Childe Rowland" is a fairy tale, the most popular version written by
Joseph Jacobs in his English Fairy Tales, published in 1890. It was
based on a Scottish ballad, which is why the text alternates between
prose and rhyming stanzas.
Joseph Jacobs called the King of Elfland's
palace "the Dark Tower" in his version, an addition he made that was
not part of the original ballad. This harks to Shakespeare's King Lear
and Robert Browning's poem "
Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," but
neither of those references have any relation to the fairy tale.
2 Cultural influences
3 See also
The story tells of how the four children of the Queen (by some
Childe Rowland, his two older brothers, and his
sister, Burd Ellen, were playing ball near a church. Rowland kicked
the ball over the church and Burd Ellen went to retrieve it,
inadvertently circling the church "widdershins", or opposite the way
of the sun, and disappeared. Rowland went to Merlin to ask what became
of his sister and was told that she was taken to the Dark Tower by the
King of Elfland, and only the boldest knight in
The eldest brother decided he would make the journey, and was told
what to do by Merlin. He did not return, and the middle brother
followed, only to meet the same fate. Finally
Childe Rowland went
forth, having been given his father's sword, which never struck in
vain, for protection. Merlin gave him his orders: he must chop off the
head of anyone in
Elfland who speaks to him until he sees his sister,
and he must not eat or drink anything while in that realm. Rowland
obeyed the orders, dispatching a horseherd, a cowherd, and a henwife,
who would not tell him where his sister was. The henwife would only
say he had to circle a hill three times widdershins, and say each time
"Open, door! open, door! And let me come in." Following the
instructions, a door opened in the hill and Rowland entered a great
hall, where sat Burd Ellen, under the spell of the King of Elfland.
She told him he should not have entered Elfland, for misfortune befell
all who did, including their brothers, who were prisoners in the Dark
Tower, nearly dead.
Rowland, forgetting Merlin's words, was overcome with hunger and asked
his sister for food. Unable to warn him, she complied. At the last
moment, Merlin's words returned to Rowland and he threw down the food,
upon which the King of
Elfland burst into the hall. Rowland fought
with the King, and with the aid of his father's sword beat him into
submission. The King begged for mercy, and Rowland granted it,
provided his siblings were released. They returned home together, and
Burd Ellen never circled the church widdershins again.
The synopsis of
Childe Rowland is found in a Scandinavian medieval
ballad.[clarification needed] Although the hero and heroine appear
under different names[clarification needed] and the elf-king is
replaced by a mermaid, the story is essentially the same: the youngest
brother rides out to rescue his sister and succeeds. The sister in
this ballad has lived under a different name, probably oblivious of
her background until her brother revives her.
Childe Rowland" is referenced briefly in King Lear, by Gloucester's
son, Edgar, disguised as mad Tom, in one of his mad ramblings:
Child Rowland to the Dark Tower came,
His word was still 'Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.
Robert Browning's 1855 poem
Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came
Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came takes
its inspiration more from
Shakespeare than the fairy tale and has no
real connection with the latter.
Stephen King has also written about the character Rowland (spelled
Roland) in his Dark Tower series, though this explicitly references
Robert Browning 1855 poem. In this sci-fi/fantasy tale, Roland is
the last gunslinger on a tireless mission to reach the Dark Tower, the
nexus of all worlds. It is perhaps worth noting that, while King seems
to have based the novels more on the Browning poem, there are some
similarities between Roland's tale and "
Childe Rowland," such as the
sorcerer "Maerlyn" and an antagonistic "king" figure (represented in
the novel by the Crimson King). Also his father's sword is represented
by Roland's large .45 revolvers and the Door Upon The Hill is referred
to many times as "doors to other whens and wheres", a prominent theme
that is explored thoroughly during The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of
the Three when, by way of physical doors in his world, Roland can see
into and interact with other worlds via the mind of a person whose
door he has opened.
The story has influenced several lesser known fantasy novels as well.
Lord Dunsany's 1924 novel
The King of Elfland's Daughter
The King of Elfland's Daughter shares many
similarities with it, while
Alan Garner drew heavily on the tale for
Elidor (1965), using it as the start of his story. American
fantasy and science fiction author
Andre Norton retold the fairy tale
in her novel Warlock of the
Witch World (1967) with the setting moved
to her Witch World. Terry Pratchett's
The Wee Free Men
The Wee Free Men (2003)
introduces a character named Roland de Chumsfanleigh, who is kidnapped
by the Queen of the Elves. Gordon R. Dickson's unfinished science
Childe Cycle (1959) was named for the Browning poem.
English folk singer
Martin Carthy used an adaptation of the tale for
the basis of his song Jack Rowland, which appeared on his 1982 album
Out of the Cut.
The Irish poet and playwright
Louis MacNeice wrote a radio play, The
Dark Tower, based on the
Childe Rowland story. In it, Rowland, the
youngest son, is sent to face the Dark Tower. After many adventures he
arrives and raises the trumpet to his lips. A major theme of the play
is the notion of free will. Initially, Rowland is impelled through
duty and his mother's driving will. Eventually, he breaks the shackles
she has imposed on him and makes his own free choice. The play was
first broadcast on the
BBC Home Service (now Radio 4) on 26 January
1946. The original music was composed by Benjamin Britten.
Thomas the Rhymer
Go Set a Watchman
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Louis MacNeice, The Dark Tower and Other Radio Scripts, Faber Finds,