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There once lived a lord and a lady in the north country, who had three beautiful daughters. The first and second daughters both were wedded to knights of noble character. The third daughter was Lady Isabel, and for her, no husband presented himself.

          One morning in the first days of May, Lady Isabel was sat in her garden sewing, when she heard enchanting notes drifting in the air through the bower window - a song which pierced her heart and her soul with its melody...


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Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight is an adaption of a folk ballad which uses material from other elf-knight ballads and a folk tale called The Black Bull of Norroway to create a hybrid tale.

Isabel’s journey to the three castles is drawn from The Black Bull of Norroway, while the Elf Knight’s attempts to drown her in three separate bodies of water are drawn from different versions of the Lady Isabel/May Collin ballad and its close cousins, in which the protagonist is variously led to a tree in the woods, a woodland river, a well, a spring, or to the shore of the sea. In our discussion of the tale, we refer to this storyy as a 'Bluebeard'-type tale, referring to the infamous tale (popularized by Charles Perrault) in which a newly wed bride discovers a secret chamber in her husband's castle which is filled with the bodies of his former wives. Some of the scholarly discussions of the Isabel ballads deny a connection between the tales, however the shared archetypical elements of the seductive male stranger who takes away a wealthy heiress as a bride, with the real intent of murdering her and taking her riches, as well as the intervention of male relatives to rescue or revenge her in Hind Etin, are undeniable.




There are at least three ballad types that deal with the theme of a maiden at odds with a supernatural suitor, variously identified as a stranger, as 'outlandish' or as an 'elf' or 'elfin knight'. Some versions substitute the devil.  The main thrust of our tale is based on the ballad known as Lady Isabel & The Elf Knight or The Outlandish Knight, which tells the tale of the murderous abductor. 'The Elfin Knight' and ballads of its type pit a maiden against a similar elf, fairy or stranger in a contest of riddles, in which winning either suggests the maiden's winning of the elfin lover or defeats his advances and protects her maidenhood. The same riddles are recited in the Scarborough Fair ballad, indicating that one of the lovers may be a supernatural beau. The third type of ballad, 'A Noble Riddle Wisely Expounded', gives the maiden in the pursuer role, seducing the stranger in her own father's house, and answering his riddles to win his promise of marriage after they sahre a bed.  The riddles used in our tale are drawn from the Elfin Knight variant rather than A Noble Riddle Wisely Expounded - but this version is worth listening to as well!


A delightful and slightly incongruous aspect of the Lady Isabel tale is the appearance of a locaqious  family parrot in a curious episode at the end of the ballad. Spied by the parrot as she returns to her father's house, Lady Isabel must bargain with him not to reveal her midnight adventure to her father. Whereas our tale ends with Lady Isabel's promise to give the bird a 'gilded cage' for his silence, the ballad goes on with a verse in which the father wakes and the parrot excuses the noise in the middle of the night with a tale about a cat trying to force its way into his cage. Some have suggested this odd epilogue to Isabel's adventure is a symbol for the elf-knight reaching in to steal Isabel from her own gilded cage.

Rick: In some versions of Hind Etin, talking and singing birds play a part in the narrative, warning the protagonist that her suitor intends to kill her. I originally tried to incorporate this into the Lady Isabel tale by having the parrot join her on her adventure as one of the treasures stolen from her father's hall, and having him interpret the song of the local birds for her benefit. However, this slowed down the pace of the tale too much and had to be cut.

The presence of the parrot might inspire another question.  The ballads are recorded from the nineteenth century, but the setting of the tale seems medieval. Did medieval English lords and their daughters habitually keep so exotic a  bird as parrots in their halls during these times?  This was a question we didn't know the answer to.  Find out what our research uncovered on the question in this season's second edition of Lore Talk⁠—folktales about parrots included!

Ballad Sources
'Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight / The Outlandish Knight / Sir John' on Mainly Norfolk

'Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight' on Springthyme Records

'The Elfin Knight / Scarborough Fair / Whittingham Fair / Rosemary Lane' on Mainly Norfolk

'Riddles Wisely Expounded / The Devil's Nine Questions /Juniper, Gentle and Rosemary / Bow Down to the Bonny Broom /The Three Sisters' on Mainly Norfolk

Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume 1 (Published 1882-92)

Folktale Sources

'The Black Bull of Norroway' in More English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs (1894)

Research Sources

Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume 1 (Published 1882-92)

"Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 Sep. 2019. Web. 22 Sep. 2019.

"The Elfin Knight." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Apr. 2019. Web. 22 Sep. 2019

"Riddles Wisely Expounded." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 Sep. 2019. Web. 22 Sep. 2019.

"Black Bull of Norroway." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Sep. 2019. Web. 22 Sep. 2019.

Lore Talk Episode Links (Parrots)
Bruce Thomas Boehrer, Parrot Culture: Our 2500-year-long Fascination with the World's Most Talkative Bird on AbeBooks

"Śukasaptati. or Seventy tales of the parrot" on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Nov. 2019. Web. 10 Nov. 2019.​

A.N.D. Haksar, Shuka Saptati: Seventy Tales of the Parrot on AbeBooks

The enchanted parrot : being a selection from the "Suka Saptati", or, The seventy tales of a parrot on the Internet Digital Archive

Lore Talk Episode Links (Women in Traditional Tales)

Feminist Folklore Podcast

Modern Fairies Podcast





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