Scarborough Fair is a ballad from the deep middle ages, maybe as old as Robin Hood or even King Arthur. It’s certainly older than its trade-show namesake to which the song was associated with only as late as the nineteenth century, which is also when it got its notorious refrain:
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Fairy-kind had a different set of manners than those of humans, and one of their rules was that you couldn’t just refuse someone when they wanted a thing, because it’s important to them, there’s attachment. There’s destiny. And so was the case for The Elfin Knight who pranced and strutted in all his hunky glory atop a Scottish hill and was spied by fair maiden / bonny lass / hip chick, Isabel who decided she wanted a bit of that.
Some versions justify her lust because he was tooting a magic horn of love. (Yeah. Read into that everything you think it means.) In later versions the roles are reversed and the elf is a wicked villain playing the marry-me-or-else card. Later versions still would swap out Mr. Saucy Elf-Knight with The Devil Himself so our bonny heroine has clear cause to avoid the nuptial.
But these were still the old, old days when it was okay for men to be dishy and women to want some of that. And Isabel was all over this knight and Good morning, fair prince. What longing brings you down to my lush vale this warm dawn? Needless to say, it took little time for Isabel to get to the point.
Versions vary exactly why our fey knight would refuse a comely mistress. I mean sure, in real life he’s just not that into her is a acceptable cause. Not wanting to break the poor girl’s heart is another. A difference in station is a common third. None of this really matters: Just as it was poor manners for an elf to say no, he couldn’t exactly say yes, either. Confused? That’s normal. The fair folk are a strange lot with stranger customs. There’s a parallel notion in courtly love that a lady could only refuse a lad’s advances to stay virtuous, and could then only anticipate his efforts to woo her. I suspect that when you’re negotiating with temperamental dudes who are used to stabbing things with swords to get their way, ambiguity might make for a prudent tact.
That said, the elfin knight decided to dissuade her in proper fairy custom which was to challenge her to impossible tasks. (In the villainous / Satanic version she is obligated to wed him due to contrived obligations, and he taunts her by offering her freedom for completing these impossible tasks). Thus he offers (here in plaintext):
I will gladly be yours, but if you would first do me this:
Any typical girl would be dissuaded, possibly have her ego bruised for a week or even a year. But our hep cat Isabel was no typical girl, and possibly had dealt with fairy-kin before:
Agreed. Your shirt will be ready, just as soon as you:
Purchase an acre of land between the sea water and the foam
Plow this land, and sow it end-to-end with a single peppercorn
Reap the harvest with a leather blade and bundle it with a peacock feather*
Thresh the harvest against a wall, without dropping a single corn
European fairy tales (Grimm or otherwise) were full of such impossible challenges. (The spinning-straw-into-gold thing from Rumpelstiltskin started off as one.) The usual story goes something like this:
Peasant: My lord, there’s a monster rampaging the fields and eating the sheep.
Knight: I’ll take care of that fie–HOLY BUTTCRAP HE IS ENORMOUS
Peasant: What are we going to do, sire. He’s still eating sheep.
Monster: MMNCH CRNCH MMRCH MNMMCH
Knight: Oh woe is me. I am honor bound to fight the monster, but it is too big. I will die this day.
Fairy Queen: Perhaps I can help, cupcake.
Knight: What can you do, scantily dressed woman?
Fairy Queen: Well, honeybun, I just happen to be carrying this magic beast-killing sword for such an occasion.
Knight: Brilliant! Hand it over. This day will be ours after all.
Fairy Queen: I can’t just give it to you, dearheart. It must be traded.
Knight: Aren’t we in a bit of a rush for commerce formalities?
Fairy Queen: It’s part of the sword’s magic, handsome knight.
Knight: Strange, but plausible. Okay what do you want for it?
Fairy Queen: I’ll take whatever your lady shows you first when you get home.
Knight: Hmmm…sounds shady like a dense forest., You’re setting me up for mischief, is it?
Knight: Fine! Fine! I agree! Give me the sword.
One three-day-and-night-long fight later…
Peasant: You did it, sire! The monster is slain!
Knight: Man that was a tough fight. And this sword has a nasty torque to the left.
Peasant: But the monster is dead, sire. The day is yours! We’ll start dressing the kill immediately!
Knight: Um, do we know if that thing is edible?
Peasant: Don’t worry about it, Sire. Go home and have a rest. You’ve had a busy day.
Knight: That’s awful assertive for a peasant, but I’m too tired to care that much. I’m going home.
A brief trek later…
Knight: Honey, I’m home!
Lady: My love, I have born you a son!
Knight: My dearest, that is wonderful! I… oh crumbs!
Fairy Queen: Hey there, buttercup.
Knight: I was specifically afraid something like this was going to happen.
Lady: What’s going on?
Fairy Queen: I’ve come to collect, my dove.
Knight: Yeah, there was an agreement.
Lady: This is highly irregular.
Fairy Queen: The boy was the first thing she showed you.
Lady: You’re not taking my son!
Knight: I kinda feel like you knew it was going to go down this way.
Fairy Queen: That’s totally irrelevant, sugar
Knight: Irrelevant, how?
Lady: You sold your son? How could you!?
Knight: It was a predicament!
Fairy Queen: Remember what you were fighting…
Monster Flashback Cut: GRAAAAAWAWAWWARRAARRAR!
Fairy Queen: …and how it probably would have turned out…
Monster Probablistic Alternative Cut: MMNRCH CRNCH MMNCH MMRNCH CRNCH MMRCH MNMMCH
Knight: Ew! Good point!
Lady: But you now have an heir!
Knight: I’d be dead!
Fairy Queen: And besides, sweet pea, your baby lord would then have to still contend with the monster.
Lady: I’m not giving you my baby!
Fairy Queen: That would be awkward and would cause problems.
Knight: I think what my wife is saying is that if you take our baby from us we’re going to be all sorts of sad, and we then might as well have a monster ravaging our sheep or fall under a curse or whatever, because who wants to live after the fairies ate your baby? Consumed by such sorrow I will probably just retire to my chambers write bad gothy poetry until I die of ennui.
Fairy Queen: Oh, my dreamboat, do not fret so much. I’m insulted that you would dare insinuate me of wanting to eat your baby, and for that, I should spare you no mercy. All the same I’m impressed by your inspired post-modernist analysis of the situation, and would encourage such noble behavior. Thus, I shall offer you cutie-pies this single chance to keep your infant… Even though he’d assuredly be better off with me, what with the state of medieval medicine:
Make me a sack with cloth neither spun nor woven, and fill it with gold neither mined nor minted. I will come back in one year and one day with your baby boy and exchange him for the sack. And because I’m feeling magnanimous, he will be unharmed.
Of course, this is where the real story begins, and our lady and lord have to get clever to get their child back (intact but all fey’d up, because fairy queens just can’t help themselves). Or fail and the boy has adventures in fairyland.
* or a sprig of heather, variations and all that.