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.