Saturday, 2 December 2017

Staffansvisan / Staffan Stalledräng

Staffansvisan (Staffan's song), also known as Staffan Stalledräng (Staffan the Stable boy) is a likely candidate for being the best known in Sweden of all the Swedish ballads. It is still sung every year, usually as part of the Lucia celebrations on 13th December. So most people in Sweden will probably know some verses and at least one melody.

In Sweden, Lucia is a mid-December holiday with traditions of singing (luciasångar), eating buns (lussebullar), drinking (e.g., glögg), lighting candles (ljus; even more than usual), and not doing any work. The Lucia celebration seems to be a festival of light, celebrated on the date that was the actual Winter solstice, the shortest day, according to the old Julian calendar. The name Lucia comes from an Italian saint (whose name means light). But the old folkloric name for this shortest day (or longest night), Lussinatt (Lussi night), is obviously similar to the name Lucia. Lussinatt is named for Lussi, a certain evil supernatural being who would fly with her accomplices through the night, and who seems to have little in common with St Lucia apart from a similar sounding name.

Christmas and Lucia fall very close to one another, both traditionally involve a lot of singing, and there is typically a lot of overlap in songs: Songs that are specifically about either Lucia or Christmas could easily be sung on either occasion. The Staffansvisan (Staffan's song) was once more associated with St Stephen's day (boxing day), but nowadays it is usually sung on Lucia.

The Staffansvisan is sometimes associated with a Swedish St Staffan (or Stenfinn), who was a Christian missionary in 11th century Sweden (and Hälsingland in particular). But the stories of stables, horses, and hunting seen in the ballad don't seem to fit with this historical figure.

Some versions of the Staffansvisan are to do with the birth of Jesus, with King Herod, and with St Stephen as one of his stable boys. The legend of St Stephen and Herod seems to be based on a version of the story of Herod and the wise men, with the martyr Stephen added in place of the wise men. The biblical St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death after the death of Jesus, and doesn't belong at Herod's court at all.

The legend of St Staffan, the stable boy, illustrated by a 13th century ceiling painting at Dädesjö church in Småland, Sweden. Note the drinking horse and the star ... (Photo: Tor Svensson)


The versions of the ballad that are most commonly sung do not have a lot of action. Basically, it is told that Staffan is a stable boy, and that he gives water to his five horses. We hear brief descriptions of each of the horses. The fifth horse, a dapple-grey, is the one that Staffan rides himself. Usually at this point, the action stops, and there are one or two verses celebrating Christmas traditions to finish off the ballad. For example: Now there is fire in every hearth, with Christmas porridge and Christmas ham.

Traditionally, this song was used to beg for food and/or drink, and additional verses could be added to encourage donations! Geijer and Afzelius explain that in the huge number of recorded variations of this song, the differences usually come in these last verses. These verses could significantly extend the ballad as well: in Svenska Folkvisor från Forntiden a 30-verse version of the ballad is given. It can also be traditional for the singers to add comic verses at the end of the song proper.

This encouragement can take different forms: we're standing here freezing; coffee is good; we came here for your daughter; we're going to smash your windows ... these are just a few examples.

But there is more ballad action, even if these verses are more rarely sung nowadays: in an extended form, the ballad tells of what happens after Staffan has watered his horses. He goes out hunting, and kills various creatures: a wolf, fox, hare, and so on. And then he returns home again.

In other versions of the Swedish ballad, the song tells the legend of Stephen and Herod. Such versions of the ballad are often also called Staffansvisan, or sometimes Staffan och Herodes (Staffan and Herod). It may be that this form of the ballad was more similar to how the ballad first looked, but beyond the opening lines (also here Staffan is a stable boy, leading his horses to water), this form of the ballad and the form discussed above have evolved into two rather different songs.

When Staffan goes out to give water to his horses, he sees a star in the east. He tells Herod the meaning: that a king has been born. Herod says that he will only believe it if the newly cooked chicken on his table flaps its wings. It happens.

The English-language Child ballad St Stephen and Herod (Child 22) tells the same story as the Swedish Staffan och Herodes ballad, with the rooster coming back to life to crow Christus Natus Est (Christ is born).

In the Staffan and Herod versions of the ballad, the star of Bethlehem obviously plays a very significant part in the plot. But even in the versions of the ballad discussed first, where Herod and the birth of Jesus are not mentioned in the song proper, stars twinkling in the sky often appear somewhere in the omkväde (chorus) lines.

Staffan Stalledräng by Märta Måås-Fjetterström (1909)

Melodies and Performances

There are various melodies for this ballad in common use in Sweden. Rather than typing out scores from the many variations, I have just linked performances of probably the top two or three melodies, plus some other notable performances.

First, the version of Staffansvisan that seems to be the one (melody and omkväde) that most people in Sweden are most familiar with. This is not actually the version I learned when I was first in Sweden, in Lund.

[omkvädeVi tackom nu så gärna // Allt för den ljusa stjärnan. Ingen dagar synes än, stjärnorna på himmelen, de blänkar. (We thank you very much // Before the bright star. Day cannot be seen yet, the stars in the sky are twinkling.)]

Here is a performance of this version of Staffansvisan at a Jul i Folkton concert, live at Cassels in Grängesberg: Ale Möller (vocals, mandola, pipe), Lena Willemark (vocals, violin), Sofia Karlsson (vocals, flute), Lisa Rydberg (vocals, violin), Esbjörn Hazelius (vocals, cittern), Roger Tallroth (vocals, guitar), and Olle Linder (vocals, percussion).

Fans of obscure musical instruments should note that Ale Möller is one of the inventors of the Swedish / Nordic mandola (låtmandola --- meaning tune mandola). It's a five-course mandola. But what makes it special is that the strings can be individually capoed by screwing small single-string screw-like capos into holes in the neck. As a result it is easy to get into open tunings that allow drone strings and so on. Ale Möller is playing his låtmandola in this video.

You may see that she tells the audience what omkväde means (it's the refräng) just as I feel I have to every time I write it for you ...

I first came across Staffansvisan when I was living in Skåne, in Sweden's deep south. Now I don't see a huge number of recordings on YouTube of this version of the song that I know best. But this simple demo shows you the melody.
[omkväde: repeats // stjärnorna de tindrar så klara, gossar låt oss lustiga vara, en gång blott om året så, en fröjdefull jul vi får. (the stars are sparkling so clearly, boys let us be merry, just once a year, we get a happy christmas.)]

This is the Lund nations choirs' version of Staffansvisan. The nations at the two old Swedish universities of Lund and Uppsala are modelled on the nations at the old University of Paris. From the time the universities were founded, these nations were societies formed by  students who had travelled to study from different parts of the country. So the nations are named after different regions of Sweden, but nowadays there tends to be no geographical membership requirement. The nations mainly organise social activities, like singing and so on.

The melody and omkväde pattern are obviously somehow related to the version above. This melody is sometimes called the ira ira melody, after some lines in the omkväde. If I am not wrong, this one is originally from Norrland.
[omkväde: repeats // I ra, i ra, i ral lal le ra ra, hejsan, låt oss lustiga vara. En gång jul om året bara, sjung, falle dudeliga dulan lej. (I ra, i ra, i ral lal le ra ra, hey,  let us be merry, just christmas once a year, sing falle dudeliga dulan ley.)].

and live (worse sound, better picture):

a performance with only four voices:

Here is the Skåne choir singing live with Christer Lundh at Brekillegård. Some Skåne sounds for you ...
[omkväde: I ra i ra i kjom faralala, gossar låtom oss lustiga vara, en gång om året julen bara, hej sjung hopp falle julen nu. (I ra, i ra, i kjom faralala, boys, let us be merry, just christmas once a year, hey sing hopp falla julen nu -- or christmas now)].

But how about the great Folk och Rackare, regular performers of the traditional ballads? Well, their album Stjärnhästen (1981, meaning star horse) has several different versions of Staffansvisan. Here is one.
[omkväde: Håll dig väl fålen min // Allt för den ljusa stjärnan. (Be good, my horse // all before the bright star.); occasional extra omkväde: Ingen dagen synes än, men stjärnorna de blinkar i himmelen. (Day cannot yet be seen, but the stars are twinkling in the sky.)]

Here is another version from Folk och Rackare's Stjärnhästen. It is called För Redeliga Män (for honest men), and perhaps the link to Staffansvisan is not obvious at first: of course there is no mention of Herod, but neither is there even any mention of Staffan or his horses! In fact the whole song is a series of verses of the type traditionally sung at the end of Staffansvisan where the singers are demanding food, drink, etc. The title of the song comes from one of the omkväde lines. The twinkling stars in the sky are recognisable from the omkväde though. I think this one may be from Orust (an island in Bohuslän).
[omkväde: För redeliga män // Det är ingen dager än. Ingen dagen synes än, ingen måne lyser än, för stjärnorna på himmelen de blänker. (For honest men // It is not yet day. Day cannot yet be seen, the moon is not yet shining, but the stars in the sky are twinkling.)]

Regular readers of this blog will know that the Scandinavian medieval ballads are often covered by more metal-oriented bands. Here is such a take on Staffansvisan. This is Utmarken.

Finally, here is a version of the Staffan and Herod ballad.
[omkväde: Vaka med oss julenatt // Vaka med oss för oss alla. (Hold watch with us on Christmas night // hold watch with us for us all.)]


E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816, Nr 99, Sankt Staffans Visa
Sven-Bertil Jansson, Staffansvisan, Musikverket

Monday, 25 September 2017

Deor and The Saga of Didrik of Bern

I will venture outside the usual area of this blog today to write a little bit about the Old English poem Deor, and how it relates to the Saga of Didrik of Bern.

Maybe you are familiar with this poem. A reading of the poem in Old English is here; readings of a couple of the many different translations are here and here. The narrator is a singer by the name of Deor. The poem briefly mentions a series of stories. Each of these stories concerns a person or people who find themselves in a bad situation. And at the end of each of these, the poet includes a repeated refrain line:

That passed, this also may (or perhaps more like: it passed for that, it also may for this).

Finally, he talks about himself: I once had a good job with a great boss ... then they decided to give my job to someone else. Things are not so great now. But that passed, and this also may ...

So it seems that the poem is optimistic ... these bad things will not last forever. Just as things improved for each of the people mentioned in the poem, the singer hopes that things will also improve for him, and indeed things may get better for those in his audience who find themselves in a bad place.

Anglo Saxon picture of a singer songwriter (Vespasian Psalter)

The audience for this poem would presumably have been familiar with each of the stories mentioned by the poet. If they were not familiar with them, then the poem would lose a lot of its effect. Nowadays of course, these old stories are less well known.

But if we look at the people and stories that are so briefly mentioned in Deor's poem, we may find that most of them seem to relate to episodes from the Saga of Didrik of Bern.

Welund: This is Weland the smith, who had his sinews cut by King Nidung (Nithad) to keep him prisoner. There is no doubt that in the story told in the Didrik Saga that Weland was very badly done by. But things did get better for Weland after that.

Beadohilde: King Nidung's daughter is not named in the Saga of Didrik, but she is called Bodvildr in the version of the story told in the Poetic Edda, and there should be no doubt that this refers to her. In the story told in the saga, her brothers were killed, and she was pregnant, and all of it done by Weland the smith. But I think things did get better for her after that.

Theodric: It is possible that this Theodric is Didrik himself, and we may speculate that the thirty years refers to the time he was away in exile. In the story told in the saga, things did get better for Didrik after that.

Eormanric's people: The cruel king Eormanric could well be the same as the Saga's Ermentrik, who killed a good number of his own kinsmen. And in the saga, things did get better for Ermentrik's people after his demise.

I skipped over Geat and Maedhilde (or Maed Hilde): These two lovers do not have as obvious a connection to the Saga of Didrik.

But as this is a ballad blog really, I must surely mention the fact that it has been suggested before (K. Malone, and discussed by F. Norman) that these two are remembered as Gauti and Magnhild in the Norwegian version of the ballad Harpans Kraft / The Power of the Harp. There is not a lot to back this idea up beyond the names, and the names of these characters are not always the same: for example in the equivalent Swedish ballad they are more commonly Peter and Kerstin. Having said that, these two do get into a pretty dark place (she drowns), and then things do get better for them (he is able to bring her back by playing the harp). Of course if this theory were true, then it must be stressed that it would not be the ballad itself that influenced Deor --- even the most optimistic dates for the old age of ballads in general, let alone this one, do not place them close to the age of this poem --- rather, there would be some old story, known in England and Scandinavia at the relevant times, that influenced both. It is not impossible, but it does seem quite unlikely.

But if the girl's name is not Maedhilde at all, but Hilde (as it is written in the manuscript), we may speculate that this could possibly refer to one of the pairs of lovers with similar names who are found in the Didrik Saga: Samson and Hillesvid, Walter and Hillegunna, or Herbert and Hilda. Again, there is not a great deal to back this up however.

At any rate, the stories that were taken to Scandinavia, probably from Germany, when the Saga of Didrik of Bern was written down seem also to have been familiar in Anglo Saxon era England.

Even beyond Deor, The Saga of Didrik of Bern tells stories about characters who are mentioned briefly in other surviving Old English works. For example, Egil the archer appears, named in runes (Ægili), on the Franks casket. He appears in the saga as Weland's brother, and much is made of his archery skills. Also, Hama and Wudga are named together in Widsith, and Hama is also mentioned in Beowulf. They appear in the saga as Heym and Wideke, and, together with Hillebrand, they are Didrik's main men throughout the saga.

Link to The Saga of Didrik of Bern, translation.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Lindworm

A lindworm (lindorm in Swedish) is a legendary monster in northern European folklore. It is a kind of dragon or giant snake, sometimes appearing with a long mane. The lindworms of Swedish folklore may have either good or bad intentions, and a bad lindworm is not good to meet. One unusual way that some lindworms were said to move about was to bite their own tail to form a circle, and then roll forward like a wheel. Such a lindworm was called a hjulorm or wheel serpent.

A boy attacking a giant serpent ... painting by John Bauer for Harald Östensen's story. Not what happens in this ballad!

But often, lindworms were thought of as benevolent creatures, and to meet one was thought of as rare and lucky. Geijer and Afzelius tell the story of how a boy in Sweden caught hold of a lindworm one time, but the lindworm shed its skin and escaped, leaving the old skin in the boy's hand. When the boy went home, he put the skin in his stew and ate it. After that he became very wise, and was able to use minerals, plants, and animals as medicines.

There are also romantic stories told of princes who have been bewitched and transformed into terrifying lindworms, and who are freed from the spell by the love and fearlessness of a maiden. The ballad I am writing about today tells one such story.


The girl in this story is called little Signe, and she was serving at the king's court. One day, when Signe was walking out in the woods, she met a huge lindworm. The lindworm asked Signe whether she would come away with him. And Signe said that she would, provided the lindworm would not betray her while she was asleep. With that, they went off: the girl rode on horseback while the lindworm ran alongside.

Before long, they came to a town, and there they met Signe's father. Her father asked her what she was doing with that lindworm. Signe replied that he should let her have her way, as this had been foretold when she was a child. A little later, in a grove, they met Signe's brothers, who again asked her what she was doing with that lindworm. They got the same answer.

So Signe rode, and the lindworm ran alongside, and before long they came to a green flowery meadow with a bed in it. The lindworm suggested that they stop for a rest, and Signe agreed. The maiden sat on the bed and was upset, but at last she lay down, and the lindworm lay close beside her.

When Signe woke up and looked around, she saw that the lindworm had been transformed into a king's son. So everything was changed, and everything was good, and they got their own castle after that.

by HJ Ford

A full text of the ballad (from Arwidsson) is linked here.

Of course as with all ballads there is some variation between different versions. It is quite common that the maiden needs a little more convincing before she initially agrees to go off with the lindworm.

The Scandinavian fairy tale King Lindworm tells a story that is related to this ballad. The English ballads Kemp Owen and the Laidly Worm also have a similar theme, but in these it is a princess who has been hexed into the form of a serpent, and a knight who rescues her.

by HJ Ford


Here are three Swedish melodies for the ballad:

(1) Lindormen (Arwidsson No. 139 / Ahlström No. 292 / Berggreen No. 13b).

(2) Lindormen (Arwidsson No. 139 variant).

(3) Lindormen (Ahlström No. 164 / Berggreen No. 13a), from Småland and Östergötland.

All three of these melodies use basically the same omkväde (chorus) lines: och de lekte / och de lekte både nätter och i alla sina dagar: And they played / And they played both at night and for all their days. And you may see the first two melodies are pretty similar to one another.


Trio Fri are Ida Hellsten, Jonas Jansson, and Lisa Hellsten from Östergötland. Here they are playing a must-listen interpretation of Lindormen, which is the opening track on the Källan i Slaka record from the Slaka ballad forum.

There are also a number of live performances of this ballad on Youtube.

Fridens Liljor are Kristin Borgehed och Rasmus Krohn. Here is a live performance of Lindormen from the Backafestivalen in 2013. The melody is the same as the one above.

Here is a live performance (in Helsinki) by Marianne Maans and Maija Karhinen-Ilo of a Finland-Swedish version of the ballad.

And here you can watch a version of the Lindormen ballad with ballad dance in Sweden.

And here is a Danish take on the ballad, from Fairy Masque.


A. I. Arwidsson, Svenska Fornsånger, Vol 2, Stockholm, 1887, Nr 139, Lindormen
E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816, Nr 88, Lindormen
J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878, Nr 164 and 292, Lindormen
A. P. Berggreen, Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860, Nr 13, Lindormen

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Saga of Didrik of Bern ... Weland Smith

I have been translating the old Swedish Saga of Didrik of Bern, which will be published after the summer. This saga winds together tales of several heroes who were widely known in Scandinavia, Germany, and also Anglo Saxon England. It also seems that some of the Scandinavian ballads are based on this saga: some of the best-known warrior ballads starring Diderick of Bern and Widrick Waylandsson tell stories that are very closely related to episodes in the saga.

The saga tells background stories of several of the heroes who accompany King Didrik of Bern. One of these is Wideke (also known as Widrick in other Scandinavian sources), the son of Weland (Wayland Smith). And the saga includes an account of the life of Weland. It tells about how his father was a giant, Wade, the son of a mermaid and a king of Sweden. And it tells about how he was taught to smith by dwarfs, and how he travelled by water to the court of King Nidung. Some of the events at that king's court – the king's hamstringing of Weland, Weland's revenge, and Weland's escape by flying through the air – are well known from the Poetic Edda. But the saga also tells of many more things that happened there – including the smithing of the sword Mymming – and that saga account is quite sympathetic to Weland.

Weland Smith on the Franks' Casket

But there are other versions of the legend of Weland Smith and his son. Here I have translated a lesser-known folk tale from Willands Härad, Skåne, about Widrik Welandsson and his father, Weland Smith. This was told by Jens Svendsson, pastor in Ivetofta parish, Skåne, in 1624 (note that Skåne was part of Denmark at that time), and printed in the introduction to Hylten-Cavallius's edition of the Saga of Didrik of Bern (1850).

From ancient times, it has been told that Willands Härad in Skåne got its name from a Willand, who was a remarkable and strange smith. To show this, the härad has in its seal a hammer and a tong, and that mark has also been used on the härad's banner, in memory of Willand and his son, Widrik Willandson.

It is an old folk tale that Willand got that son with a mermaid, who he tied up while he had his way with her. When he set her loose again, she said: Now I have got a son with you. If you hadn't tied me up, he would have been very strong both on land and in water. But now he will be very strong only on land.

When Widrik Welandsson had grown up a little, he asked his father to smith him a sword. Willand did as he was asked, but when the sword was finished, his son wanted to use it at once. Willand refused this, and said he would lay the sword under a stone until Widrik had become so strong that he could himself roll away the stone and take it. Before that, Widrik should ride far enough that he should find water that ran upwards. Widrik rode for a long time, but he couldn't find any such water. After a while, there was a time when he was watching his horse as it drank, and he noticed then that the water ran upwards. He went then to the stone, rolled it away, and took the sword. After that he used it like a man, and many stories are told about his deeds. He became the greatest of all the old warriors.

The same stone that lay on top of the sword is still called the smith's stone to this day, and it lies on a little hill, west of Krogstorp in the Ivetofta parish of Willands Härad.

Widrik Welandsson is said to be buried on Ederbeck's slätt in Grydby mark, west of Sissebäck mill. Big standing stones may be seen to this day in that place, near the main road to Sölvitaborg. The reason Widrik was buried there is said to be that he himself wanted to be laid in that place where he was fathered.

The Saga of Didrik of Bern is now available in paperback format from Amazon (UK|US), or alternatively as an ebook.

G.O. Hylten-Cavallius, Sagan om Didrik af Bern, Stockholm, 1850, Introduction
Translation by Ian Cumpstey

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Little Kerstin the Stable Boy

This is a classic cross-dressing ballad, and one of a number of Scandinavian ballads that have this as a central plot point. In this ballad, Little Kerstin is able to get what she wants by dressing up as a man. But ballads about men dressing as women are also found. Valivan is a good example of this. And of course Thor dresses as a woman to get back his stolen hammer in the ballad The Hammer Hunt (Hammarhämtningen / Torvisan).

by John Bauer


In the beginning, we hear that Little Kerstin is having men's clothes made for herself. She rides away from home and to a king, and she asks whether she can work in his stables. The king tells her that he does need a stable boy, but that he doesn't have room for a stable boy's horse. But the young prince persuades his father that he ought to give this stable boy a job, and that the horse could be kept alongside his own.

We hear how Little Kerstin is working as a stable boy with the horses during the day, leading them out to the fields and the meadows, and how by night she and the prince are getting to know each other better. It soon becomes apparent that the stable boy is growing heavier and less agile. Little Kerstin is pregnant, and she gives birth to twin boys.

When the king hears about this, he is furious. But the prince begs for forgiveness, and his father relents, and insists that his son should marry Little Kerstin at once. And so she ends up as a grand lady with many other women serving her.

That is one possible ending. But there are also other variants of this ballad with slightly different endings, some more tragic. In one, the king is happy to get a grandson because in that variant Little Kerstin was revealed to be the daughter of another king. In another, the king lets his anger subside, but before they can marry, a false maid poisons Little Kerstin and she dies. The king then has the false maid buried alive.

Here is a full text of the ballad from Geijer and Afzelius.


Here are three Swedish melodies for the ballad:

(1) Liten Kerstin Stalldräng (Ahlström No. 187), from Västergötland.

(2) Liten Kerstin Stalldräng (Södermanlands Fornminnesförening No. 4), from Södermanland.

(3) Stolts Botelid Stalldräng (Ahlström No. 138), from Värmland.

The first two of these (1 and 2) use the same omkväde lines, though the melodies are very different. These translate as something like: Oh dear one / In our stable she served in secret. The recording below also uses the same omkväde, though the melody does not seem to be similar to either of these two.

Melody (3) has a different omkväde. There is only one omkväde line, which comes at the end of the verse, and translates as: She said that she wanted to ride. But as well as this, the second of the two verse lines is sung twice.

Here is a video demo of these three melodies.


Here is Liten Kersti Stalledräng performed by Carin Kjellman and Ulf Gruvberg, from their album Med Rötter i Medeltiden (1974). These two later formed the group Folk och Rackare. A couple of earlier posts feature ballad recordings by them: Lord Peter's Sea Voyage and The Power of the Harp.


E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816
J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878
Bidrag till Södermanlands Äldre Kulturhistoria, Södermanlands Fornminnesförening, Vol I, 1877, p 28.

My own translation of Little Kerstin the Stable Boy is included in my book, Lord Peter and Little Kerstin.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Ballad of Sinclair

The Ballad of Sinclar (Zinklars vise) is a ballad from Norway composed by Edvard Storm in 1781. It tells the story of a historical battle at Kringen in Norway, which took place in 1612. In this battle, a group of Norwegian farmers ambushed a company of Scottish soldiers (one of the officers was a Captain George Sinclair) who were on their way to fight for Sweden against Norway in the Kalmar war. The ambush took place where the Scottish soldiers had to pass along a narrow way bordered by steep slopes on one side and a river on the other. The Scots were heavily defeated, and the battle assumed a legendary status, partly due to the poems, stories, and songs that have been told and sung about it. This is one such.

You may see from the performances below that it is still a popular song for bands and singers who like to sing old ballads. There are some stylistic differences between this and a typical folk ballad though.

The Battle of Kringen by Georg Nielsen Strømdal


Before the action proper begins, there are a couple of opening verses in which we hear that things will not go well for Mr Sinclair, and that though he comes sailing over the salty sea or the billowy blue to fight for his Swedish paymasters, he will soon find his grave in Norway.

Even Sinclair himself is warned to turn back as he approaches Norway onboard his ship. A mermaid appears on a wavetop and tells him that if he lands in Norway, he will never return home alive. But Sinclair is not interested in listening to the mermaid. He shouts a few choice words at her and sails on. And on the fourth day, he sights the Norwegian coast.

The Scottish army lands at Romsdal, 1400 of them, and all very bad men ... they go through the country, burning and pillaging, hurting widows and killing babies. Well the news of this spreads throughout the land, but as all the Norwegian soldiers are away fighting for the king, the farmers decide that they will have to defend the land themselves. And so they gather with their axes and plan to "have a word with" Mr Sinclair.

The ballad singer then describes the site where the ambush will take place: the path called Kringen runs close under the hill while a river runs close by. And into that river the enemy will fall.

The grey-haired farmer takes his rifle from the wall. And another creature of Norwegian folklore, the Neck, appears, raising his wet beard from the water. He anticipates that soon he will have his prey, when all the Scotsmen fall into the river.

Sinclair dies by the first shot that hits him. And so all his men cry out in despair. But the Norwegians give a rallying cry, and the Scots wish they were back at home. Kringen is soon strewn with dead bodies, so that the ravens have enough to eat, and the Scottish girls would cry if they could see it. Not a living soul comes home to tell his countrymen how dangerous it is to visit those who live in the Norwegian fells. And there now stands a monument now in that place.

Here is the full text of the ballad.

The lyrical style that this ballad is written in is noticeably different in parts from the typical folk ballads, though it is sung to ballad melodies, sometimes with a refrain (omkväde). I would say the first seven verses are a lot closer than the rest to the style of a traditional ballad.

The opening two verses are reminiscent of the opening two verses of, say, Bendik and Årolilja, where the entire plot is summarised very briefly in a single verse, and then immediately repeated with minor variation. The verses where Sinclair is speaking to the mermaid are also more typical ballad verses, with a lot of direct speech. But there is little of this later in the ballad: there is a lot of more commentary, and where there is speech, it is somehow more abstract as the speaker is not identified. Much of the imagery and many of the descriptions also seem richer to me than in a typical folk ballad.

The rhyme pattern in Norwegian is ABAB. This is very unusual. Four-line ballad verses are typically ABCB, or very occasionally AABB. And the rhymes are almost all perfect, which is also very unusual. A further feature that sets this ballad apart from the typical medieval ballads is the lack of repetition. The first two verses of the ballad are variations of one another, but beyond that, repetition, which is such a typical feature of the folk ballads, is basically absent.

Now there is also a Swedish Sinclairvisan (Ballad of Sinclair) that is quite unrelated to this one. The Swedish ballad tells of a certain Swede by the name of Malcolm Sinclair and his murder by the Russians. The text was written by Anders Odel (1739), and the melody is a variation on the Folia tune. Perhaps this Swedish ballad will be for a future installment ...


The lyrics by Edvard Storm do not include a chorus (omkväde) line. Here are two Norwegian melodies for the ballad from Berggreen:

(1) Sinclars Vise (Berggreen 65a)

(2) Sinclars Vise (Berggreen 65b), from Trondheim.

But nowadays the ballad is often performed – see below – to a traditional melody from the Faeroes (or perhaps from Denmark via the Faeroes), with the omkväde: Vel op før dag, de kommer vel over den hede (well before day, they come over the heath).


This is the whole ballad, sung to a melody without an omkväde (chorus) line. It appears on an album of Edvard Storm's songs, Viso I Gomol Og Ny Drakt (1993), performed by Stormti. This rendition uses two verse melodies, both different from the two melodies given above.

Folk rock pioneers Folque interpret the ballad (Sinclairvise) using the melody with the omkväde. This ballad appeared on their first album, Folque (1974). Folque have made recordings of ballads previously featured on this blog: Heming and King Harald and Sir Olof and the Elves.

Faeroese folk metal band Tyr recorded their take (Sinklars Visa) based on the same melody. This appears on their album Land (2008). Note that although these last three performances are from the Faeroe Islands, the language is not Faeroese. They are all singing the lyrics as written in Norwegian, though the pronunciation may be described as Gøtudansk (street Danish), and is typical for singing Danish ballads in the Faeroes.

The former singer of Tyr, Pól Arni Holm, now sings with Hamradun. They also recorded Sinklars Visa for their first album, Hamradun (2015). This take again uses the same melody, but with all the ballad verses.

In the Faeroe Islands, ballad singing often goes together with a traditional dance called the ballad dance. Here you can see the Faeroese ballad dance to Sinklarsvise.


A. P. Berggreen, Norske Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Kjøbenhavn, 1861

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Bendik and Årolilja

Today to Norway ... the ballad of Bendik and Årolilja continues to attract a fair amount of interest, and it has been recorded quite a few times in recent years. The traditional ballad was sung in Norway, and the recordings have mainly been made by Norwegian musicians.

The story is a tragic one, of the struggles and hopelessness of forbidden love.

The Romance of Tristram and Iseult by Maurice Lalau


Our tragic hero Bendik rides away from his home to find a wife. And soon he falls in love with Årolilja, a king's daughter. Even in the opening verse of the ballad we are told that things will not turn out well for Bendik.

The king, we hear, builds a "golden track", and commands that no-one should step onto it on pain of death. It is not really clear from the ballad text what this "track" actually is -- perhaps a difficult route up a steep cliff to where Årolilja is living. This is a little unusual as the language of ballads is typically straightforward. What is clear though, from everything that is said, is that the "track" seems to represent the king's daughter, Årolilja.

Bendik declares that he will dare to tread on the track, and off he rides, hunting in the woods by day, and visiting the fair maiden by night ...

But a small boy sees it all, and treacherously he runs back to the king with the news that Bendik has dared to "tread on the track". The king understands full well what this means, and he declares that Bendik will have to die.

When Bendik is taken prisoner and tied up, he has no problem in breaking the many strong ropes that are used to bind him. But then the small boy suggests to the king that he should instead take one of Årolilja's hairs, and use that to tie Bendik up. This is a successful strategy. Rather than break the hair of his beloved, Bendik chooses to remain tied up in the prison.

Many living things then pray for Bendik: birds, deer, trees, flowers, fish, and men. Årolilja too comes to her father to beg for Bendik's life, but she is refused. There is an interesting moment when Årolilja's mother, the king's wife, also comes to beg for Bendik's life. She reminds him that they had been married without her own father's blessing, and that he had promised to grant her anything she asked. But he still refuses her this.

Bendik is killed beside the church. And at the same time, Årolilja dies of sorrow. When the king hears of this, he regrets his hard stance on Bendik. Too late, of course.

The ballad ends with lilies growing forth from the graves of Bendik and Årolilja, and intertwining above the church roof.

Here is a full text of the song from Landstad.

I don't know of any Swedish versions of this ballad, but there is a related (and even longer) ballad in Faeroese (Bænadikts visa), and also related ballads in Danish (Ismar og Benedikt or Edmund og Benedikt).


This ballad is usually sung to a melody that was composed by Ingvar Bøhn in the 1880s. All the recorded versions linked below use this melody, though the arrangements and sounds are very different. It is very unusual that the composer of a ballad melody is known.

Here is the score: Bendik and Årolilja. And here is a demo of the melody with lyrics in English.


Gåte were a recent young Norwegian band singing folk songs in a rather rockier style. The name Gåte means "riddle". I like their take on this ballad ... the singing of Gunnhild Sundli is reminiscent of Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries in some places (I guess it's pretty clear where I mean ...). There are only four verses here though, so it's rather a "highlights" version of the story. Bendik og Årolilja is the opening track on Gåte's debut album, Jygri (2002).

Here is a link to a live take by Gåte.

Bukkene Bruse are a traditional Norwegian group who I am quite surprised that I have not already mentioned on this blog. Their name is usually translated into English as the "Billy Goats Gruff" as it is the title of a well-known Norwegian folktale. Their take on Bendik og Årolilja has great vocals from Arve Moen Bergset, with a varying accompaniment. This is from their album Åre (1995).

Here are a couple more tracks from the singer Arve Moen Bergset that I will take the opportunity to mention ... and again before his voice broke!

Kirsten Bråten Berg is Norwegian traditional folk singer who has recorded several ballads. So again I am surprised not to have mentioned her before here. This version of Bendik og Årolilja is from her album Songen (2010).

This version of Bendik og Årolilja from Celine Helgemo was performed on the Norwegian TV program Stjernekamp (a singing competition for established musical artists). It uses the same four verses as Gåte's take on the ballad.

Anne Vada and Aki Fukakusa recorded Bendik og Årolilja for their album Solrenning ... with Norwegian songs arranged to feature Japanese instruments.

Hirundo Maris is a group founded by Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen, playing early music from Scandinavia and the Mediterranean region. Here is a live take on Bendik og Årolilja.

And finally a choir version.

This may be from the same choir ... I like this take better but the recording quality is not as good.


M. B. Landstad, Norske Folkeviser, Christiania, 1853
My own translation of Bendik and Årolilja is included in my book, The Faraway North.