Sunday 4 January 2015

Childish Writing Isn’t Easy

Creating really, truly medieval song lyrics

By Master Hector of the Black Height

I decided to write a song. This in itself is not unusual for me. What was unusual was my determination to write a song in the style of the Child ballads. This has nothing to do with children, by the bye. Francis J. Child was a 19th century American scholar and folklorist. His five volume collection, English and Scottish Popular Ballads (published between 1892 and 1898), is a remarkable collection of 305 folk songs in language very close to our present vernacular. Given that his was one of the first attempts to capture this material, it’s as close to a “primary source” as we’re going to get on British folk/popular music going back towards our period of interest.

For more information on Child and his ballads, please refer to Compleat Anachronist (CA) #91. There are numerous web sites on the Internet with information on Child and the ballads in his collection.

CA 91 documents four of the 305 Child ballads to before 1650, though others may precede the SCA’s cut-off date. While, as noted in CA 91, “The Child ballad is a late-period phenomenon, by SCA standards. Such ballads may or may not have been sung as far back as the fifteenth century. They were certainly being sung by the sixteenth century, but not many of them were being recorded. Our good records don't begin until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries...” So balladry of this style is period.

I find the style distinctive, so much so that I have not been able to emulate it until now. To me, the narrative line of these ballads is sparse to an extreme. My usual writing reflects a very different poetic, with far more emphasis on fleshed-out narrative. I had not been able to achieve the stark, sparse quality I found in the Child ballads; they were just too different from my usual style. And then I achieved an interesting insight.

One of my interests is the literature generated by the Vietnam War. Some remarkable novels have been written about that conflict, as well as non-fiction prose. One of the most interesting works (acknowledged to be both fiction and non-fiction) is Michael Herr’s Dispatches. First published in 1978, its stark prose has almost become a cliché, reflecting the disparate, almost surreal events and effects of that conflict. Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film “Full Metal Jacket” (based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers) and wrote narration for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. Michael Herr gave both films their distinctive narrative quality.

For me, the ultimate, stark prose in Herr’s Dispatches is this excerpt, taken from the opening of the book.

But what a story he told me, as one-pointed and resonant as any war story I ever heard, it took me a year to understand it.

“Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.”

I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story...

(Michael Herr, Dispatches, Knopf, New York 1978. Page 6)

So what, gentle reader?

I was thinking of Herr, how he captures a story in so few words, and then I thought about the Child ballads. I find great similarity in the two styles of narrative. There is a story but you don’t necessarily hear much of it. This leaves vast holes for your imagination to fill.

I wonder, does this reflect a reality of the lives of the people who wrote and sang those medieval ballads? I tend to write lengthy, detailed narrative. I try to paint the whole picture. I feel a need to carry the story-line along from beginning through middle to the end. I want my vision to be your vision and I don’t want you to miss anything interesting. The balladeers didn’t worry about that. They painted their minimalist picture and left the holes for you to worry about or not.

Much like Michael Herr.

Take a well-known example of a Child ballad, #26, “The Three Ravens”:

There were three rauens sat on a tree
Downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe
There were three rauens sat on a tree
With a downe
There were three rauens sat on a tree
They were as black as they might be
With a downe derrie derrie derrie downe downe

The one of them said to his mate, / Where shall we our breakefast take?

Downe in yonder greene field, / There lies a knight slain vnder his shield

His hounds they lie downe at his feete, / So well they can their master keep.

His haukes they flie so eagerly, / There's no fowle dare him come nie.

Downe there comes a fallow doe, / As great with yong as she might goe.

She lift vp his bloudy hed, / And kist his wounds that were so red.

She got him vp vpon her backe, / And carried him to earthen lake.

She buried him before the prime, / She was dead herselfe ere euen-song time.

God send euery gentleman, / Such haukes, such hounds, and such a leman.

What about the Knight’s heraldry? Where’s his horse? Who slew him and why? How and where was he wounded? There are so many questions left unanswered! This is, for me, one of the distinctive, difficult facets of the ballad style that I have great difficulty emulating. I now am conditioned to seek and to provide detail.

Maybe this lack of answers is a medieval phenomenon, echoed by Herr to capture the impersonal -- incomprehensible? -- nature of the Vietnam War for its participants. It’s not our experience, though. Today we have CNN. We have 24 hour coverage of every story. We have background pieces, we have in-depth research. We will be told all the details, more than we need to know and perhaps more than we want to know. We will be subjected to this deluge of data. We will have all the details handed to us, nay, forced upon us.

Not by Herr. Not by the balladeers whose work is captured in Child’s collection. Maybe theirs is art of their times and places, where the culture(s) they reflect didn’t have all the answers. Evidently the balladeers accepted that. “Three Ravens” doesn’t ask futile questions about things that will never be answered. It addresses the here-and-now.

The knight is dead.
The dog keeps him company.
The hawk keeps him company.
The doe carries him away and buries him.
The doe dies immediately thereafter.

That’s all there is, folks. Draw your own conclusions.

I appreciate the metaphoric quality of the doe. I understand the role of the ravens as harbingers of death. Underlying all that suggestion, those layers of meaning and interpretation, is the narrative line, utterly stark in its elegance. Much like Herr’s first-person protagonist in Dispatches, we are told a story in a few lines. We get beginning, middle and end, even if we don’t recognize it as such until it sinks in (much like Herr’s experience cited above). Maybe it’s not a complete story from the perspective of people familiar with the Victorian novel, but that’s a value judgment. “Three Ravens” tells its story and, given its survival for several centuries, apparently it’s an adequate rendition.

As I write this, it’s only a few weeks after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon its return to Earth’s atmosphere. In this tragic event we saw the mighty engine of Western media working at full throttle: asking questions, handing us fact upon fact, hypothesizing on top of the facts to satisfy our conditioned need for answers. When new facts were unavailable, the media re-ran old facts. Again and again we were fed -- force-fed? -- detail upon detail. There was no background factoid too obscure, no biographical datum about the dead too insignificant.

That is not the balladeer’s way. I can’t help wondering how a ballad about the loss of the Columbia would have been written by a 15th Century artist. Perhaps the structure would be something like this?

There was a tire in the middle of a field.
Nothing else was around it.
It was burned. It smelled bad.
There were no tracks or paths.
No one claimed it.

Sounds almost like Herr’s writing from 1978, doesn’t it? No assumptions. No hypotheses. Mere acceptance of what is. There may be implicit tragedy in the situation. There may be implicit acknowledgement of the source of this oddity (eliminate all the other options and the tire must have fallen from the sky. Wow). Those deductions are for the listener to draw. That’s a very different style from the information deluge we live with today.

I am not trying to generalize the great period writers into oblivion: dark ages and medieval literature include lots of detail and lots of directive narration. Examples that pop to mind include Chaucer, Boccaccio, the Beowulf poet and so on. By no means do I deny the art of Chaucer and the rest. I merely am coming to accept that there’s room within the sweep of medieval literature for the balladeers, the Michael Herrs of their times and now ours. It’s a style worth exploration and experiment.

I offer this as my first experiment in the ballad style, clearly inspired by “Three Ravens” and its derivative, “Twa Corbies”:

Two Ravens
(a ballad after Child, after Snowed Inn, 15 February A.S. XXXVII)

Two ravens flew beside the inland sea:
The scarlet shines beside the white.
Two ravens flew beside the inland sea:
The scarlet is our life-blood dear.
Two ravens flew beside the inland sea:
What fate awaits for such a pair as we?
The scarlet shines beside the white,
So bright it shines.

The pair did spy a sorely wounded beast:
The scarlet shines beside the white.
The pair did spy a sorely wounded beast:
The scarlet is our life-blood dear.
The pair did spy a sorely wounded beast:
How came it thence to found the ravens’ feast?
The scarlet shines beside the white,
So bright it shines.

No wolf did hunt, no ram its horns did wield, / No hare did kick, no boar its tusks revealed.

The beast had left its dark and dismal lair / To steal cubs from the mighty Northern bear.

The beast was found out in its wicked plot: / The cubs were safe, the beast its lesson taught.

Two ravens feasted by the inland sea:
The scarlet shines beside the white.
Two ravens feasted by the inland sea:
The scarlet is our life-blood dear.
Two ravens feasted by the inland sea:
The bear’s spoils make rich such a pair as we.
The scarlet shines beside the white,
So bright it shines.

Yes, there is a metaphoric and symbolic quality to this: the symbol of the House Galbraith is the raven and when I wrote this Corwyn and Domhnail Galbraith had just stepped up as Baron and Baroness of Septentria (which Barony’s heraldry is a white bear on a scarlet field). Yes, all the other animal references are to heraldic or other totem beasts of other components of Ealdormere. But consider the narrative line for a second, simply on its own merits.

There’s a dead beast.
Those various other animals didn’t kill it.
The bear killed it.
The beast tried to steal bear cubs.
The beast failed. It’s now raven food.

What exactly was the offending beast? I don’t know. I really had no clear picture when I wrote the lyrics. In fact I resisted, consciously and carefully, the temptation to write in some detail there. What about the cubs? Not much is articulated. What was the plan, where were the cubs before the beast tried to steal them? I have no idea. These details, and any others you come up with, are the holes your imagination can fill, or not, as you deem necessary.

What about the chorus lines? What is the scarlet and white? Septentrian heraldry? Meat and bone? Blood on snow? Something else? Again, if you care, the answers are in your imagination. And if you don’t care, these lines are a notch up the complexity scale on “Downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe”, but that’s about it.

Writing this simply, this starkly, is a departure for me. I am very pleased with my first real attempt at balladry of the Child style. Maybe I’ll write some other ballads, when I‘m in the mood to leave that many big holes in my work and can resist the temptation to write additional verses to paint the whole picture.

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