Thursday, December 23, 2010

Surprise Ending (by Virtue of It Being Illogical, Inexplicable)

That post on Gilles de Rais — who’s a lot of things, a possible inspiration for Bluebeard being among them — sent me down the wikihole like the good, little wikirabbit I am. Now, I’m spending the lead-up to Christmas reading about bad folklore. You know — violent, Old World stories where people tend to meet terrible ends for no apparent reason and in which the morals are only apparent to toothless peasants who think bad air causes disease. They’re great, these stories. They read like outlines to the short films David Lynch decided not to make on grounds that they’d be too infuriatingly nonsensical.

Let me tell you one. In the English ballad “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight,” the titular lady hears a magic horn and falls under the thrall of a bad man who plans to do to her what he did to all his previous wives: “dishonor” and then kill her. Sucks, right? But the resourceful lass takes the first opportunity to kill the bastard. In some versions, he turns away while she undresses (because rapists do that) and she “tumbles him in a stream.” In others, she makes her move when he accepts her offer to delouse him. In any case, he dies, and Lady Final Girl goes running back home.

Here’s the part that reminds you that storytellers back in the day enjoyed certain freedoms that they don’t now: Certain versions of the Lady Isabel tale end with the heroine returning arriving at her house and speaking to a caged parrot, and promising to buy it a golden cage if it doesn’t tell her father about the rapist elf who nearly had his way and then did away with her. From the Wikipedia summary: "Oh hold your tongue, my favourite bird, and tell no tales on me / Your cage I will make of the beaten gold, and hang in the willow-tree.” Bam! End of story. Personally, I learn that a new character has been introduced — and a talking animal at that — and I think “all right, sequel!” Not the medieval Brits, who just thought that was as good a point to end as any.

Personally, I think the parrot epilogue should fall back into use, narrative awkwardness notwithstanding. In fact, I can’t think of a single movie I’ve seen recently that wouldn’t improve from the addition of more wisetalking parrots immediately before the closing credits.


  1. Oh Drew! I heard this song once as a kid and have been trying to track down the recording ever since, fairly obsessively--to the point where, when I read your post, I turned to my mother and had the following exchange:

    "You know how I've been looking for that one recording about the woman--"

    Anyway, since I couldn't remember any of the specific words I haven't had a lot to go on ("Woman kills false lover + talks to parrot" are surprisingly unhelpful as search terms), so your post has given me a new and improved starting point! ...without much result yet, to be true (the closest I found is here:, but still!

    Anyone out there know of a version that sounds like it could be sung by Peter Paul & Mary or The Weavers or Pete Seeger or something along those lines? (It's definitely not the Steeleye Span version or the Sileas version, both far too newagey).

  2. p.s. this post ( has an extended conversation with the parrot which is pretty amusing, PLUS the picture of the story by Arthur Rackham! Woo!

  3. I'm surprised anyone would have actually known what I was talking about, much less found it helpful. However, if someone were to, I guess it should be you.

    Is it weird to you that people in England at this period in history kept parrots at all? Or that Isabel thinks the parrot would be able to rat her out despite the notable handicap of being confined to a cage?