In a trifecta of archetypes: an unlikely and otherwise unprepared hero, menacing fairy world creatures attempting dominance over humankind, and bargains tied to curses of mortal peril, The Golden Ball has it all. As quests go, it’s both dire and pretty straightforward what with a giant to outmaneuver, boggarts to defeat, an attempt to stall a hangman, a damsel in distress (largely of her own making), and a rapidly approaching do-or-die deadline. In terms of literary immortality, The Golden Ball triumphs, infiltrating dozens of cultures, arching spoken, written, and sung retellings, and eventually gaining a solid standing in the modern age by being recorded by a musical legend before he achieved fame, covered by many both famous and obscure, reproduced, rerecorded, and animated. But its origins are likely so many hundreds of years old* as to be inextricably buried in the mists of time.
There were two lasses, daughters of one mother, and as they came from the fair, they saw a right bonny young man stand at the house-door before them. They never saw such a bonny man before… He had a golden ball in each hand. He gave a ball to each lass, and she was to keep it, and if she lost it, she was to be hanged. One of the lasses, ’twas the youngest, lost her ball. I’ll tell thee how.
The Golden Ball was ancient by the time the Grimm Brothers got a hold of a German version of it**. It’s widely told; in song, known as The Maid Freed From the Gallows, it exists in some form in many other languages besides English (Wikipedia cites some 50 Finnish versions alone). Like nearly all fairy tales, it’s the magical characters —simply by virtue of being magical— who can show the lesson/moral of the story in glorious hyperbole. That the forest is dangerous for little kids is heightened to terrifying levels through Hansel & Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. With its own menu of similarly delivered warnings, The Golden Ball cautions against the dangers of “free” wealth offered with dire consequences attached. The forbidden fruit theme… Totally predictable, but nevertheless a mainstay illustrating warning: a simple metaphor for children of all ages to Beware the Beautiful Stranger.
We all know to be circumspect of the hideous hag, but monsters are sometimes cloaked in beauty. And when a stranger is as “right bonny” as ever seen, and this eerily beautiful creature is offering unimaginable bounty, it would be prudent to suspect a fairy is in that skin. And when that fairy presents the “if-then” price of that magical bounty, the catch as it were — if you lose it, then you die — it would be appropriate to call the catch a curse, not a brush-off-able warning. The Golden Ball sisters were either stupid, or bewitched.
Once the younger sister loses her ball, her true love becomes the story’s reluctant hero. He chases after the ball in vain (of course it won’t be easy to catch). Then another clearly magical creature, this time the more readily suspect old woman, “rises up” and tells him the price of finding the ball is sleeping three nights in the house. Again, it’s a loaded price and it doesn’t take much imagination to know our hero has three nights of unfairly-weighted against-him fairy-battle in store.
The third night the lad got into bed, and he heard the bogles striving under the bed, and they had the ball there, and they were casting it to and fro.
Our hero had slain a giant each night so far, so outwitting more monsters… big deal, right? Well, at one point in history it was. But after centuries of being employed by storytelling parents as an effective deterrent for not getting out of bed once put there, the bogles (boggarts) hiding menacingly under the bed disappeared completely from The Golden Ball/The Maid Freed From the Gallows early- and mid-twentieth century retellings before reappearing all loveably misunderstood in a “little” Pixar film about a good-natured hulk of a purple polka-dotted creature doing what he’s expected to do: lurk under children’s beds and in their closets and scare the daylights out of them — all in the name of an honest day’s work.
But there was a significant evolutionary step between Hansel & Gretel-ish warning and a reduction of the fairy monster to a benign teddy bear equivalent. It was bleak step, and it abandoned all pretense of being a story told to children. Having traveled to America, the folk tale laid roots in American Blues and subsequent Folk and Rock-n-Roll versions. But in transitioning to the blues, it’s not just the scary boggart, but also the menacing giant and the right bonny fairy-man whose curse is what puts the girl on the hangman’s platform in the first place — they all get cut as folk song and fairy tale passed into the era of recording. It is the end of The Golden Ball, the part that so starkly tells of the meanness of men and the cruelty of whim that particularly appealed to music legends Lead Belly, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin — boggarts, and giants, and fairies be damned. But this should likely not be analyzed as disrespect to provenance, rather the natural outcome of a shift in audience and purpose. The fairy tale is a warning to children, the blues are in essence a lament, and almost to a riff based on adult themes. Lead Belly was a Black bluesman born and raised in Reconstruction-era Louisiana and Jim Crow Texas. The adult fear of hanging replacing the child-aged fear of the monster under the bed is easily understood when considering the source of the variation.
In true déjà vu, when reading The Golden Ball or The Maid Freed From the Gallows, an echo of very modern rock-n-roll lyrics filter through, in both meter and actual wording. Start playing Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole,” (YouTube, below), the classic track from Led Zeppelin III (1970). And then read from the Joseph Jacobs’ version:
‘Stop, stop, I think I see my mother coming!
O mother, hast brought my golden ball
And come to set me free?’
‘I’ve neither brought thy golden ball
Nor come to set thee free,
But I have come to see thee hung
Upon this gallows-tree.’
Led Zeppelin borrowed more than just the storyline, however. The band readily acknowledged the riff and concept came from Lead Belly’s version: “The Gallis Pole,” recorded in the 1930s (laying down some of the most amazing 12 string guitar finger picking ever, but unless it was fairies dancing over those strings, this is, while legendary, off topic).
Several others poached the tale in some form, likewise skipping the lover’s quest and the magical hurdles, going straight to the hangman and starting their song there. In 1963 Bob Dylan recorded his version (“Seven Curses”) during his Freewheelin’ sessions, and Wikipedia lists at least a dozen other modern renditions. Each artist’s interpretation is valid, of course, and the evolution of the child’s fairy tale of warning into adult blues notwithstanding, we know what the fairy did.
* I could find no indication of how old The Golden Ball truly is. I base this assumption: “its origins are likely so many hundreds of years old” upon the theories of time passed based on the distance traveled as put forth in Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (W.W. Norton, 1997), specifically where Diamond described how far language and words traveled over millennia.
** The Grimm version is entitled The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was, and though its Wikipedia page claims it “strongly resembles” The Maid Freed from the Gallows, I don’t see a particularly “strong” resemblance. There is, however, a relation. And in the study of myth transfer from culture to culture, perhaps this is enough.