Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Last Courtship

Kateverse folksong, whose protagonists are extremely loosely based on those of Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland, at the very beginning of that story. This one grew purely out of its music, as I came into work this morning. It seems to have been written some generations later, as its heroes begin to unravel into archetype and folk-memory.

Since my vocal rendition of it would be no kindness, I've embedded Emmylou Harris's version of Love Still Remains instead. The original and sublime version of that song is, by one of those phenomenal coincidences that would be scoffed at mercilessly in any story, due to a late great folksinger actually named Kate Wolf. Anybody less like Katherine the Golden of Alland - the Kate on this mountainside, later called the Grey Wolf in the Red Gloaming - it is very nearly impossible to imagine.

The Last Courtship

Kate was a beggar that housed on the hill.
The cold wind did whip her and the dewdrops did chill.
Up come a young man so strong and so fair.
He said, "Oh my Kate of the shining gold hair,
Come away, come away – come with me today!
For too long I’ve been gone, and too short did I stay.
Fly the years, fall the tears - nothing constant has proved
But your beauty, the same
As the first day I loved!"

Kate made her answer in mortal surprise:
"The long desert roads have flung sand in your eyes!
Steeped in old sin am I, shrivelled and tanned,
And my chaplet is changed for a murderer's brand.
I am old, I am grey, and my joints creak today,
And the damsel is dead that a prince bore away.
Full of years, dry of tears, little children I scare –
But the brave boy I loved
Has not changed by a hair!"

"Kate," cried the soldier, "how can you not know
My sinews are shrunken, my stride rusted slow?
Scar-striped and bloody from every foul feast
Of ravens, I'm grown less a boy than a beast.
Never say – never say, you are like me today!
You are all the light left, since my feet ran astray.
Full of youth, full of truth, is the ring in your voice –
And the rash lad you knew
Is repenting his choice!"

Kate led the soldier away by the hand.
Together they roved to a red sunrise strand.
Damsel undaunted took prince to her mate,
And his arms were unwithered that held golden Kate.
Gone away – gone away! Where they wander today,
By the bright stream or the black stream, no mortal may say.
Each to each, all in all, by the light of his eyes,
And the spring of her strength
Till the last of Spring dies.

Many variants (notably Killer-Kate Came Courting, in which she takes the initiative; The Spoilt Lovers, which leaves out the last verse; and Willy and Nancy, prevalent in the western counties, in which they are well on the way to becoming Generic Folksong Couple) are known in its native setting. A clear fossil of the original events is preserved accidentally in the ambiguous lyric

...And the damsel is dead that a prince bore away

which, read rightly, refers to the incident in The Deed of Katy Elflocks twenty years previously, where the Margravine Katherine carried the young Prince away a-horseback from an ignominious death. The reverse and more conventional reading of this line never, despite the dearest wishes of both heroes, in fact occurred.

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