I read an article recently about the surge in popularity of “true crime” stories and the fan bases they’ve built up. From Netflix shows like “Mindhunter” to podcasts like “My Favorite Murder” there are any number of examples. The article posits several theories for why women especially seem to love the genre – they want to avoid becoming victims, there’s a dark allure to masculine evil, etc. Regardless of ebbs and flows in pop culture, crime stories have been around for a while. And why wouldn’t we be fascinated by them? They offer glimpses of human depravity and restore our faith in justice. My mom and sister love British detective shows like “Midsomer Murders” (there’s a joke that if you went off of British TV you’d assume rural England has a higher homicide rate than war-torn Syria).
“Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight” (also “The Outlandish Knight” or “May Colven”) is an older example of such a story in ballad form. Just how old? That’s tough to say. It holds the distinction of being perhaps the most wide ranging Child Ballad with versions in Germany, Portugal, France, Poland, etc. The oldest version we are aware of is from the Netherlands – “Heer Halewijn” – dating to the 13th Century. The story is much older though with elements from pre-Christian Germanic mythology. How cool is that? A song that lived through the viking raids, the terror of the Black Death, religious reformations, the Industrial Revolution upending the old order, and it still continued to hold meaning. Hearing it is like holding an ancient coin and wondering what brought it to you – which is something I at least feel overawed by!
On to the story. Though there are hundreds of variations the ones I’ll focus on are popular in Britain and the Anglo world. A young lady is approached in her home by a knight (or elf-knight in older versions) who offers to spirit her away to his lands and marry her. She agrees and takes some valuables with her at his bidding. After riding a while he bids her dismount and reveals his intention to drown her in the sea with the other maidens he has seduced. The heroine, however, manages to trick her assailant usually by singing him to sleep or bidding him turn around while she disrobes. She then either skewers him with his own sword or grabs him by the waist and throws him into the sea. She proceeds to taunt him over this reversal of fortune.
‘Lie there, lie there, you false-hearted man,
Lie there instead of me;
Six pretty maids have you drowned here,
And the seventh has drowned thee.’
In some versions she returns home and a bird threatens to tell her parents what she’s done but she bribes it into silence. I’m not entirely sure why she feels like she needs to cover up the event. Perhaps she feels guilty or humiliated for allowing herself to be seduced.
This feels like the kind of ballad mothers would sing to their daughters as a warning not to let strange men beguile them. The amount of border balladry that concerns women outsmarting or simply outfighting predatory men surely speaks to the heavy contributions of women in general to this sort of music. It doesn’t seem like subject matter that would endure long in a purely masculine environment. It also speaks to the often grim realities of gender relations. Have things gotten better? I think so. Are the themes and power dynamics alien to our modern world? Definitively no.
My favorite rendition of this ballad is by Lisa Theriot. I would really encourage you to check out the links to other versions below, however. It was quite difficult to select a favorite this time.
One of the things I love most about this ballad is how you can see the pagan, supernatural elements get replaced by more realistic imagery over the centuries. The elf-knight enchanting maidens with a magic horn is replaced by a sinister though charming man. The maiden overcomes her would-be-murderer by songs or sleep charms in earlier versions and by clever thinking in more recent ones. And the ending with the sentient bird was usually left out by Victorian times. These changes, of course, reflect a changing worldview where spiritual forces were superseded as the governing order by mechanistic, natural laws.
My Favorite Recordings