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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XVII. Ballads

§ 10. Riddle Ballads

Apart, now, from chronology of the record, this material may be grouped according to its subjects, its age in tradition and its foreign or local origins. Oldest in every way, and quite independent of place, are the riddle-ballads which open Child’s first volume. They are far simpler than the Old English riddles and are closely related to those ballads of question and answer made in many countries at the communal dance, and used to determine the choice of a partner or the winning of a garland. One Scottish ballad frames the contest of youth and maid in a little story; the chorus of the throng has become a simple refrain:

  • There was a knicht riding frae the east,
  • Sing the Cuther banks, the bonnie brume,
  • Wha had been wooing at monie a place,
  • And ye may beguile a young thing sune.
  • This strange knight puts a girl to the test of riddles. “What is higher nor the tree? What is deeper nor the sea?” he asks, and ends with a challenge to name something “worse than a woman.” The girl answers all, saying, at the close, that Clootie—the devil—is worse than woman; and off goes the fiend, named and baffled, in fire. Close to this sort of riddle-ballad, very old, wide-spread, still used in many places for the dance, is alternate request for impossible things. A late form of this ancient sort of ballad or “flyting” is Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship, where the maid is finally vanquished; “and now she’s Mrs Wedderburn,” the ballad concludes, with a final change in its infectiously vivacious refrain. Still further from the early type is that “base-born” but saucy little ballad, The Twa Magicians, where alternate changes of form in pursuer and pursued take the place of the “flyting” by word and wit.