Chapter One 3
Chapter 1 – page 4
BURLOW BEANIE and KING ARTHUR
The Burlow Beanie deserves a substantial section all to himself because, in the only surviving story that mentions him by that name, he has a starring role. It also gives us a wonderful, if brief, description, of his appearance. The ballad is King Arthur and King Cornwall (Child 30). There is only one copy of this English ballad, and that copy is incomplete.
Thomas Percy, a clergyman and scholar, was visiting friends in Shropshire sometime in the early 1760s. He noticed that the maid was lighting the parlor fire with pages torn out of an old book of songs and poems that she kept under the dresser. He rescued what was left and recognized the book to be around one hundred years old. Percy painstakingly copied out some of the ballads. The writing was cramped and the ink faded, the pages torn and dog-eared. The bookbinder to whom Percy entrusted the precious collection added to the problem by cropping the pages.
The new binding encroached even further on the first words of the lines. Percy was determined, though, and in 1765 he published Reliques of English Poetry, placing some of the newly-found ballads in with more familiar ones from elsewhere. In this work is all that is left of King Arthur and King Cornwall, with big gaps in the story where the parlour fire had been kindled by a story about a fire-breathing monster who hides in what seems to be an early type of dresser.
King Arthur and King Cornwall is not a great piece of poetry, nor is it a particularly unusual story, but as a blokey adventure it has some good moments and some strong images. Its real value is that, as the story unfolds, it reveals the little gem that is the Burlow Beanie. The missing bits, as much as half of each page, can be filled in from a French poem about Charlemagne which has the same general storyline, or from several similar poems from the continent. In these poems the part of the Burlow Beanie is played by a boringly human servant who has no supernatural traits at all. He is merely the spy sent to eavesdrop, from inside a hollow stone wall, in a bedroom.
Child comments that, “….in view of the recklessness of the destroyer Time, (we) may take comfort; for there are few things in this kind that the Middle Ages have bequeathed which we could not better spare.” He does go on to say that “….the losses from the English ballad are still very regrettable, since from what is in our hands we can see that the story was treated in an original way…”
A bit of an understatement, since what we have in King Arthur and King Cornwall, is the makings of a riotous overnight-farce with lots of action, magic, and suspense.
The Western Michigan University published Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, in 1995. It contained the tale: King Arthur and King Cornwall. In a form edited by Thomas Kahn this tale was published on the Internet. Kahn’s explanatory note for Burlow Beanie contains the comment:
“… as a figure of the comic grotesque, Burlow Beanie might be compared to a character in the repertoire of Victorian street players, “Billy Barlow”; Henry Mayhew records the carnivalesque dress and the semi-improvisatory performance of this figure in his lengthy conversation with a Billy Barlow impersonator from the “street business”….”
Here is my version of King Arthur and King Cornwall based on the song as it was collected by Professor James Child and on comments made by Thomas Kahn.
IN THIS SECTION:
HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)
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