One of the great film directors ever to live – Ingmar Bergman – made a medieval movie in the ’60s called The Virgin Spring about a young girl who is waylaid by bandits, raped, and killed. By chance, the bandits seek shelter in her family’s home, are discovered, and subsequently killed by her father. I was obsessed with Bergman’s work while I was in film school and interested to learn the story was based on a 13th century Swedish ballad. It’s not perhaps the most well known movie, though it was remade in the ’70s by horror icon Wes Craven as The Last House on the Left (which was itself remade again in 2009). This is film-trivia though and probably not the most interesting unless you are as obsessed with movies as me.
Fast-forward ten years and I learn that one of the Child Ballads is the Anglicized version of the Scandinavian ballad that inspired Bergman’s movie! Fascinating, right? Well, to me it is. The Child Ballads have many connections with the folk music of France, Germany, and other countries but nowhere do they have as many ties as they do with the Scandinavian nations. There are probably many reasons for this kinship from the viking settlements in Northern Britain, to a shared Germanic language, to a close religious and cultural history but that’s a blog post for another time.
In “The Bonnie Banks O’ Fordie” (or “Babylon”) a “robber-man” or “banished man” accosts three sisters in the woods and, one by one, demands that each becomes his wife (gives him her maidenhead) or die by his penknife.
‘It’s whether will ye be a rank robber’s wife, Or will ye die by my wee pen-knife?’
The first two choose death. The youngest, when presented with the same choice, refuses to play and tells the man that her brother Babylon wanders these woods and will avenge anything done to her. The outlaw realizes she is talking about him and, in horror at what he has done to his sisters, kills himself.
As a side note, when you hear the word penknife, you usually think of a pocket knife or folding blade knife but the term was originally applied more generally to short bladed knives that, unsurprising, were used to shave down feathers to make quills. Like box cutters today they could be easily concealed for more criminal purposes.
Mistaken identity, often involving family members, is a prominent theme in the Child Ballads and most end just as tragically. From Shakespeare to Hitchcock, mistaken identity plots are common no matter the era, though most modern instances tend to be comedic and slapstick rather than bloody and incestuous (with the prominent exception of Oldboy).
My favorite version of this ballad is a rendition by Old Blind Dogs. They’re becoming regulars in this blog.
I don’t know quite how to feel at the brother’s grief when he realizes who he has killed. Does the fact that the women you intended to rape or murder were related to you really make all the difference? He can’t have even been close to them if no one recognized each other. Perhaps family meant more back then, or at least everyone else mattered less.
I tend to dislike such sweeping generalizations about “the past” in its kaleidoscopic variations but I think some generalizations apply. In most every era and area people lived shorter, more violent lives. That has to have an affect on your moral outlook, right?
My Favorite Recordings
Dick Gaughan – YouTube