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.