December 27, 2021

#08-170: Childe Rowland

Childe Rowland faces the Elf King

Note: References to this story appear widely, from Shakespeare's King Lear to Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Alan Garner's Elidor is also based on it. It has become one of my favorite stories.

Get Ready: Can you think of any stories in which the third child seems to have some special powers?

Not too long ago, we looked at Byron's poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Today we'll meet another "childe," this one named Rowland.

Childe Rowland was the third son of a queen (third sons are often special in stories). One day he was playing ball near a church with his younger sister, named Burd Ellen, and their two older brothers, when Rowland kicked the ball right over the church. Burd Ellen ran widdershins around the church--counter-clockwise, opposite the way the sun turns--to get the ball, and disappeared.

Rowland went to Merlin, the family adviser (suggesting that King Arthur may have been the children's father) and asked what had happened. Merlin said Burd Ellen had been taken by the King of Elfland to a place called the Dark Tower. Only the boldest knight in Christendom, he said, could retrieve her.

The eldest brother was given instructions by Merlin; he went and did not return. The same fate happened to the second brother. Finally, Rowland was given his father's sword--perhaps Excalibur?--and also received orders from Merlin: if anyone spoke to him in Elfland, Rowland must immediately chop off that person's head! He was also not to eat or drink anything in Elfland.

Rowland did as he was told. He asked directions of a horseherd, a cowherd, and a henwife in turn, each giving him partial help. He then slew each one as instructed.

The last person he asked had told him how to find and enter Elfland: "Go on a little further, till you come to a round green hill, surrounded with terrace-rings, from the bottom to the top; go round it three times 'widdershins' [as Burd Ellen had gone around the church] and each time say: 'Open, door! open, door! And let me come in.' The third time you do it, the door will open, and you may enter."

So Childe Rowland did as he was told, and the door opened into a magnificent, dark hall where Burd Ellen was sitting on a rich velvet couch. Though under a spell, she was able to tell him that the Elf King had captured his bigger and stronger brothers before him, and they were entombed as if dead.

At this moment Childe Rowland became hungry, and asked for food. Burd Ellen's enchantment prevented her from warning him not to eat, as Merlin had instructed, but just before he took a bite he remembered and threw the food upon the ground.

At this the furious Elf King burst into the hall; the food that had probably foiled the two older brothers. Rowland and the King fought long and hard, but Rowland's father's sword helped him to victory. With the King on his knees, Rowland declared, "I grant you mercy! Release my sister from your spells and raise my brothers to life, and let us all go free, and you shall be spared."

"I agree," said the Elf King. He woke the brothers by anointing them with blood-red liquid from a vial, and they sprang at once into life. The Elf King lifted Burd Ellen's enchantment, and the children returned to home and the good queen their mother.

And Burd Ellen never went widdershins round a church again.


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. anointing
  2. be spared
  3. boldest
  4. Christendom
  5. entombed
  6. foiled
  7. furious
  8. slew
  9. velvet
  10. vial

  1. placed in a grave
  2. thwarted; prevented success
  3. bravest; most courageous
  4. killed
  5. all the lands where Christians live
  6. extremely angry
  7. rubbing (with a liquid)
  8. a small bottle
  9. not be killed
  10. a soft, elegant cloth

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 27, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. i; 3. c; 4. e; 5. a; 6. b; 7. f; 8. d; 9. j; 10. h