Henry's Songbook

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Riddles Wisely Expounded

  • (Trad)

    A lady lived in the north country
    Lay the bent tae the bonnie broom
    And she had lovely daughters three
    Fa la la la la la la la la la

    There was a knight of noble worth
    Who also lived intae the north

    One night when it was cold and late
    This knight he cam' to the lady's gate

    The eldest daughter she let him in
    She's pinned the door wi' a siller pin

    The second daughter she's made his bed
    And fallen (?) sheets sae fine she spread

    The youngest daughter sae fair and bright
    She lay abed wi' this noble knight

    If you will answer me questions three
    It's then fair maid I will marry thee

    Oh what is louder than a horn
    And what is sharper than a thorn

    And what is longer than the way
    And what is deeper than the sea

    And what is greener than the grass
    And what more wicked than a woman e'er was

    Oh thunder's louder than a horn
    And hunger sharper than a thorn

    And love is longer than the way
    And hell is deeper than the sea

    Envy's greener than the grass
    And the devil more wicked than a woman e'er was

    As soon as she the fiend did name
    He flew awa' in a bleezin' flame

    (as sung by Jean Redpath)

Susannes Folksong-Notizen

  • [1928:] Miss Broadwood's observations on the magical properties of plants represented in the burdens of The Elfin Knight (2) and Riddles Wisely Expounded (1) [in her book, English Traditional Songs and Carols, London, 1908] may be summarized as follows: parsley, used by the ancient Greeks at funerals, and on graves, and employed magically in Germany, the British Isles, and in Europe generally; sage, a magic plant in England, and proof against the evil eye in Spain, Portugal, etc.; rosemary, called "Alicrum" or "Elfin Plant" in Spain and Portugal, is worn there against the evil eye, burnt against witches in Devonshire, and everywhere else associated with funerals and death; thyme, a chief ingredient in a recipe (ca. 1600) for an eye-salve for beholding without danger the most potent fairy or spirit, and associated with death and the grave in England; juniper, sacred to the Virgin in Italy and France, and especially potent against evil spirits; the gentle (thorn or bush), the name used all over Ireland for the large hawthorns which are regarded as holy and sacred to the "gentry" -- "gentle people" or fairies who inhabit them; holly and ivy, used magically from the earliest heathen times, holly being particularly abhorred by witches in England and other countries of Europe; broom, most potent against witches and spirits, and per contra, often used by witches in their spells; the bent or rush, protective against the evil eye, and, as Miss Broadwood points out, doubly powerful when combined with the broom, as in the refrain (1 A), "Lay the bent to the bonny broom." We may dismiss the subject of the incantation refrain by quoting a note from Scott, which goes no little way toward proving Miss Broadwood's point that our plant burdens are incantations directed against evil spirits:

    The herb vervain, revered by the Druids, was also reckoned a powerful charm by the common people; and the author recollects a popular rhyme, supposed to be addressed to a young woman by the devil, who attempted to seduce her in the shape of a handsome young man:--

    "Gin ye wish to be leman mine,
    Lay off the St. John's wort and the vervine."

    By his repugnance to these sacred plants, his mistress discovered the cloven foot. (Wimberley, Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads, pp 350/351)

  • [1967:] Just as in the Middle Ages single episodes became detached from complex epic narratives to form complete ballads on their own, so in more recent times single lyrical details have become detached from ballads to lead an individual life as short songs. For instance, several epic accounts from ancient Greece, the Orient and Viking Iceland include among their chain of adventures the detail of an amorous battle of wits between a hero and a princess; the man wins the girl through the riddles he sets or solves. Detached from all its surrounding exploits, this episode became the substance of at least three English ballads - a supernatural one that Child calls The elfin knight, a homiletic one sometimes titled The Devil's nine questions, and an amatory one known as Captain Wedderburn's courtship or in slightly different shape as Scarborough Fair. Probably the oldest form is the story in which one must guess riddles in order to avoid being carried off by a fairy; the change from paganism to Christianity is reflected in the versions in which the girl puts the devil out of countenance by answering his riddles and thus demonstrating that she is God's and none of his. [...] The change from sober parable to lovers' jest may have occurred during the seventeenth century. [...] At some time, the riddles became detached from the story and formed into a short lyrical song, a sentimental piece of seemingly unassailable popularity usually bearing as first line: "I gave my love a cherry without a stone". [...] 'Lay the bent to the bonny broom' (a phrase of 'physiological significance' - 'bent' = 'horn' - says Miss Margaret Dean-Smith who has a sharp sense for euphemism). (Lloyd, England 153f)

  • [1973:] [This was first] found in manuscripts of about 1450. (Karpeles, Introduction 45)

  • [1980:] Such riddles unfailingly provoke wonder and delight because of their verbal felicity, their symmetrical (if at times surrealistic) logic, and the deep sense of satisfaction which their resolution brings. Sequences of riddles frequently appear in folk narratives, in which the protagonists by a correct solution can either ward off some danger or achieve some positively beneficial outcome. In the earliest known version of the ballad [...] (a manuscript of 1444 in English, but entitled, in bad Latin, 'Inter diabolus et virgo'), a young woman eludes the clutches of the devil by successfully answering his riddles. [Palmer's, not the above] version (a street ballad issued in 1675) has retained its riddles but lost its supernatural quality: now, the correct solution merely gives the young woman the right to marry her knight. The erotic implications are emphasized by the first refrain line, for 'broom' here means the female private parts. (Palmer, Ballads 198)


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