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.