Roots of Radicalism



THE style of early song was a heritage common to all social groups. It was almost certainly contributed to by all social groups, and its creators took their inspiration from the sources that inspire all literary creation: folk tales and legends, real life occurrences, and their own imagination and fantasies.

A. L. Lloyd states: "The road of the ballad runs from the magical to the heroic to the domestic." (Folk Song in England, Panther 1969, p. 143). We are here concerned with the long narrative ballads, and will be dealing with the later lyrical songs in our next instalment.

The longer earlier ballads are typically epic songs dealing with heroism and the supernatural, and are in the tradition of the ancient epics of Indo-European culture such as those of Homer and Beowulf.

As with all folk songs it is hard ― and perhaps superfluous ― to try to date these epic ballads. Some of their themes go back to ancient times, and may have come down to us in direct lineal descent. The form of many may have been substantially determined at least as far back as late mediaeval times. But they cannot with any certainty be dated earlier than the time they were first recorded, and that could be in the early sixteenth century or only yesterday.

Some of the finest examples of heroic balladry come from Scotland or the Anglo-Scottish Border. Being by their very nature long, we are not able to quote a typical example in full. One song we can quote in full, however, is The Twa Corbies which ― although lyrical rather than narrative ― captures something of that sense of tragedy which is so characteristic not only of these ballads, but of the whole Northern European psyche and culture. It depicts two ravens planning to devour the corpse of a dead knight:

As I was walking all alane

I heard twa corbies making a mane.

The tane unto the tither did say,

Whar sail we gang and dine the day?

In behint yon auld fail dyke

I wot there lies a new slain knight,

And naebody kens that he lies there

But his hawk, his hound and his lady fair.

His hound is to the hunting gone,

His hawk to fetch the wild fowl home,

His lady's ta'en anither mate,

So we may mak' our dinner sweet.

Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,

And I'll pike out his bonny blue e'en.

Wi'ae lock o' his gowden hair

We'll theek our nest when it grows bare.

Mony a one for him maks mane,

But nane sail ken whar he is gane.

O'er his white banes, when they are bare,

The wind sail blaw for ever mair.

(corbies = crows, fail = turf, hause = neck, theek = thatch)

Images of heroism were not the monopoly of the Feudal aristocracy. With the break-down of Feudalism, the Anglo-Saxon peasantry ― which had been submerged by the Norman Conquest ― reasserted themselves, providing their own heroes. Ballads relating to forest outlaws grew in popularity. The figure of Robin Hood no doubt appealed to the emerging class of independent yeomen, who ― serving as bowmen ― were providing the backbone of England's growing military prowess.

Several Robin Hood ballads were combined into the Gest of Robyn Hode but it is not certain whether this was actually sung, or whether it was merely a literary compilation. Lloyd states that it was in print in the early sixteenth century, and may have originated even earlier than 1400 (p. 148),


Of the supernatural elements in the great ballads one of the most obvious is the fairy tradition. Many aspects of this tradition in British folklore reflect the pre-historic and historic race memory of the subjugation of short dark aboriginals by tall fair conquerors: the former being relegated to woods and credited with magical qualities.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1973) states under the entry Fairy:

"Various theories have been evolved to account for the widespread and persistent belief in fairies. One is that it derives from memories of Neolithic peoples precariously surviving in isolated communities after conquest by more advanced races. Such aborigines with their superior knowledge of the countryside and of nature gods, might easily be credited with magical powers, and occasional intermarriages, kidnappings and thefts between the two races would not be improbable. The case for this theory is strongest in connection with fairies of normal, or only slightly smaller than normal, size.”

Although this explanation does not account for all fairy beliefs and all types of fairy, it does at least explain the particular type of fairy known as the 'Brownie', a name obviously derived from Mediterranid racial characteristics.

Amongst the most appealing of the ballads with fairy associations is Tam Lin. It tells the story of a girl who bears a child of a fairy lover. The lover, Tam Lin, turns out to have been of human origin, and the girl successfully reclaims him from the fairy realm:

O I forbid you, maidens a'

That wear gowd on your hair,

To come, or gae by Carteraugh,

For young Tarn Lin is there.

There's none that gaes by Carteraugh

But they leave him a wad;

Either their rings or green mantles,

Or else their maidenhead.

Janet has kilted her green kirtle,

A little aboon her knee;

And she has broded her yellow hair

A little aboon her bree;

And she's awa to Carteraugh

As fast as she can hie.

(gowd = gold, wad = forfeit, kirtle = skirts, broded = braided, bree = eyebrow)

After summoning the attentions of Tarn Lin by plucking a double rose, Janet returns to her father's hall where her pregnancy is detected:

Out then spak her father dear,

And he spak meek and mild,

And ever alas, sweet Janet, he says,

I think thou gaes wi' child

If that I gae wi' child, father,

Mysel maun bear the blame;

There 's ne'er a laird about your ha',

Shall get the bairn's name.


Protesting loyalty to her elfin lover, Janet returns to Carteraugh (where Ettrick and Yarrow meet, near Selkirk). She resummons Tam Lin and he explains to her that he is really of human origin. When returning from hunting with his grandfather, he fell from his horse and was caught by the Queen of the Fairies who took him to live in a green hill. He then explains how she can reclaim him from the fairies:

Just at the mirk and midnight hour

The fairy folk will ride;

And they that wad their truelove win,

At Milescross they maun bide.


He tells her that he will be riding a milk-white steed, and that she must run to it and pull him down.

They'll turn me in your arms, lady,

Into an ask and adder

But hold me fast and fear me not,

I am you bairn's father.


Tam Lin tells her that he will then be turned into a bear, a lion, a red hot iron bar and finally burning lead ― when she must throw him into well-water:

And then I'll be your ain truelove,

I'll turn a naked knight:

Then cover me wi' your green mantle,

And cover me out o sight.

Janet follows his instructions successfully:

Out then spak the queen o' Fairies,

And an angry queen was she;

Shame betide her ill-far'd face,

And an ill death may she die,

For she's ta'en awa the boniest knight

In a' my companie.

But had I ken'd, Tam Lin, she says,

What now this night I see,

I would hae ta en out thy twa grey e'en,

And put in twa een o' tree.

(tree = wood)

Shape-changing is a recurring theme in mythology and folk song. The Two Magicians tells of a duel between a witch and a wizard, the former changing shape in order to avoid the advances of the latter. The same fantasy is also found in the ancient Greek myth about Peleus's rape of Thetis. As in The Two Magicians the male figure in such tales is often a blacksmith, a symbol combining strength and potency with the mystery of metal-working. Peleus was not a blacksmith but "he possessed a magic sword forged by the mastersmith Daedalus, who was instructed in his art by Athene herself." (Lloyd, p. 159).

Another aspect of shape-changing is to be found in Polly Vaughan which concerns a man who mistakes his love for a swan and shoots her. This story is again found in classical mythology in the tale of Cephalus and Procris, and is undoubtedly of ancient origin.


Besides its reflection in fairy folklore, racial awareness is implicit if not explicit in a much wider range of folk song.

Nordid racial features are attributed not only to aristocratic knights and other heroic figures, but to almost all the male and female subjects of folk songs where appearance is mentioned. The number of references to milk white skin and rosy cheeks, and to fair, yellow and golden hair is legion.

In The Cruel Sister fair and dark stereotypes are directly contrasted. It tells of a knight who prefers the fairer and younger of two sisters. In a fit of jealousy the older sister drowns her rival, and leaves the body floating down a river. A harper finds the body, makes a harp from her breastbone, and strings it with her yellow hair. He then goes to the hall of the girls' father where the harp plays by itself and reveals the story of the murder.

Lord Thomas and Fair Annet tells of a suitor who is torn between the beauty of Annet and the financial resources of his 'nut-browne' (brown-complexioned) bride-to-be. Annet attends the wedding and Lord Thomas is so bedazzled by her beauty that he forgets his bride, kisses a rose and lays it on Annet's knee:

Up than spak the nut-browne bride,

She spak wi' meikle spite;

And whair gat ye that rose-water,

That does mak yee sae white?

O I did get the rose-water,

Whair ye wull neir get nane,

For I did get that very rose-water

Into my mithers wame.

(meikle = great, wame = womb)

This reference to heredity provokes the bride into drawing a long bodkin and stabbing Annet in the heart. When Lord Thomas sees Annet's blood he draws his dagger, stabs the bride, and then kills himself. Annet is buried on hallowed ground while Lord Thomas, as a suicide, is buried outside the kirk wall. A briar grows out of one grave and a birch out of the other, and they intertwine uniting the lovers in death: an image common in folk song and with strong mythological roots.

Another song with a racial theme is Hugh of Lincoln. Hugh is playing football with some other boys when he kicks the ball through a Jew's window. Hugh goes to fetch the ball and is enticed inside by the Jew's daughter who bleeds him to death in a ritual slaughter.

The epic ballads provide us with a glimpse of a society with a vision of itself at once heroic and magical, savage and enchanting. That society has long passed, but we still share a racial continuity with it. That is why the memory of it, enshrined in the ballads and elsewhere, has continued to exercise fascination, fire the imagination, and inspire stories and poems of adventure, romance and fantasy.