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Celtic Elven Ballads

Updated on February 12, 2019
James Slaven profile image

James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.

"A Portrait of a Fairy" Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1869).
"A Portrait of a Fairy" Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1869). | Source

Ballads of the otherworldly elves are quite common in the Isles, both in the Celtic and the British cultures. Two of my personal favorites are Sir Lanval and Thomas the Rhymer, from Welsh Arthurian tales (albeit through an Anglo-Norman writer) and Scottish tales, respectively. I’ve been working on different modalities and folk music techniques. To be honest, I have a long way to go. Still, I’m hoping the re-imagining of these ballads will be at least a wee bit entertaining. So here they are in, what hopefully sounds decent as, poetic verse.

"Sir Lanval's Lady Appeals to the Judges" Byam Shaw.
"Sir Lanval's Lady Appeals to the Judges" Byam Shaw. | Source

Sir Lanval

Sir Lanval, was a knight in King Arthur’s court, who was given many tokens of love by a fairy lady. When he spurned the king’s wife, Queen Guinevere insisted he had shamed her. The king demanded to know Lanval’s lover, even though the fairy lady had asked to remain a secret. To me, this seems odd that King Arthur would demand one of his knights betray a pledge because his wife failed to seduce the knight (besides that she lied about it, as usual), but given all the other insane things the Camelot dwellers did, this doesn’t even crack the top fifty. Fortunately for Sir Lanval, his lover comes to his aide at the king’s court, after which she takes him away with her to Avalon, the Otherworld’s name in King Arthur tales. My mention of Sir Gawain being one of Arthur’s oldest allies comes from him not only being Arthur’s nephew, but appears in some of the oldest Welsh Arthurian tales.

Sir Lanval the valorous, was generous and fair,

Had not been invited to Arthur’s latest affair.

He thus rode away, his clothes becoming soiled and tore,

Until he stopped on a stream’s rocky shore.

Two maidens approached him, told him to walk ahead,

“Our mistress, she loves you,” is all that was said.

Coming to a tent, Lanval was directed in to go,

There sat a lady so beautiful, her emerald eyes all aglow.

“Handsome knight,” said the lady, who became more and more fair.

“I have seen you from afar and was stricken as I stare.

As a token of my esteem, you’ll always have gold,

And you’ll always have me, to kiss and to hold.”

“But you must never tell anyone of me or I’ll leave.”

Sir Lanval became even more generous of soul,

Heaping upon the less fortunate, silver and gold.

To his friends he would give gifts every day,

Then at night to his fairy lover, to her home they would lay.

Sir Gawain, one of Arthur’s oldest knights and allies,

Invited Lanval to become one of Arthur’s dear knights.

And so his fame and honor, grew larger and all awhile,

Of his love to his fairy lady, he still never grew tired.

“But of me you must never tell, never let anyone else see.”

Events would conspire to tear down the knight

As some powers can’t be overcome by physical might.

The Queen soon grew curious of this young man so fair,

So a temptress she became, with a plan of seduction and dare.

No matter what she proffered, gifts of gold and the flesh,

Weren’t enough to sway Lanval from his fair lady’s breast.

“I must decline, my Queen,” the young knight did aver.

“For the honor of my king, whom I do serve.”

“But you must never tell anyone of me or I’ll leave.”

The queen could not believe that such an oath would dissuade,

Any man who loved women, regardless how staid.

“You must love only men!” she retorted in anger.

Knowing back then, this would prove to be danger.

“Of course not.” Lanval insisted, “So with your pleas do desist.

I have eyes for only my true love, my beautiful mistress.”

He knew not to say any more of his dear and true love,

But in no uncertain terms told Guinevere he was done.

“For she is brighter, more beauteous, and more divine,

More gorgeous than her handmaidens, who even to you they outshine.”

“But of me you must never tell, never let anyone else see.”

The queen strode off, trailing cold anger in a huff.

There was one certain way that she could call the knight’s bluff.

To her husband, the king, she broke down and cried.

She told Arthur that Lanval had come on to her, switching the side.

The king was furious with Lanval and at once he did call,

The entire court of knights and ladies, into the royal hall.

“You must answer for your crimes against my wife,

And if you cannot then you forfeit your life.”

Lanval stood silent, abashed and ashamed.

But it was for another crime that he felt the hot blame.

He had already destroyed the only thing for which he did care,

When he broke his word to his love, telling they were a pair.

Yet as Arthur was about to give the punishment most foul,

The doors to the room burst asunder with a wind that did howl.

There in the doorway stood a woman most divine,

Her hair golden like the sun, in the light it did shine.

Her eyes were aglow and her face most pure,

Arthur’s final words he found he must abjure.

“This is my love,” her voice rang with melodious calm

“And for his honor and word, I will give him this balm.

He should never have mentioned me, not ever, not at all,

But he was willing to die, and to keep his word he would fall.

So from here I shall take him, to rivers of mead and fields of repast,

Where sickness and death are barred, are things of his past.”

And with those final words, the two lovers left the others in dismay,

Feeling ashamed and aghast and not believing Lanval’s say.

“Though you spoke of me once, you’ve repented quite well. Now we’ll live together forever, of that they can tell.”

Sir Lanval, from the Lais of Marie de France.
Sir Lanval, from the Lais of Marie de France.

Thomas the Rhymer

A Scottish laird, the non-fictional Thomas was born in Berwickshire, Scotland in the 1200s, and is mentioned in land charters, but little else is known about him. The maybe-fictional, maybe-factual Thomas was taken away by the Queen of Elfland, from where he returned with the gift of prophesy and the inability to tell a falsehood. The original tale dates back to at least the early 1400s and was turned into a ballad in the 1700s, including a rather robust version by Sir Walter Scott. If all the predictions made by Thomas actually had happened, then the charter dates match up with his prediction dates, as he supposedly chose the hour of death for Alexander the III, King of Scotland, in the late 1200s. There are no decent notes on how the historic Thomas passed away, let alone the embellished, so naturally I’m assuming he went back to the Otherworld. I know I would.

Thomas, young Thomas, lounged beneath a hawthorn tree,

Upon a horse, came a lady of surpassing grace.

“Come with me, young man, and beauty you’ll seem

In the realm of Elves, no better a place.”

Her hair it did twirl, a blonde mane of silk,

Golden and flaxen, a whirlwind of stars,

Her pale porcelain skin, creamier than milk,

Her beauty surpassed all mortals by far.

What choice did Thomas have, but to go with the Queen

For that’s who she was, of the land forever green.

There did young Thomas stay hidden for years,

Learning the ways of the Elves, incomparably wise.

Shielded from hurt and from toil and from tears,

He learned to see the future, but forgot how to tell lies.

When he returned to the mortal land under skies so blue,

He was forever known as the Rhymer and as Thomas the True.

For his wisdom and wit, people rode for many miles,

For his uncanny ability to foresee and prognosticate.

Although many tears came, do did many smiles,

Depending on if his advice was taken early or taken too late.

He told the Earl Dunbar to hurry before all was lost,

Regarding Alexander, king of Alba and the Scots.

It was he who took back islands along the coast,

But along a great wind came and soon he was lost.

He stated not to worry and gave another verse,

That soon all the island would be ruled by the kilt.

From the House of Stuart, come from the line of the Bruce,

All of the kingdom guided by that beautiful Scottish lilt.

Many more visions were given, tradition has told,

Mostly dealing with trees and sometimes with stone.

Sometimes dealing with lines, from families of old,

Hearing good fortune, passed through blood and through bone.

Sadly not all came true, but came out wearing the worst,

For knowing your future can be a foul curse.

Though none now know, where dear Thomas does lay,

Or is he finished at all, but rather left these mortal lands.

Perhaps the Rhymer has opined upon all he has to say,

And now lives again with the Queen and her bands.

His head upon her knee, she guides him yet more,

Kissing her sweet lips like he did once before.

Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of the Elves.
Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of the Elves.

Until next time...

Hopefully that wasn’t too painful! If it was, feel free to tell me in the comments below that you prefer my prose to my poetry. I’d much rather keep my works entertaining and not punishing! Slainte!

© 2019 James Slaven


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    • James Slaven profile imageAUTHOR

      James Slaven 

      2 years ago from Indiana, USA

      Completely agree, Alexander!

    • Guckenberger profile image

      Alexander James Guckenberger 

      2 years ago from Maryland, United States of America

      We Celts are awesome.


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