Ballads are a European phenomenon and there are traits common to them all. These traits are also common to fairy tales, and include features such as magic numbers, the recurrence of the same situations, the use of certain words or stock sentences revealing a code that is difficult to understand for today’s readers, but used to be part of a common heritage of popular culture in the Middle Ages. Quite often the first stanza of a ballad contains the code of interpretation in the form of a keyword or clues to understand what is expected.
The three basic characteristics that the British ballads have in common with the European ones are:
1. A ballad focuses on a single situation, usually a single scene. The episodes leading to the central situation and those following it are only quickly sketched.
2. The stories are not told, but rather we see them happening: characters speak in the first person, dialogue is often present and the scenes are dramatic, intense and immediate.
3. There is no interest in the psychology of the characters and the attitude of the narrator is impersonal and detached; there is no moralising intent.
Language, structure and tunes
Most ballads are made up of 4-line stanzas, and some of them have refrains, too. Every stanza is seen as a unit in which a part of the story is told. Therefore, the narration follows a simple style, with no subordinate clauses or long descriptions. Stock sentences and formulas which could be adapted to different ballads were created: sometimes it is even possible to find the same sentence or a whole stanza in different ballads.
All ballads followed the same scansion of rhythm and length of lines, which means that any ballad could be sung to the tunes of most other ballads. Consequently, there were dozens of tunes for the same ballad, and dozens of ballads to the same tune.
Common traits of most ancient ballads
Narrative text Direct speech (dialogues)
Subject Mainly tragic
Events A single episode or part of a larger story
Descriptions Simple, short, no details
Characters No interest in psychology
Language Simple, direct, no subordinate clauses
Form Simple, four-line stanzas
Rhyme Mainly ABCB
Refrain Sometimes present
Pattern Fixed (to suit various tunes)
Common traits with fairy tales
Recurrence of the same situation
Use of stock sentences, formulae revealing a code people knew
Magic objects, magic beings, magic events