The short fictions I gnaw most often are three traditional ballads. Two of them, ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Mattie Groves’, lure with a puzzle: despite their constraints and fast pace, they convey twists, nuanced characters, and a world of cross-thatched hierarchies. It’s some sort of trick; maybe if I watch again and sit real close… ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, in contrast, is as stripped down and recurrent as the nightmare where I drive onto a highway and then realize I’m in the back seat with no one in the front. An unknown person for unknown reasons recommends an unqualified person for a dangerous job; for equally unknown reasons that person feels compelled to accept the job and fail. How like life.
Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads volumes are in the public domain, with ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ online here. I never came up with collations better than those recorded by Fairport Convention, who base their ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ on Child’s variant A, merging one variant G verse that Child footnoted as a “silly reading”. All the more appropriate for a tragic absurdity.