Sunday, November 06, 2005

Scarborough Fair

Listening to the Mediaeval Baebes' short version of "Scarborough Fair" on Mirabilis, I got to thinking about the different lyrics of this old song.

The version available at this site make it clear that the singer is asking his lover to perform a series of impossible tasks, for example, to find an acre of land between the ocean's foam and the sandy beach or to plow with the horn of a lamb.

The folksong collector Martin Carthy considered it to be a version of the "Elfin Knight" ballad, like "The False Knight on the Road," in which an elfin/demonic knight asks a young traveler a series of trick questions.

So is the list of herbs a form of herbal magic or part of the more Victorian "language of the flowers," as the first site suggests?

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Blogger Noddy said...

Magically, the four herbs form a healing charm: Parsley purifies, Sage provides wisdom, Rosemary was a banishing herb before it became associated with memory, and Thyme speeds the healing process. In Victorian parlance, the interpretation given in the site you mentioned is accurate, but the song pre-dates Victoria. I'd be more inclined to go with the older folk charm and rather than viewing it as an inspiration for the lady to return to him, I favor the interpretation of it being a way for him to heal from her leaving him.

Because we don't know why she left, it's possible she died, and this is the singer's way of dealing with grief - a funerary song. The selection of herbs known to compose a healing charm supports this view. Even the Victorian Flower Symbolism can support this view, as the separation between the lovers can be seen as involuntary and impossible to rectify, as it would be if death was the agency which parted them.

1:24 PM  

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