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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

§ 11. The Epic Tendency

The epic tendency, always working out of situation into narrative, now takes us to a very large group of ballads, which seldom content themselves with the dramatic crisis, but deal in a more intricate plot, furnish the details and even add a store of romantic incidents. This ballad of domestic complications, the tragedy of kin, looms large in all European tradition; borrowing, however, or a common source, is not always to be assumed even where the story is the same, since certain primary instincts must bring about like results wherever men are set in families or clans and human passions prevail. Still, there is, in many cases, abundant reason for identification, and, even, for alliance with more distant branches of balladry and tales. Bride-stealing and its results, for example, were common experience, and the bare fact needed no importation; but a plot like that of Fair Annie is found in the Lai le Freine of Marie de France, and, although it is no very recondite affair, yet it is stamped by its recognition-motive at the end. A knight from over sea steals Annie, takes her home, makes her mother of his seven sons and then bethinks him to get a lawful bride with shiploads of dower. Annie welcomes the new wife; but her moans are overheard, and the two turn out to be sisters. This, with the ballad of Child Maurice, on which Home founded his play of Douglas and which greatly moved the poet Gray, with Babylon—already quoted—with Hind Horn, certainly related to the gest and the romance on the same theme, has, in the recognition-plot, a strongly romantic suggestion; but it is noteworthy that these ballads all tend, either by abundant repetition, or by structure and refrain, to the oldest type, and can be connected with that simplest structural form which is preserved in The Maid Freed from the Gallows. The stealing of a bride, as a familiar fact, was an obvious subject of a ballad of situation; and such a ballad lent itself easily to one of two epic processes. Either it was connected with a local legend—flight, pursuit, fight and the death of all parties save the bride—and resulted in an Earl Brand, or, in Scott’s version, a Douglas Tragedy; or else it drew on international matter, on myth, legend, the “good story” of commerce, what not, resulting in a Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight, or in a leisurely and elegant bit of romance like King Estmere. Indeed, these three ballads will serve as types of the local, the half-localised and the unattached. Tragedy broods over them all, but is least suited to the third type; king Estmere must overwhelm the soldan; Susy Pye (in Young Beichan) and Hind Horn must win their loves. These are entertaining verse. Earl Brand, however, like Babylon, like the Scandinavian versions, is tragic in the matter; although a closely related ballad, Erlington, killing fifteen of the pursuers, spares the father, and lets the lovers go off happy to the greenwood. Lady Isabel, too, escapes by whatever strategem from her savage wooer; and here, of course, are borrowed motives, as in the “three cries” for help. There is a glimpse, too, of supernatural aid, as, in some versions, that of the talking birds. In a ballad of similar theme, but quite prosaic details, The Fair Flower of Northumberland, it is hard to say whether the supernatural elements have been toned down or lost, or else were never in the piece at all. Among other elopement stories of the primitive sort, mainly situation but with a few romantic details, Gil Brenton, a sterling old ballad, is worthy of note; the type, however, easily passes into mere sensation, into mawkish and cheap sentiment and into the rout of tales about runaways fair or foul, mainly localised in Scotland.