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Four Fairies from British Ballads

Updated: Jan 1

Appearing in Europe in the late Middle Ages, the ballad form combines poetry, story, and song. An eclectic art from, traditional ballads could be romantic, sorrowful, historical, or even saucy. As stories that were told and sung time and again, they often changed as they passed hands, resulting in many versions of a similar tale, though there are some common themes throughout – gallant knights, joyful young women, naïve lads and illegitimate children.

Where some ballads may concern themselves with true (or at least, influenced by true) events, real life problems, and romances, others deal more with the supernatural –ghosts, spirits and, quite often, fairies.

This week, Mythos takes a look at some of the most famous fairies found in British Ballads.

The Fairy Queen

The (or at least ‘a’) Fairy Queen appears in multiple myths, fairy tales and ballads across the British Isles. Often referred to simply as the Queen of Fairies, or Fairy Queen she may also be known as Mab, the Queen of Elphame, the goddess Áine, or most famously in Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ as Titania. As with many fairytale figures who appear in multiple stories, depictions of the queen vary. She may at times appear as a benevolent protector, a charming seductress, or a mercurial antagonist.

One famous ballad in which the Fairy Queen makes an appearance is the story of Thomas the Rhymer. Thomas the Rhymer was a poet and prophet from Scotland. Interestingly, he was a real person, Thomas Learmont, who was born in 1220 in the Scottish village of Earlston.

Thomas’ powers of prophecy are said to have come from the Queen of Fairies. The poet is said to have fallen asleep beneath a tree and woke to see a woman with other worldly beauty riding past on a horse with silver bells braided into its mane. The woman encouraged Thomas to kiss her and then revealed herself as the Queen of the Fairies and invited Thomas to join her in her home – warning that if he chose to do so he would not return for seven years. Thomas agreed, though depending on the version, this agreement may not have been necessary. In some, by kissing the Fairy Queen, Thomas was bound in her service, and duty bound to return with her for seven years.

The journey to the world of fairies was long, lasting forty days and forty nights. The Fairy Queen warned Thomas that he should only eat and drink food that she gave him, and that she should not speak for the seven years he remain in fairyland, lest he be trapped there forever. When the seven years in fairyland came to an end, Thomas is said to have asked the Fairy Queen for a boon, a reminder of his years in her realm. The Queen gifted Thomas with the gift of prophecy. As a side effect of his time in the fairy realm, Thomas is said to have been unable to lie.

The Fairy Queen that Thomas encounters is largely seen as an enchanting and romantic figure. She seduced and whisked Thomas away to a wonderful land, provided food that was safe for him to eat, and even gifted him with extraordinary abilities when it was time for him to leave. Not all encounters with the Fairy Queen cast her in such a graceful light.

In the legend of Tam Lin, the Fairy Queen is an abductor and antagonist. She is said to have stolen the young lad, Tam Lin when he fell from his horse out riding with his grandfather. Tam Lin certainly does not appear to have been given a choice in this, nor in his years as an elven knight. When Tam Lin’s lover, Janet, successfully transforms Tam Lin into a human man and frees him, the Fairy Queen appears in anger, cursing Janet and wishing great ill will on her for having the audacity to steal the queen’s fairest knight.

The Elf Knight

Unlike the Fairy Queen, there is nothing ambiguous about the fairy who appears in the ballad of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight.

In the ballad, Lady Isabel hears the sound of an elven horn blowing. She wishes allowed that she had both the horn and the elven knight it belonged to. Not long after Lady Isabel made her wish, the knight appeared at her window and enticed her to get her horse (or climb onto his own) and accompany him to Greenwood. Lady Isabel quickly agreed.

After a time, the Knight instructed Lady Isabel to dismount the horse, telling her that this was the place that she would die. Distraught, Isabel begged for mercy, for herself and for her poor parents, who would lose their child. The knight dismissed her, telling her that he had already killed seven daughters of kings, she was to be the eighth.

Though Lady Isabel was afraid, she was clever and cunning, and had no intention of dying at the knight’s hands. Lady Isabel begged the knight to come and rest his head on her knee, so that she might be comforted before her death. The knight agreed, and Lady Isabel quickly lulled him to sleep, tying him with his own belt and stabbing him with his own dagger. Outwitted, the Elven Knight died, and Lady Isobel returned home to her parents.

There are many similar stories involving a young lady seduced by a murderous fairy knight, though the young lady does not always escape the same way. For example, in one other version, the young lady is tricked by the Elven Knight into wading into deep water. The knight then reveals that his intention is to drown her. The lady begs the knight for one kiss before she dies, and then pulls him from his fine horse into the water – drowning him, instead.

Hind Etin

Another similar ballad to that of Lady Isabel and the Elven King is the Ballad of Hind Etin. Both see a woman carried away by a treacherous elven knight, and both see the woman eventually escape.

Lady Margaret was sewing in her bower when she heard a noise. Either curious, or entranced, she followed it to Elmond’s wood where Hind Etin found her. Hind Etin brought her to the tallest tree in the woods, where he built an invisible home in the branches and kept her there. Lady Margaret lived trapped in that home for seven years, bearing Hind Etin seven sons.

One day, Hind Etin went hunting, bringing his eldest son along with him. The son asked his father why his mother was so sad and wept so often. Hind Etin replied that he loved Lady Margaret dearly but that she was sad that he had stolen her away from her father, the king. Disturbed by what he had heard, the eldest son waited until the next time his father was gone hunting, and then took his mother and siblings and led them from the woods, all the way to his mother’s home.

Unable to gain entry to the palace, Lady Margaret gave her son three rings which she had kept secreted away. Her son used these rings to gain entry into the palace and an audience before the king. The king, upon seeing his face, cried that the boy looked greatly like his poor missing daughter. The boy revealed himself as the king’s grandson, and told him that his mother and brothers waited outside. The king immediately asked for them to be brought in and Lady Margaret was reunited with her mother, father and siblings.

The ending of the ballad varies in the telling. In some, Lady Margaret remained free, and her father had Elmond’s wood burnt to the ground. In others, the eldest son bargains for a pardon for his father, and Hind Etin is brought to the castle to live with his wife and sons. In yet other versions, Lady Margaret is stolen away again by her husband, eventually wasting away from sorrow.

The Fairy King

Like his wife, the Fairy King appears in multiple ballads, often in the role of an obstacle – not necessarily cruel or malicious, but someone that the hero must overcome or sway in order to reach their goal.

One example of this is the tale of Childe Rowland. The story is most well known in the form of a fairytale, but author Joseph Jacobs reportedly based the tale on an earlier Scottish Ballad. In the tale, young Rowland is playing with his siblings when his youngest sister was stolen away by the fairies for having the misfortune of circling the church widdershins (anticlockwise). Searching for her, Rowland learned that she had been taken to the home of the Fairy King. One after the other, Rowland’s two elder brothers set off to find her, only to vanish themselves. The youngest son, Rowland took his turn, first going to wizard Merlin to ask for help in his rescue mission. Merlin gave Rowland two pieces of advice, firstly on his way through fairyland he should cut off the heads of any he spoke to until he met his sister. And secondly, he should eat and drink nothing from the world of fairy, lest he be forbidden to return.

After a long journey, Rowland finally found the halls of the Fairy King and came upon his little sister who told him that their brothers had been enchanted by the Fairy King, and now lay in a death-like sleep. She herself was under enchantments that forbade her from escaping, nor from warning her brothers of danger.

Tired and hungry after his long journey, Rowland almost forgot Merlin’s warnings, but at the last moment remembered himself and cast the food onto the floor. Immediately a loud bellow came from outside and the Fairy King burst through the doors, declaring that he would kill young Rowland. The two fought for a long time, but eventually Rowland managed to wear the king down, defeating him. The king begged for mercy, and Rowland declared that he would only give the Fairy King mercy if he released his brothers and sister.

The king agreed, granting the brothers the antidote that would wake them, and freeing the sister from his magic. Freed, all four siblings returned home, never to be taken by the fairies again.


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