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.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Power of the Harp

After all the doom and deaths in my recent postings, I am happy to be able to write about something a little more cheerful ... about a ballad story that showcases the great positive effect and influence that good music can have: The Power of the Harp (Harpans Kraft in Swedish).

It is probably necessary to introduce the villain of this story: the neck (näcken in Swedish). The neck is a supernatural creature of the water, usually male, who lives in rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. He is a musician, and likes to play on his fiddle, and in that way to lure people into the water to drown. It is also said that the neck can teach people to play music if they go out with their fiddle and hang around likely looking streams. But in the story told in this ballad, the neck is more concerned with the drowning of young girls.

The appearance of necks is not universally agreed upon, and they have been drawn very differently by different Scandinavian artists – I have posted some classic pictures here. I remember when I was living in Sweden that there were adverts (for the Swedish Railways or the Inland Railway) featuring a naked leaf-crowned man sitting in a stream playing the violin, a la neck, apparently. This ballad tells us anyway that the neck is an ugly creature.

Nøkken: One of Theodor Kittelsen's paintings of the neck. Kittelsen tends to paint the neck as a glowing-eyed lake monster. Another more revealing rendition of Kittelsen's neck is at the end of this post. Note also that Kittelsen has painted the neck in a lake with waterlilies. Certainly in Swedish, waterlilies are called näckrosor (neck roses) after the neck. I think this is also true in Norwegian.


In the beginning, we are introduced to two young people in love. Let us call them Lord Peter and Little Kerstin. Peter notices that Kerstin is upset, and he tries to find out what is wrong. He comes up with several suggestions, all of them wrong, unfortunately. But eventually she tells him what the problem is.

She is worried about a prophecy that was made when she was born, that she would die on the morning of her wedding day, in the river at the hands of the neck.

When Peter hears this, he promises to build a very substantial and expensive bridge across the river so that Kerstin will not risk drowning.

The bridge is built, and Kerstin and Peter's wedding day arrives. And Peter sends many of his men to escort Kerstin safely across the river. But it all goes wrong. The men notice a deer in the woods, and they ride off to chase it, leaving little Kerstin to cross the bridge alone.

She falls into the river, and into the lair of the neck.

When Peter hears about this, he orders that his harp be fetched with some urgency. The harp is duly delivered, and Peter starts to play. We are told how beautifully he was playing, and of the effect it had on all the creatures of the forest, and also on the ugly neck sitting in the stream. Eventually, the neck pleads with Peter to stop his playing. Peter replies that he will only stop playing if Kerstin is returned. Not only returned, but returned alive and whole, as though she had never been in the neck's lair. And not only that, but all her drowned sisters should be returned also.

The neck obliges. So all the drowned girls escape from the river, and Peter and Kerstin are able to celebrate their wedding.

Näcken by Ernst Josephson. The neck as a naked streamside fiddler, as he is often imagined in Sweden.

This ballad was sung widely, and very many variants of the text were recorded in Sweden alone (the ballad was also known in Denmark and Norway). Here is one version of a Swedish text from Geijer & Afzelius.

The story of The Power of the Harp has much in common with the classical tale of the famous harpist Orpheus and his (failed) attempt to rescue Euridice from the underworld. The Scandinavian ballad has a happier ending though.


Here are six Swedish melodies for the ballad:

(1) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 137 / Arwidsson No. 149B).

(2) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 136 / Arwidsson No. 149A / Berggreen No. 5A).

(3) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 138 / Berggreen No. 37), melody from Östergötland.

(4) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 139).

(5) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 140 / Berggreen No. 5B), melody from Västergötland and Värmland.

(6) Harpans Kraft (Ahlström No. 141).

Of these six distinct melodies from Sweden, five have similar omkväde (repeated chorus) lines. There is only one omkväde line for each of these ballads (sung after the two rhyming ballad lines). It is interesting to compare these lines, which are as follows:

(1) Men hjertans allrakäraste hvad sörjen I då?
(2) Min hjärteliga kär, I sägen mig hvad eder sörjer
(3) Min hjärteliga kär, säg för mig hvem I sörjen
(5) Min hjärteliga kär, min hjärteliga kär, I sägen mig hvarför I sörgen
(6) Min hjärtelig kär, min hjärtelig kär, säg för mig hvi du sörger

These all mean something along the lines of All-dearest of mine, tell me why you are sorrowful. So these omkväde lines reflect the first part of the ballad, where Peter is coming up with various suggestions to try to find out why Kerstin is so sad. There are some slight differences in meaning (and in the forms of address), but probably the most significant difference between these lines is in the way they scan to fit the melody.

The other (melody No. 4 above) has a different omkväde pattern: vid den hvitaste sand / Liten Kerstin, lyster eder följa ungersven inför Öland (on the whitest sand / Little Kerstin, do you want to go with a young man to Öland).

In Norway, the harpist is called Villeman and the bride Magnhild, and the ballad is usually known as Villeman and Magnhild. The Norwegian recordings I have linked below all use the same melody and omkväde lines – the omkväde lines are unlike those in the Swedish ballads. They are: Hei fagraste lindelauvi alle / For de runerne de lyster han å vinne (All the fairest linden leaves / For the runes he wanted to win).

Näcken och Aegirs Döttrar by Nils Blommer. Here the neck is in the sea, and is shown playing a harp. Aegir is a Norse sea god, and his daughters are the waves.

Video demo to follow ...


I would have liked to begin with the recording of Harpans Kraft by Swedish folk rock pioneers Folk och Rackare, recorded for their album Anno 1979 (1979), but this is unfortunately not on YouTube. You can see the album here on Folk och Rackare are not using any of the melodies above for their rendition, but they sing the same omkväde line as in melody No 1.

Harpans Kraft is one of a number of Scandinavian medieval ballads recorded by the German group Estampie for their 2013 album Secrets of the North. This is quite an alternative interpretation, and I like the sound, though the lyics can be difficult to make out. Again, this version does not seem to be based on any of the melodies above, but it has the same type of omkvade as Nos 1–3, 5, and 6.

The Swedish trio Ulv have also recorded Harpans Kraft for their album Eldprovet, with their characteristic medieval chant-like sound. Ulv do not use any of the melodies given above, and even the omkväde here is a different one. Another ballad recorded by Ulv and previously featured on this blog is Sir Olof and the Elves.

The ballad seems to have been more wideley recorded in Norwegian, where it is known as Villeman og Magnhild. I have posted a selection here. These Norwegian versions all use basically the same melody and the same omkväde lines.

The Norwegian medieval band Kalenda Maya have recorded a short Villeman og Magnhild, with harmonies and medieval instrumentation. It is one of a whole albumful of Norwegian medieval ballads, Norske Middelalderballader, recorded in 1989.
Kalenda Maya:

Here is a typically extremely spectacular live rendition of Villeman og Magnhild from the German folk metal band In Extremo. Their recorded version appears on their album Gold (1997). For more from In Extremo, check out their version of Herr Mannelig here.
In Extremo (Live):

Kari Tauring's version of Villeman og Magnhild, from her album Nykken and Bear (2013).
Kari Tauring:

Rita Eriksen and Dolores Keane recorded Villemann og Magnhild for their album Tideland (1996). The Norwegian vocals and the typical melody are intermingled with snatches of Irish tune:
Rita Eriksen and Dolores Keane:

There are several more recorded versions in Norwegian. Here is one that is geographically restricted: Trio Mediæval, Villeman og Magnhild.

Finally, here is a recording in Danish. This is Frode Veddinge's Harpens Kraft.
Frode Veddinge:

Here are a couple more pictures of the Neck:

Sir Peter and the Ugly Sprite by W. J. Wiegand. This is actually an illustration of Julia Goddard's retelling of the Harpans Kraft story: Chirstin's Trouble.

Theodor Kittelsen's neck playing the harp.


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, Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860
A. I. Arwidsson, Svenska Fornsånger, Vol 2, Stockholm, 1887

My own translation of The Power of the Harp is included in my book, Lord Peter and Little Kerstin.