The Ballad Tree: A Study of British and American Ballads, Their Folklore, Verse and Music, Together with Sixty Traditional Ballads and Their Tunes

By Evelyn Kendrick Wells | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
REFLECTIONS OF THE SUPERNATURAL IN BALLADS

THE ballads reflecting the perennial fascinations of magic, ghosts, fairies and their ways, send us deeper into ancient attitudes and beliefs than any so far considered, and demand a brief statement of the fundamental ideas involved. This discussion is obviously not exhaustive. It does not in any sense present a perfect system of primitive belief, complete and consistent with any one stage of folk thinking or reasoning, nor does it account for the many contradictions in ballad folklore. It does not explain the corporeal nature of the ghost and the spiritual nature of ships and bows and harps as part of the same system, nor the fact that fairies both dread and use cold iron, nor reconcile the uttering of a name with its proscription, nor justify the same method for invoking and exorcising a spirit. The same thing is now good, now bad, brings luck and ill-hap. Many contradictions mingle and jostle in the ballads, defying conformity. Here we attempt merely to point out and give perspective to some evidences of primitive thought and custom which have been swept into the stream of tradition and preserved in the ballads in a fragmentary, or vestigial, or only faintly reminiscent state.

"We think our civilization near its meridian, but we are yet only at the cock-crowing and morning star. In our barbarous society the influence of character is in its infancy," says Emerson in his Essay on Politics. The truth of this statement strikes home as we scan survivals of primitive thought around us. An everyday phrase may hark back to some hinterland of thought; a flippant "My stars!" may be descended from the ritual of swearing by the sun, the stars, the moon, turning oneself about thrice and repeating runes. Enlightened though we are, many of us feel slightly easier if we touch wood after boasting, as our ancestors did to propitiate the tree spirit, or cross our fingers to avert bad luck, as they did to confuse evil demons. The considerable number of people who still consult numerologists are resorting to a

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