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15 AUGUST 2019




There once was a young boy called Rowland who longed to be as big and strong as his brothers, but he felt better when he teased his sister Burd Ellen. One day, he kicked their football over the roof of the Church and sent his sister to fetch it — but she vanished away, and never came back...


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The tale of Childe Rowland is referenced in Shakespeare's tragedy play King Lear, written and performed sometime around 1607. In Act 3, Scene 4, the self-deposed Lear, on the way to losing his sanity, flees from his daughter Goneril's castle onto the heath in the middle of a storm. He meets the outcast Edgar, who has fled from his family's castle after being falsely accused of conspiring to kill his father, and disguised himself as a mad beggar called Tom o’Bedlam. Amongst his many mad ramblings, Edgar-as-Tom spouts the verses:

Childe Rowland to the dark tower came,

His word was still, ‘Fie, fo and fum

I smell the blood of a British man.'

The fairy tale to which this verse apparently alludes was collected and published by the folklorist Robert Jamieson in 1814, and popularised by Jacob Jacobs in his English Fairy Tales, published 1890. This version contains cante fable verses reconstructed from Jamieson’s memories, including 'Fie, fo and fum, I smell the blood of an (English) man', but not the line about the dark tower quoted in King Lear. It is recorded as a  Scottish folk story, but is suspected to have originated in England. 

Jacobs himself chose to render the King of Elfland’s castle in Jamieson's tale as the ‘dark tower’ mentioned in Lear.* Similarly, Rick’s version of the tale consciously reworks the tale to incorporate the Lear verse. The ‘Child Rowland to the Dark Tower came’ is worked into a series of verses that track Rowland’s journey from our world into Elfland and echo the three-part story structure of folk narrative, and a new verse is added to flesh out the confrontation between Rowland and the King of Elfland. Additional motifs are invented to deepen the legend’s mythos: chiefly, a backstory for Rowland’s absent father in the style of a folk tale, which frames his sister’s abduction and the importance of his father’s sword (which, in this version, magically returns to the brothers when one of them falls in their quest). References to Arthur and Guinevere are also removed, following Jacobs' own instincts that they were possibly a later and unnecessary addition to the tale. 


Widdershins (sometimes withershins, widershins or widderschynnes) is a term meaning to go counter-clockwise, to go anti-clockwise, or to go lefthandwise, or to walk around an object by always keeping it on the left. To go widdershins is to take a course opposite to the course of the sun through the sky, and in folklore this has long been considered an unlucky action. In The Dark Tower, Burd Ellen's run around the Church in the 'wrong' direction leaves her vulnerable to unholy powers: this echoes the inversion of proper courses, actions and rituals  as profane in religious traditions, and in depictions and beliefs about heresy and witchcraft. Like Burd Ellen, it was was possible for individuals to profane against the sacred even without intention. 


The Swedish folk tradition of Årsgång or the 'Year Walk' was a divination ritual performed at New Years which began by circling the Church or graveyard counter-clockwise three times, after which the divinator would meet spirits and be granted visions of his community's future. A lesser version of this ritual (presumably to see your own future) was conducted by circling one's own house three times widdershins with a 'porridge sceptre' (possibly a spirtle or something similar?) before eating Christmas dinner. These rituals also have similarities with those performed by Scots said to posses the 'Second Sight', to gain vision of fairies and hidden folk.

The game of knucklebones played by the Elf King and Rowland's father and uncles is the ancient precursor of the familiar game of jacks. The bones usually employed were not  in fact knucklebones but the ankle bones of sheep (the astralagus). The game could be played a variety of ways, either by throwing and catching the bones on the hand, or by assigning values to the differently shaped sides of the bones. In ancient history and folklore the game was said to have been invented either by the Lydians, by Palamedes (a soldier who fought in the Trojan War), or by Thoth, the Egyptian god of death and wisdom.


Interestingly, a third version of this tale comes to us in the form of a ballad by folk singer Martin McCarthy. The ballad ‘Jack Rowland’ is clearly a version of the Jamieson/Jacobs tale in song, which McCarthy composed himself. The version is at once familiar and different to the recorded fairytale. Instead of a sword, Jack arms himself with an archer's bow and a gun before riding off to save his brothers and sisters from the King of the Elf Hill. He is aided not by a warlock, but by his mother’s magical horse, which engages in a battle of magical transformations with the Elf King. 

The King has changed to a little fish
To float all in the sea
And he fell as fast into the flood

As the dead branch from a tree

But she has changed to ropes and lines
And she hunted the ocean floor
But he has become a fishing smack
And he hauled all lines aboard

So she has changed all in the sky
To a gale that howled and roared
She filled his sails she beat his sides
And she drove him onto shore

                          Read the full lyrics here.                          

Rick: I found the McCarthy song after recording my version of Rowland. My own story added elements of sorcery to the battle between Rowland and the Elf King (who calls on ‘the choirs of night’ to curse Rowland), but I enjoy the full-blown contest of magical transformations in Jack Rowland, so I may incorporate this into future tellings. 


​* Jacob’s telling of Childe Rowland also simplifies some elements of the narrative. Rowland’s quest as recorded by Jamieson involves meeting and slaying not just the horse herd, cow herd and hen wife, but numerous other country folk of varied occupations. In this telling Rowland's quest practically seems to involve decimating a small rural community!





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