Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Steeleye Span: "The Royal Forester"

As previously mentioned, there's a long tradition of folk songs where men deflower young maidens and then run. The Royal Forester falls into that category, but what makes it a cut above the norm is that, intead of just passively bemoaning her fate, she refuses to take it lying down. Um. So to speak. Instead, she chases him and CATCHES him. I love:

"She's belted up her petticoat
And followed with all her force."

Yeah! And also:

“The water, it's too deep, my love,
I'm afraid you cannot wade.”
But afore he'd ridden his horse well in
She was on the other side.

Bloody well right! It's just cool because of how it bucks the trend--there isn't much of a feminist tradition here. Can't say as I understand what's meant by “Erwilian, that's a Latin word, but Willy is your name,” though. Wuh?

As in all songs of this genre, the moral, if any, is inscrutable. Although our heroine does achieve what would at the time have been considered "satisfaction," it hardly seems satisfactory--that someone as high-powered as she is should have to marry this obvious loser. It's difficult to imagine that this is going to be a particularly happy union. And the fact that the song ENDS with "She's the Earl of Airlie's daughter, and he's the blacksmith's son" seems like it ought to be in some way significant. Is the idea supposed to be that she got a raw deal, being nobility but ending up married to a commoner? Or--after the manner of ancient Chinese miscellanies--is it just a matter of the song saying "this is what happened" without passing any judgment one way or the other? Am I projecting too much?

Regardless, she is one of the band's most memorable characters. The song itself wouldn't be among my top ten Span tunes, but it does have a kind of fun, rollicking ambiance to it. By all means, check it out.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Actually, there is a number of old Scottish ballads with strong female protagonists. Consider "Tam Lin," for instance (as written down by Robert Burns, and later covered by Fairport Convention), which also concerns a fair maiden who gets deflowered by a strapping young lad, but who then later goes on to save him from the rampaging fairy-folk, or something of that sort. Also "Geordie," which is about some guy who gets sentenced to death for trying to overthrow the government, but who gets rescued at the last minute by his lovely wife.

- SK

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Cassy pontificated to the effect that...

I agree with the above, women are not always as under represented as they can seem. As far as the marriage goes it probably would have been seen as a good deal for her. Circumstances not withstanding she could have been seen as impure and it would have been hard for her to find a husband, by marrying her attacker she regains some honour and ensures any child is legitimate.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I understood the song totally differant. She makes love with this dude who is part of the royal court he tries to get out of it and rides off and she follows he has to marry her. at the end when it says shes the earl of airle's daughter and he the blacksmith son well I understood that to mean he was the son of the earl and she the daughter of the blacksmith but because of thier marriage they share parents now. Hes the nobility not her.

3:17 AM  
Anonymous cspschofield pontificated to the effect that...

I agree with poster number 3, with this addendum; it seems to me that the implication is that the blacksmith is proud of his new son-in-law (which probably embarrasses the jerk no end). and the Earl is proud of his daughter-in-law (and no so much of his son).

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I really love this song! It is a rendition, based on a much older folk song called "Knight William and the Shepherd's Daughter" with roughly the same narrative. Given the feminist movement that was in full force at the time of this album's release, I personally like to believe that Steeleye Span, with a few subtle touches, was telling a much more empowering tale than the original.

Primarily, they make the sexual encounter sound much more consensual. Dashing young man, and pretty young girl frolic in the woods... Sounds like the 60's to me! This is pure speculation. The original song is most definitely not consensual, which is more realistic for the time period this comes to us from (possibly as far back as the 11th century).

The song is titled "Royal Forester," and from the early 11th into the 18th centuries, this would have been a person in charge of keeping the king's hunting grounds free of poachers. They were typically noble or at least very well connected, and oversaw men of lower social rank who typically did all the hard work of actually patrolling, and apprehending. In many versions of the original song "Knight William and the Shepherd's Daughter" it is revealed at the end that she is of higher birth than the knight whom she ultimately marries. This is where I think (or at least really, really hope) Steeleye Span worked poetic magic.

The guy is a Royal Forester. this is not a position you get as a blacksmith's son, which leads me to believe HE is the son of the Earl, and our deflowered maiden the daughter of the blacksmith.

You noted the line:
“Erwilian, that's a Latin word, but Willy is your name,”

I love this part and it reinforces my opinion of the dude being noble and the girl being of "low" birth. She basically says "hey, now that we have had some fun, why don't you give me your name?" To which he tries to play it cool and says "Some people call me Jim, some call me John, but when I am at my super fancy and important job in the king's court, they call me, uh... Erwillian..." Erwillian is a pseudo-latinized version of William, meant to sound important. However, to "Erwillian's" surprise, our blacksmith's daughter knows her latin, and sees through his weak ploy, calling him on it. "Erwilliam is it? Nice try. I know my latin, and that is a really sad attempt at disguising your name... William." At which point he realizes he is busted and bolts.

She chases him down and wins the day. I agree with the other posters about the interpretation of the end, which I think is the best part of this version of the tale. Through cunning and determination, she used law and tradition to elevate her social position, which was a nearly impossible feat in this place and time (11th-18th century Britannia). The phrasing at the end:

"She's the Earl of Airlie's daughter
And he's the blacksmith's son"

also leads my imagination to envision her taking full advantage of her new station, using that intellect and determination to prosper and to be considered the true heir to the Earl, where her husband is fated to be a lowly womanizer, forever at the mercy of the woman he tried to take advantage of. It is poetic justice, and a great modern interpretation, but again, very unlikely in the original setting.


7:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

The lyric means what it says. A low-born woman would have been illiterate.

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Not sure that's accurate, but also a low-born man would not have been a royal forester.

1:39 PM  

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