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.


  1. This is a good article! I'm looking for more history on one of my favourite songs and this gave me more of a lead.

    1. Cheers Brandan, glad you found it interesting!

  2. yes lots of wonderful information !! thank you so much !!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the blog. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Everyone just says "This is a Swedish ballad" but the lyrics are not in modern Swedish...not are they in Eastern Old Norse (language of the Swedes from 800-1100) nor is it in "Late Old Swedish" which ranged from 1200-1450 or even in "Early Old Swedish" 1450-ish to nearly 1700 when modern Swedish took hold. So...what the Heck form of Swedish is this written in? That's the answer I want!

    1. The ballad text above that everyone sings (and also the other forest maiden text) were both collected from ballad singers in the 1800s. The language looks typical of that period, very close to modern Swedish.

  4. Very good song and thank you for this article.

  5. How is the bare oriented towards the young man who refuses to marry a troll? Is he praising his virtues or is he critical towards Christianity? I haven't found about that anywhere on the Internet...

    1. Ballads like this do not criticise Christianity.

      The troll represents a sense of otherness whether it be supernatural/otherworldly or not. In many ballads you will see a troll as an adversary who must be slain or at least beaten, but that is not the case here. Here, the troll tries to tempt the man with gifts, and he thwarts her by resisting the temptation.

      In many ballads you will see that with any kind of contact with supernaturals things can turn out badly. In Sir Olof and the Elves, our hero resists the temptations of the elves, so they curse him, and so then he dies anyway ... But it aint always so. Haugebonden is a ballad with a list of gifts from a supernatural to a human similar to this ballad, but with no negative consequences; that ballad seems to be about living harmoniously with a house-spirit.