Twelve Tips for Surviving an English Ballad

David Atkinson’s The Ballad and its Pasts: Literary Histories and the Play of Memory addresses the past of the ballad and the past in the ballad, arguing that ballads belong to a culture of cheap print and imaginative literature rather than the rarefied construct of a mythical “folk”—an approach that complicates existing scholarship.

This blog post, by contrast, addresses the pressing issue of what to do if you suspect you yourself are trapped in a ballad. Ballads are dangerous places where we’re forced to engage with our deepest human fears, so if you’re in one, it is important to take certain steps to ensure your safety and happiness. We are pleased to be able to provide the following resources:

First, we advise carefully listening to this Spotify playlist

It contains mainly worst-case-scenario ballads, handpicked from Atkinson’s book, as examples of what situations to look out for. We’ve also included a couple of cheerful ballads to rally your spirits. (It’s important to practice self-care when you are trapped in a ballad.)

Second, please adhere to these rules:

1. Under no circumstances should you acquire a lover. No good comes of this.

2. Don’t have friends or siblings, either. Interactions with other humans will end in bloodshed. Find a nice dry cave and just stay there.

3. Don’t reject anyone, even if you don’t love them. They will die, and for some reason you will also die.

4. Never allow anyone to preface your name with “sweet.” Sweetness is not a survival skill.

5. If anyone asks how you like something, be aware that there is no right answer. You must flee immediately.

6. Don’t sleep. Your dreams will come true, and not in a good way.

7. If you have violated rule #1, you can still try to avoid your fate by making sure you don’t choose a wedding venue frequented by predators. This mainly applies if you are a small woodland creature.

8. Don’t spend a long time at sea and come back bearing arms. You will be slain by your lover’s brother for any of several reasons that make sense only to him.

9. Predetermine a code word in case your significant other gets kidnapped by fairies and comes back in a different shape.

10. Don’t bother ghosts. They’ll take you with them.

11. You will always regret pledging your troth. Avoid.

12. If someone’s lips are comparable to any kind of valuable gemstone or flower, walk away. If that person can also be described as “fair,” run. If their nickname is “Sweet,” it’s probably too late.

Third, we would be remiss if we did not recommend reading the aforementioned book. Again, this is for your safety. Forewarned is forearmed.

Given these instructions, we hope you can go about exiting your ballad relatively unscathed. If this doesn’t help, please send a detailed query to the nearest literary historian, as your situation may require additional assistance.

The Ballad and its Pasts
By David Atkinson
Hardback, 9781843844921, £39 or $64.35

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