Thursday, 22 November 2018

Little Kerstin and the Mountain King / Den Bergtagna

The Swedish title of this ballad is usually given as Den Bergtagna. Now you sometimes see words described as untranslatable, or even lists of untranslatable words being passed around. I don't know whether this is only a Scandinavian or Swedish thing, I imagine it probably isn't, but certainly the Swedes seem very pleased with their so-called untranslatable words.

Of course there must be something in it. Some things are undeniably lost in translation, though this will often have more to do with the cultural significance of a word or phrase than the meaning itself. For example, the most famous of all the Swedish untranslatable words is lagom, which means just the right amount, or just right. It is actually never difficult to translate this into English in a compact, flowing, elegant way that does not call attention to itself. And perhaps that is the problem with such trivial translation of the most untranslatable of all the words in the Swedish language. When every Swede believes that a concept is so Swedish that it cannot exist outside the Swedish language, simply using this word in Swedish conjures up all sorts of cultural context that anyone reading an English translation that perfectly describes the literal meaning of the word would completely miss ...

Anyway, Den Bergtagna is not that difficult to translate as a concept (though not as easy as lagom, perhaps), but it does lose all of its elegance and compactness when forced into English. It means the one taken away to the mountain(s), or even the one taken away by the mountain(s).

Sometimes the ballad is called Little Kerstin and the Mountain King (this is one Norwegian title: Liti Kjersti og Bergekongen). This title is easy to translate word-for-word, so that is why I usually call this ballad by that name in English. The situation starts to become complicated, though, when we start to talk about Norwegian versions of the ballad: the single Swedish ballad (with many variants) corresponds in Norway to what everyone recognises as two separate ballads with slightly different plots and different titles. The other Norwegian title is Margit Hjukse (this is just a girl's name, and so is untranslatable).

Anyway, I like this ballad, it's a real classic, and was and is still very popular. This ballad was chosen to be the first in Geijer and Afzelius's collection of Swedish ballads. I have been meaning to post about it for a long time, but have been putting it off until now ...

Little Kersti and the mountain king by Erik Werenskiold


Little Kerstin is out walking when she happens to meet the mountain king. Come away with me to the mountains, he says, and she goes with him. So they go up to the mountain (in some versions they go together, in others she follows him), and when the mountain door opens, they go in.

Kerstin stays under that mountain with the mountain king for many years, and has a lot of children with him. One day, she wants to return home to visit her mother. The mountain king agrees to this on condition that she does not tell her mother about all the children that she has had.

So Kerstin arrives at her mother's house, and her mother asks her where she has been for so many years. At first she tries to hide it: I've been out picking flowers, she says. But her mother isn't having this, and soon the truth comes out. I've been living in the mountain with the mountain king, she says. And I've had all these babies.

Well the mountain king hears her say this, and he comes as quickly as he can. He is not pleased. He hits her, and puts her on his horse, and they are soon riding back to the mountains. In some versions of the ballad, the mountain king also speaks to the girl's mother: Don't worry about your daughter, he tries to reassure her. She will be fine.

When they arrive back home, we may understand that the children are very pleased to see their mother return, yet Kerstin is not happy. The mountain king (or one of the children) gives her a drink of forgetfulness that makes her forget her former life and believe that she had always lived there in the mountain.

It's hardly a happy ending. And yet if the girl is able to live happily with her husband and all her children in her new life in a new place, why not? Does it matter that she has to drink or do drugs or whatever to forget how she lived before? Probably yes it does matter.

by Gerhard Munthe. The mountain king gives Little Kersti a drink

I mentioned that the Swedish ballad corresponds to two different Norwegian ballads with different titles. The lines between different versions of the ballad in Swedish are perhaps more blurred. The story I described above is probably closer to Margit Hjukse. Liti Kjersti has a different beginning: the girl is at home with her mother, and the mother notices that she has milk from her breasts leaking onto her blouse (they have a long conversation about this as Kjersti tries to deny it). And eventually it transpires that she has been sleeping with the mountain king. There are other very closely related ballads with different classifications as well.

Perhaps one reason this ballad has so many variations could be that it is such a relatable theme, with different verses, beginnings and endings resonating with different ballad singers.

Although the mountain king in the ballad is literally a supernatural subterranean man, typical of Scandinavian folklore, it is no great leap to think of him representing any outsider, or even any abstract idea or lifestyle that someone may abandon their old life to go and chase, and that may be reluctant to let them go.

Here is one of the Swedish full text versions of this ballad. This one is a version from Östergötland from Arwidsson.

I've written only about Swedish and Norwegian versions of this ballad. Given how popular the ballad was and is in those countries, it is hardly surprising that it is also well known in Denmark as well. There it is typically called Jomfruen og Dværgekongen (The Maiden and the Dwarf King). I'll not write more here about Danish versions though as this post is long enough already.

Previously on this blog I wrote a post about Agneta and the Merman, which has a similar drink-to-forget-your-former-life ending. Another ballad with a very similar idea is Sir Olof and the Mermaid, though this has opposite gender roles (note this ballad is quite different from the Sir Olof and the Elves ballad or The Mermaid ballad that I have covered in this blog).

A few years ago I wrote a song called The Fell Queen that was inspired to some extent by this story and others like it. So if you have seen me out singing anywhere in Cumbria in the last five years or so, it's quite possible that you might have heard me singing this. I have now finally recorded it, so have a listen if you like.

Little Kersti and her mother by Erik Werenskiold


Here are three Swedish melodies for the ballad:

(1) Den Bergtagna (Ahlström No. 26 / Berggreen No. 1), melody from Västergotland, Värmland.

(2) Den Bergtagna (Berggreen No. 2), melody from Värmland, Uppland, etc.

(3) Jungfrun och Bergakonungen (Ahlström No. 192), melody from Östergötland.

And one from Norway:

(4) Liti Kjersti og Bergekungjen (Berggreen Norske No. 7), melody from Telemark.

In terms of omkväde lines, melodies (1) and (2) above both have: tiden görs mig lång / men jag vet att sorgen är tung; (time is long for me / but I know that sorrow is heavy). Melody (3) has löf och hallonkvist / ty hon bär en hjertelig ånger; (leaves and raspberry canes / for she bears a great sorrow).

There are over a hundred text variants of this ballad in the Norwegian archive, with many different ömkväde lines. I will mention a couple of significant things:

One common omkväde is: tida sker meg lange / det er eg som ber sorgi så trange (time is long for me / it is I who bear a great sorrow). This is Landstad's omkväde for Margit Hjukse, and it is obviously the same as for the Swedish melodies (1) and (2) above.

Another is a very long one along the lines of what is seen for (4) above: Bron folen løyper lett / Mæ dæ rigner å dæ blæs / Nora under fjöllo / Inne under hello / Der leikar dei (The brown horse runs easily / It rains and it blows / In the north under the fells / In under the rocks / They are playing).

Another is along the lines of: Ti lil lil haugen min / Di dansar så lett gjenom lunden. Of course the second line here (they dance so easily through the woods) is very similar to the (single) omkväde line typically used in Sir Olof and the Elves as I discussed earlier on this blog.


I will start off with some Swedish versions of the ballad ...

Gunnfjauns Kapell are a Swedish folk band from Gotland. The band's name comes from the name of a deserted church on the island of Gotland. Den Bergtagna appears on their 2001 record Dansä Läite.

The band Stormfågel's version of Den Bergtagna.

Signe Widholm från Bergsjö, Hälsingland sings a short unaccompanied version of the ballad from the Sveriges Medeltida Ballader collection.

These first three versions of the ballad all use the same melody and the same omkväde.

Estampie also included Den Bergtagna on their album Secrets of the North.

Here are Ulv, going for their characteristic sound, and a different melody.


The next recordings are all Norwegian, and I'll start with some interpretations of Margit Hjukse, which is closest to the typical versions of the Swedish Den Bergtagna. You can see it is not only the plot, but also the omkväde and even the melody that are similar:

Arve Moen Bergset is a Norwegian folk singer and fiddler who also sang with the group Bukkene Bruse. Here is his recording of Margit Hjukse from his 1987 album Arvesølv.

Gåte are a young Norwegian band with an often heavier take on traditional songs. Margit Hjukse appears on their debut album Jygri (2002).

Here is a version of Margit Hjukse from the traditional Norwegian singer Halvor Håkanes. The recording appears on his album Eg Heiter Halvor (1992).

Almune are a Danish band playing early church music as well as folk and medieval ballads. Their version of Margit Hjukse appears on their 2018 album Bjergtagen.

Venelite og Bergjekongen is a track by Agnes Buen Garnås and Jan Garbarek from their album Rosensfole (1989). This is a great performance and a great take on the ballad! This is another Norwegian ballad that is very very close to the Margit Hjukse text or some Swedish Bergtagna texts, but with a different melody and omkväde (at least here).


And here are some versions of Liti Kjersti. You can see that many artists have recorded versions of this song. Here is a selection. You will see that some have recorded versions of both Liti Kjersti and Margit Hjukse:

Liti Kjersti by Arve Moen Bergset is on the same album as mentioned above ... Arvesølv!

Gåte are another band who have recorded Liti Kjersti as well as Margit Hjukse. Their version of Liti Kjersti appears on their Gåte EP (2002).

Kirsten Bråten Berg is a Norwegian folk singer who has recorded several ballads. She sings about the elf king in her version: Liti Kjersti og Elvekongen. The song appears on her album Min Kvedarlund (1999).

The Norwegian band Folque, one of the pioneering Scandinavian folk rock groups, also recorded a version of this ballad. Liti Kjersti og Alvekongen appears on their 1980 album Fredløs.

Here are links to a couple more takes on Liti Kjersti in case you need more! by Ragnhild Furholt and by Iselin


I will also mention Scott and Johanna Hongell-Darsee's takes on this ballad in English translation. Their album The Mountain King is inspired by this ballad, and here are links to a couple of live performances on YouTube of versions: Far in the Hills (Liti Kjersti in English), and The Mountain King (a Finland-Swedish version of Den Bergtagna in English).


E. G. Geijer and A. A. Afzelius, Svenska Folkvisor Från Forntiden, Stockholm, 1814--1816
J. N. Ahlström, 300 Nordiska Folkvisor, Stockholm, 1878
A. P. Berggreen, Svenske Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1861
A. P. Berggreen, Norske Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1861
A. I. Arwidsson, Svenska Fornsånger, Vol 2, Stockholm, 1887

Norwegian texts for this ballad are in the Balladearkivet of the Oslo University Dokumentasjonsprosjektet.

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

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Heiemo and the Neck

The ballad for today is a Norwegian one: Heiemo og Nykkjen (or Nøkken; Heiemo and the Neck). Heiemo is the name of our heroine, who is a singer, and the neck is our favourite sinister music-loving water spirit, as seen in such ballads as The Power of the Harp.


The ballad opens with Heiemo singing. She sings so sweetly that the neck hears her where he is far out to sea.

So immediately we see the neck's typical traits of being a music-loving water creature. What is unusual in this ballad, though, is that the neck seems to be onboard a boat ... In one version of the ballad from Hardanger there is an unusual description of the neck as "half man half boat" ...

The neck cannot resist the song he has heard, so he speaks to his steersman and tells him to sail for land. So the neck comes to land, and dresses himself up as a fine gentleman with fine clothes, a high hat, and curly golden hair. Then he makes a saddle and horse (sometimes from sand and running water), all kitted out in silver and gold, and he rides off to the party room (or church hall) where Heiemo is.

The neck asks the best singer to sing a song. And that is Heiemo. Her song impresses everyone.

The neck then says he will take Heiemo back to his boat with him. Heiemo is not happy at all at this. The neck tries to comfort her, but she is not having it. So she stabs the neck in the heart with her little knives.

So in the end Heiemo escapes with her maidenhood intact, and the neck lies dead on the ground for dogs and ravens to eat.

There are other versions of the ballad where Heiemo frees herself from the neck without using knives. In the Hardanger ballad I mentioned above, she names the neck's name, and he sinks into the depths, possibly to return ...

This Norwegian ballad has a Danish counterpart, Nøkkens Svig (The Neck's Betrayal), though there is a major difference in the way the two ballads end: in the Danish ballad the neck drags the screaming girl down with him into the water. (In Danish versions of this ballad the neck starts off in the water as well rather than on a boat ...)

by Kay Nielsen ... a dancing princess


The most common omkväde lines for versions of the ballad in the Norwegian ballad archive are: with memory / two roses sleep in there. Alternatively, we see: boy! / the maiden dances with the lord; or: wake up you noble lads / for you (or I or he) have slept too long.

There are no melodies given for this ballad in Landstad's book, and I don't see any in Berggreen's book.


There are a couple of major recordings of this ballad, both from Norwegian ladies, and both using the same melody (and omkväde ... the last of the three omkväde I mentioned above), though singing in rather different styles.

Kirsten Bråten Berg is a Norwegian singer who has been mentioned several times already on this blog. Heiemo og Nykkjen appears on her album Min Kvedarlund (1999).

Helene Bøksle is a Norwegian singer. Here is her version of Heiemo og Nykkjen from her album Elverhøy (2006).

And here is a live version from Helene Bøksle:

Finally, here is a vocal only version on YouTube from Frøya Myrxdottir. Again, she is singing the same melody / same omkväde:


Norwegian texts for this ballad are in the Balladearkivet of the Oslo University Dokumentasjonsprosjektet.
Commentary on this ballad in Norwegian, plus some other texts:

Monday, 19 November 2018

Record ...

Hello ballad fans. Not a ballad post today, but I have actually been working on two ballad posts, and hopefully will post them later on this week. But today I will let you know about another project I have been working on, really for many years, but more intensively recently. I don't know how many people reading this will know me from the Cumbrian live music scene ... probably not many of you. If you do know me from there, chances are you have heard me singing my songs, and if not, I imagine you will not have done. Well now I have made a record so you can all hear. It's on Bandcamp, so feel free to have a listen and get it if you like it! Here's the link ...