Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Ballad of Sinclair

The Ballad of Sinclar (Zinklars vise) is a ballad from Norway composed by Edvard Storm in 1781. It tells the story of a historical battle at Kringen in Norway, which took place in 1612. In this battle, a group of Norwegian farmers ambushed a company of Scottish soldiers (one of the officers was a Captain George Sinclair) who were on their way to fight for Sweden against Norway in the Kalmar war. The ambush took place where the Scottish soldiers had to pass along a narrow way bordered by steep slopes on one side and a river on the other. The Scots were heavily defeated, and the battle assumed a legendary status, partly due to the poems, stories, and songs that have been told and sung about it. This is one such.

You may see from the performances below that it is still a popular song for bands and singers who like to sing old ballads. There are some stylistic differences between this and a typical folk ballad though.

The Battle of Kringen by Georg Nielsen Strømdal


Before the action proper begins, there are a couple of opening verses in which we hear that things will not go well for Mr Sinclair, and that though he comes sailing over the salty sea or the billowy blue to fight for his Swedish paymasters, he will soon find his grave in Norway.

Even Sinclair himself is warned to turn back as he approaches Norway onboard his ship. A mermaid appears on a wavetop and tells him that if he lands in Norway, he will never return home alive. But Sinclair is not interested in listening to the mermaid. He shouts a few choice words at her and sails on. And on the fourth day, he sights the Norwegian coast.

The Scottish army lands at Romsdal, 1400 of them, and all very bad men ... they go through the country, burning and pillaging, hurting widows and killing babies. Well the news of this spreads throughout the land, but as all the Norwegian soldiers are away fighting for the king, the farmers decide that they will have to defend the land themselves. And so they gather with their axes and plan to "have a word with" Mr Sinclair.

The ballad singer then describes the site where the ambush will take place: the path called Kringen runs close under the hill while a river runs close by. And into that river the enemy will fall.

The grey-haired farmer takes his rifle from the wall. And another creature of Norwegian folklore, the Neck, appears, raising his wet beard from the water. He anticipates that soon he will have his prey, when all the Scotsmen fall into the river.

Sinclair dies by the first shot that hits him. And so all his men cry out in despair. But the Norwegians give a rallying cry, and the Scots wish they were back at home. Kringen is soon strewn with dead bodies, so that the ravens have enough to eat, and the Scottish girls would cry if they could see it. Not a living soul comes home to tell his countrymen how dangerous it is to visit those who live in the Norwegian fells. And there now stands a monument now in that place.

Here is the full text of the ballad.

The lyrical style that this ballad is written in is noticeably different in parts from the typical folk ballads, though it is sung to ballad melodies, sometimes with a refrain (omkväde). I would say the first seven verses are a lot closer than the rest to the style of a traditional ballad.

The opening two verses are reminiscent of the opening two verses of, say, Bendik and Årolilja, where the entire plot is summarised very briefly in a single verse, and then immediately repeated with minor variation. The verses where Sinclair is speaking to the mermaid are also more typical ballad verses, with a lot of direct speech. But there is little of this later in the ballad: there is a lot of more commentary, and where there is speech, it is somehow more abstract as the speaker is not identified. Much of the imagery and many of the descriptions also seem richer to me than in a typical folk ballad.

The rhyme pattern in Norwegian is ABAB. This is very unusual. Four-line ballad verses are typically ABCB, or very occasionally AABB. And the rhymes are almost all perfect, which is also very unusual. A further feature that sets this ballad apart from the typical medieval ballads is the lack of repetition. The first two verses of the ballad are variations of one another, but beyond that, repetition, which is such a typical feature of the folk ballads, is basically absent.

Now there is also a Swedish Sinclairvisan (Ballad of Sinclair) that is quite unrelated to this one. The Swedish ballad tells of a certain Swede by the name of Malcolm Sinclair and his murder by the Russians. The text was written by Anders Odel (1739), and the melody is a variation on the Folia tune. Perhaps this Swedish ballad will be for a future installment ...


The lyrics by Edvard Storm do not include a chorus (omkväde) line. Here are two Norwegian melodies for the ballad from Berggreen:

(1) Sinclars Vise (Berggreen 65a)

(2) Sinclars Vise (Berggreen 65b), from Trondheim.

But nowadays the ballad is often performed – see below – to a traditional melody from the Faeroes (or perhaps from Denmark via the Faeroes), with the omkväde: Vel op før dag, de kommer vel over den hede (well before day, they come over the heath).


This is the whole ballad, sung to a melody without an omkväde (chorus) line. It appears on an album of Edvard Storm's songs, Viso I Gomol Og Ny Drakt (1993), performed by Stormti. This rendition uses two verse melodies, both different from the two melodies given above.

Folk rock pioneers Folque interpret the ballad (Sinclairvise) using the melody with the omkväde. This ballad appeared on their first album, Folque (1974).

Faeroese folk metal band Tyr recorded their take (Sinklars Visa) based on the same melody. This appears on their album Land (2008). Note that although these last three performances are from the Faeroe Islands, the language is not Faeroese. They are all singing the lyrics as written in Norwegian, though the pronunciation may be described as Gøtudansk (street Danish), and is typical for singing Danish ballads in the Faeroes.

The former singer of Tyr, Pól Arni Holm, now sings with Hamradun. They also recorded Sinklars Visa for their first album, Hamradun (2015). This take again uses the same melody, but with all the ballad verses.

In the Faeroe Islands, ballad singing often goes together with a traditional dance called the ballad dance. Here you can see the Faeroese ballad dance to Sinklarsvise.


A. P. Berggreen, Norske Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Kjøbenhavn, 1861

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Bendik and Årolilja

Today to Norway ... the ballad of Bendik and Årolilja continues to attract a fair amount of interest, and it has been recorded quite a few times in recent years. The traditional ballad was sung in Norway, and the recordings have mainly been made by Norwegian musicians.

The story is a tragic one, of the struggles and hopelessness of forbidden love.

The Romance of Tristram and Iseult by Maurice Lalau


Our tragic hero Bendik rides away from his home to find a wife. And soon he falls in love with Årolilja, a king's daughter. Even in the opening verse of the ballad we are told that things will not turn out well for Bendik.

The king, we hear, builds a "golden track", and commands that no-one should step onto it on pain of death. It is not really clear from the ballad text what this "track" actually is -- perhaps a difficult route up a steep cliff to where Årolilja is living. This is a little unusual as the language of ballads is typically straightforward. What is clear though, from everything that is said, is that the "track" seems to represent the king's daughter, Årolilja.

Bendik declares that he will dare to tread on the track, and off he rides, hunting in the woods by day, and visiting the fair maiden by night ...

But a small boy sees it all, and treacherously he runs back to the king with the news that Bendik has dared to "tread on the track". The king understands full well what this means, and he declares that Bendik will have to die.

When Bendik is taken prisoner and tied up, he has no problem in breaking the many strong ropes that are used to bind him. But then the small boy suggests to the king that he should instead take one of Årolilja's hairs, and use that to tie Bendik up. This is a successful strategy. Rather than break the hair of his beloved, Bendik chooses to remain tied up in the prison.

Many living things then pray for Bendik: birds, deer, trees, flowers, fish, and men. Årolilja too comes to her father to beg for Bendik's life, but she is refused. There is an interesting moment when Årolilja's mother, the king's wife, also comes to beg for Bendik's life. She reminds him that they had been married without her own father's blessing, and that he had promised to grant her anything she asked. But he still refuses her this.

Bendik is killed beside the church. And at the same time, Årolilja dies of sorrow. When the king hears of this, he regrets his hard stance on Bendik. Too late, of course.

The ballad ends with lilies growing forth from the graves of Bendik and Årolilja, and intertwining above the church roof.

Here is a full text of the song from Landstad.

I don't know of any Swedish versions of this ballad, but there is a related (and even longer) ballad in Faeroese (Bænadikts visa), and also related ballads in Danish (Ismar og Benedikt or Edmund og Benedikt).


This ballad is usually sung to a melody that was composed by Ingvar Bøhn in the 1880s. All the recorded versions linked below use this melody, though the arrangements and sounds are very different. It is very unusual that the composer of a ballad melody is known.

Here is the score: Bendik and Årolilja. And here is a demo of the melody with lyrics in English.


Gåte were a recent young Norwegian band singing folk songs in a rather rockier style. The name Gåte means "riddle". I like their take on this ballad ... the singing of Gunnhild Sundli is reminiscent of Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries in some places (I guess it's pretty clear where I mean ...). There are only four verses here though, so it's rather a "highlights" version of the story. Bendik og Årolilja is the opening track on Gåte's debut album, Jygri (2002).

Here is a link to a live take by Gåte.

Bukkene Bruse are a traditional Norwegian group who I am quite surprised that I have not already mentioned on this blog. Their name is usually translated into English as the "Billy Goats Gruff" as it is the title of a well-known Norwegian folktale. Their take on Bendik og Årolilja has great vocals from Arve Moen Bergset, with a varying accompaniment. This is from their album Åre (1995).

Here are a couple more tracks from the singer Arve Moen Bergset that I will take the opportunity to mention ... and again before his voice broke!

Kirsten Bråten Berg is Norwegian traditional folk singer who has recorded several ballads. So again I am surprised not to have mentioned her before here. This version of Bendik og Årolilja is from her album Songen (2010).

This version of Bendik og Årolilja from Celine Helgemo was performed on the Norwegian TV program Stjernekamp (a singing competition for established musical artists). It uses the same four verses as Gåte's take on the ballad.

Anne Vada and Aki Fukakusa recorded Bendik og Årolilja for their album Solrenning ... with Norwegian songs arranged to feature Japanese instruments.

Hirundo Maris is a group founded by Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen, playing early music from Scandinavia and the Mediterranean region. Here is a live take on Bendik og Årolilja.

And finally a choir version.

This may be from the same choir ... I like this take better but the recording quality is not as good.


M. B. Landstad, Norske Folkeviser, Christiania, 1853
My own translation of Bendik and Årolilja is included in my book, The Faraway North.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Power of the Harp

After all the doom and deaths in my recent postings, I am happy to be able to write about something a little more cheerful ... about a ballad story that showcases the great positive effect and influence that good music can have: The Power of the Harp (Harpans Kraft in Swedish).

It is probably necessary to introduce the villain of this story: the neck (näcken in Swedish). The neck is a supernatural creature of the water, usually male, who lives in rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. He is a musician, and likes to play on his fiddle, and in that way to lure people into the water to drown. It is also said that the neck can teach people to play music if they go out with their fiddle and hang around likely looking streams. But in the story told in this ballad, the neck is more concerned with the drowning of young girls.

The appearance of necks is not universally agreed upon, and they have been drawn very differently by different Scandinavian artists – I have posted some classic pictures here. I remember when I was living in Sweden that there were adverts (for the Swedish Railways or the Inland Railway) featuring a naked leaf-crowned man sitting in a stream playing the violin, a la neck, apparently. This ballad tells us anyway that the neck is an ugly creature.

Nøkken: One of Theodor Kittelsen's paintings of the neck. Kittelsen tends to paint the neck as a glowing-eyed lake monster. Another more revealing rendition of Kittelsen's neck is at the end of this post. Note also that Kittelsen has painted the neck in a lake with waterlilies. Certainly in Swedish, waterlilies are called näckrosor (neck roses) after the neck. I think this is also true in Norwegian.


In the beginning, we are introduced to two young people in love. Let us call them Lord Peter and Little Kerstin. Peter notices that Kerstin is upset, and he tries to find out what is wrong. He comes up with several suggestions, all of them wrong, unfortunately. But eventually she tells him what the problem is.

She is worried about a prophecy that was made when she was born, that she would die on the morning of her wedding day, in the river at the hands of the neck.

When Peter hears this, he promises to build a very substantial and expensive bridge across the river so that Kerstin will not risk drowning.

The bridge is built, and Kerstin and Peter's wedding day arrives. And Peter sends many of his men to escort Kerstin safely across the river. But it all goes wrong. The men notice a deer in the woods, and they ride off to chase it, leaving little Kerstin to cross the bridge alone.

She falls into the river, and into the lair of the neck.

When Peter hears about this, he orders that his harp be fetched with some urgency. The harp is duly delivered, and Peter starts to play. We are told how beautifully he was playing, and of the effect it had on all the creatures of the forest, and also on the ugly neck sitting in the stream. Eventually, the neck pleads with Peter to stop his playing. Peter replies that he will only stop playing if Kerstin is returned. Not only returned, but returned alive and whole, as though she had never been in the neck's lair. And not only that, but all her drowned sisters should be returned also.

The neck obliges. So all the drowned girls escape from the river, and Peter and Kerstin are able to celebrate their wedding.

Näcken by Ernst Josephson. The neck as a naked streamside fiddler, as he is often imagined in Sweden. 

This ballad was sung widely, and very many variants of the text were recorded in Sweden alone (the ballad was also known in Denmark and Norway). Here is one version of a Swedish text from Geijer & Afzelius.

The story of The Power of the Harp has much in common with the classical tale of the famous harpist Orpheus and his (failed) attempt to rescue Euridice from the underworld. The Scandinavian ballad has a happier ending though.


Here are six Swedish melodies for the ballad:

(1) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 137 / Arwidsson No. 149B).

(2) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 136 / Arwidsson No. 149A / Berggreen No. 5A).

(3) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 138 / Berggreen No. 37), melody from Östergötland.

(4) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 139).

(5) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 140 / Berggreen No. 5B), melody from Västergötland and Värmland.

(6) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 141).

Of these six distinct melodies from Sweden, five have similar omkväde (repeated chorus) lines. There is only one omkväde line for each of these ballads (sung after the two rhyming ballad lines). It is interesting to compare these lines, which are as follows:

(1) Men hjertans allrakäraste hvad sörjen I då?
(2) Min hjärteliga kär, I sägen mig hvad eder sörjer
(3) Min hjärteliga kär, säg för mig hvem I sörjen
(5) Min hjärteliga kär, min hjärteliga kär, I sägen mig hvarför I sörgen
(6) Min hjärtelig kär, min hjärtelig kär, säg för mig hvi du sörger

These all mean something along the lines of All-dearest of mine, tell me why you are sorrowful. So these omkväde lines reflect the first part of the ballad, where Peter is coming up with various suggestions to try to find out why Kerstin is so sad. There are some slight differences in meaning (and in the forms of address), but probably the most significant difference between these lines is in the way they scan to fit the melody.

The other (melody No. 4 above) has a different omkväde pattern: vid den hvitaste sand / Liten Kerstin, lyster eder följa ungersven inför Öland (on the whitest sand / Little Kerstin, do you want to go with a young man to Öland).

In Norway, the harpist is called Villeman and the bride Magnhild, and the ballad is usually known as Villeman and Magnhild. The Norwegian recordings I have linked below all use the same melody and omkväde lines – the omkväde lines are unlike those in the Swedish ballads. They are: Hei fagraste lindelauvi alle / For de runerne de lyster han å vinne (All the fairest linden leaves / For the runes he wanted to win).

Näcken och Aegirs Döttrar by Nils Blommer. Here the neck is in the sea, and is shown playing a harp. Aegir is a Norse sea god, and his daughters are the waves.

Video demo to follow ...


I would have liked to begin with the recording of Harpans Kraft by Swedish folk rock pioneers Folk och Rackare, recorded for their album Anno 1979 (1979), but this is unfortunately not on YouTube. You can see the album here on Amazon.de. Folk och Rackare are not using any of the melodies above for their rendition, but they sing the same omkväde line as in melody No 1.

Harpans Kraft is one of a number of Scandinavian medieval ballads recorded by the German group Estampie for their 2013 album Secrets of the North. This is quite an alternative interpretation, and I like the sound, though the lyics can be difficult to make out. Again, this version does not seem to be based on any of the melodies above, but it has the same type of omkvade as Nos 1–3, 5, and 6.

The Swedish trio Ulv have also recorded Harpans Kraft for their album Eldprovet, with their characteristic medieval chant-like sound. Ulv do not use any of the melodies given above, and even the omkväde here is a different one.

The ballad seems to have been more wideley recorded in Norwegian, where it is known as Villeman og Magnhild. I have posted a selection here. These Norwegian versions all use basically the same melody and the same omkväde lines.

The Norwegian medieval band Kalenda Maya have recorded a short Villeman og Magnhild, with harmonies and medieval instrumentation. It is one of a whole albumful of Norwegian medieval ballads, Norske Middelalderballader, recorded in 1989.
Kalenda Maya:

Here is a typically extremely spectacular live rendition of Villeman og Magnhild from the German folk metal band In Extremo. Their recorded version appears on their album Gold (1997).
In Extremo (Live):

Kari Tauring's version of Villeman og Magnhild, from her album Nykken and Bear (2013).
Kari Tauring:

Rita Eriksen and Dolores Keane recorded Villemann og Magnhild for their album Tideland (1996). The Norwegian vocals and the typical melody are intermingled with snatches of Irish tune:
Rita Eriksen and Dolores Keane:

There are several more recorded versions in Norwegian. Here is one that is geographically restricted: Trio Mediæval, Villeman og Magnhild.

Finally, here is a recording in Danish. This is Frode Veddinge's Harpens Kraft.
Frode Veddinge:

Here are a couple more pictures of the Neck:

Sir Peter and the Ugly Sprite by W. J. Wiegand. This is actually an illustration of Julia Goddard's retelling of the Harpans Kraft story: Chirstin's Trouble.

Theodor Kittelsen's neck playing the harp.


E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816
J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878
A. P. Berggreen, Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860
A. I. Arwidsson, Svenska Fornsånger, Vol 2, Stockholm, 1887

My own translation of The Power of the Harp is included in my book, Lord Peter and Little Kerstin.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Per Tyrsson's Daughters in Vänge

The Swedish ballad of Per Tyrsson's Daughters in Vänge (Per Tyrssons Döttrar i Vänge) is another particularly tragic story.

This ballad has served as the inspiration for one of Ingmar Bergman's famous films, The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan). The storyline of the film follows that of the ballad quite closely, although there are some differences.

Vänge was the name of a place near to Malmskogen, near Linköping in Östergötland, and the ballad is associated with a number of local legends in that area. The song explains how the church at Kärna came to be built (sometimes the church at Kaga also claims this legend; both Kärna and Kaga lie close to Linköping), and it also tells of the origin of a spring at Vänge. There is, or was, also a legend that tells of how the ghosts of the three girls would appear around midnight at a local smithy.

Woodpecker, by Th. Kittelsen


The ballad begins with the three girls, Per Tyrsson's daughters, asleep in bed ... they oversleep, and are late for church. The first of them to wake then wakens the other two. They get dressed in their fine clothes and hurry out of the house. An ill-fated journey.

It happens that they meet a group of three vagabonds out on the hill above Vänge. These men give the girls a choice: either they may marry them and become vagabonds' wives, or they may lose their lives. The girls choose death.

The men strip the girls, and then behead the three of them in a birch grove. A stream springs up from the ground at the place where the girls were struck down.

The men wander off, taking the girls' clothes with them, and soon they arrive at Vänge. They approach Per Tyrsson's house, and speak to his wife, Karin, who is standing outside. They try to sell her the elaborately decorated clothes, but when Karin sees them, she easily recognises them as belonging to her daughters, and rushes off to find her husband.

When Per Tyrsson hears from his wife what has happened, he emerges with his sword. He strikes two of the vagabond men dead, but he pauses before killing the third, and asks him where the three of them have come from, and who their parents are. The man replies that they were sent out to wander as children, and that they have been away from home so long. He says that their father is called Per Tyrsson of Vänge.

Per Tyrsson realises that he has killed his own sons, and vows to atone for this sin by building a church.

A full Swedish ballad text from Geijer & Afzelius is here.

The Danish ballad Herr Thors Børn (Sir Thor's Children) tells basically the same story. Child ballad fans may notice a great similarity between the first episode of this ballad (up to and including the fatal meeting between the girls and the vagabond men, which is to say, their brothers) and Child #14, Babylon, or The Bonnie Banks of Fordie. But all of the Child ballad variants are shorter: the moment of recognition happens between the brothers and sisters (after a couple of murders), without the involvement of the parents.


I know of two Swedish melodies for this ballad. Both use the same omkväde lines: Kaller var deras skog / Men skogen han lövas, or Cold was their forest / While the forest grows leaf-green.

(1) Pehr Tyrssons Döttrar i Vänge (Ahlström No. 127 / Berggreen No. 37), melody from Östergötland. (Demo video here, but also see below ...)

(2) Pehr Tyrsons Döttrar i Wänge (Ahlström No. 220).


These two recordings are rather different in character, with different interpretations of the same tune. The melody is either the same as (1) above (for Slaka), or very similar (for Falconer) ...

Falconer are a Swedish power metal band. They are influenced by folk music, as can be seen especially from their 2011 album, Armod. Per Tyrssons Döttrar i Vänge was included on their first album, Falconer (2001), as the only Swedish-language track.


The second recording, is, I think, from the Slaka ballad workshop. Slaka is also close to Linköping in Östergötland, and the ballad forum there have various activities to sing and raise awareness of the traditional ballads.

Slaka Ballad Forum:


J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878
A. P. Berggreen, Svenske Folke-Sange og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1861
E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816

Monday, 12 September 2016

Hilla Lill or Little Hilla

The English-language Child ballads have attracted the attention of illustrators over the years. The evocative illustrations by Arthur Rackham from the golden age ballad volumes (Some British Ballads) are quite well-known classic examples of this. And there is certainly no shortage of illustrative art with themes related to ballad stories, be they related to Nordic folklore, Scandinavian history, or Norse and Germanic mythology.

But despite all this, artworks that are actually illustrations of the Scandinavian ballads are comparatively few. That is not to say that there are none. Some beautiful pieces by Munthe and Kittelsen, for example, actually incorporate ballad verses!

The ballad that I am writing about here, though, has been illustrated. In fact, it is illustrated by a painting that has grown to be much more well-known than the ballad that inspired it. The Meeting on the Turret Stairs was painted by the Irish artist F. W. Burton. It shows a fleeting and forbidden moment of intimate contact between two lovers. But the painting's subtitle reveals that it actually shows the two main characters in a Danish ballad. It is, and they are: Hellelil and Hildebrand.

As is common, the ballad is also known elsewhere in Scandinavia. In Sweden, the main characters are usually called Hillebrand and Hilla Lilla (little Hilla).

The Meeting on the Turret Stairs
or Hellelil and Hildebrand
by Frederic William Burton


This ballad is unusual in the way the action is told: in what might be known as a frame narrative. The opening scene is typical enough, with a girl (Hilla) sewing unhappily. The queen then comes in and encourages Hilla to cheer up. So Hilla starts to tell the queen her story, and the ballad shifts to a first-person narrative from Hilla's point of view.

Sewing a Silken Seam .....
Stitching the Standard
by Edmund Blair Leighton 

It happened that when she was living in her father's castle, she fell in love with one of the knights who was supposed to be guarding her: a certain Hillebrand. (Here we can imagine a scene something like that shown in the painting above.) The two of them decided to flee together, and all was well until they stopped to rest awhile in the woods. When they heard Hilla's father and seven brothers approaching, it became clear that a fight would be unavoidable.

So Hillebrand gave Hilla an important instruction: she should not call out his name.

All was going Hillebrand's way in the fight: he had already struck down Hilla's father and six of her brothers. But then Hilla called out to Hillebrand, urging him to spare her last remaining brother. But as she called out Hillebrand's name, he was made vulnerable, and Hilla's brother was able to strike a death blow.

Well nobody was happy at this outcome. Hilla's mother and surviving brother were not best pleased with her, Hilla explains to the queen. And at the end of the ballad, after Hilla has finished telling her story, she dies of sorrow there in the queen's arms.

by John Bauer

A second Scandinavian ballad, Redebold and Gullborg, has a very similar plot, but here the story is told in a more typical third-person narrative. In this ballad, the knight, Redebold, disguises himself as a serving girl while he makes his escape with the king's daughter, Gullborg. They are again caught up by the king and his seven sons, and a fight ensues. Again, Redebold asks Gullborg not to call out his name during the fight, and again she does, and Redebold is injured. Redebold and Gullborg then continue on to Redebold's mother's house, where he dies of his injuries. Gullborg and Redebold's mother also die of sorrow, bringing the body count in that house up to three.

The English/Scots Child ballad #7 tells a similar story. This ballad is sometimes called The Douglas Tragedy, and is located in the Scottish borders. But it is also sometimes known as Earl Brand, after its male protagonist. The similarity with Hillebrand's name is clear!

Here is a Swedish full text of Hilla Lilla from Geijer & Afzelius.


These first two Swedish melodies, both have the same chorus (omkväde) lines:

(1) Hilla Lillas Klagan (Arwidsson No. 107 / Ahlström No. 289), melody from Östergötland

(2) Stolts Hilla (Berggreen No. 8 / Ahlström No. 124), melody from Västergötland, Bohuslän, and Skåne. Note the change in tone in the second omkväde line ... F rather than F#.

This final Swedish melody has a different omkväde ... It also has a rather dramatic and musically interesting or nonstandard opening phrase:

(3) Hilla Lilla (Ahlström No. 268), melody from Östergötland

I have made a video to show what these melodies sound like, here.


Garmarna recorded this ballad for their 1996 album Guds Spelemän (meaning God's musicians, or God's fiddlers). This popular and acclaimed album is the same one that brought Herr Mannelig to the wider world. Garmarna seem to have used the melody (2) above as the basis for their arrangement:


J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878
A. P. Berggreen, Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860
A. I. Arwidsson, Svenska Fornsånger, Vol 2, Stockholm, 1887
E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816

My own translation of Hilla Lilla is included in Warrior Lore.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Lord Peter and Little Kerstin

Lord Peter (Herr Peder) and Little Kerstin (Liten Kerstin) are common names for the main male and female actors in Swedish ballads. It is not unusual that the two of them appear together in the same ballad, and more than one Swedish ballad goes by the name of Herr Peder och Liten Kerstin (Lord Peter and Little Kerstin). The ballad I am writing about today is possibly the most well-known of these ...

by John Bauer


It seems that in the beginning of the ballad, Lord Peter and Little Kerstin are in love. They sit across the table from one another, exchanging many glad words, a common ballad scene ... At least, it seems that Little Kerstin is very much in love with Lord Peter, but it becomes clear that when it comes to marriage he has other plans.

(In Danish this ballad is known as Herr Peders Slegfred slegfred is an archaic word for a woman who is living together with a man without being married. Little Kerstin is, in some ballad texts, referred to as a frilla, which can similarly mean an unmarried lover.)

So Lord Peter announces that he will be getting married (to someone else, we understand). He tries to persuade Little Kerstin that she should not come to the wedding — so far away, so high in the hills — but she will not be deterred.

Little Kerstin dresses up magnificently, and rides her horse to where the wedding is taking place. Her journey there passes uneventfully, but she is noticed when she arrives, and people ask who the grandly dressed woman is. Little Kerstin asks to sit beside the bride, but Lord Peter refuses her this, and she ends up serving wine and weeping.

Lord Peter and his bride are then led to bed, but soon news comes in to him that Little Kerstin has hanged herself in the apple orchard. Lord Peter then immediately regrets all he has done, and runs out to where Little Kerstin is hanging. Having ordered that the two of them should be buried together, he kills himself. The new bride also dies of sorrow, bringing the body count up to three.

The ballad was probably quite well-known in this form, and was widespread from northern Sweden (Norrland) to Denmark and Swedish-speaking Finland. There are variants though, where the ending is different: rather than taking her own life, Little Kerstin has her revenge on Lord Peter and his bride with a knife, or by burning down the bridal house.

This ballad seems to be quite closely related to one of the Child ballads of the British isles: Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender, or Fair Annette, or the Brown Girl (Child #73).

A Swedish full text of Herr Peder och Liten Kerstin.


The melody is from Norrland. Geijer and Afzelius write that the song is well-known all over the country (Sweden), with very little variation in the melody.

Notes: Herr Peder och Liten Kerstin (Ahlström No 101, Berggreen No 16).

Here is a youtube film of me demonstrating the melody ...


Unfortunately, I don't know of any recordings of the Swedish ballad. But here are a couple in Danish.

Several of the Danish versions published by Grundtvig use basically the same omkväde (chorus) lines as the Swedish versions (as seen in the Norrland melody given above). But this first Danish version has a different omkväde and a different melody!

A version in Danish from the band Gny:

A second Danish version by Camilla Granlien, singing unaccompanied. The omkväde is similar to the Swedish version. This video is one of those that may or may not be viewable depending on your location:


E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816
J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878
A. P. Berggreen, Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860

My own translation of the ballad Lord Peter and Little Kerstin is included in my book, also called Lord Peter and Little Kerstin.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Herr Mannelig, or The Mountain Troll's Proposal

This is probably one of the Swedish ballads that people are most aware of. The various recordings are regularly shared around the internet, and YouTube hits are counted in the millions, higher than the great majority of other ballad recordings by several orders of magnitude!

The song doesn't appear in either of the major Swedish ballad collections that were published in the 19th century (by Arwidsson and by Geijer & Afzelius). But it is one of a number of ballads that can be found in a significant collection published by the local historical society of Södermanland (Södermanlands Fornminnesförening). The Södermanland society felt that the ballad tradition of their region had been overlooked, so they collected a number of ballads locally in the 19th century, and printed these in their own publication. The compilers of the Södermanland publication assure us that the placenames that appear in the ballad, Tillö and Ternö, are from southern Södermanland.

Although the ballad has been recorded under the title Herr Mannelig, and is best known with this title, the title in the printed publication is Bergatrollets Frieri (The Mountain Troll's Proposal).

A troll woman meets a woodcutter in the forest (by Per Daniel Holm)
Note the tail!


Early one morning, a mountain troll proposes marriage to a young man, our hero, Sir Mannelig. The mountain troll then spends several verses describing the various wonderful gifts she will give to the young man. These include twelve untamed horses, twelve mills, a gilded sword, and a new shirt, all of which are described in luxurious detail.

When she has finished listing these gifts, Sir Mannelig answers. He tells the troll that if she had been a Christian woman, he would have gone along with her proposal, but as she is a troll, he will not. This upsets the troll, and she runs off, screaming that if she had married the fair young man she would have been freed from her suffering.

The ballad is short, at just seven verses. But the omkväde for this ballad is long – as long as a full verse – so it behaves as a conventional chorus. In this chorus, the mountain troll urges Herr Mannelig to marry her, so this repetition of her wish alternates with the descriptions of the gifts she will give to him.

A second variant of the Herr Mannelig ballad appears in a later volume of the ballad collection of Södermanlands Fornminnesförening, entitled Skogsjungfruns Frieri (The Forest Maiden's Proposal). This version is longer, with twelve verses. The additional verses are made up of descriptions of further gifts: a red castle, a stable, a red cape, a blue mantle, and diamonds and gold.

There are a couple of differences in this version of the ballad: Most obviously, the female character appears as a forest maiden (skogsjungfru) rather than a mountain troll (bergatroll). Both of these could be supernatural beings. Also It is written in the first verse that the forest maiden sings with a beautiful voice (rather than having a lying tongue). And here Herr Mannelig tells the forest maiden that he will not marry her as she is a heathen (rather than because she is a troll).

Here is the Swedish ballad text for The Mountain Troll's Proposal, and here for The Forest Maiden's Proposal.

A number of other Swedish ballads are known that seem to be variants on this same theme: a man, usually Sir Magnus (or Måns), meets a supernatural female creature of some kind (a sea-troll, a mermaid, a little bird, a group of elves). She urges him to marry her, promising many gifts, and he refuses, usually saying that if only she had been a Christian woman he would have accepted.

Some of these related ballads are: Sir Magnus and the Sea-troll (Herr Magnus och Hafs-Trollet; Geijer & Afzelius, vol 3, No. 95); Sir Magnus and the Elves (Hertig Magnus och Elfvorna; Geijer & Afzelius, vol 3, No. 95); Sir Magnus and the Mermaid (Hertig Magnus och Hafsfrun; Geijer & Afzelius, vol 3, No. 96); and Sir Magnus (Herr Magnus; Arwidsson vol 2, No. 147B).


The melody for The Mountain Troll's Proposal from the Södermanland publication can be found here: Bergatrolletets Frieri.

No melody was written down for The Forest Maiden's Proposal.


Garmarna are a folk rock group from Sweden who have recorded many ballads on their six albums. Garmarna's sound is strongly influenced by the Scandinavian folk rock pioneers. Their ballad arrangements are often similar to recordings by Folk och Rackare. But Garmarna are still going strong, and they released a new album as recently as 2016.

Herr Mannelig is the opening track from their acclaimed 1996 album Guds Spelemän:

In Extremo are a German band combining heavy metal and folk music. 
Here is a live semi-unplugged performance of Herr Mannelig featuring what look to me like dulzainas (a kind of folk-oboe) and a bouzouki:


(Here is the album version.)

I will add that the Herr Mannelig ballad has been recorded by a good many more bands, especially by those with metal leanings. It has also been recorded in translation in a number of languages. The musical arrangements vary a lot, but the melody is always the same. Here are a couple more examples, but this is not exhaustive by any means: Tibetréa (a folk-rock version with a full music video); Haggard (in Italian translation, a version verging on operatic metal); Heimataerde (in German translation, and with a dance beat (yes!)).


Bidrag till Södermanlands Äldre Kulturhistoria, Södermanlands Fornminnesförening, Vol I, 1877, p 21.
Bidrag till Södermanlands Äldre Kulturhistoria, Södermanlands Fornminnesförening, Vol III, 1882, p 34.