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"Scarborough Fair" is, according to Wikipedia, a traditional English ballad, with many different versions. However, one thing that the versions have in common, is setting impossible tasks and saying "then she'll be a true love of mine". For instance, in the version sung by The Hound + The Fox, the lyrics go like this:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Without no seams nor needlework
Then she′ll be a true love of mine
Tell her to find me an acre of land
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Between salt water and the sea sand
Then she'll be a true love of mine
Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
And gather it all in a bunch of heather
Then she′ll be a true love of mine
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

What is the point of these impossible tasks, such as reaping with a sickle of leather? Why must she complete all of these to be "a true love of mine", if she "was once a true love of mine"?

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    As T. Kingfisher has a character say in Nettle and Bone, "you give someone an impossible task so that they won’t be able to do it.”
    – Peter Shor
    Jan 29 at 14:40
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    She was once a true love, but now she's not. Let us compare the possibility that this love is currently in state: 'true' to some other things. 1. Sewing a shirt with no needle or seams? Hmm yes, about as likely. Finding an acre of land between the sea and the sand? Aye, sounds about right. I suppose if there's true love here, the real estate market has opened up marvelously, and shirts will be darned easy to make from here on out. cough
    – Rab
    Jan 31 at 6:44

3 Answers 3

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Scarborough Fair is a folk song which dates back to at least the 17th century. Folk songs were, as the name suggests, passed on by oral tradition and relatively little was written about them until music scholars began to take an interest in them in the late Victorian era. As such, the origins and meanings of these songs are often lost to history, and we cannot make definitive conclusions about them.

We can, however, make a game attempt at tracing the origins of this song, which may shed some light on its meaning. As an oral tradition, folk songs were very often adapted and changed by different performers, and there are clear relationships between very many of them. The motif of impossible tasks is not rare: it can be found in songs such as Unquiet Grave:

Go fetch me a note from the dungeon so deep
Fetch water from a stone
Or milk white out of a fair maid’s breast
When a fair maid never had none.

Or Acre of Land (note that an acre of land is also referred to in Scarborough Fair):

I sent it home in a walnut shell;
I threshed it with my needle and thread.
I winnowed it with my handkerchief;
I sent it to mill with a team of great rats.

But these do not seem to be related to Scarborough Fair. Rather, its origin appears to be a song called The Elfin Knight, in which a woman is propositioned by an elf, a supernatural being. In some versions, the elf is threatening to rape the woman, in others she is seeking him willingly. Either way, the elf responds by setting the woman a very similar series of tasks to gain/avoid the liaison:

O fetch to me aye a Holland shirt,
Aye thout either needle or needle work.

For you’ll fetch to me two acres of land
Between thon salt sea and thon salt sea strand.

And so on. In this instance, it seems reasonable to assume that these tasks exist to highlight the magical nature of the elfin being. Songs involving elves performing supernatural feats are, again, common in the folk song canon: Tam Lin is a particularly famous example. This creates a great deal of dramatic tension in the narrative, separating the otherworldly elf from his mortal lover and raising the stakes with each passing impossibility. Of particular note is the fact that the supernatural element suggests that these tasks are not impossible for the elf.

In Scarborough Fair, the protagonist is now presumed to be a mortal man instead, but the impossible tasks remain. In this context, it would seem that the tasks are designed to test just how much the woman loves the man: is she so desirous of him, in other words, that she is willing to attempt the impossible to woo him?

This ties in to the repeated statement that "she once was a true love of mine". The implication here is, of course, that the lady is no longer the singer's true love, possibly because she committed some act of betrayal. So hurt is the singer by that act that he is now demanding an impossible task to prove that she is worthy to win back his love - "then she'll be a true love of mine".

Either way, divorced from the supernatural elements of the previous song, the tasks seem somewhat bizarre to the modern listener. It's possible that the refrain "Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" is a distant echo of this supernatural origin. Sage as a folk medicine was seen as a way to ward off evil: elves, as ungodly beings, would have been seen as Satanic in the era in which the song originated. Thyme was similarly used to ward off nightmares. Rosemary, meanwhile, is both a love charm and a commemoration of death, and there may be a relationship with the impossible tasks set by the ghost in Unquiet Grave.

This is often the way with folk songs: over the centuries of oral traditions, important parts of the narrative get lost and what remains does not entirely make sense. Horkstow Grange is an old song from which famous folk-rock band Steeleye Span got their name, and it's clearly about a quarrel between two workmen. However, the reasons for their quarrel and the denouement of the incident are lost. It may be that Scarborough Fair originally included more overt links to the supernatural, which have not been recorded for modern listeners.

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    "Impossible or absurd tasks" are H1010–H1049 in Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature. Jan 29 at 12:17
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    Don't you think the main point, over-riding all else, is 'She once was a true love of mine'? Not is or might become, but once was? Jan 29 at 23:02
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    @RobbieGoodwin I've added a paragraph to address this.
    – Matt Thrower
    Jan 30 at 8:56
  • Thanks and I failed to see that. Will you please Post it as a snippet? Jan 30 at 22:17
  • @RobbieGoodwin This ties in to the repeated statement that "she once was a true love of mine". The implication here is, of course, that the lady is no longer the singer's true love, possibly because she committed some act of betrayal. So hurt is the singer by that act that he is now demanding an impossible task to prove that she is worthy to win back his love - "then she'll be a true love of mine".
    – Matt Thrower
    Jan 31 at 11:15
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Matt's answer is exceptional. And I fully agree that it is now impossible to know for certain. In fact, with so many versions, it is quite possible it has held multiple meanings over the years depending on the exact lyrics and the singer.

But it is worth noting that it is possible to take the words at face value. The singer has set a series of impossible tasks not with the expectation that the potential lover will complete them, but as a poetic way of saying that it is impossible for the person being sung about to be the singer's true love.

This is not exactly uncommon as a poetic or indirect way of saying something is impossible. In a somewhat more modern example, on Game of Thrones, when asked when Drogo would fully recover, Mirri Max Duur replied "When the sun rises in the west and sets in the east..." In other words, never, or at least not in that lifetime.

Taken in this vein, the song is about a love that ended some time ago, and will never be revived.

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    @JanusBahsJacquet If you talk to the right people with ugly breakups, you may find that they do the modern equivalent through text and the like a fair bit. Jan 30 at 1:48
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    @JanusBahsJacquet you mean, totally unlike any other song, that's no other song, not a single one at all?
    – Nij
    Jan 30 at 4:48
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I disagree; I think it's a fairly common feeling and literary topic to express, somewhat vengefully, the idea that the person missed their chance (especially if the speaker's love was unrequited). "Someday you'll wish you'd said yes to me!" is the bitter refrain. To add to Nij's examples, take Daniel Johnson's "Hate Song" or the Gaslight Anthem's "Here's Looking at You, Kid". Jan 30 at 4:53
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    I know the tasks are in vain, but they should still be taken "in this vein" :) Jan 30 at 8:03
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    The singer of Scarborough Fair does not expect anyone to go out of their way. The first thing asked in the song is whether the other person is going there at all, and obviously has good reason to wonder it, long-distance travel not being something one just willy-nilly saunters off to.
    – Nij
    Jan 30 at 11:14
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Seemingly impossible tasks appear in mythology quite frequently, but often with a loophole.

  1. In the Welsh Mabinogion, Lleu Llaw Gyffes "... cannot be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made". Unfortunately there is a loophole "He reveals to her[Blodeuwedd, his missus] that he can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net with one foot on a cauldron and one on a goat and with a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at mass. With this information she arranges his death."
  2. Auslaug was " commanded ... to arrive neither dressed nor undressed, neither fasting nor eating, and neither alone nor in company. Kráka arrived dressed in a net, biting an onion, and with only a dog as a companion. Impressed by her ingenuity and finding her a wise companion, Ragnar proposed marriage to her, which she refused until he had accomplished his mission in Norway."
  3. Let's not forget: "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth".

If there was a loophole in Scarborough fair, its has either been lost, or the listener was expected to guess it.

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