Forensic Folklore: Sarah Pinsker’s “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.

This week, we cover Sarah Pinsker’s “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather,” first published in Uncanny Magazine in March 2021. This one took home both Hugo and Nebula awards, and we highly recommend reading it for yourself if you haven’t already. Spoilers ahead!


There’s a murder and a hanging and something monstrous in the woods. Sets it apart from the average lovers’ tryst.

Some traditional music aficionados have gathered on Lyricsplainer to discuss the English folk ballad, “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather.” BonnieLass67 kicks off the conversation. Downthread, frequent commenter Dynamum characterizes the participants as a “detective team,” each with special expertise:

  • BonnieLass67 is the historian.
  • HolyGreil is the musicologist.
  • HangThaDJ offers random facts and dry humor.
  • Rhiannononymous is the linguist.
  • Dynamum is the theorist, whose ideas some mark as stretches.
  • BarrowBoy is a troll who calls Dynamum “comic relief” and claims to be participating only for Lyricsplainer level badges.
  • HenryMartyn is the field worker, a student who’s received a grant to make a documentary about folklorist Mark Rydell. (Rydell was looking into the “provenance” of “Oaken Hearts.” He narrowed its original setting down to a village named Gall, where he may have disappeared.)

This “team” examines “Oaken Hearts” verse by verse—twenty belong to the transcription published in Francis James Child’s authoritative collection known as the Child Ballads. BonnieLass67 regards another verse included by the Lyricsplainer site as a twentieth-century corruption. A summary of the ballad follows:

“Fair Ellen” means to meet “Sweet William” one autumn night under a bridge in the woods. Ellen’s two sisters warn her no good can come from the meeting, but she ignores them. She comes upon William, kisses him, then steals his heart, literally, somehow extracting it from his chest. In the verse following, she begs him to prove his love, as others have failed to do. She places his beating heart inside “a gnarled and knotted ancient [oak?],” where it will “quicken” come spring. Inside his chest she makes a twig-and-leaf nest for an acorn. William’s eyes seek answers, but Ellen merely kisses him twice and leaves him “where oaken hearts do gather.”

William, heartless, returns to the village. Next comes that 20th-century addition, in which William demands the villagers hunt down the “wicked woman” who stole his heart and voice. The next “valid” verses show that he has lost his voice and can’t tell the villagers his story. They, however, seem to know what’s happened. Mournful, they listen for his heartbeat. Finding none, they hang him from the gallows-pole “where oaken hearts do gather.”

In the woods, Ellen weeps, for she loved William and “tried to claim him in her way.” Her sisters say they told her so. To avenge William and rid the woods of danger, the villagers go to the bridge but there see “no trace.” Nor can they ever find the place “where oaken hearts do gather.”

Come spring, a sapling sprouts from William’s grave. The villagers cut it down, as every spring they cut down any [oak?] sapling in their woods. Still, sometimes when autumn comes, Ellen takes another love “where oaken hearts do gather.”

The song “detectives” address major storyline questions (did Ellen bewitch William, are “oaken hearts” able like certain Ent flocks to move?) They also revel in such minute details as why the ballad mentions red leaves carpeting the trysting spot even though no native English oaks shed red leaves. Dynamum and BarrowBoy bicker. Intermittently HenryMartyn adds more information about Rydell’s research, which led him to the rural village of Gall. There he indeed found woods, and a stone bridge with steep embankments, and a helpful woman at the Gall historical society. HenryMartyn plans to retrace Rydell’s movements. Later he announces he’s arrived at Gall and met the historical society woman. She must be an old biddy, BarrowBoy supposes. Jenny Kirk’s nothing of the sort, HenryMartyn retorts.

The “museum” that Jenny oversees occupies space in the village’s one-room gift shop. Nevertheless she’s as helpful as Rydell claimed and assists HenryMartyn to research Gall folklore. They must be getting along pretty well, since he also meets her sisters.

HenryMarten writes that Rydell first looked for woods containing old oaks. Later he realized the Gall woods would lack old oaks if the villagers periodically burned them. Gall’s oak-eradicating tradition persisted until the 1970s. Consequently, Gall’s present day oaks are all young trees, while other species, like hornbeams and ashes, are old growth.

Dynamum wonders if HenryMartyn’s friend knows of any oak matching the description of Ellen’s “gnarled and knotted ancient.” HenryMartyn responds that she does, and that she’ll take him to the woods tonight to show him. He reflects that, whatever truth “Oaken Hearts” holds, maybe he and the other detectives are “part of the cycle, bringing an old song to new listeners.”

This is the last of HenryMartyn’s posts. HolyGreil wonders why he hasn’t commented in two years. Dynamum digs up HenryMartyn’s real name and the fact that he was a University of Pennsylvania student when he got his grant. HolyGreil, digging deeper, adds that while HenryMartyn was listed on the grant announcement, he didn’t participate in its end-of-year presentation.

This week’s metrics:

What’s Cyclopean: “A man met moonlit ‘neath a bridge” brings to mind Shakespeare’s Oberon: “Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.” Which suggests both the passionate and destructive nature of the tryst to follow.

Libronomicon: Rydell leaves behind both extensive scholarship, and a blog—Looking for Love in All the Lost Places—to bring his work to laypeople.

Weirdbuilding: Pinsker builds on the tradition of old ballads, encrusted with folk process changes and full of inexplicable actions and descriptions.

Ruthanna’s Commentary

During Poetry Month, Pichette’s “The Size of Your Fist” brought this story to mind—one of my favorites both of Pinsker’s and of the amorphous sub-subgenre of artifact stories. The artifact in this case is not only the titular ballad, but an online annotation site where the ballad is analyzed by ballad geeks. The annotations and comments, in turn, track the disappearance of a “forensic” folklorist and the follow-up journey of a commenter tracing his steps. Layers upon layers, including (among many false links to versions by, e.g., The Kingston Trio) Pinsker’s own recording of the ballad. That recording, full of blurred echoes, gives me the feeling of trying to recollect lyrics several years later, only able to fully retrieve the refrain.

Out of the 305 traditional ballads collected by Francis James Child, non-experts are most likely to be familiar with “Tam Lin.” There’s a reason for that: It stands out from the general pack in being more linear, and having less misogyny and random semi-explicable violence. This is not to say that there isn’t all sorts of enjoyment to be gotten from songs about women saving themselves from murderous elves, or Loreena McKennit turning a farmer into a king via folk process over the course of a single recording. Rather, my point is that many ballads take place in an ever-shifting world where you might get turned into a bone harp/swan because it scans, and humans live or die at the whim of incomprehensible powers and laws. The lyrics for “Oaken Hearts” fit right in.

I love the idea of forensic folklore analysis. It might drop you in a tangled riddle asking how a corpse is like a swan—but historical ballads are a thing now, and you never know which older songs might carry a hint of bloody truth. Or the risk of becoming “part of the cycle.”

(A search to check whether forensic folklore is a real thing turns up this, which I think may be the rabbit hole for an alternate reality game. If you’re in New England and want to give it a go, please report back. Don’t follow any strange women into the woods.) (There’s also an unrelated podcast.)

Amid the sniping between Dynamum and BarrowBoy, HenryMartyn—not as terminally online as the others, poor guy—reports on Rydell’s work, the progress of his documentary, and his trip to Gall to examine the bridge and the strange local customs around oak trees. A gall, by the way, is an abnormal plant growth caused by infection, or by an insect making a home for its eggs. They also come in unusual colors that one might not otherwise see on said plant. Oaks are particularly susceptible.

Were we talking about eldritch reproductive strategies? Perhaps we’ve found another one.

Henry, like all good investigators tracking disappearances, is more interested in solving the mystery than protecting his own welfare. Surely real life doesn’t follow cyclical refrains. Surely a village that has recently given up their traditional oak-burning has perfectly safe new oak saplings. We’re solving an old crime, after all. Or an old something—Sweet William may have agreed to the “exchange” at least in principle. “There are circumstances for which, tragically, hanging is the only proportionate response.” Circumstances, as Henry points out, are not at all the same thing as crimes.

Fair Ellen rips out hearts, but doesn’t kill. The heart goes in an oak tree; the acorn goes in the chest. The oak tree drops red in a climate where oak leaves don’t normally redden; the acorn-nested lover returns to the village. And the villagers are not okay with any of this. They hang William and burn all the suspect trees. Pure fear of the unknown, or experience with what he and they might turn into? The ballad gives no clue about that potentially-worse outcome. Zombie ents would be my first guess, and larval fair-young-women prone to ripping out hearts. Having a little give and take in love isn’t always such a bad thing—but sometimes it’s hard on the neighbors.

Anne’s Commentary

I first heard the old adage “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” on the original Star Trek episode “Friday’s Child,” when it fell from Scotty’s sage lips. Chekov claimed this saying for Mother Russia, but it evidently goes back to Anthony Weldon’s The Court and Character of King James (1651): Weldon quoted this Italian proverb “He that deceives me once, it’s his fault; but if twice, it’s my fault.”

Can I emulate BonnieLass67’s erudition when she probably read Weldon cover to cover, whereas I just poked around on Google? Even Sarah Pinsker couldn’t have fooled Lass once, much less twice, as she fooled me. The first time I looked at “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather,” I thought it was a genuine forum transcript. Ruthanna cleared up my confusion on that point. But then I searched the internet for a commentary-free text of “Oaken Hearts,” assuming it was a genuine folk ballad.

The hell. All Google’s hits referred me back to Pinsker’s Uncanny “article.”

Finally I figured out that not only was “Oaken Hearts” fiction, it was celebrated fiction, having won both the Nebula and Hugo short story awards. Shame on me, all right, but praise to Pinsker for so convincingly structuring the story as internet commentary. Double praise for so convincingly mimicking an English folk ballad that I wondered where I’d heard it before. The links to versions by Metallica, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, the Grateful Dead, et cetera, are dummies. Moby K. Dick’s version has the only working link, but what’s up with a whale song rendition?

In truth, the “Moby K. Dick” link leads to the YouTube channel of a rock band called the Stalking Horses, which features none other than… Sarah Pinsker.

Does my search for Moby K. count as being fooled three times? Never mind. I had too much fun with this story to bother blushing. The interplay of its characters nails both the major “types” of internet commenters and the flow of internet discussion. “Oaken Hearts” is more than a spoof, however. As its commentary and song stanzas braided the fates of HenryMarten and Dr. Rydell into Sweet William’s, I felt slowly mounting apprehension.

I started out assuming Fair Ellen would be the ballad’s victim. What good could come from meeting some guy, at night, under an isolated bridge? Especially some guy who robbed the butcher’s son. The commenters try to soften this line into a variant like Rydell’s “Sweet William, Robert Butcher’s son.” My own softened version is that William robbed the butcher’s son not of money or beefy joints, but of Ellen herself.

However that might be, it’s Ellen who victimizes William. I mean, if one kiss is getting to first base, surely ripping someone’s heart out of their chest can’t count as second base! Not for an innocent village girl. For a monster, okay, heart-ripping could even precede kissing.

Ellen seems a subtler monster, one who could persuade William to agree in full knowledge to a dangerous liaison. But if she’s bewitched him, Dynamum’s pet theory, that’s coercion, not consent.

In Ellen and William’s case, the only magic described takes place after they’ve agreed to meet. There is the problem of verse order that the “detectives” chew over: Should Ellen steal William’s heart before she begs him to prove his love in this drastic manner? BonnieLass67 remarks that some ballad versions do put the “plea” verse before the “rip” verse. Rhiannononymous agrees this order makes more sense. After the villagers hang William, the ballad insists that Ellen really did love him “in her way”—a way beyond the villagers’ ken, sure, but to put aside the negative connotations of “monster,” let’s say she’s a being of a different order than humanity.

Say her actual form resembles an oak tree, which would give her an “oaken” heart. For her to wed William, his heart might have to become oaken as well. Ellen’s “way” could be to replace his heart with an acorn, from which he might grow himself an oaken form (starting with the sapling that springs from his grave.) Meanwhile, Ellen’s “ancient” might safeguard William’s human heart until it quickens in the spring into—another oaken heart, to be put in the grave-sapling, creating a proper mate for Ellen.

There’s endless amusement to be had in fan-ficcing what Pinsker leaves out of her ballad. As HolyGreil points out, folk songs often have “gaps” which their original audiences, knowing the pertinent tales, could have filled in.

Rydell wrote that the central mystery of “Oaken Hearts” is Ellen and William’s relationship. If they’re willing lovers, neither wishing to “[betray] the other’s expectations,” the villagers become the villains, triggering tragedy through their intolerance of human/oak mingling. HenryMartyn doesn’t give the other “detectives” details on Rydell’s  relationship with the Jenny who may be Ellen renamed (as ballad heroines often were.) Before his own disappearance, Henry Martyn speculates that “love involves give and take, and that some ask for more than others.” He concludes, “That’s not always such a bad thing, if you’re willing to give.”

On the other hand, it’s after having been in Gall a while and “listened to Jenny and her sisters” that HenryMartyn entertains the notion that it’s okay to give much for love. The problem is:

What if you were willing before slender fingers tough as oak roots plunged into your chest, but then changed your mind? Would Ellen/Jenny let you out of your promise and put your heart back?

Comment below, Lyricsplainers!

Next week, we take our first trip to the Sematary in chapters 7-10 of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. icon-paragraph-end

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