The Childe Rowland ballad was referenced by Shakespeare in King Lear (c. 1606), which was later referenced by Browning in a poem (c. 1855), but the first fully written down version of the ballad dates from 1892 when it was collected by Jacobs, who recorded it as a mix of prose and poetry.
The story tells of four children of the Queen, in some versions Guinevere, playing near a church. Rowland, the youngest of the three brothers, kicked the ball over the church and the sister, Burd Ellen, went to retrieve it. The young girl inadvertently went widdershins around the building and disappeared. A wise man, sometimes Merlin, was asked what became of Burd Ellen and he replied that she was taken to the Dark Tower by the King of Elfland. He further warned that only the bravest knight in Christendom could save her.
Following instructions form Merlin, the eldest and then the middle son went in search of Burd Ellen but did not return. Childe Rowland, the youngest and slightly foolish son as per the fairy tale standard, has to beg to leave but he receives his father’s, sometimes King Arthur’s, blessing and sword. Merlin’s instructions were to cut the head off of anyone in Elfland who speaks to Rowland until he sees his sister, and not to eat or drink anything while there. Rowland obeyed the orders, killing a herder of horses, a cowherd, and a woman who tends hens (a henwife). Before she died, the henwife told him to circle a hill three times widdershins, and say each time “Open, door! open, door! And let me come in.” Following the instructions, the hill opened and Rowland entered a great hall where Burd Ellen sat. She told him he should not have entered Elfland, for bad luck came to all who did, including their brothers, who were prisoners in the Dark Tower.
Over come with hunger, Rowland forgot the second of Merlin’s instructions and asked his sister for food, which she gives him although unwillingly. At the last minute, Rowland remembered and threw the food down, which summons the King of Elfland to the hall. The two fought until the King begged Rowland for mercy. Rowland granted it, provided his brothers and sister were released.
There is a similar Scandinavian ballad but the use of Elfland – the Otherworld – as a setting is peculiarly British, and potentially references the use of Waypoints to access the other reality along with how unexpectedly boundaries between the worlds can be crossed when one is not trained in their identification.