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.

No comments:

Post a Comment