Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Watson Report: The Medieval Final Girl

I.A. Watson
by I.A. Watson 

The slasher horror tradition of a monster preying on young women until the last one somehow manages to destroy him is a lot older than schlock cinema.

I refer you to Child’s Ballads, collected in the 19th century but containing folklore going well back into the Middle Ages. It is from Child’s work that we have the oldest known Robin Hood stories, and ballad #4 is a prime example of the sort of predator vs. girl victim story that was a very popular strand of balladeering.

The song is most often called The Outlandish Knight (literally a knight from the outlands, the debatable and turbulent border between England and Scotland where reavers preyed), but it appears in many other forms across Europe, including the English ballads May Colvin or False Sir John, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, The Gowans Sae Gae, Pretty Polly, and The Water o’ Wearie's Well. Possibly the oldest version is the Dutch folk tale of Heer Halewijn, dated back at least to the 13th century.

Here is the Child version, with interjected comments from me:

    An Outlandish knight came from the North lands,
    And he came a wooing to me;
    He told me he'd take me unto the North lands,
    And there he would marry me. 

There’s a load of medieval romance stories where a mysterious stranger turns up to sweep a young girl off her feet (and into bed). Quite a lot of them don’t end well (c.f. Little Red Riding Hood)

    'Come, fetch me some of your father's gold,
    And some of your mother's fee;
    And two of the best nags out of the stable,
    Where they stand thirty and three.'
    She fetched him some of her father's gold,
    And some of the mother's fee;
    And two of the best nags out of the stable,
    Where they stood thirty and three.
    She mounted her on her milk-white steed,
    He on the dapple grey;
    They rode till they came unto the sea side,
    Three hours before it was day.

Medieval stories of this kind often had cautionary tales woven in, like “wolves may lurk in many guise”. “Beware strangers who encourage you to elope with them and your parents’ money and goods” is right there in the bullseye.

    'Light off, light off thy milk-white steed,
    And deliver it unto me;
    Six pretty maids have I drowned here,
    And thou the seventh shall be.

Yes, he’s a mass-murderer.

This ballad also strays into Bluebeard-type tropes of a husband or lover who disposes of his partner. There is an undercurrent of sexual violence and sexual marital violence in many old folk stories. Perhaps that’s not surprising since European law allowed a man to have sex with his wife at any time he chose, regardless of her consent (a law which was repealed in the UK in the 1970s!); it was legally impossible for a husband to rape his wife, and it was hard for him to be convicted of assault if he claimed he was simply enforcing his conjugal rights.

    'Pull off, pull off thy silken gown,
    And deliver it unto me,
    Methinks it looks too rich and too gay
    To rot in the salt sea.
    'Pull off, pull of thy silken stays,
    And deliver them unto me;
    Methinks they are too fine and gay
    To rot in the salt sea.
    'Pull off, pull off thy Holland smock,
    And deliver it unto me;
    Methinks it looks too rich and gay,
    To rot in the salt sea.'

The victim having to strip is another common element of ballads. We see it again in the traditional versions of Red Riding Hood, where the wolf commands her to take off her garments one by one and throw them in the fire, since she “won’t need them anymore.”

    'If I must pull off my Holland smock,
    Pray turn thy back unto me,
    For it is not fitting that such a ruffian
    A naked woman should see.'

Perhaps she should relieve him of his "sword."
Now we come to the turning point, the equivalent of those movie scenes where a female protagonist uses her gender against her captor. In some variants of this folktale it is the man who removes his garments so as not to ruin them with bloodstains, and turns his back to do so.

    He turned his back towards her,
    And viewed the leaves so green;
    She catched him round the middle so small,
    And tumbled him into the stream.

It’s interesting that in a culture where the heroes were usually male and the heroines were mostly there to be rescued by them there is a whole subculture of women menaced by men who then rescue themselves.

    He dropped high, and he dropped low,
    Until he came to the side, -
    'Catch hold of my hand, my pretty maiden,
    And I will make you my bride.'

In many of the corpus of medieval tales of unfaithful male spouses, or indifferent lovers who have impregnated a girl and then fled, or greedy conmen who have moved on to richer prey, at the point where the abused heroine finally gets the better of her tormentor he undergoes a change of heart, begs her forgiveness, and amends his ways. Most modern readers would probably prefer the heroine to kick him in the balls.

    'Lie there, lie there, you false-hearted man,
    Lie there instead of me;
    Six pretty maids have you drowned here,
    And the seventh has drowned thee.'

Here’s the payoff on this most popular version, though. She wins, he dies. Take that Freddy and Jason!

    She mounted on her milk-white steed,
    And led the dapple grey,
    She rode till she came to her own father's hall,
    Three hours before it was day.

That’s the main action, but now we come to a strange codicil. Sometimes in these stories the heroine heads home and nobody ever realises that she has had an adventure. It is an entirely private matter that she attempted elopement, faced betrayal, survived a murder attempt, and killed her tormentor. There’s something cultural in there, but I can’t quite fathom what.

    The parrot being in the window so high,
    Hearing the lady, did say,
'    I'm afraid that some ruffian has led you astray,
    That you have tarried so long away.'
    'Don't prittle nor prattle, my pretty parrot,
    Nor tell no tales of me;
    Thy cage shall be made of the glittering gold,
    Although it is made of a tree.'

 And then we have the bargaining with some creature to keep the whole ordeal secret.

    The king being in the chamber so high,
    And hearing the parrot, did say,
    'What ails you, what ails you, my pretty parrot,
    That you prattle so long before day?'
    'It's no laughing matter,' the parrot did say,
    'But so loudly I call unto thee;
    For the cats have got into the window so high,
    And I'm afraid they will have me.'
    'Well turned, well turned, my pretty parrot,
    Well turned, well turned for me;
    Thy cage shall be made of the glittering gold,
    And the door of the best ivory.'

There is a whole class of medieval tales about young women overcoming murderous suitors, and another about young women seduced by villains and brought to a bad end. The association we often see in horror films where having sex seems to always lead to dying in some horrible manner leads back to this puritanical idea that the non-virgin is more likely to die and deserve it than the chaste girl. Seduction as a precursor to death manifests in many of the oldest fairy tales (again, Red Riding Hood) and we still see the idea today in vampire movies.

The ‘final girl’ facing down the serial killer is a lot older story than we might think.

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