Literature: Childe Rowland

Illustration by John D. Batten (1892)

And he went along, and along, and along, and still further along, till he came to the horseherd of the King of Elfland feeding his horses. These he knew by their fiery eyes, and he knew that he was at last in the land of Fairy.

"Childe Rowland" is a Fairy Tale, the most popular version having been published by Joseph Jacobs in his English Folk and Fairy Tales in 1892. It is said to be based on a Scottish ballad, which is why the text alternates between prose and rhyming stanzas.

Four children of a queen, Childe Rowland, his two older brothers and his sister, Burd Ellen, play ball near a church. When Rowland kicks the ball over the church, Burd Ellen goes to retrieve it, inadvertently circling the church "widershins", or opposite the way of the sun, and disappears. Rowland goes to Merlin to ask what became of his sister and is told that she has been taken to the Dark Tower by the King of Elfland, and that only the boldest knight in Christendom can retrieve her. The remainder of the tale follows Childe Rowland's attempt to save his sister, venturing to the Dark Tower of Elfland.

"Childe Rowland" is notably referenced in William Shakespeare's King Lear (Act III, scene 4), when Edgar, posing as mad Tom and rambling incoherently, says the lines:
Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still 'Fie, foh, and fum
I smell the blood of a British man.'
It is on the grounds of the King Lear lines that Joseph Jacobs called the King of Elfland's palace "the Dark Tower" in his version, as this name was not in the immediate source he used.

The tale has been referenced in many works, including Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, Lord Dunsany's 1924 novel The King of Elfland's Daughter, Alan Garner's 1965 novel Elidor, Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men and even Alastair Reynolds' 2003 novella Diamond Dogs. The fairy tale was also used in Martin Carthy's song "Jack Rowland" and a radio drama based on the tale. Despite the title, "Childe Rowland" has no close connection to Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (1855) (which is named for the King Lear lines).


This work provides examples of:

  • Changeling Tale: Burd Ellens is abducted by elves, although not substituted with a changeling.
  • Damsel in Distress: Burd Ellen.
  • Distressed Dudes: Childe Rowland's brothers who try to rescue Burd Ellen and are put into a magic coma by the Elf King.
  • The Fair Folk: The elves of "Childe Rowland" are clearly bad.
  • Food Chains: Rowland is warned by Merlin that to eat so much as a bite in Elfland will prevent him forever to return.
  • Girl in the Tower: Burd Ellen is held captive in the Dark Tower.
  • Land of Faerie: The "land of Fairy" or Elfland.
  • Merlin: The "Warlock Merlin" advises Rowland how Burd Ellen can be rescued.
  • Off with His Head!: Following Merlin's advice, Rowland lops off the head of every inhabitant of Elfland he talks to.
  • Screw You, Elves!: After Merlin has instructed Rowland how to evade the elves' evil magic, it turns out even a youngster like Rowland can defeat them single-handedly using nothing but brute force and a good sword.
  • Space Whale Aesop: Never run around a church widershins, or evil elves will kidnap you.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: Childe Rowland kills the horseherd, the cowherd and the henwife without any apparent qualms, nevermind they are probably innocent — but he grants mercy to the King of Elfland, even though the latter is the actual culprit (and even though this seemingly violates Merlin's warning).
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: On his way through Elfland, Childe Rowland chops off the head of a elvish horseherd, a cowherd and a henwife.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Rowland's two older brothers fail in their mission to free their sister and end up enchanted in Elfland, until Rowland rescues them together with Burd Ellen.