Hello, and welcome to the March 2021 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. In this edition, I'll be exploring ATU 365 "The Dead Bridegroom Carries off His Bride." I'll also be providing an exercise designed to help you adapt the tale type's plots and motif for your own creative purposes. This month's example comes from the Child Ballad collection, and I should probably tell you now that any time I can include a Child Ballad in this series, I will do it with the feral joy of a little girl. What's more, because I love these ballads and because including another person's performance in a podcast can be a copyright headache, I'll be singing them for you myself.
So let's get started with Child Ballad #272, "The Suffolk Miracle." Note that the version I'll be singing and providing below is not the 28-verse ballad as collected by Francis James Child but a variant recorded by Norma Waterson called "The Holland Handkerchief."1 However, for the scholars among you, here's a link to the text of the collected ballad in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume V.2
Child Ballad #272 "The Holland Handkerchief"
A wealthy squire lived in our town,
and he was a man of high renown.
He had one daughter, a beauty bright,
and the name he called her was his heart's delight.
Many young men far to court her came,
but none of them could her favour gain -
'til there came one of a low degree,
and above them all, why, she fancied he.
But when her father he came to know -
that his lovely daughter loved this young man so,
over fifty miles he sent her away -
all to deprive her of a wedding day.
One night as she lay in her bedroom,
her lover appeared from out the gloom.
He touched her hand and to her did say,
“Arise my darling and come away.”
'Twas with this young man she got on behind,
and they rode swifter than any wind.
They rode on for an hour or more,
'til he cried, “My darling, my head feels sore!”
A Holland handkerchief she's then drew out,
and with it wrapped his aching head about.
She's kissed his lips and these words did say,
“My love, you're colder than any clay!”
When they arrived at her father's gate,
he said, “Get down, love, for the hour is late!
Get down, get down, love, and go to bed,
and I'll see this gallant horse is groomed and fed.”
When she's arrived at her father's hall,
“Who's that? Who's that?” her own father called.
“It is I, dear father, didn't you send for me -
by such a messenger?” And she's named he.
“Oh no, dear daughter, that can never be!
Your words are false, love, and you lie to me!
For on yon mountain your young man died,
and in yon green meadow, well, his body lies.”
The truth then dawned upon this lady brave,
and with her friends, they exposed his grave.
There lay her love, though nine months dead,
with the Holland handkerchief tied round his head.
ATU 365 "The Dead Bridegroom Carries off His Bride" is situated between "The Corpse Eater" and "The Man from the Gallows" among other Tales of Magic about Supernatural Adversaries, and the ATU index summarizes it this way:
A young woman mourns for her bridegroom who did not return from war (brings him back to life by magic). One night he appears, invites her to ride with him, and carries her behind on his horse. Two times he asks her whether she is afraid. She says no because her lover is with her. The third time they arrive at a graveyard. When the bridegroom wants to entice her into an open grave, she realizes that he is dead. He grasps at her and tears her clothing. The bride escapes (is pulled into the grave [E215], danced to death by the dancing dead, or torn to pieces).3
As I mentioned last month, the number mentioned in this summary refers to the tale type's corresponding entry in the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, which reads:
If we travel back in the tale type indexes to Stith Thompson's revision of Antti Aarne's The Types of the Folk-Tale: A Classification and Bibliography, we find a much abbreviated summary of the tale type, which looks more like the motif index listing and reads:
365. The Dead Bridegroom Carries off his Bride (Lenore). He carries her behind him on his horse. Says "The moon shines bright, the dead ride fast," etc. She is pulled into the grave [E215].6
"The Suffolk Miracle" is among the first variants of this tale type listed in the ATU index, but the plot is an imperfect fit for the tale type as summarized because it isn't about a young man who goes to war and dies in battle. It's about a young man who is separated from his betrothed and dies of a broken heart. The variant I sang strays even farther afield, telling the story of a poor young man who falls in love above his socio-economic station, (possibly) conceives a child with his betrothed ("There lay her love, though nine months dead,") and is (possibly) murdered for it by her father.
What each of these variants has in common is the motif of the dead bridegroom coming for his bride on horseback and carrying her away. By itself, this isn't a plot, though tales that closely follow the ATU 365 summary do exist.7 Rather, this tale type is a neighbourhood of story plots related by a shared motif, and the variants listed under it are specific addresses. Your job as a storyteller is to find the proper address for your needs by reading tales in the type and deciding which of the plots you'd like to adapt or subvert.
Adaptation and Subversion
The creative impulse to adapt or subvert a folk tale for contemporary audiences is a good one, but the execution of that impulse needs to go far deeper than placing the tale in a modern setting, turning a dead bridegroom's horse into a motorcycle, or re-crafting an obedient bride into a steely corporate executive. Folklore scholar Maria Tatar writes on the topic of folk tale adaptations that:
Even if the Grimms are forgiven the sin of tampering with the language of the tales, there still remain countless other charges that can be leveled against the folkloristic authenticity of their collection. Critics have accused Wilhelm Grimm of not only creating a homogenous, stylized language for the tales, but also of introducing messages, motivations, judgments, morals, and other often pedantic touches.8
The Grimms weren't alone in this. Other folk tale collectors and writers did the same sort of thing, which means that we have not only inherited their work, we have inherited their worldviews as well. Take for example the story "Seven Bones," in which a young woman uses a rather ghastly magic spell to find out if her lover has died in battle and call his spirit back to her, if so. His spirit returns on a white horse, but it is malevolent and tries to carry her into a grave. She is saved by distracting him, by hanging a rosary on the door of a house where she has taken refuge, and by the crowing of a rooster.
What is the worldview in this plot, and why does it need interrogation? Let me retell the story. A young woman prays with a rosary to ask God if her lover has died in battle and beg for the return of his spirit, if so. God sends his spirit back to her on a white horse, but it is malevolent and tries to carry her into a grave. She is saved by distracting him until she can work protective magic that banishes the evil thing summoned with her rosary and prayers.
Let's try this again. A wealthy squire has a beautiful daughter many high-born men hope to marry, but she falls in love with the stablehand instead and conceives a child with him. Her father learns of this, sends her away to have the child, and murders the stablehand. Nine months later, the stablehand's ghost returns on horseback to bring the mother of his child to the site of his grave, thus implicating her father in his murder.
Now let me retell the story. A wealthy squire has a beautiful daughter many high-born men hope to marry, but she falls in love with a high-born newlywed couple in the district, and with the wife's consent conceives a child with the husband. Her father learns of this, sends her away to have the child, and murders the husband. Nine months later, the husband's ghost returns on horseback to bring the mother of his child to his widow, and together the mother and widow raise the baby as a couple.
I would argue that the first story separates magical belief and Catholic belief into two different categories and creates a hierarchical relationship between them in which magic is devalued and dangerous while Catholicism is elevated and protective. I critiqued this worldview by inverting the hierarchy, which placed Catholic belief at the bottom and magical belief at the top. Another subversion would be to represent both as equally beneficial or equally dangerous forms of magic. The second story represents heterosexual monogamy as the norm. I queered the worldview by introducing a polyamorous triad in which the women survive to raise the child together in a lesbian partnership. Note that in both of my retellings, a dead bridegroom still carries off his bride, which means these plot subversions can still be categorized under the ATU 365 tale type.
Now it's your turn. It can be challenging to figure out what ideas about the world are represented in folk tales, especially when we still take some of those ideas for granted ourselves. One way to start is to step through the folk tale you want to adapt or subvert from the perspective of each major character. In the case of "The Holland Handkerchief," these characters are the father, the bride, and the bridegroom. Using the text of the ballad above, answer the following questions about each of these characters:
- What does this person believe about the meaning of wealth in the story world?
- Does the folk tale support or condemn this belief about the meaning of wealth? How?
- In what ways do this person's gender expectations influence her or his behaviour in the story world?
- Does the folk tale support or condemn this behaviour? How?
Once you've answered these questions for all of the major characters, relate the answers to your own worldview by answering these questions:
- What do you think of what you've decided each character believes about the nature of wealth?
- What do you think of what you've decided about the role gender expectations play in each character's behaviour?
Now think about how you would rewrite "The Holland Handkerchief" with these answers in mind. If you're keen to actually re-write the ballad, check out the July 2019 Folklore & Fiction edition, where I discuss the Child Ballads and list several key components of English and Scottish ballad construction.
That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of ATU 780 "The Singing Bone." I'll show you how I tackled issues of gender and power in my own version of Child Ballad #10, which you might know as "The Twa Sisters" but I have renamed "Cruel Johnny." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.
- 1. Waterson:Carthy, The Holland Handkerchief, MP3 (Topic Records, 2002).
- 2. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume V (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003): 66-67.
- 3. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part 1: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011): 229.
- 4. "Lenore" is the title of a ballad containing this motif written in German by Gottfried August Bürger and published in 1775.
- 5. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): 420.
- 6. Antti Aarne, The Types of the Folk-Tale: A Classification and Bibliography. Antti Aarne’s Verzeichnis Der Märchentypen, trans. Stith Thompson, Reprint. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1971): 61.
- 7. Ruth Ann Musick, “Seven Bones,” in Green Hills of Magic: West Virginia Folktales from Europe (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1970): 69–72.
- 8. Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Expanded Edition, Expanded Edition. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019): 28.