Drawing on both folklore studies and literary analysis, this essay contends that the figure of the animal paramour in the Child ballads represents, in objectified form, the inherent animality and duality of human nature. Ballads featuring sexual relations between humans and anthropomorphic animals address the complex human interaction with the natural world.
Created anonymously, passed down orally through generations, recorded in ancient manuscripts or in broadsides, ballads are among the oldest and most universal forms of narrative. In what follows, I will be examining one particular group of ballads, which, for convenience I am calling the animal-paramour ballads. These ballads all feature a sexual relationship between a human being and an anthropomorphic supernatural animal, suggesting a complex interchange between the animal and the human states, the meaning of which will be my subject here.
The ballads I will be discussing all derive from Francis James Child's canonical The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. This collection of 305 ballads, first published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898, has become the standard anthology for English-language balladry. Child was a scholar of mediaeval literature and the first Professor of English at Harvard University. He devoted the second part of his career to compiling as comprehensive a collection as possible of the traditional ballads of England and Scotland. Tragically, Child died two years before the last of his five volumes appeared in print. Nevertheless, as Sigrid Rieuwerts notes in her memorial essay: "Child's industry, judgement and accuracy ensured that ESPB [...] became the standard reference point for all subsequent work in the field of English-language traditional balladry" (23). The ballads that Child canonized are now internationally referred to as Child 1-305, and shall be so designated here. Furthermore, because I am treating the ballads as a single generic form, I shall be referring to them as if they were a monolithic creation, rather than distinguishing them by their national or historical provenance.
The appearance of Child's collection in the late 1800s inspired the first wave of scholarship on the ballads in the twentieth century. This first wave, while often concerned with the insoluble debate over ballad origins--that is, whether ballads were created communally or individually--also focused attention on the folkloric underpinnings of balladry, especially as these relate to the supernatural. This line of investigation, begun by Child himself in his headnotes to the supernatural ballads in his collection, received its most extended consideration with the publication in 1928 of Lowry Charles Wimberly's classic, Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads. Wimberly's book was reprinted in 1965, a decade that saw renewed interest in folk music and, especially, in balladry. Subsequent trends in ballad scholarship have focused on textual analysis--for instance, Fleming Andersen's important Commonplace and Creativity: The Role of Formulaic Diction in Anglo-Scottish Traditional Balladry--and, more recently, on sociology and gender analysis. (Deborah Symonds's Weep Not For Me: Women, Ballads and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland is a good example of balladry used to illuminate a historical subject from a feminist point of view.) (1)
At the same time, however, research into the supernatural aspects of the ballads has not been lacking. I will mention here three such studies that have some bearing on my subject: Irene Hansel Wood's essay on the folk medicine of childbirth, Sabine Wienker-Piepho's study of supernatural wives in the ballads, and Vic Gammon's essay on "Music, Charm and Seduction in British Traditional Songs and Ballads." (2) However, all of these studies fall within the realm of folklore scholarship rather than literary analysis. That is, they are concerned with the origins and permutations of specific beliefs and customs in the ballads, but they do not explore the literary or thematic implications of these beliefs.
It is perhaps for this reason that the theme of the animal paramour in the ballads has received so little scholarly attention. Animal paramours belong, by definition, to the supernatural Otherworld that also contains fairies, revenants, sirens, and other forms of fantastical beings. Because of this, discussion of animal paramours in balladry tends to be subsumed into discussions of the supernatural in general. Yet Child's collection features a distinct group of ballads in which the supernatural element is located in an anthropomorphic animal who has a sexual relationship with the human protagonist. While other kinds of animals are present in the ballads--most commonly horses and birds--these tend to remain within the confines of the natural world, even when they possess magical attributes, such as the ability to speak (for instance, the talking parrot in Child's C, D, and F variants of "Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight" ). But ballads that feature supernatural animals as paramours disregard natural species boundaries and define the animal and the human spheres as capable of merger through sex. They thus posit a view of human nature that encompasses the notion of animality.
These ballads feature both positive and negative examples of animal paramours: In ballads that define animal lovers positively, the animals belong to species that appeal to human beings, such as deer, birds, or seals. In ballads where the animal lover is presented negatively, the animals are often figured as monsters who inspire revulsion. Monsters tend to blur the line between human and animal by embodying horrific exaggerations of both states. The resulting beast is thus more fantastical than real and exists exclusively within the domain of the supernatural. Animal paramours, on the other hand, are clearly recognizable as actual animals and the two states that they incorporate--the human and the animal--are nevertheless clearly differentiated. Animal paramours may be human at one time of day and animal at another, or human on land and animal in the sea or in the air, or they may have animal exteriors inhabited by human souls.
Ballads that feature animal paramours define human identity not as multiple, but as dual. The supernatural creature that is half-human and half-animal stands as a reification of human potential, representing the complexity of human nature as split in two between man and beast. The sexual relationship of the human protagonists to such creatures therefore assumes both exogamous and incestuous implications. Barkan writes: "Erotic attraction via metamorphosis defines sexuality with particular force as the unfamiliar or even the uncanny.[...] Myths of magical change, again and again, will be stories celebrating the unfamiliar forms of the sexual impulse with all their terror and allure" (13). But …