The story is more or less the same throughout the versions, although the moral implications change. Lady Barnard (or variant) meets Little Musgrave (or variant) at church. She pursues a sexual liaison with him, although he 'dare not' because she is married. She tells him her husband is away and that they won't be disturbed, but a nearby servant overhears and runs off to tell the husband. He immediately rides home and finds the two asleep in each others arms. After a confrontation, he insists that Little Musgrave rises and fights him - usually with one of his own swords. They fight, Musgrave falls. The husband then asks his wife how she likes her lover, now. She says that she prefers him to all the finery or honour that she has in being Barnard's wife. Rising, her husband runs her through. In some versions, he then kills himself.
There's something archetypal about this tragedy, something timeless and terrible that causes it to be told over and over again. I used a version of it myself in my ghost story The Unquiet Grave. Its emphasis can be whatever singer wants - the destructive effect of lust, the violence that the privileged can do to those less powerful than themselves, the way that love is stronger than fear, or the terrible implications of an honour code. It can be anything, tragedy, morality tale, even violent, bawdy farce. It's a great song.
But that isn't what this post is about. No. In the Fairport version there is one bit that has always bewildered me. Now, in most versions - such as Child81A - the song goes something like this:
‘I have two swords in one scabberd,
Full deere they cost my purse;
And thou shalt have the best of them,
And I will have the worse.’
The first stroke that Little Musgrave stroke,
He hurt Lord Barnard sore;
The next stroke that Lord Barnard stroke,
Little Musgrave nere struck more.
So, what's happening here are a few things. They are duelling - with Barnard's swords. This is interesting as Barnard is both the challenger and he is selecting the weapons, and perhaps to counter this he is giving Musgrave the better weapon. They then fight, and with the economy of the form we see that they fight not to first blood (in which case, Musgrave would have won) but to the death, where Barnard's anger gives him the advantage. In other versions the fight is less balanced. In E both blows are attributed to Barnard, showing the anger (or dishonour) with which Barnard continues to attack an injured man. In others, he kills Musgrave with a single blow:
The first straik that Young Musgrave got,
It was baith deep and sair,
And down he fell at Barnaby’s feet,
And word spak never mair.
In the Fairport version, before the fight, Lord Donald says this: what happens is this:
"It's true I have two beaten swords
Right dear they cost me purse
And you shall have the best of them
And I shall have the worst.
And you will strike the very first blow
And strike it like a man
And I will strike the very next blow
And I'll kill you if I can."
Now, this might sound like more or less the same thing but it contains a fundamental misunderstanding of sword fighting. In the Child versions, what is being discussed are 'strikes' - ie, blows that connect. In the Fairport one, we get the picture of two men taking it in turns to hit each other with swords to see who dies first. Or, at least, I do. For a long while, I thought this was fascinating insofar as it showed the incursion of the conventions gun duelling into a ballad about sword duelling. This would be a fascinating illustration of Ong's assertion that oral culture stays close to the human life world, and that obsolete conventions fall away as each singer rhapsodises on the theme, but there is a problem with this interpretation in that this isn't how gun duels work either.
My husband, bless him, tells me to stop over-thinking things that no-one else cares about and that, anyway, it's a statement of fatalism, a "this is how it's going to play out because you're good, but you aren't that good."
Perhaps he's right. I don't know. It still puzzles me. Any other thoughts on the matter are welcome.