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.

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