Tam Lin Balladry

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Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight

Source: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882-1898 by Francis James Child.

Child Ballad Number: 4

cites: a Buchan's Ballads of the North of Scotland, I, 22. b Motherwell's MS, p. 563


Lady Isabel desires the Elf she hears blowing a horn. The Elf-Knight appears and they ride off together. After some travel they stop for a rest, at which point the Elf informs th Lady Isabel that she will die there, where he has killed seven king's daughter's before. She requests time to rest, and soothes him into a sleep. Once he is asleep she ties him with his sword belt and stabs him with his dagger, leaving him to be husband to the women he has killed.

Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight

  1. Fair lady Isabel sits in her bower sewing,
    Aye as he gowans grow gay
    There she heard an elf-knight blawing his horn.
    The first morning in May
  2. 'If I had yen horn that I hear blawing,
    And yen elf-knight to sleep in my bosom.'
    This maiden had scarcely these words spoken,
    Till in at her window the elf-knight has luppen.
  3. 'It's a very strange matter, fair maiden,' said he,
    'I canna blaw my horn but ye call on me.
    'But will ye go to yon greenwood side?
    If ye canna gang, I will cause you to ride.'
  4. He leapt on a horse, and she on another,
    And they rode on to the greenwood together.
    'Light down, light down, lady Isabel,' said he,
    'We are come to the place where ye are to die.'
  5. 'Hae mercy, hae mercy, kind sir, on me,
    Till ance my dear father and mother I see.'
    'Seven king's-daughters here hae I slain,
    And ye shall be the eight o them.'
  6. '0 sit down a while, lay your head on my knee,
    That we may hae some rest before that I die.'
    She stroakd him sae fast, the nearer he did creep,
    Wi a sma charm she lulld him fast asleep.
  7. Wi his ain sword-belt sae fast as she ban him,
    Wi his ain dag-durk sae sair as she dang him.
    'If seven king's-daughters here ye hae slain,
    Lye ye here, a husband to them a'.'


  • The main activity is between a mortal female and a male purported to be Elfin.
  • The female ends up in danger because of her desire for the male
  • The female goes into the woods with the male.
  • The female performs the rescue of the endangered person in an unconventional manner.
  • The female is of high-rank, possibly the daughter of a king.


This story has rather a different take on the story of mortal woman and Elf. This story is no romance, but perhaps a good representation of the mythology that would have lead Janet to have fear of Tam Lin in the first place. The primary parallels between this tale and Tam Lin is the strong central female character and the danger of the interaction with Elves. I find it interesting that this version of the tale places the action on the first of May, one of alternates to a Halloweeen setting for Tam Lin, although many versions of the story make no particular mention of the date. The setting in the woods is also interesting, suggesting parallels with the Carterhaugh woods. Oddly enough, Janet is warned against meeting Tam Lin, who turns out to be good for her, while Lady Isabel could have used a warning against her unnamed abductor but received none.

The magic in this tale is of rather a different nature than that in Tam Lin. There are no grand transformations. More significantly, what little magic is present is performed by the mortal woman rather than the Elf. There is some suggestion that Lady Isabels' thoughts of the Elfin knight cast a magical summoning. in addition, she performs some 'sma charm' to lull him into a sleep. However, other versions of the tale are told without identifying the male antagonist as an elf and omit amy magical subtext, so this is not integral to the story. More crucial to her rescue than her magic is the intelligence and bravery Lady Isabel showes by fooling the knight into dropping his guard and managers to save herself from the fate he had prepared for her.

Version Notes

Added to site: December 2003