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.