Folk Ballad

The Hungarian folk ballad is one of the most attractive areas both of folk poetry research and literary history. From the first moment of its discovery, the consensus of literary opinion has held it to be the most beautiful “flower” of Hungarian poetry; and indeed, it was received with the enthusiasm due to a new discovery. This high esteem was undoubtedly encouraged by the expectation of recovering the lost ancient Magyar epic through the folk ballad. The disappointment of this expectation explains why János Arany, the 19th century poet who borrowed abundantly from folk tradition, mentions, at first bitterly, in his great study of the Hungarian folksong, that the Hungarians did not preserve the history of the nation in their songs save for “some bandit songs”. However, not much later he writes: “The German ancient epos, the Czech manuscript from the king’s court, the Serbian smaller narratives, the northern ballads and Spanish romances, and in our country the adventures of Szilágyi and Hajmási and the often mentioned few ballad-type {514.} poems show such internal completeness in the respective genres of narrative, that written poetry can compete with them but has never surpassed them anywhere.”

The Hungarian folk ballad did not develop in isolation from the European, especially not from Eastern European balladry. On the contrary, every one of the factors bringing about its historical and artistic development and alteration is related to the Eastern European and European ballad. Therefore, it is impossible to answer, even in general outlines, questions about the folk ballad without taking at least a brief look at the history of European folk balladry. This is why it is worth our while to consider attempts at defining the folk ballad in general, and to deal with theories on the origin of European balladry and with the history of its artistic development, themes, and forms.

In defining the concept of the ballad, one runs into many difficulties, as is also shown by the uncertainty of creative poets, that is, the versed authors, who compose in this genre. Thus, Goethe discovers the ancient form of poetry precisely in the ballad, which contains, like a primitive ovum, all the genres of poetry in a condensed unit. Herder, trying to differentiate the ballad from the romance, could not find a better method than the geographical one, and expounds the difference between the grim northern ballads and the southern romances. These definitions strongly affected the theoretical literature of later times.