Childe Rowland and the Dark Tower

The most famous Roland in English-speaking countries today is probably the “Childe Rowland who to the Dark Tower came”, but that Rowland was no relation to our Roland/Orlando. That Rowland is from a Scottish story, half-fairytale, half-ballad. He was the son of a Scottish knight, and had two brothers and a sister, Burd Helen (Fair Ellen). Burd Helen was kidnapped by the Elf-king, and locked in his Dark Tower, whence Childe Rowland rescued her, after his two older brothers had failed. This Rowland is the one that Edmund sings about in King Lear, whilst pretending to be insane.

“Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum
I smell the blood of a British man.”

Robert Browning’s poem Childe Roland (1855) is a bizarre yet very powerful fantasy poem, featuring perhaps the most heroic character in all literature. Certainly no one else ever faced so great a peril with so little support: no family, no friends, only the certain knowledge that he will fail his appointed task just like all his companions who went before him,

“And yet,
Dauntless the slughorn to my lips I set,
And blew. ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.’”

The poem was inspired by the first line of Edmund’s song in Lear, but has nothing to do with the Scottish story, which was not presented to the reading public until Joseph Jacob’s English Fairy Tales, in 1886. Jacobs heard the tale in Scotland, and dressed it up slightly for publication, replacing the generic wizard who advises Rowland with Merlin, and the generic castle with the Shakespearean Dark Tower. Stephen King’s sprawling The Dark Tower series is loosely inspired by Browning’s poem, but again has nothing to do with the Scottish fairy tale, or with Roland the Paladin.

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