Common tales in Italian, Swedish and British Ballads: a comparison
5. Brun the Robber / L'inglesina / Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight
This ballad about the abduction of a girl is well known all over Europe in almost all the languages of the Old Continent. More than one thousand versions have been collected and hundreds of pages have been written to comment on the story, sometimes even from a psychoanalytic point of view. The most ancient versions in Europe are to be found in the German-Scandinavian countries (Den falske Riddaren or Brun are the titles of some Swedish versions) but the oldest manuscript with the lyrics, dating back to the 14th century, comes from Flanders. The title is Heer Halewijn. In it Heer Halewijn sang such a song that women who heard it longed to be with him. A king's daughter asked her father if she might go and meet Halewjin. He said no, adding that those who go to him never come back (in another version sixteen girls had already lost their lives). She asked for permission from her mother and sister who also refused consent. Her brother, though, said: “I care not where you go, so long as you keep your honour.” She decided then to go to the wood where she found Halewjin waiting for her. They went riding together until they arrived at a gallows on which many a woman were hanging. The man said: “Since you are the fairest maid, choose your death, hanging or sword?” She chose the sword and asked for it saying: “Only take off your coat first, for a maid's blood stains a great way, and it would be a pity to spatter you.” His head was off before his coat but his tongue still spoke. She refused to do what the head asked and soon after she took it by the hair and rode back with it to the wood where she met Halewjin's mother. She showed her son's head she carried in her lap as proof that he was dead. She got back home and blew the horn to announce her arrival. Everybody was happy and her father organized a feast. Halewjin's head was placed on the table.
From the north of Europe the tale reached the rest of the continent. It was easily welcomed because this gruesome tale met some unconscious and collective archetypes that most people of Europe shared. Sex, morbidity and violence have always been part of the “evolution” of the human race.
The first version is in Swedish.
This Swedish version has many episodes in common with the Scottish one that follows. The latter though, is turned into a typical Celtic tale.
Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight (Child 4)
(Giordano Dall'Armellina, Silvia Bozzeda, Nelson Contreras)
(Lyrics from Buchan’s Ballads of the North of Scotland, p. 563)
Lady Isabel is sewing in her private room when she hears an elf-knight blowing his horn. In the refrain (second and fourth lines), which is repeated in every stanza, we are informed that the daisies (gowans) are growing wonderful (gay) and that it is the 1st of May the date in the calendar that is the opposite of Halloween. The second line refers to the awakening of Nature that also inspires humans with love-longing and at the same time is a revealing code to inform us that something erotic or morbid is expected in the story that follows. Lady Isabel hears the call of Nature (the elf-knight's horn is a clear phallic symbol) and does not hide her wish to make love (second stanza). She utters her wish so loud that the knight hears it and goes straight to her window. As it is the 1st of May the man, disguised as an elf-knight for the rite, invites her to follow him into the greenwood (fifth stanza) where, according to the custom, they will celebrate the rites of fertility, a symbolical marriage. But the knight has got something else in his mind: he wants to kill her.
The story that follows seems a ritual: he has already killed seven king’s daughters there (something we can hardly believe) and she shall be the eighth. Once again number seven is connected with death. Yet the killing of king’s daughters seems more a ritual sacrifice than anything else. The sacrifice of a virgin of royal blood to induce the gods of nature to be benevolent is not new in the studies of anthropology and mythology. Besides, on that day, she was the Queen of May wearing her crown of flowers. After seven king's daughters it is now the time for a prince to die amid the fields. He will have to lie there and be a husband to them all in order to generate the fruits of nature. That is why the ballad ends with these words: “Lye ye here, a husband to them a'”.
Also the rest of the tale is full of rituals: strangely enough the girl does not seem to be scared when she hears about her fate, and proposes to rest before she dies. Then she persuades the elf to sit down, with his head on her lap, lulls him asleep with a charm, binds him with his own sword-belt, and stabs him with his own dagger. We have various riddles to solve in this last part. Why should she rest before dying? Why does he accept to be lulled asleep? What is the meaning of the charm? Why does she have to bind him before stabbing him with the dagger? If we accept the thesis of the ritual sacrifice and we look back at old archetypes, we may find an answer. As we know, seven generally means death, that is, transformation. In our case the girl realises that, although the elf says that she will be the eighth victim, she is not bound to die because it is a rite of passage. After seven girls it is now the turn of a boy (a King of May) to be sacrificed. He also knows his destiny and accepts rest and to be lulled asleep by means of a charm. The girl does not have magic powers; what she does, when she charms the boy is part of the rite in which she might have pronounced a magic formula. She could have stabbed him without binding him, but in ancient times, before a sacrifice, the victims were bound and this is what she does before stabbing him. The seven girls (Queens of May) need now a husband (a King of May) to make the earth fertile. The elf will lie on the earth to become a symbolic husband in a marriage that should bring prosperity to the whole community. A good crop will be the result of a successful marriage.
Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight is one of the most widespread ballads in the British Isles and America. As the old traditions faded though, the elf with the rites of the month of May disappeared and in more recent versions there is a false knight, who abducts a girl with the promise of a marriage. After riding for many miles, though, he tells her that she is going to be killed. In all versions the girl saves her life by means of an expedient and kills the false knight. Such a story recalls the one about Blue Beard who married the girls only to murder them soon after, until a brave girl unmasked him.
Renaud, le tueur de femmes
(Renaud, killer of women)
(Giordano Dall'Armellina, Maurizio Dehò)
The French version, unlike the previous Scottish one, has no magic rituals and the knight is a real serial killer, similar to Halewjin.
(Lyrics and music from Cotentin; collected by M.H.C. Moreau and edited in Les Chansons de France, Editions Slaktine V, 1908, new edition in 1980)
Renaud convinces the king's daughter to follow him soon after he has seduced her. Then he rides like a fury to more than a hundred places, but there is no place where he wants to stop and rest. His behaviour is schizophrenic and psychopathic and it is meant to make his victim suffer. A revealing code in the second stanza “Arrivés au milieu du chemin” tells us that we have come to the turning point of the story. Renaud was waiting for a sentence of protest from the maiden to exalt his sadism. If we get into the story and visualize it with the third eye of our fantasy as our forefathers used to do, we may hear his brutal laugh as he says: “Eat your white hand if you are hungry, and drink your own blood if you are thirsty.” The hidden dark side of the listeners of ballads lived these sentences with complacency. The same happened in episodes of some truculent fairy tales. The function was to make the dark side emerge in order to recognize it. You cannot deny it because it has always belonged to human beings (above all to men), but if you see it you can control it. Therefore you can grow and evolve to the right direction. If you do not, you remain an instinctual primitive prone to violence.
They arrive in the middle of the wood that corresponds to the Celtic greenwood, where there is the entrance to the world of the dead. Renaud can be seen as an evil spirit coming from hell and returning to the otherworld with a new victim every time. He prefers to drown his victims, as it happens in some Swedish variants, after they have stripped, adding humiliation and more sadism. The strip-tease is common to many British versions as well, where it takes sometimes four stanzas to be completed. It obviously created an erotic suspense. The tale then has all the morbid ingredients that listeners liked, so no wonder that it has survived to the present day.
In our version the clever maiden says that a real knight cannot watch a girl strip, and proposes an erotic game. The knight, struck in his honour, accepts to blindfold himself. The naked maiden caught him, hugged him and led him to the river bank where she pushed him into the water. Renaud grasped a branch of laurel but the maiden caught his sword and made him fall definitively into the river.
The sword is somehow present in almost all European versions and it is the means that “cuts off” the knight's life.
Another function of this ballad was to warn girls about the dangers of meeting unknown or foreign men.
The following Italian variant has some episodes in common with the two versions just examined.
L’Inglesina (Nigra 13)
(The English Maiden)
(Giordano Dall'Armellina, Silvia Bozzeda)
(Version by Iride Tagliani. Collected near Pavia, Lombardy, in 1967 by Luisa Del Giudice)
In this version we do not know how many women the man has killed. It is likely that the informer/singer forgot to sing the stanza while she was being recorded. In other variants sometimes they are even more than fifty and at the end of the story she asks to go to Rome to confess her crime to the Pope.
The maiden's request to have the dagger (or sword in most versions) so that she could cut off a branch to give shade to her horse is at first sight an absurd anecdote. But the Italian versions come from France in which there is a strip-tease before she throws him into the river. The Italian singers' prudery or the influence of the church, may have changed the original stanzas and the strip-tease disappeared from the story. Skipping those stanzas we go directly to the cutting of a branch, as in the French version, although for a different reason. An illogical situation is invented to make a link with the original tale. Yet, the act of cutting a branch is the prelude in both versions for the death of the man.
In the Italian version the singer mentions (A)merica as the place they were bound. We can suppose that she meant a faraway land and that she had no idea that there was the Atlantic Ocean to cross. We also understand that this version is relatively recent.
However the noun Merica without A was already known in King Salomon's times. For the Jews it was the name of a star standing over a continent they imagined (or they knew) was beyond what the Greeks will later call the Pillars of Hercules. With time the name of the star was identified with the continent and remained popular in Medieval times when referring to a land faraway in the Ocean. A German monk who ignored that well based popular belief, thought that the name America was after Amerigo Vespucci and proposed his theory in his scripts. That mistake spread and you may find it again in some history books.
 On YouTube you may hear a Flemish version. Just enter Heer Halewjin.
 Actually similar tales have been collected in Mongolia and Hungary and some critics sustain that the original tale might have originated in Asia, arrived in Hungary and then to the rest of Europe.
 On you tube this version sung by the Swedish folk-group Garmana.
 May 1st began for the Celts the reign of Beltane, the God that made nature come back after winter and invited people to enjoy life and love-making. Boys and girls used to go to the greenwood to celebrate the return of life with sexual intercourse. With that celebration they won against death represented by Samhain the God of Death that had come six months before, on Halloween night. Making love on May 1st was also of good omen for the future harvest. Boys used to wear green, the magic colour of the awakening Nature and of the elves. By doing so they became elfin-knights. The elves had the reputation of being very good lovers and on that day all boys pretended to be like the elves to entice girls. Boys used to go first to the greenwood carrying a horn they would blow to let the girls know where they were. Girls, with flowers in the hair and around their waist, followed the call and once they saw an elf they decided whether it was the case to meet him or follow the call of another horn.
 Abraham bound his son Isaac to make him ready for the sacrifice.
 One of the rites that still survives today in Europe is the one of erecting a Maypole. In Great Britain it is a custom to hang a garland with flowers on the top while girls dance around it entwining white, blue and red ribbons on it. In Italy they call it the cuccagna tree meaning the tree of the round loaf. Boys have to climb an oil soaked sliding tree to the top where some food is hung. What they take is theirs. In both traditions the tree represents a phallic symbol leaning to the sky in order to elicit it to send the right quantity of sun and rain. The rays of the sun and the rain will penetrate into the Mother Earth who will generate her crop that can be perceived as her own son.
 We have already found this sentence in Piedmontese in 'L Moru Sarasin and in La Muerte Ocultada. in Spanish. To be half way to destination is not literal, but an indication that something important and decisive will change the tale.