The Elf Knight & The Faerie Queene

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme;
Remember me to the one who lives there,
He once was a true love of mine.

Tell him to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Without any seams or needlework,
Then he’ll be a true love of mine

Tell him to find me an acre of land,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Betwixt the salt water and the sea sand,
Then he’ll be a true love of mine.

Tell him to reap it with a sickle of leather,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
And bind it all in a bunch of heather
Then he’ll be a true love of mine

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme;
Remember me to the one who lives there,
He once was a true love of mine.
Lyrics of Scarborough Fair- World Tree Music.

Scarborough Fair is a traditional ballad of Great Britain which presents an unusual tale of unrequited love, as a young man tells the listener to ask his former love to perform a series of impossible tasks, such as making him a cambric shirt without a seam and washing it in a dry well, if she completes the tasks he will take her back….
In the version as sung by Gretchen Cornwall of World Tree Music,
the roles are reversed, the singing narrator and task setter is the young woman herself.
Many suggestions concerning the original plot have been proposed, including the hypothesis that it is a song about the Black Plague
(1348 +1350), but these are not proven.

The ballad appears to have derived from an earlier Scottish ballad, ‘
The Elfin Knight‘ the oldest extant version of this ballad being c 1600-1650 and may well be earlier, in which an Elf filled the role of the young man, but here he threatens to abduct the young woman to be his lover unless she can perform an impossible task, no longer an unrequited love but an obsessive, demanding one.
The association with Elves is significant, they appear in many ballads of English and Scottish origin as well as folk tales which often involve trips to Elphame or Elfland (the Álfheim of Norse mythology), a mystical realm in these accounts portrayed as an eerie unpleasant place. Such Elves were considered to be accountable for many mysterious occurrences in earlier times, including the stealing of brides.

However and contrastingly, according to Nick Caffrey, the earliest noted versions of ‘The Elfin Knight’ tell of a young maiden who magically summons the Elfin Knight to her bedroom to become her lover..

The Elf Knight
‘The elfin knight sits on yon hill
Ba, ba, ba, lilli ba
He blaws* his horn both loud and shrill *(blows)
The wind hath blown my plaid awa’…

(This verse appears to be taken from ‘Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight‘, in which the Elf’s horn is magic and arouses desire in the hearer.)

‘I wish that horn were in my kist* *(chest)
Yea, and the knight in my armes two

She had no sooner these words said
When the knight came to her bed.’…

But he tells her she is too young and sets her impossible tasks for her to perform to deter her. When she counters with demands of her own the Elf Knight declares that he is already married with children, at which point she rejects him and he disappears.
As Nick states and is especially true for the English versions of the song, it is important to establish this full story because many of the later versions retain only the de-contextualized tasks which by themselves do not always make any obvious sense.
He also notes that The riddles in British folk-songs and ballads usually take the form of a confrontation with the supernatural, or the Devil in some versions, where the soul of the mortal, marriage or seduction may be the prize. (The Living Tradition, Folk Music)

Queen Elizabeth Ist; Gloriana-The Faerie Queene

Although there is no stated link between these ballads and the English Courts of the time, in Spenser‘s famous poem The Faerie Queene (c 1590+1596) which celebrates the Tudor dynasty with Queen Elizabeth Ist featuring as Gloriana-The Faerie Queene and encompasses a presentation of 12 virtues through the Arthurian knights in a mythical Faerieland
(based on the virtues of Aristotle’s ethics), Spenser described the men of Faerieland as called Elves, the women as Faeries.
Spencer’s association of Queen Elizabeth 1st with the Faerie Queene is particularly relevant as she took occasional counsel from the famed Alchemist John Dee who straddled the worlds of science and magic and devoted much time to attempting to commune with angels and bring about the pre-apocalyptic unity of mankind.
Following Mary Queen of Scots death in 1558, Elizabeth succeeded to the throne and became famous for her virginity to such an extent that she was called The Virgin Queen, was allegedly married to her country, and a cult grew up around her which was celebrated in the portraits, pageants, and literature of the day.

Acrasia’s seductive Bower of Bliss

In canto 1 of the second book of Spenser’s Faerie Queen, ‘he was an Elfin born of noble state’ sets the otherwise apparently human nobleman and Knight, Sir Guyon, as the Elfin Knight. The Fairy Queen ordered him to locate and destroy Acrasia’s seductive Bower of Bliss, which he completed sucessfully and thus became an embodiment of the virtue of Temperance.

The similarities between Caffreys’s earliest version of the Scottish ballad and Spenser’s English Court literature, that they both uphold the same honor of temperance, or chastity, suggests that there is a causal link between them.

There may not have been much discourse between Scottish folk musicians and English Courts at this time due to various animosities including the former being predominantly Catholic and the latter Protestant.
However, if the poem preceded the ballads, because the Scottish had had strong associations with the French since 1295 (the first treaty forming the “Auld Alliance” between Scotland and France against England) they may have heard of the poem by these means.
Should the ballad versions alternately precede the literary, this could equally be interpreted as showing how high culture often draws upon local traditions and stories to structure its intellectual endeavors, giving local anchorage to their more wide reaching concerns and perhaps shows more sharply how English tradition has similarly drawn on the Scottish over time…

Tam Lin & The Faery Host –

In another Scottish version, the Tale of Tam Lin the Elf Knight, Tam Lin was enchanted and kidnapped by the Elf Queen to Faerie land where he was bound by her spell. He explains all this to a mortal maiden who fell in love with him, and he was rescued by her because the steadfast love of a mortal woman broke the Elf Queens enchantment over him. That the Elf Queen is here wicked and the mortal woman good, could possibly be another political reference of the times.

In explanation of the subsequent de-contextualised English versions of the ballad, which appear to present the moral inversions of a less virtuous Elf/young man who seeks by impossible means to entrap his intended, and the conversion of the intemperant Acrasia replaced by a more virtous woman, Queen Elizabeth’s fame as a virtuous Virgin Queen and her popularity in England would have likely made the earlier accounts of the ballad, with its virtuous and Scottish Elf Knight and immoral woman, less than attractive to a country who supported their Queen and possibly used such popular ballads to celebrate contemporary culture as well as carry mythological moral messages.
In this view it may be that the English versions do not just represent de-contextuallised accounts of an earlier tale, but had actually been rewritten to purposefully demonstrate popular allegiance to an English Queen and her Country.

In the English version, the ballads title refers to a trade fair that took place in the resort town of Scarborough during the medieval times and one possible explanation for use of the refrain ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ based on the speculation that the four herbs held healing properties (parsley to remove bitterness, sage to cleanse, thyme for courage, and rosemary for love) is that these meanings were intended to develop as the song was sung, to remove curses and create a protection against evil enchantment.
It has also been suggested that these herbs were specifically used to ward of the Black Plague, particularly the smell of the dead or dying, because according to popular belief in Medieval times, it was the smell of the plague which was carried infection and the use of these herbs would cleanse air.

Plague Doctor carrying Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

However alternate refrains from the oldest versions of ‘The Elfin Knight’ contain the phrases ‘my plaid away, my plaid away, the wind shall not blow my plaid away’ (or variations thereof ) which reassertion of the lady’s protection of her chastity, suggests that the use of ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ may therefore be an alternate rhyming refrain for the English version with specific intention to act as a Charm of protection of her virtue ‘My maidenheads I’ll then keep still…Let the Elphin knight do what he will…’.

The earliest commercial recording of the ballad was by actor/singers Gordon Heath and Lee Payant who recorded the song on the Elektra album Encores From The Abbaye in 1955
Paul Simon learned the song in London in 1965 from Martin Carthy, who had picked up the tune from the songbook by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. Art Garfunkel then set it in counterpoint with “Canticle” with new, anti-war lyrics and it became the famous lead track of the 1966 album
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.

be you elf, knight, maiden or Queene
~ Bright Blessings ~

16 responses to this post.

  1. Beautiful.I have heard a song variant (American?) with some of the same verses as scarborough fair – it is called 'Oh, Marry In Time!' It doesn't appear to be on the internet, but it goes something like this:as you go down through yonder townoh, marry in timepay my respects to that fair girltell her she can be a true lover of minetell her to make me a linen coatoh, marry in timewithout a seam or needleworkand then she can be a true lover of minetell her to wash it in a welloh, marry in timewhere water never was and the rain never felland then she can be a true lover of minetell her to hang it on a thornoh, marry in timewhere a leaf never grew since adam was bornand then she can be a true lover of mineas you go back through yonder townoh, marry in timepay my respects to that young mantell him he can be a true lover of minetell him to plow an acre of groundoh, marry in timeand plant it all over with one grain of cornand then he can be a true lover of minetell him to thresh it against the walloh, marry in timeand then for his life let nary a grain falland then he can be a true lover of minetell him that when he has done this workoh, marry in timethen he can come and get his coatand then he will be a true lover of mine


  2. susana thats a lovely version of the song, thank you. Although as none of the idioms or syntax strike me as particularly American i'm not sure why you think it could be so – but certainly it has traveled to divers locations and as I suggest above I think it possible that some local variants would develop.If you learn more I shall be interested to hear of it.Best Wishes ~


  3. This song was recorded in the early 20th century by the Bolick Brothers, a.k.a., the Blue Sky Boys. They lived in the mountains of Appalachia and sang parlor songs and folk songs they had learned growing up. Settlers in this mountain region were isolated from 'progress' and for centuries they retained much of the old language and culture. This folk music is a main interest of mine. If you are interested, I would be happy to find the recording and send it to you. send a message to Susana


  4. Susana that's great thank you very much. The previous commenter might also be particularly glad to have a provenance for this version song. As regards sending me a copy, I shall decline for the moment although i'm absolutely sure an appellation version would be remarkable to hear.I am however very grateful of your kind offer.Bright Blessings ~


  5. Love this post … as usual. I learn so much from your blog and try hard to keep up, but am not always very timely.Bright Blessings and Happiness to ALL !


  6. Thank you ArtSings1946, please do keep an eye on this post, I think the machinima film will be very entertaining.Although I sometimes do consider timely issues such as the seasonal festivals, this Blog is more generally outside of time and any posts here may still have interest beyond their time of writing, therefore 'timely is as timely does' so to speak.Blessed Be ~


  7. This has been such an informative and interesting read. In all the years I have song along to this, I never understood the true meaning of this ballad. BB Dawn /I\


  8. @Dawn many thanks, I had never known about its origins either, it has been great fun to research for this project, Blessed Be ~


  9. This was SO interesting!!! I absolutely love the song but to get so much history on it just makes it so much better…this is why love British Isle History…it is so rich and magical!! Thank you for the You Tube movie and link…I appreciate it…I am going to do a follow up on my post and link people to this post…I could not possibly do yours justice…this was so lovely and informative!!! I love your blog !Peace 🙂


  10. Thank you Linda, sounds like you have had as much fun reading this as I have had in researching it and making the film, Bright Blessings ~


  11. Thanks for leaving your comment on my blog, Celestial Elf. I'm probably as fascinated by this folk song as you are. Have you read the various discussions on Mudcat? This is the best source for info on folk music and is frequented by folk singers and scholars alike. It really tickled me that a tune which was always ascribed to Paul Simon actually came from Martin Carthy, who is himself now an elder of the English folk music scene. My favourite verse is "Go you and get me an acre of land, betwixt the shore and the salt sea." which spawned a song called, "My father gave me an acre of land" which I first heard sung by The Devils Trio (now disbanded) and I took the line to write my own song and music which we sing at my herb festival.


  12. Hi Sarah, I hadn't even heard of Mudcat before but will check it now that you have given me the pointer, thank you. Im glad to see that more people do realize there are earlier sources than Mr.Simon, and im intrigued to hear any of your versions that may be available. If you ever upload any, I would be very happy to hear them. Brightest Blessings to you ~


  13. Hi Celestial Elf, we have two recorded versions of my song on utube. and The first version was accompanied by our German friend, Matthius Friedrick who is principle oboe with the Heidelburgh Philharmonic Orchestra and the second accompanist is my daughter, Kathryn who sings and plays fiddle with the folk group Greenman Rising and has a wedding duo Viallo.


  14. Thank you Sarah, the first was lovely to hear, unfortunately cant get the second to open a link or find in search.


  15. Try this again – make sure you don't have a full stop at the end. It worked for me a moment ago.


  16. Finally got there, lovely song well sung, also the marquee/tent is a very good setting/backdrop, thank you for sharing this with me 🙂


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