English Fairy Tales (Joseph Jacobs)

Week 12: England - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Childe Rowland

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 1000 words.

As you learned in the background reading, Jacobs considered "Childe Rowland" to be a distinctively English story. Merlin makes an appearance here, and as Jacobs notes, there are some traditions that consider Rowland to be the son of Queen Guinevere. You will see that Childe Rowland is sent here on a heroic mission to the "other world," the land of fairies - and he is strictly forbidden to eat anything while he was there, just as Persephone was condemned to spend a part of her life forever in Hades because she tasted food while she was there. The term "childe" was used by the sons of noble families until they came into the possession of their ancestral title or a knightly title. The term "burd" is an archaic term for "lady" ("burd" is related to the word "bride").

Childe Rowland and his brothers twain
Were playing at the ball,
And there was their sister Burd Ellen
In the midst, among them all.
Childe Rowland kicked it with his foot
And caught it with his knee;
At last as he plunged among them all
O'er the church he made it eke.
Burd Ellen round about the aisle
To seek the ball is gone,
But long they waited, and longer still,
And she came not back again.
They sought her east, they sought her west,
They sought her up and down,
And woe were the hearts of those brethren,
For she was not to be found.

So at last her eldest brother went to the Warlock Merlin and told him all the case, and asked him if he knew where Burd Ellen was. 'The fair Burd Ellen,' said the Warlock Merlin, 'must have been carried off by the fairies, because she went round the church "widershins"--the opposite way to the sun. She is now in the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland; it would take the boldest knight in Christendom to bring her back.'

'If it is, possible to bring her back,' said her brother, 'I'll do it, or perish in the attempt.'

'Possible it is,' said the Warlock Merlin, 'but woe to the man or mother's son that attempts it, if he is not well taught beforehand what he is to do.'

The eldest brother of Burd Ellen was not to be put off, by any fear of danger, from attempting to get her back, so he begged the Warlock Merlin to tell him what he should do, and what he should not do, in going to seek his sister. And after he had been taught, and had repeated his lesson, he set out for Elfland.

But long they waited, and longer still,
With doubt and muckle pain,
But woe were the hearts of his brethren,
For he came not back again.

Then the second brother got tired and tired of waking, and he went to the Warlock Merlin and asked him the same as his brother. So he set out to find Burd Ellen.

But long they waited, and longer still,
With muckle doubt and pain,
And woe were his mother's and brother's hearts,
For he came not back again.

And when they had waited and waited a good long time, Childe Rowland, the youngest of Burd Ellen's brothers, wished to go, and went to his mother, the good queen, to ask her to let him go. But she would not at first, for he was the last and dearest of her children, and if he was lost, all would be lost. But he begged, and he begged, till at last the good queen let him go; and gave him his father's good brand that never struck in vain, and as she girt it round his waist, she said the spell that would give it victory.

So Childe Rowland said good-bye to the good queen, his mother, and went to the cave of the Warlock Merlin. 'Once more, and but once more,' he said to the Warlock, 'tell how man or mother's son may rescue Burd Ellen and her brothers twain.'

'Well, my son,' said the Warlock Merlin, 'there are but two things, simple they may seem, but hard they are to, do. One thing to do, and one thing not to do. And the thing to do is this: after you have entered the land of Fairy, whoever speaks to you, till you meet the Burd Ellen, you must out with your father's brand and off with their head. And what you've not to do is this: bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit while in Elfland you be and never will you see Middle Earth again.'

So Childe Rowland said the two things over and over again, till he knew them by heart, and he thanked the Warlock Merlin and went on his way. And he went along, and along, and along, and still further along, till he came to the horse-herd of the King of Elfland feeding his horses. These he knew by their fiery eyes, and knew that he was at last in the land of Fairy.

'Canst thou tell me,' said Childe Rowland to the horse-herd, 'where the King of Elfland's Dark Tower is?'

'I cannot tell thee,' said the horse-herd, 'but go on a little further and thou wilt come to the cow-herd, and he, maybe, can tell thee.'

Then, without a word more, Childe Rowland drew the good brand that never struck in vain, and off went the horse-herd's head, and Childe Rowland went on further, till he came to the cow-herd, and asked him the same question. 'I can't tell thee,' said he, 'but go on a little further, and thou wilt come to the hen-wife, and she is sure to know.' Then Childe Rowland out with his good brand, that never struck in vain, and off went the cow-herd's head.

And he went on a little further, till he came to an old woman in a grey cloak, and he asked her if she knew where the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland was. 'Go on a little further,' said the hen-wife, 'till you come to a round green hill, surrounded with terrace-rings, from the bottom to the top; go round it three times "widershins", and each time say:

'"Open, door! open, door!
And let me come in."

and the third time the door will open, and you may go in.' And Childe Rowland was just going on, when he remembered what he had to do; so he out with the good brand, that never struck in vain, and off went the hen-wife's head.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • how did Burd Ellen disappear? who went to seek her?
  • what did Merlin tell Rowland to do? what did he tell him not to do?
  • how did Rowland get into the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland?

Source: English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs (1890). Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM