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Literature / Child Ballads

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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 were 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 or Overbearing Mothers high compared to Wicked Stepmothers since the scansion and meter of "mother" note  and "stepmother" note  are not interchangeable. 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:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: "Kemp Owyne" (#34), "Alison Gross" (#35). Folklorists refer to this trope as the “loathly lady”, and the abhorrent admirer is typically under a curse; when that is broken, she reverts to her true form, which isn’t at all abhorrent.
  • Actually, I Am Him: Played for tragedy in "Bonnie Banks o'Fordie" (#14) A young woman tells a bandit who's trying to rape her that her brother will surely take vengeance on him, only for the bandit to realize that he is the brother she's talking about.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: "King Orfeo" is a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, but Orfeo actually gets his wife back in this one.
  • Attempted Rape: In "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" (#4), the knight tricks the protagonist into running off with him, only to reveal that he intends to rape and kill her. Fortunately, she kills him instead.
  • Bedroom Adultery Scene:
    • In "Our Goodman" (#274) the husband finds more and more evidence that his wife is cheating on him, until he finally catches the lover in the bedroom. The wife tries to explain he's really a milkmaid. The husband sarcastically notes that he's never seen a milkmaid with a beard before.
    • In "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard" (or "Matty Groves", depending) the jealous Lord Barnard arrives to find his wife in bed with a handsome young servant, and demands the servant get up and get dressed so he can kill him in an honorable duel.
  • Being Evil Sucks: The bandit learns this the hard way in "Bonnie Banks o'Fordie" (#14)
  • Beware Of Hitch Hiking Ghosts: "The Suffolk Miracle" (#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:
    • In some variants of "The Maid and the Palmer" (#21),the Maid's six dead children were fathered by her brother.
    • In "Brown Robyn's Confession" (#57), the protagonist confesses to having fathered five children with his sister.
  • Burn the Witch!: In some versions of the ballad "Young Hunting" (#47; a.k.a. Earl Richard/ Love Henry) the lady gets punished this way for killing her lover. Certain versions also include her trying to pin the murder on her maid, who gets acquitted because she won't burn no matter what the king's men try.
  • 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 #26).
  • Creepy Uncle: In some variants of "The Maid and the Palmer" (#21),the Maid's six dead children were fathered by her uncle.
  • Death by Childbirth: In "Sheath and Knife" (#16), the pregnant woman goes with her brother to give birth.
  • Death of a Child: Happens in many ballads:
    • "The Cruel Mother" (#20) and "The Maid and the Palmer" (#21) are about mothers who killed or kill their own infants.
    • "Sir Patrick Spens" (#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" (#93) goes into graphic detail about the murder of a baby and his mother.
  • 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 needs to be rescued from the fairy queen before she gives him to Hell.
  • Domestic Abuse: In "Wee Cooper of Fife" (#277) the cooper beats or threatens to beat his wife for refusing to do housework.
  • 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" (#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" (#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."
  • Evil Matriarch: * In "The Lass of Roch Royal" (#76), the mother turns away her son's lover and his baby, although they will (and do) die in the cold weather.
  • The Fair Folk: True to older folklore, most of the fairies and elves who appears in the ballads are right bastards.
    • In "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" (#4), the Elf knight entices the protagonist to run away with him (though whether by means of flattery or magic depends on the version) and turns out to be The Bluebeard who intends to rape and kill her, as he's done to numerous other women in the past. She outwits him, though, and kills himself instead.
    • In "King Orfeo" (#19), the king of the fairies kidnaps the protagonist's wife, Heurodis, just because he can.
    • In "The Queen of Elfan's Nourice" (#40), a woman is kidnapped to nurse the children of the Fairy Queen.
    • In "Hind Etin" (#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" (#156). Whatever their faults (and there were many), they didn't have an affair with each other, kill Rosamund de Clifford, or plot to poison Henry II.
  • Honor-Related Abuse:
    • In "Lady Maisry" (#65), the Scottish protagonist is killed by her family for becoming pregnant out of wedlock by an Englishman.
    • In "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard" (#81), Lord Barnard kills Little Musgrave and his wife for having an affair.
    • In "Andrew Lammie" (#233), Tifty's Annie falls in love with Andrew Lammie and refuses to marry a lord. In response, her father and brother beat her to force her into marriage. She remains steadfast in her refusal, though, and her father and/or brother kill her.
    • The protagonist of "The Rantin Laddie" (#240) gives birth to her lover's bastard child, and is thereafter confined to the kitchen, scorned by her family, shunned by her friends, and even disrespected by the servants. In a rare happy ending for this trope, she manages to send a letter to the father of the child (the titular Rantin' Laddie), who arrives to rescue her.
  • Ice Queen: Barbara Allen in "Barbara Allen" (#84). She only starts to defrost after a young man dies because of her.
  • Implausible Deniability:
    • "Our Goodman" (#274) is all about a cheating wife trying to explain away evidence of her infidelity. It starts when the husband notices a strange horse outside his house, and she tries to claim it's actually a cow sent by a relative. The lies get more ridiculous from there.
    • Several ballads, like "Edward", are about someone who has obviously committed a murder trying to explain the blood all over his clothes as coming from his hawk, his horse, etc.
  • Impossible Task:
    • "The Elfin Knight" (#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 ...
  • Karma Houdini: In some versions of "The Twa Sisters", the older sister gets their lover and all his land scot-free, leaving the miller who robbed the younger sister's corpse (or, in particularly dark iterations, pulled her out while she was still alive to take her gold ring and then threw her back) to take all the blame.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Unmarried women become pregnant very easily, often by extremely unsuitable people, sometimes by their own relatives.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: In "Gil Breton", the child's birth comes with magical affirmation of his paternity, to avert this.
  • The Mourning After: "The Unquiet Grave" (#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 Ballad: If no one's getting stabbed to death or drowned by their own siblings (either by accident or out of jealousy), poisoned by their parents (for making an unapproved marriage), shot or stabbed by a jealous lover or spouse (too many to count), dying of heartbreak and/or shame, or killing themselves, is it really a Child ballad?
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: The older sister in "Twa Sisters" (#10) and the Nut-Brown Maid in "Lord Thomas and Fair Annet" (#73) both do this.
  • "No Peeking!" Request: In one of the variants for the "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" ballad, called "The Outlandish Knight". A knight and a lady are planning to elope to his faraway home via a boat, but actually is planning to throw her into the sea and make off with her money. When they arrive in the boat, he asks her to Take Off Your Clothes, since her silken dress is too valuable and would rot during the trip. She tells him to turn away while she strips, and he does so, only for her to push him over the edge as he has his back turned, since she figured out he planned to drown her.
  • Offing the Offspring: The cruel mother in "The Cruel Mother" (#20) and the maid in "The Maid and the Palmer" (#21) killed their own babies.
  • 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", #20), or just to say goodbye ("Sweet William's Ghost", #77; "The Wife of Usher's Well", #79).
  • The Pardon: Often asked for, not always granted.
  • Parental Incest:
    • In some variants of "The Maid and the Palmer" (#21),the Maid's six dead children were fathered by her own father.
    • In "Brown Robyn's Confession" (#57), the protagonist confesses to having fathered two children with his mother.
  • Recycled INSPACE: Some ballads are clearly variants of older stories—"King Orfeo" (#19), for instance, is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. With The Fair Folk.
  • Relative Error: In "Child Maurice" (#83), the husband of Child Maurice's mother mistakes him for her lover and kills him for it.
  • Revenge by Proxy: A noblewoman and her infant son in "Lamkin" (#93) are brutally murdered because her killers harbor a grudge against her husband.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: In some variants of "Lady Maisry" (#65), the ballads ends with Lady Maisry's true love declaring one against her family for killing her.
  • Robin Hood: All of Book V, or ballads #117-154, deal with the Robin Hood legend, acting as the oldest source for several of the most common incidents in retellings, including Robin's Defeat Means Friendship first meeting with Little John and the "Golden Arrow" archery contest trap.
  • Runaway Bride: A the end of Hind Horn (#17), Jean elopes with her true love, Hind Horn, even though she's newly wed to someone else.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: The bandit does this to three sisters in "Bonnie Banks o'Fordie" (#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.
  • Selkies and Wereseals: In "The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry" (#113)
  • Self-Made Orphan: In "Jellon Grame" (#90), Jellon's daughter kills him. It's Justified, though, because Jellon killed her mother.
  • Separated by a Common Language: Though ostensibly written in English, a lot of the ballads are in old rural dialects that are nigh-indecipherable. However, hearing them sung or recited can make it easier.
  • Sibling Triangle: The older sister's motive in "The Twa Sisters" (#10).
  • Standard Hero Reward: Subverted in "The Golden Vanity" (#286). 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.
  • Stock Puzzle: e.g. "Riddles Wisely Expounded" (#1), "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (#46)
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Around half of the ballads have these.
  • Surprise Incest: In "The Bonny Hind" (#50) and "The King's Dochter Lady Jean" (#52) with tragic consequences.
  • These Questions Three...: In "The Devil's Nine Questions", it's the subtype "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. (Sometimes explained as the ninth riddle being "Who is the questioner?", which is implicitly rather than explicitly answered.)
  • Thicker Than Water: In "The Death of Robin Hood" (#120), Robin Hood trusts this trope and it gets him killed. Specifically, he goes to have one of his cousins, a nun, treat his illness by bleeding. But his cousin, who harbors a grudge against him of varying reasons, either bleeds him too much or lets her lover kill him.
  • Together in Death: The living lover in "The Unquiet Grave" (#78) seems determined to prematurely fulfill this trope, but the ghost of their beloved always begs them to go and live out the rest of their life instead. Also appears in "Fair Margaret and Sweet William" (#74); "Lord Lovel" (Child#75); some variants of "Barbara Allen" (#84). It's also a common motif for the graves of lovers to sprout plants that are intertwined ("Prince Robert", "Lady Alice").
  • Traumatic C-Section: In "Jellon Grame" (#90), the protagonist gives one to his lover and raises the baby himself.
  • Ungrateful Bastard:
    • The Captain in "The Golden Vanity" (#286). He abandons the cabin-boy who sank the enemy ship for him to drown in the ocean.
    • The Knight in "The Fair Flower of Northumberland". He promises the Fair Flower he'll marry her if she only breaks him out of jail, but when they get back to his home in Scotland, he cruelly reveals he's already married and abandons her.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Most of the historical ballads.
    • "Sir Patrick Spens" (#58) is based on the story of Margaret, Maid of Norway, the granddaughter and heir-apparent of Alexander III of Scotland. After her grandfather's death, a ship was sent to Norway to take her back to Scotland to become the new Queen, but she never made it. The ballad has her and the entire crew perishing in a shipwreck, but she actually died of an illness en route.
    • In "Queen Elanor's Confession" (#156), Eleanor of Aquitaine confesses to, among other things, having lost her virginity to William Marshal. Given that Eleanor had her first child, Marie of France, two years before Marshal was born, that is impossible.
  • Villain Protagonist: Lamkin or Long Lankin in "Lankin" (#93), who murders a woman and a child either because her husband didn't pay him for building a castle or just For the Evulz.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Evil shapeshifters will often have a Red Right Hand (e.g. "The House Carpenter", #243). Good shapeshifters are rare, but see "The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry" (#113).
  • Wicked Stepmother: In "Kemp Owyne" and "The Laily Worm and the Machrel Sea", the unfortunate protagonists have been transformed into various ugly and dangerous beasts by their wicked stepmothers.
  • Woman Scorned:
    • In "Child Owlet" (#291), Lady Erskine tries to seduce her husband's nephew, Child Owlet. He turns her down, so she tells her husband that he tried to seduce her and then commits suicide. In response, Child Owlet's uncle orders his execution.
    • Genderflipped in "Sir Aldingar" (#59): the queen turns down a pass from the Villain Protagonist and so he makes it look like she was unfaithful to the king with a leper. Luckily, in this case, the Man Scorned's plot fails.
  • Yandere: Loads. Specifically:
    • The elder sister in "The Twa Sisters" (#10), who kills her younger sister because they're both in love with the same man.
    • The nut-brown maid in "Lord Thomas and Fair Annet" (#73), who kills Annet because Thomas loves her more.
    • The Lord in "Child Maurice" (#83), who kills the protagonist after mistakenly thinking that Child Maurice was having an affair with his wife.
  • A Year and a Day: In "The Unquiet Grave" (#78), it's perfectly fine for the protagonist to mourn on their dead lover's grave for this long. Played with in that, when they keep it up past that time limit, the dead lover's ghost comes back to tell them to 'Sod off already, it's feckin' annoying.'
  • You Are Too Late: In "Lady Maisry" (#65), the Scottish protagonist becomes pregnant by her true love and her family arranges for her execution. A page runs to fetch Maisry's true love to save her, but they return to find that they are too late and Maisry is already dead.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Sometimes played straight, sometimes subverted: in "The Twa Sisters" (#10), the elder kills the younger and gets the boy. (Although she may later get ratted out by a harp made of her sister's bones and executed, depending on which version she's in.)

Alternative Title(s): The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, Child Ballad