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.