether the other really is in love with them.
  • Sibling Triangle: the sister's motive in "The Twa Sisters"
  • Standard Hero Reward: e.g. "The Golden Vanity" (Child #286) SUBVERTED TO THE MAX!!! The hero is told this is the reward, if he drills holes in the enemy man-o'-war, which he does (In a horribly poetic way: He let the water in, and it dazzled in their eyes, and he sunk them in the Low Lands Low.) He is then betrayed by the captain and is abandoned to drown in the ocean. Standard Hero Reward be damned!
  • Stock Puzzle: e.g. "Riddles Wisely Expounded" (Child #1), "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (Child #46)
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Around half of the ballads have these.
  • Stuffed into the Fridge: A noblewoman and her infant son in "Lamkin (Child #93) are brutally murdered because her killers harbor a grudge against her husband.
  • Surprise Incest: In "The Bonny Hind" (Child #50) and "The King's Dochter Lady Jean" (Child #52) with tragic consequences.
  • These Questions Three: In "The Devil's Nine Questions", a subtype of Child #1 "Riddles Wisely Expounded", the Devil challenges one or several human characters to answer nine (= three times three) riddles, threatening he will take to hell whoever cannot give the right answers. At least that is what he says: Many variants contain only eight riddles.
  • A Year and a Day: In "The Unquiet Grave" (Child #78), the protagonist mourns on their dead lover's grave for this long.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Sometimes played straight, sometimes subverted: in "The Twa Sisters" (Child #10), the elder kills the younger.

Alternative Title(s):

Child Ballad, The English And Scottish Popular Ballads