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.


  1. How does your account balance with the ballad?

    According to the most popular translation, Hildebrand was in Hellelil's chamber when the father heard them and called for the brothers to kill Hildebrand, who was the song of the English king. The ballad clearly states the sons went up the stairs where Hildebrand met them and cut each brother down as they came up the stairs...narrow winding stairs typical of the time. He killed 7 of the brothers before Hellelil begged Hildebrand for mercy. Distracted, the remaining brother killed Hildebrand. He then took Hellelil to her mother who wanted her sold off. The brother wanted her killed. She was thrown into a chamber with bramble rushes until her fate was be hung in the church yard. The last stanza of the ballad is vague if she died on the rope or if she was taken down in time to die in her mother's arms.

    Is there another translation for the battle in the woods? I'm keen to read it.

    Living in Ireland, I've had the honor of seeing this painting in person a few times, including the original sketches that inspired the final painting...also incredible.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes you raise an interesting point, and this is down to the number of ballad variants that are known, and which variant(s) a translator has used as the starting point for their translation.

      So this ballad has 7 Danish variants in Grundtvig's collection, as well as 2 Swedish variants (one in each of the major collections; plus perhaps a further Swedish broadside variant I have not seen). These variants occupy a kind of continuum of variations ... they all have basically the same story, and they will have many verses in common with each other, either identical or with just the odd word changed. There will, though, be some more subtle or more significant differences sometimes, like the one you have identified about the place where the fight happens.

      So in both the Swedish variants, as well as Danish Grundtvig's A, C, D variants, Hillebrand flees with Hilla from her father's house. Her family pursue, and catch them up when Hilla and Hillebrand stop to rest, and that is when the fight happens. In the Grundtvig B variant, the fight occurs at her father's house after he discovers that they are together. So I imagine William Morris's translation is based on this B variant or something like it.

      The other aspects of the ballad you mention, including the fact that Hillebrand is the King of England's son, and the girl getting dragged through the woods after the fight and being sold for a bell are there in many of the variants (Danish and Swedish). I maybe didn't mention everything in the post ....

      So I have translated this ballad as well, using the Swedish versions as the source. And the summary I have written in this post is mainly based on these variants (basically similar to Danish variants though). If you want to read my translation, it's included in my ballad collection Warrior Lore (you can hopefully see a link on the right-hand side of this page).

      It's a wonderful painting, and I gather it's particularly well known in Ireland. I have not seen it in real life, but it would be nice to do that.

    2. Thanks for your reply. I hadn't realized there were so many variants to the ballad. But it makes sense that they fled the father's keep and captured in the woods/ the surviving brother puts Hilla on his horse and takes her to her mother...back in the family keep rather than to another residence. Being sold for the price of a bell is interesting. It makes me wonder if this was a literal of figurative bell.

      The painting in the National Gallery of Ireland is amazing. Last November, the museum had a Burton exhibition where I was able to see it again. Normally, it's by invitation only (the first time I'd been invited to see it), but this time it was on public display and I went to see it a few times. They also had one of the original full size sketches framed beside the painting, which I actually liked better than the painting in some ways. Example, Hildebrand's eyes and expression are more emotive in the sketch, while the painting is too tender by comparison.

      The painting itself has several objects that can be translated, such as the rose and feathers on the steps at Hilla's feet, representing her lost virginity.

      If you get a chance to come to Dublin, be sure to request an invitation to see the painting when you arrive. The wait can be anywhere from a few hours to a few days. It normally lives in a dark frame box in the conservation room.

      Thanks for the info!

    3. This situation with ballad variants is quite typical for the Scandinavian ballads in general. For some there is only one, but for ballads that were popular at the times when the texts were being written down there can be quite a few.

      Thanks for the tips about the painting. I shall have to see what I can do when I am next in Dublin. It has been a while.

  2. And of course, there's time, and oral tellings to include into the mix :-)

    Definitely get over to Dublin!