Traditional English  

The Three Ravens


FRom the song book Melismata - compiled by Thomas Ravenscroft and published in 1611.

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"The Twa Corbies", Illustration by Arthur Rackham to Some British Ballads

"The Three Ravens" (Child 26, Roud 5) is an English language folk ballad, printed in the song book Melismata[1] compiled by Thomas Ravenscroft and published in 1611, but it is perhaps older than that. More recent versions (with different music) were recorded right up through the 19th century. Francis James Child recorded several versions in his Child Ballads (catalogued as number 26). A common derivative is called "Twa Corbies" ("Two Ravens" or "Two Crows"), and it follows a similar general story, but with a cynical twist.


The Three Ravens

The ballad takes the form of three scavenger birds conversing about where and what they should eat. One mentions a recently slain knight, but they find he is guarded by his loyal hawk and hound. Furthermore a doe (often interpreted as the knight's mistress in supernatural form) comes upon him, cleans his wounds, bears him away, and buries him, leaving the ravens without an apparent meal. The narrator, however, gradually departs from the ravens' point of view, ending with “God send euery gentleman/Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman” - the comment of the narrator on the action, rather than the ravens whose discussion he earlier describes.

The lyrics to “The Three Ravens” are here transcribed using 1611 orthography. They can be sung either straight through in stanzas of four lines each, or in stanzas of two lines each repeating the first line three times depending on how long the performer would like the ballad to last. The second method appears to be the more canonical, so that is what is illustrated below. The refrains are sung in all stanzas, but they will only be shown for the first.

There were three rauens[2] sat on a tree,
downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,[3]
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
with a downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
They were as blacke as they might be.
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.
The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?
Downe in yonder greene field,
There lies a Knight slain under his shield,
His hounds they lie downe at his feete,
So well they can their Master keepe,
His Hawkes they flie so eagerly,
There's no fowle dare him come nie[4]
Downe there comes a fallow Doe,
As great with yong as she might goe,
She lift up his bloudy head,
And kist his wounds that were so red,
She got him up upon her backe,
And carried him to earthen lake,[5]
She buried him before the prime,[6]
She was dead her self ere euen-song time.
God send euery gentleman,
Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman.[7]

The Twa Corbies

There are only two scavengers in “Twa Corbies”, but this is the least of the differences between the songs, although they do begin the same. However, rather than commenting on the loyalty of the knight's beasts, the corbies mention that the hawk and the hound have abandoned their master, and are off chasing other game, while his mistress has already taken another lover. The ravens are therefore guaranteed an undisturbed meal, as no one else knows where the man lies, or even that he's dead. They discuss in some gruesome detail the meal they will make out of him, plucking out his eye and using his hair for their nests. Some themes believed to be portrayed in "Twa Corbies" are: the fragility of life, the idea that life goes on after death, and a more pessimistic viewpoint on life. The loneliness and despair of the song are summed up in the final couplets;

O'er his banes [bones], when they are bare,
The wind sall [shall] blaw for evermair

There may be a few different versions of this anonymously authored poem. The full text of at least one version of the poem is as follows:

As I was walking all alane[8],
I heard twa[9] corbies[10] making a mane[11];
The tane[12] unto the t'other say,
‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’
‘In behint yon auld fail[13] dyke,
I wot[14] there lies a new slain knight;
And naebody kens[15] that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.
‘His hound is to the hunting gane[16],
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame[17],
His lady's ta'en[18] another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.
‘Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane[19],
And I'll pike[20] out his bonny blue een[21];
Wi ae lock o his gowden[22] hair
We'll, theek[23] our nest when it grows bare.
‘Mony[24] a one for him makes mane[25],
But nane sall ken[26] where he is gane[27];
Oer[28] his white banes[29], when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw[30] for evermair[31].’

This ballad was one of 25 traditional works included in Ballads Weird and Wonderful (1912) and illustrated by Vernon Hill.


"The Three Ravens" or "Twa Corbies" have been performed and recorded by artists such as Heather Alexander, Annwn, A Chorus of Two, Frances Faye, Boiled in Lead, Bishi, Clam Chowder, The Corries, Alfred Deller, The Duplets, Fiddler's Dram, Ray & Archie Fisher, John Fleagle and Ewan MacColl, John Harle, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bert Jansch, Marie Little, Malinky, Omnia, Schelmish, Sol Invictus, Sonne Hagal, Sequester, Steeleye Span, Andreas Scholl, Hamish Imlach, Richard Thompson, Ariella Uliano, Diana Obscura, Terre di mezzo, Andrew King, Kenneth McKellar, Kate Price, and Custer LaRue and the Baltimore Consort.

Popular culture

  • There is reference to "The 3 Ravens" as told by John Hurt in Jim Henson's HBO special "The Storyteller".

Reception in other languages

Both "The Three Ravens" as well as "Twa Corbies" have been translated to other languages, typically all sung to the same melody as Twa Corbies, or that of the Breton song called An Alarc'h (The Swan)[citation needed]. Known versions include:

  • Danish: Ravnene (The Ravens), a translation of Twa Corbies (i.e. the cynical lyrics, sans the final stanza) by Danish folklorist Svend Grundtvig (1824–1883)
  • Finnish: Kaksi korppia is a translation of "Twa Corbies" by Finnish band Tarujen Saari.
  • German: Die drei Raben, a quite literal translation of The Three Ravens, by Theodor Fontane (1819–1898). Die zwei Raben by the same author, is the best known German version of Twa Corbies.
  • the German medieval/rock crossover group Schelmish wrote a German version of the Twa Corbies lyrics, also titled Rabenballade (Raven`s Ballad).
  • also, the German group Subway to Sally wrote the song Krähenfraß (Food for the Crows), also based on the Twa Corbies version and using a very similar melody, but with even more sinister lyrics. This version places the story in our times, replaces the knight with a soldier, and adds a new stanza in the end, loosely translating to "the bare bones will be clean / and preserved for a long time / and announce shining from the dirt / what a soldier's purpose is" (namely: the song title).
  • the Czech folk music group Spirituál kvintet adapted the melody of The Three Ravens to record a song Válka růží [1]. However, the theme has been completely changed, as the new lyrics concerned the Wars of the Roses between Yorks and Lancasters.
  • Russian: The great Russian poet Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin published in 1828 partial translation of the French translation of Sir Walter Scott's Border Poems. It includes the poem entitled "Шотландская песня" (Scottish Song), which has become known to almost every literate Russian-speaking person. Pushkin's translation contains only the first half of the poem, ending with "and the mistress awaits for her lover, not the killed one, but the alive one", thus making a dark hint the central point of the story. Many composers of the time wrote musical interpretations of the poem[2].


  1. ^ Thomas Ravenscroft, William Ravenscroft. "Covntry Pastimes". Melismata. p. 20. Retrieved 2007-08-15. 
  2. ^ In printed text of the time, u and v were often used interchangeably.
  3. ^ The refrain consists of nonsense words that create a vocal musical interlude between lines of the stanza. See Mouth music.
  4. ^ Nie: Variant of nigh.
  5. ^ Lake: Pit.
  6. ^ Prime, Euen-song: see Canonical hours.
  7. ^ Leman: Sweetheart or mistress
  8. ^ alone
  9. ^ two
  10. ^ carrion crows
  11. ^ moan
  12. ^ one
  13. ^ turf
  14. ^ know
  15. ^ knows
  16. ^ gone
  17. ^ home
  18. ^ taken
  19. ^ breast bone
  20. ^ peck
  21. ^ eye
  22. ^ with a lock of his golden
  23. ^ feather
  24. ^ many
  25. ^ a moan
  26. ^ none shall know
  27. ^ gone
  28. ^ over
  29. ^ bones
  30. ^ shall blow
  31. ^ evermore


External links

Further reading

  • A literary analysis of the work: Vernon V Chatman III, “The Three Ravens Explicated,” Midwest Folklore, Vol. XIII #3, Summer 1963

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "The_Three_Ravens". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.

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