The popularity of Simon and Garfunkel’s recording of Scarborough Fair, a reworked version of the traditional ballad The Elfin Knight, calls to mind the long oral tradition of songs concerning not only impossible tasks to be performed to win back a lover or for some other reason, but also their second cousins, the equally intriguing riddle songs, in which seemingly unanswerable questions are posed and yet are promptly answered.
Variants of The Elfin Knight form the second set of entries in Francis James Child’s 19th century collection of English and Scottish popular ballads, but to my thinking mystery readers would find Child’s lead-in selection of more interest, given they are riddle songs.
Collected under the heading of Riddles Wisely Expounded, the first three involve a knight and three sisters. In one, the youngest girl, the knight having had his way with her, wins his agreement to marry her with correct answers to six impossible questions. In another, three sisters love the same knight and the winner, not specified but probably again the youngest, wins him by answering four such questions correctly.
The next ballad turns much darker, for when the third sister, who “was to lye with this unco knicht”, wins a promise of marriage the following morning by answering ten questions, the knight is revealed to be Clootie (Scottish dialect word for the devil), by promptly bursting into flame and flying away.
Talk about a lucky escape!
Chid’s fourth ballad is a pure riddle song, listing only eight questions and reponses, and his final example is the one known as The Devil’s Nine Questions, since the titular questioner — this time arriving as a stranger rather than a knight — does indeed ask that number. Not one to beat about the bush, he arrives at the house of a lady with three daughters. sits down in a chair, and demands:
‘Now answer me these questions three,
Or you shall surely go with me.
‘Now answer me these questions six,
Or you shall surely be Old Nick’s.
‘Now answer me these questions nine,
Or you shall surely all be mine
Having established the ground rules, he then announces the nine posers:
‘What is greener than the grass?
What is smoother than crystal glass?
‘What is louder than a horn?
What is sharper than a thorn?
‘What is brighter than the light?
What is darker than the night?
‘What is keener than an axe?
What is softer than melting wax?
‘What is rounder than a ring?’
The sisters collaborate on their answers, and saucily reply:
‘To you we thus our answers bring.
‘Envy is greener than the grass,
Flattery smoother than crystal glass.
‘Rumour is louder than a horn,
Hunger is sharper than a thorn.
‘Truth is brighter than the light,
Falsehood is darker than the night.
‘Revenge is keener than an axe,
Love is softer than melting wax.
‘The world is rounder than a ring,
To you we thus our answers bring.
‘Thus you have our answers nine,
And we never shall be thine.
This particular ballad demonstrates in passing that the devil is better at arithmatic than some, since in a couple of Child’s other examples the knight states he intends to ask three questions but actually poses more, a mystery that will now never be solved.
Nine for the Devil Speaking of mysteries, the title of our latest novel is also based on oral tradition, although it’s not taken from a ballad. We use lines from an old fortune-telling rhyme based on the number of black-feathered birds seen at any one time.
We’ve now reached the ninth line, and Nine For The Devil relates the investigation of the death of Empress Theodora carried out by our protagonist, John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian. Everyone in Constantinople believes a fatal illness carried Theodora off — everyone, that is, except Justinian, who orders John to find her murderer or suffer the consequences. With so many in Constantinople happy to see Theodora dead, the question is which one is the culprit if indeed she was murdered?