The Beast Within: Animals as Lovers in Child's the English and Scottish Popular Ballads

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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.

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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. …