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.


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 Or if you are a Spotify user, you can find the album here. 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. Another ballad recorded by Ulv and previously featured on this blog is Sir Olof and the Elves.

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). For more from In Extremo, check out their version of Herr Mannelig here.
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. The singer from Garmarna, Emma Härdelin, also has another band, called Triakel. A recording by Triakel was previously included on this blog for the ballad Lord Peter's Sea Voyage.

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.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Announcement: The Faraway North

Announcing a new collection of translations of traditional Scandinavian folk ballads by Ian Cumpstey: The Faraway North

These ballads convey a fantastic vision of the world as it was imagined in medieval Scandinavia, with monsters and magic intermingled with very human concerns of heroism, tragedy, love, and revenge.

The great hero Sigurd is joined in this collection by troll-battling warriors including Holger Dane, Orm the Strong, and others. There are dramatic scenes of romance, betrayal, and loss. Some of the ballads translated here are attested by paintings or maps that date from earlier than when the first full ballad texts were first written down in the 1500s. An adventure ballad relevant to the history of an Eddic poem is also included.

The ballads are storytelling songs that were passed down as part of an oral folk music tradition in Scandinavia. This collection brings many new ballads to the English-speaking reader. The readable verse translations succeed in conveying the rhythm, spirit, and imagery of the originals. The translations are mainly based on Swedish and Norwegian ballads, with some from Danish tradition.

For each ballad, there is also a short introduction with commentary and background information.

The paperback edition includes fifteen full page black-and-white illustrations.

Esbjörn Proud and Orm the Strong, by Ian Cumpstey

The ballads included are:
Åsmund Frægdegjeva; Steinfinn Fefinnson; Esbjörn Proud and Orm the Strong; Sunfair and the Dragon King; Bendik and Årolilja; Sigurd Sven; Sivard Snare Sven; Little Lisa; Sven Norman and Miss Gullborg; Peter Pallebosson; Sir Svedendal; King Speleman; Holger Dane and Burman; Sven Felding; St Olaf’s Sailing Race.

How to Order: currently, the paperback book is available only from this is at a special pre-release price, with immediate dispatch. The book will be available from other retailers, including,, and UK booksellers, shortly.

An ebook is currently available for pre-order (also at a special pre-order price) from Amazon (UK|US), with delivery on June 23rd.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Heming and King Harald

The ballad of Heming and King Harald comes from Norway. Contests make good ballad stories, and the competition described in this ballad involves skiing and shooting: obviously this was an early Norwegian biathlon championship. The duel is all the more interesting as it takes place between a powerful king, Harald Hardrada, and a young boy called Heming.

The story this ballad tells is also told in a Faeroese ballad (Gauti Aslaksson), and in an Icelandic tale (Hemings thattr Aslakssonar), both of which extend the story with episodes in England. Swedish and Danish versions of this ballad are not known, though the Danish legend of the hero Palna Toke tells a similar story.

Heming Aslaksson is possibly a fictional character. In the Faeroese ballad it is written that his name is actually Gauti, and that Heming is a nickname. The ballad is set, of course, before King Harald's demise at Stamford Bridge in England in 1066.

by Knud Bergslien


The ballad begins at Harald's court. In typical ballad style, Harald is wondering whether he will ever meet anyone who he will be able to regard as an equal. When someone suggests that a boy named Heming may in fact be his match, Harald takes offence. He quickly sails away to meet this Heming.

Heming's father, Aslak meets King Harald when he arrives. He tries to protect his son, encouraging him to stay at home rather than going out to meet the visitor. But Heming is not deterred. He is keen to go out and compete with King Harald.

First they compete in archery. In their first shooting competition, nothing can separate them, so Harald challenges Heming to shoot a walnut from his brother's head. Heming is able to do this too.

Next, a series of apparently impossible challenges are made. Heming accepts the challenge to ski down the hopelessly difficult Snarafjell. In fact, the omkväde (chorus line) of the song tells of how well Heming can ski (Heming the young he could run on his skis so well), so it should come as no surprise that he easily manages this challenge.

Heming then knocks Harald over. In some versions of the ballad, Heming gives Harald such a severe beating (cutting off his hand and more ...) that his death seems inevitable. The ballad ends with Heming running away north into the mountains.

In the Faeroese ballad, there is also a swimming competition, but nothing but fragments that may refer to this survive in Norwegian versions.

The walnut-on-head shooting episode in isolation is reminiscent of the William Tell legend (from Switzerland), and also with the ballad of William of Cloudsley (a Child ballad from England), but really this story has little or nothing else in common with either of these two. The Danish legend of Palna Toke, though, is rather similar, and features competitions in both archery and skiing.

Here is a reading of the full text of my translation of the ballad on Soundcloud.

by Kay Nielsen


I know of three recordings of this ballad on YouTube. All very different, all for me very good, and all in Norwegian, of course.

Here is an unaccompanied performance by Agnes Buen Garnås: Harald Kongen og Heming Unge. I believe this melody is based on a melody collected in the 19th century by Landstad. Agnes Buen Garnås is a well known Norwegian folk singer, certain to appear again on this blog. This song appears on the album Soltreet (Amazon link). Agnes Buen Garnås's daughter Ingvill Marit Buen Garnås has recorded the ballad The Mermaid (Villfar og Sylvklar), as mentioned here.

A take from the Norwegian folk rock band, Folque: Heming og Harald Kongjen. This song appears on their album Kjempene På Dovrefjell (Amazon link). Readers of this blog may remember that Folque also recorded Sir Olof and the Elves (Dans Dans Olav Liljekrans), as mentioned here.

Here is Kim André Rysstad with a big orchestral rendition of Heming og Harald Kongjen.
I will not miss the opportunity to link to another of his folkier recordings ... a short snatch of beautiful sound: nystev.


What next for Heming and Harald?

Heming appears in another ballad, known in Sweden as well as Norway, called Heming and the Mountain Troll. Also in this ballad Heming is skiing, and this ballad shares the same omkväde line (Heming the young he could run on his skis so well). But the theme of the ballad is quite different: it is a troll ballad with supernatural elements.

Although Harald takes a severe beating at the hands of Heming in this ballad, it is well known that he travelled to England with a failed invasion bid and died at Stamford Bridge in 1066. After telling of the sporting contest, the Icelandic thattr continues the story, telling of not only Harald, but also Heming in England. Heming had travelled to England long before the attempted Norwegian invasion, and had become a friend and ally of the English king, Harold Godwinson. The story tells of how Heming's archery skills were of great importance in the battle of Stamford Bridge. He was able to recognise Harald Hardrada, and to shoot him, not to kill, but as a marker so that someone else could kill the Norwegian king. (Heming had actually sworn an oath to St Olaf not to kill Harald Hardrada.) Finally Heming was able to shoot and kill Harold Godwinson's treacherous brother Tostig with an arrow to the eye ... (read more about Hemings thattr here)


M. B. Landstad, Norske Folkeviser, Christiania, 1853

My translation of Heming and King Harald is included in Warrior Lore.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Lord Peter's Sea Voyage

Here we have another ballad of the sea (Herr Peders Sjöresa in Swedish).

by Kay Nielsen


The ballad begins with an ominous warning from our hero's foster-mother that gives us a pretty clear hint as to how the ballad will end. "How will I die?" asks Lord Peter. "At sea," she answers. Apparently unperturbed, Peter goes down to the sea shore, and starts to build a ship. Soon he sets sail. Predictably enough, things start to go wrong out at sea. A dead calm creeps up on them and leaves them lying still on the ocean top.

They decide that their problems are due to their having a sinner onboard ship, and they throw dice to find out who is responsible for their predicament. The dice clearly indicate that Lord Peter is the one. So he confesses his sins, and from what he reveals it does seem that he has not behaved himself too well. He then tells his fellow sailors what they should say has become of him to his foster-mother and also to his lover, and pleads to God that he might make it to land again. Finally they throw him overboard, and the ship begins to move again.

As ever, there are variations in the story. In some versions, it is a storm rather than a calm that comes to trouble them. And in some versions, the ending is different, and the whole ship sinks as Lord Peter finishes speaking.

Here is a Swedish ballad text from Geijer and Afzelius.

Some of the Scandinavian ballads have a relationship with traditional English-language ballads (as catalogued by Child), and for some ballads this relationship is closer than for others. For Lord Peter's Sea Voyage, this is worth bringing up. The story told in Child ballad #57 Brown Robin's Confession is clearly similar, though many details, the beginning, and the ending are all different, and the Child ballad is much shorter (at least in its surviving form, with only nine verses). But the stories are broadly similar: a ship runs into difficulties out at sea, a man is singled out to make confession to atone for the sins that (presumably) caused the problems, and that man is in both cases the most important man on board. The Swedish ballad actually follows the biblical story of Jonah quite closely. And the episode where the seamen throw dice to decide who is to blame for the unhappy plight of the ship is treated quite similarly in both Lord Peter and Brown Robin.


Several melodies are known for the ballad Lord Peter's Sea Voyage.

(1) Herr Peders Sjöresa -- Ahlström No 194 (Östergötland), Berggreen No 36 (Östergötland), Arwidsson No 67.
(2) Herr Peders Sjöresa -- Ahlström No 193 (Värmland).
(3) Herr Peders Sjöresa -- Arwidsson No 67 variant. (in 6/8 time)
(4) Herr Peders Sjöresa -- Södermanlands Kulturhistoria No 33 (Södermanland).

None of these melodies have an omkväde (chorus) line. One text variant appearing in Geijer and Afzelius does have an omkväde line, but I am not aware of the melody that goes with this.

I have made a video where can see a demonstration of what the melodies sound like (with English and Swedish text, only the first two melodies) on YouTube here.

The recordings listed below do not use these melodies, however.


Here is a traditional unaccompanied performance by Hilma Ingberg from Bromarf in Finland.

Carin Kjellman and Ulf Gruvberg would later go on to form the band Folk och Rackare. But their first record Med Rötter i Medeltiden (1974) was released as a duo, and it included the ballad Herr Peders Sjöresa. This youtube link to the album track unfortunately seems to be restricted, so it may not work for you. The melody is the same as in the traditional performance above.

Triakel are a Swedish folk band consisting of singer Emma Härdelin, fiddle-player Kjell-Erik Eriksson, and organist Janne Strömstedt. You may recognise the name Emma Härdelin as she is also the singer in the band Garmarna, whose interpretations of traditional ballads I sometimes mention here. Triakel have recorded a number of ballads on their albums. Herr Peder appears on their 2014 album Thyra, an album showcasing the songs of the Jämtland singer Thyra Karlsson.

I was pleased to find out that Nordman recently recorded this ballad for their album Patina (2014). Nordman are a folk-rock duo who were big in the 1990s, with this song being an especially big hit in Sweden. They made a comeback when I was living in Sweden with an entry in Melodifestivalen (the Swedish national song contest) in 2005 that unfortunately didn't quite make it all the way to Eurovision. Nordman have a very characteristic sound that is based around the nyckelharpa ... but the nyckelharpa is not very prominent on this track (just on the album cover ...)!

This used to be a youtube link to a live performance of this ballad by Nordman. The video seems to have disappeared, but I will leave the link in case it works for people outside the UK. Here is a link to Nordman's recording on Amazon. The melody they use is the same as for the two recordings listed above.

Punsch, Herr Peder (live). I'm afraid I don't know anything about this --- they discuss a little bit about the medieval ballads in general before starting the performance, and use a different melody:


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 Lord Peter's Sea Voyage is included in Lord Peter and Little Kerstin.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Mermaid

Mermaids (Swedish Havsfruar) are supernatural creatures of the sea who appear in some medieval ballads. We will see that in the ballad described here, although the mermaid is at odds with our hero, she does not appear to be so very intent on evil deeds, and actually seems rather naive and overly trusting.

The Mermaid and the Prince by Edmund Dulac


The Swedish ballad The Mermaid tells the story of a young man (typically called Lord Peter) who learns from his mother that his sister was taken away some time ago by a mermaid. Peter then sets out on a mission, and has little trouble tracking the mermaid down: he finds her by the sea. Peter tells the mermaid that he has never seen anyone as beautiful as her, to which the mermaid replies that she has a maid who is actually far more beautiful.

Without revealing who he is, Peter then asks the mermaid whether he might see the beautiful maid she has at her house. The mermaid agrees. She then hurries home and dresses the maid (who is called Little Kerstin, and who is none other then Peter's sister, of course) in the finest of fine clothes so that she might meet the visitor, despite the girl's misgivings that she has not been outside for many years.

Peter and his sister Kerstin are reunited, and Peter asks the mermaid whether he might borrow her maid for a little while. The mermaid agrees to this. So Peter and Kerstin are able to return home, while the mermaid is left in the sea, realising too late that Peter had never had any intention of bringing the girl back to her.

Here is a Swedish ballad text (from Geijer and Afzelius). As usual, details vary between different ballad texts. The names of the characters may also be different --- for example, the hero is sometimes Hillebrand, sometimes Wallborg.

Versions of this ballad are also known in Danish (as Havfruens Tærne) and in Norwegian (as Villfar og Sylvklar or Terna hjå Havfrua). Fans of the English-language Child ballads may remember straight away that there is also a Child ballad called The Mermaid. But the Scandinavian ballad has nothing in common with that ballad beyond the title. The Scandinavian ballad Sir Olof and the Mermaid (Herr Olof och Havsfrun) also tells a story quite unrelated to this one.

The Fisherman and the Siren by Knut Ekwall


I will present three Swedish melodies for this ballad. All of them have the same pair of chorus (omkväde) lines: Blows cold cold weather from the seaBlows cold cold weather from the sea. So actually the same omkväde line is repeated after the first and second lines of each verse.

(1) Hafsfrun (Arwidsson No. 150A), melody from Sweden
(2) Hafsfrun (Arwidsson No. 150B / Ahlström No. 290), melody from Småland
(3) Hafsfrun (Berggreen No. 3 / Ahlström No. 47), melody from Västergötland

There is a version of the ballad with a different omkvädeBlows cold cold weather from the seaShe'll come back when the forest grows leaf-green. But I don't know of any melody associated with this omkväde.

I have made a demonstration video to show what the melodies sound like (with English and Swedish text, only the first two melodies though, and apparently with a lot of background noise, sorry). View it on Youtube here.


The only recording I know of of this ballad is in Norwegian by Ingvill Marit Buen Garnås (Villfar og Sylvklar). And unfortunately there's nothing on Youtube.


J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878
A. P. Berggreen, Svenske Folke-Sanger og Melodier (Vol 3), Copenhagen, 1878
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 Sir Olof and the Elves is included in Lord Peter and Little Kerstin.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Sir Olof and the Elves

Many of the supernatural creatures of folklore appear in Scandinavian ballads, and such supernatural ballads were some of the most widespread in Scandinavia. Stories about elves go as far back as the lore of the Old Norse myths. Elves are often associated with the mist; sometimes they act for good, sometimes for ill. There is no doubt, though, that the elves in this ballad are not good to meet!
In this post, I will give a brief summary of the plot of the ballad, then present some traditional melodies as reproduced in 19th century Scandinavian songbooks, and finally link to some contemporary interpretations.

Älvalek (Elf Dance) by August Malmström


The ballad tells the story of a young man by the name of Olof. It is the day before he is to be married, and while he is out riding, he comes across a group of elves. Several of the elves then ask him to dance. This is bad news for Olof. He telles the elves that he cannot dance with them as he will be married in the morning, but when he refuses to dance, the elves place a curse on him.

Olof returns home, and his mother immediately sees that he is unwell. Olof tells his family that he is about to die as a result of his having met the elves, and so he goes to bed.

When Olof’s bride-to-be arrives at the house asking after him, his mother tries to tell her that Olof is out hunting. But the girl is not convinced, and she goes up to discover Olof’s body. At this, she kills herself, and Olof’s mother also dies of sorrow, bringing the body count up to the traditional number (for Swedish ballads) of three.

Of course as always, different versions of the ballad may have variations in the plot. Here is a Swedish text (from Arwidsson).

Ängsälvor (Meadow Elves) by Nils Blommér ...
with an unfortunate early morning horserider approaching
in the background who could be Sir Olof.


Here are two Swedish melodies, both taken from Ahlström's book, and both with the same chorus (omkväde) line:

(1) Elfqvinnan och Herr Olof (No. 129), melody from Östergötland

(2) Herr Olof i Elfvornas Dans (No. 133), melody from Uppland

Note that the ballad texts published in Arwidsson's book have a different omkväde pattern: (Driving dew and falling frost (or rain) / Sir Olof will return in the evening (or when the forest turns leaf-green)). But I don’t know of a melody that fits with this omkväde.

There are several Danish melodies printed in Berggreen's book, and all of these also have basically the same omkväde line as that seen for the two Swedish melodies. Here is one of the Danish melodies:

(3) Elveskud (No. 20a)

What do these three melodies sound like? Well I have made a demonstration video that you can see on YouTube here ... note though that I am not necessarily singing in the key as written (C, A, D not D, F, G).


There are not too many modern recordings of this ballad to be found on YouTube. But there are some.

Korp are a duo, Karen Petersen och Gunnar Nordlinder, specialising in medieval music performance ... (The name korp means raven in Swedish, the same as the archaic ramn/ravn that might appear in ballad texts.) Here, they are singing a lovely arrangement of Herr Olof as a duet with an accompaniment that is so light that the performance is almost a capella. The notes of the melody are the same as in (1) above, but the rhythm is changed from 3/4 to 4/4, so the song drives forward, just right for dancing ...

Korp (Herr Olof och Älvorna):

Ulv are a three-piece again going for a medieval sound, but theirs is quite a different sound ... Link (This name means wolf in Swedish, but it is an archaic word – the standard Swedish is varg.)

Ulv (Herr Olof och Älvorna):

In Norwegian: Beginning in the 1970’s, Norwegian band Folque were influential in creating folk rock and electric folk takes on ballads with wide public visibility in the same manner as, say, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span in England. Many bands have gone on to play Folque’s arrangements of the ballads. In Norwegian tradition, the ballad of Sir Olof and the Elves is usually called Olav Liljekrans (Olav Lily-wreath). Folque’s version of the ballad, called Dans Dans Olav Liljekrans, tells this story, but with a take that is all their own. Links to Folque’s own site and Folque on Amazon.

Folque (Dans Dans Olav Liljekrans):
mp3 file on Folque’s site

In Danish the ballad is known as Elveskud (or Elverskud). Here, the band Himmerland are playing Elverskud live at Bath folkfest.

Himmerland (Elverskud):

I have made a recording of my English translation of this ballad, see here.

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 Sir Olof and the Elves is included in Lord Peter and Little Kerstin.