Childe Rowland and his brothers twain
Were playing at the ball.
Their sister, Burd Helen, she played
In the midst among them all.
For Burd Helen loved her brothers, and they loved her exceedingly. At play she was ever their companion and they cared for her as brothers should. And one day when they were at ball close to the churchyard—
Childe Rowland kicked it with his foot
And caught it on his knee.
At last as he plunged among them all,
O'er the church he made it flee.
Now Childe Rowland was Burd Helen's youngest, dearest brother, and there was ever a loving rivalry between them as to which should win. So with a laugh—
Burd Helen round about the aisle
To seek the ball is gone.
Now the ball had trundled to the right of the church; so, as Burd Helen ran the nearest way to get it, she ran contrary to the sun's course, and the light, shining full on her face, sent her shadow behind her. Thus that happened which will happen at times when folk forget and run widershins, that is against the light, so that their shadows are out of sight and cannot be taken care of properly.
Now what happened you will learn by and by; meanwhile, Burd Helen's three brothers waited for her return.
But long they waited, and longer still,
And she came not back again.
Then they grew alarmed, and—
They sought her east, they sought her west,
They sought her up and down.
And woe were the hearts of her brethren,
Since she was not to be found.
Not to be found anywhere—she had disappeared like dew on a May morning.
So at last her eldest brother went to Great Merlin the Magician, who could tell and foretell, see and foresee all things under the sun and beyond it, and asked him where Burd Helen could have gone.
"Fair Burd Helen," said the Magician, "must have been carried off with her shadow by the fairies when she was running round the church widershins; for fairies have power when folk go against the light. She will now be in the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland, and none but the boldest knight in Christendom will be able to bring her back."
"Possible it is," quoth Merlin the Magician gravely. "But woe be to the man or mother's son who attempts the task if he be not well taught beforehand what he is to do."
Now the eldest brother of fair Burd Helen was brave indeed, danger did not dismay him, so he begged the Magician to tell him exactly what he should do, and what he should not do, as he was determined to go and seek his sister. And the Great Magician told him, and schooled him, and after he had learnt his lesson right well he girt on his sword, said good-bye to his brothers and his mother, and set out for the Dark Tower of Elfland to bring Burd Helen back.
But long they waited, and longer still,
With doubt and muckle pain.
But woe were the hearts of his brethren,
For he came not back again.
So after a time Burd Helen's second brother went to Merlin the Magician and said:
"School me also, for I go to find my brother and sister in the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland and bring them back." For he also was brave indeed, danger did not dismay him.
Then when he had been well schooled and had learnt his lesson, he said good-bye to Childe Rowland, his brother, and to his mother the good Queen, girt on his sword, and set out for the Dark Tower of Elfland to bring back Burd Helen and her brother.
But long they waited, and longer still,
With muckle doubt and pain.
And woe were his mother's and brother's hearts,
For he came not back again.
Now when they had waited and waited a long, long time, and none had come back from the Dark Tower of Elfland, Childe Rowland, the youngest, the best beloved of Burd Helen's brothers, besought his mother to let him also go on the quest; for he was the bravest of them all, and neither death nor danger could dismay him. But at first his mother the Queen said:
"Not so! You are the last of my children; if you are lost, all is lost indeed!"
But he begged so hard that at length the good Queen his mother bade him God-speed, and girt about his waist his father's sword, the brand that never struck in vain, and as she girt it on she chanted the spell that gives victory.
So Childe Rowland bade her good-bye and went to the cave of the Great Magician Merlin.
"Yet once more, Master," said the youth, "and but once more, tell how man or mother's son may find fair Burd Helen and her brothers twain in the Dark Tower of Elfland."
"My son," replied the wizard Merlin, "there be things twain; simple they seem to say, but hard are they to perform. One thing is to do, and one thing is not to do. Now the first thing you have to do is this: after you have once entered the Land of Faery, whoever speaks to you, you must out with your father's brand and cut off their head. In this you must not fail. And the second thing you have not to do is this: after you have entered the Land of Faery, bite no bit, sup no drop; for if in Elfland you sup one drop or bite one bit, never again will you see Middle Earth."
Then Childe Rowland said these two lessons over and over until he knew them by heart; so, well schooled, he thanked the Great Master and went on his way to seek the Dark Tower of Elfland.
And he journeyed far, and he journeyed fast, until at last on a wide moorland he came upon a horse-herd feeding his horses; and the horses were wild, and their eyes were like coals of fire.
Then he knew they must be the horses of the King of Elfland, and that at last he must be in the Land of Faery.
So Childe Rowland said to the horse-herd, "Canst tell me where lies the Dark Tower of the Elfland King?"
And the horse-herd answered, "Nay, that is beyond my ken; but go a little farther and thou wilt come to a cow-herd who mayhap can tell thee."
Then at once Childe Rowland drew his father's sword that never struck in vain, and smote off the horse-herd's head, so that it rolled on the wide moorland and frightened the King of Elfland's horses. And he journeyed further till he came to a wide pasture where a cow-herd was herding cows. And the cows looked at him with fiery eyes, so he knew that they must be the King of Elfland's cows, and that he was still in the Land of Faery. Then he said to the cow-herd:
"Canst tell me where lies the Dark Tower of the Elfland King?"
And the cow-herd answered, "Nay, that is beyond my ken; but go a little farther and thou wilt come to a hen-wife who, mayhap, can tell thee."
So at once Childe Rowland, remembering his lesson, out with his father's good sword that never struck in vain, and off went the cow-herd's head spinning amongst the grasses and frightening the King of Elfland's cows.
Then he journeyed further till he came to an orchard where an old woman in a grey cloak was feeding fowls.
And the fowls' little eyes were like little coals of fire, so he knew that they were the King of Elfland's fowls, and that he was still in the Land of Faery.
And he said to the hen-wife, "Canst tell me where lies the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland?"
Now the hen-wife looked at him and smiled. "Surely I can tell you," said she. "Go on a little farther. There you will find a low green hill; green and low against the sky. And the hill will have three terrace-rings upon it from bottom to top. Go round the first terrace saying:
'Open from within;
Let me in! Let me in!'
'Open wide, open wide;
Let me inside.'
"Then go round the third terrace and say:
'Open fast, open fast;
Let me in at last.'
"Then a door will open and let you in to the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland. Only remember to go round widershins. If you go round with the sun the door will not open. So good luck to you!"
Now the hen-wife spoke so fair, and smiled so frank, that Childe Rowland forgot for a moment what he had to do. Therefore he thanked the old woman for her courtesy and was just going on, when, all of a sudden, he remembered his lesson. And he out with his father's sword that never yet struck in vain, and smote off the hen-wife's head, so that it rolled among the corn and frightened the fiery-eyed fowls of the King of Elfland.
After that he went on and on, till, against the blue sky, he saw a round green hill set with three terraces from top to bottom.
Then he did as the hen-wife had told him, not forgetting to go round widershins, so that the sun was always on his face.
Now when he had gone round the third terrace saying:
"Open fast, open fast;
Let me in at last,"
what should happen but that he should see a door in the hill-side. And it opened and let him in. Then it closed behind him with a click, and Childe Rowland was left in the dark; for he had gotten at last to the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland.
It was very dark at first, perhaps because the sun had part blinded his eyes; for after a while it became twilight, though where the light came from none could tell, unless through the walls and the roof; for there were neither windows nor candles. But in the gloaming light he could see a long passage of rough arches made of rock that was transparent and all encrusted with sheep-silver, rock-spar, and many bright stones. And the air was warm as it ever is in Elfland. So he went on and on in the twilight that came from nowhere, till he found himself before two wide doors all barred with iron. But they flew open at his touch, and he saw a wonderful, large, and spacious hall that seemed to him to be as long and as broad as the green hill itself. The roof was supported by pillars wide and lofty beyond the pillars of a cathedral; and they were of gold and silver, fretted into foliage, and between and around them were woven wreaths of flowers. And the flowers were of diamonds, and rubies, and topaz, and the leaves of emerald. And the arches met in the middle of the roof where hung, by a golden chain, an immense lamp made of a hollowed pearl, white and translucent. And in the middle of this lamp was a mighty carbuncle, blood-red, that kept spinning round and round, shedding its light to the very ends of the huge hall, which thus seemed to be filled with the shining of the setting sun.
Now at one end of the hall was a marvelous, wondrous, glorious couch of velvet, silk and gold, and on it sate fair Burd Helen combing her beautiful golden hair with a golden comb. But her face was all set and wan, as if it were made of stone. When she saw Childe Rowland she never moved, and her voice came like the voice of the dead as she said:
"God pity you, poor luckless fool!
What have you here to do?"
Now at first Childe Rowland felt he must clasp this semblance of his dear sister in his arms, but he remembered the lesson which the Great Magician Merlin had taught him, and drawing his father's brand which had never yet been drawn in vain, and turning his eyes from the horrid sight, he struck with all his force at the enchanted form of fair Burd Helen.
And lo, when he turned to look in fear and trembling, there she was her own self, her joy fighting with her fears. And she clasped him in her arms and cried:
"Oh, hear you this, my youngest brother,
Why didn't you bide at home?
Had you a hundred thousand lives,
Ye couldn't spare ne'er a one!
"But sit you down, my dearest dear,
Oh! woe that ye were born,
For, come the King of Elfland in,
Your fortune is forlorn."
So with tears and smiles she seated him beside her on the wondrous couch, and they told each other what they each had suffered and done. He told her how he had come to Elfland. She told him how she had been carried off, shadow and all, because she ran round a church widershins, and how her brothers had been enchanted, and lay intombed as if dead, as she had been. Because they had not had the courage to obey the Great Magician's lesson to the letter, and cut off her head.
Now after a time Childe Rowland, who had travelled far and travelled fast, became very hungry, and forgetting all about the second lesson of the Magician Merlin, asked his sister for some food; and she, being still under the spell of Elfland, could not warn him of his danger. She could only look at him sadly as she rose up and brought him a golden basin full of bread and milk.
Now in those days it was manners before taking food from anyone to say thank you with your eyes, and so just as Childe Rowland was about to put the golden bowl to his lips, he raised his eyes to his sister's.
And in an instant he remembered what the Great Magician had said: "Bite no bit, sup no drop, for if in Elfland you sup one drop or bite one bit, never again will you see Middle Earth."
So he dashed the bowl to the ground, and standing square and fair, lithe and young and strong, he cried like a challenge:
"Not a sup will I swallow, not a bit will I bite, till fair Burd Helen is set free."
"Fee, fi, fo, fum,
I smell the blood of a Christian Man.
Be he alive or dead, my brand
Shall dash his brains from his brain-pan."
Then the folding-doors of the vast hall burst open and the King of Elfland entered like a storm of wind. What he was really like Childe Rowland had not time to see, for with a bold cry:
"Strike, Bogle! thy hardest if thou darest!" he rushed to meet the foe, his good sword, that never yet did fail, in his hand.
And Childe Rowland and the King of Elfland fought, and fought, and fought, while Burd Helen, with her hands clasped, watched them in fear and hope.
So they fought, and fought, and fought, until at last Childe Rowland beat the King of Elfland to his knees. Whereupon he cried, "I yield me. Thou hast beaten me in fair fight."
Then Childe Rowland said, "I grant thee mercy if thou wilt release my sister and my brothers from all spells and enchantments, and let us go back to Middle Earth."
So that was agreed; and the Elfin King went to a golden chest whence he took a phial that was filled with a blood-red liquor. And with this liquor he anointed the ears and the eyelids, the nostrils, the lips, and the finger-tips of the bodies of Burd Helen's two brothers that lay as dead in two golden coffers.
And immediately they sprang to life and declared that their souls only had been away, but had now returned.
After this the Elfin King said a charm which took away the very last bit of enchantment, and adown the huge hall that showed as if it were lit by the setting sun, and through the long passage of rough arches made of rock that was transparent and all encrusted with sheep-silver, rock-spar, and many bright stones, where twilight reigned, the three brothers and their sister passed. Then the door opened in the green hill, it clicked behind them, and they left the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland never to return.
For, no sooner were they in the light of day, than they found themselves at home.
But fair Burd Helen took care never to go widershins round a church again.
Notes: Contains 41 English folktales.
Author: Flora Annie Steel
Publisher: Macmillan And Co., Limited, London