Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)

Harpans kraft

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Harpans kraft

Estampie harpans kraft

Harpans kraft (Swedish) or Harpens kraft (Danish), meaning "The Power of the Harp," is the title of a supernatural ballad type, attested in Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic examples.


In The Types of the Scandinavian Medieval Ballad it is catalogued type A 50, "Man saves his bride from merman by playing his harp."

The ballad type tells of a hero whose betrothed has premonitions of a fall from a bridge into the river, which despite the hero's assurances and precautions comes true. But by the power of his harp-playing, he regains his bride from the river creature, which is referred to as a "merman" in the TSB catalog, but more precisely given as "neck (water spirit)" or troll in the original Scandinavian texts.

The ballad of this type occur under the following titles. Danish: "Harpens kraft" (DgF 40); Swedish: "Harpans kraft" (SMB 22); Norwegian: Villemann og Magnhild (NMB 26); Gaute og Magnild and Guðmund og Signelita (Landstad 51 and 52), etc.; and Icelandic: Gautakvæði "Gauti's ballad".

Noted for its resemblance to the Greek myth of Orpheus, a harp-player with mystical powers, it may be related to medieval versions of that story such as the Middle English Sir Orfeo.

Similarity has also been noted with the supernatural power of the harp in the Scottish ballad Glasgerion (Child ballad 67 variants B, C, "He'd harpit a fish out o saut water," etc.).

Ulv harpans kraft agnethe christensen

Common plot

A bridegroom asks his betrothed why she is so sorrowful. At last she answers that she is going to fall into a river on her way to her wedding (as her sisters have done before her, in some Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish variants). The man promises to build a broad, strong bridge over the river, and he and his men will protect her. Despite precautions, the maiden's horse stumbles (or rears up) while over the bridge, and she tumbles into the river. The man has his golden harp brought to him and plays so beautifully that the "merman" (Danish: trold; Swedish: neck i.e. "neck (water spirit)") is forced to return his betrothed.

There exist Danish, Norwegian and Swedish variants where the water spirit restores the bride's two other sisters (or however many) who had been previously taken by the creature. The Icelandic version has a tragic ending, and the hero only recovers his bride's corpse.

A list of available translations of the ballads from various Scandinavian languages are given under English Translations below.

Danish version

The Danish analogue is Harpens kraft (Danmarks gamle Folkeviser no. 40). There are six versions (DgF 40A–F), taken mostly from manuscripts such as Karen Brahes Folio of the 1570s (Variant A). There is a broadside copy dating to 1778 (designated variant E). Another recension (variant F) has Swedish provenance, being copied out of a manuscript written in 1693 by a Swede in Næsum parish, Skåne County, Sweden, but Grundtvig counted it as a Danish example since the language was Danish, and it was suitable for comparing with text E.

Translations under the title "The Power of the Harp" exist, including one by R. C. Alexander Prior (1860) and by George Borrow (1913, 1923).

Swedish version

Geijer and Afzelius gave 3 examples of Harpans kraft (GA 91, or in the later edition with Bergström, GAB 75). Altogether, the Swedish form is attested in Sveriges Medeltida Ballader (no. 22) in forty-nine variants (two of which are from Finland) from the 1690s onward (twenty-one variants of which have melodies). It may be noted that the earliest example included in SMB is the same as that catalogued as Danish ballad variant (DgF 40F) mentioned above, and which the early Swedish collectors concurred it was a "halft dansk (half Danish)" specimen.

Gijer and Afzelius's first variant (GA 91.1=SMB 22 H) localized in Östergötland has been translated as "Power of the Harp" by Edward Vaughan Kenealy (1864). The third variant (GA 91.3 =SMB 22J) from Västergötland and Vermland was translated by Thomas Keightley in his "The Fairy Mythology" (1828).

In the first variant (Kenealy tr.), the hero and bride are anonymous and merely called "young swain (Ungersven)" and maiden, whereas in the third variant (Keightley tr.) they are named "Peder" and "Liten Kerstin" respectively.

The name of the feared river may be given as Vernamo river (GA 1), Ringfalla (GA 3), or Renfalla, Vendels, etc. A version explains the bride's guardsmen abandoned her side to go hunting when they spotted a "hart with gilded horns" in Ringfalla woods (GA 3, Keightley's translation).

The motif of harp-playing which forces a supernatural being to act in a certain way is also found in Sveriges Medeltida Ballader 21 G of Ungersven och havsfrun (which also ends happily). Conversely, the plot of variant 20 L (Necken bejlare) is very similar to this ballad type, except that the bride's rescue by the harp has been deleted (and thus the ballad ends unhappily).

Norwegian version

In Norway the ballad is generally known as Villemann og Magnhild and catalogued as Norske mellomalderballadar (NMB) no. 26 There are some 100 variants, although this count tallies up many fragmentary redactions only few stanzas long.

Some variants are known by other titles: Harpespelet tvingar nykken in Leiv Heggstad's collection, and two specimens called Gaute og Magnild and Guðmund og Signelita in the anthology compiled by Landstad (1853).

The version most often met in Norwegian songbooks today is Knut Liestøl and Moltke Moe's 32-stanza reconstructed text (1920). A full translation is given in Heidi Støa's paper (2008). It resembles the 22-stanza text printed by Gruntvig (as a Norwegian variant to DgF 40c).

Norwegian summary

The Liestøl/Moe ballad begins as follows (the recurring "burden" is italicized):

Villemann perceives that his beloved Magnill is weeping as the dice is cast while plaing the board game (stanza 2). He makes a series of guesses why she is crying: "“Cry you for fields, or cry you for meadows..etc.," and she replies she cries for none of these things (3 ~ 6). She cries because she knows she is destined for imminent death: her fair skin lying in the "darkling mould" (earth), her yellow hair rotting in "Vendel's river," having fallen from the "Blide bridge" like her sisters (7 ~ 9).

The remainder follows the typical pan-Scandinavian pattern, except for a final conclusion. Thus the hero's promise to fortify bridge with pillars of lead and steel, and men riding alongside her, her protest of futility (10 ~ 15), her horse (shod with horseshoes and nails of red gold) rearing up on hind legs, her fall into the river (16 ~ 18), Villemann's playing golden harp from golden case, his playing mounts with ever more wondrous effects on nature (19 ~ 26). Finally the nykkjen (nøkken) releases one, then two (of her arms?), and pleads to bring stillness to his waters. But the hero refuses, and "the shatters against the hard stone" (nykkjen han sprakk i hardan stein).

The full text of the version of Liestøl and Moltke Moe's reconstructed text from is as follows:

Norwegian burdens

The Liestøl/Moe text "Villeman og Magnill" features only the one burden "Så liflig leika Villemann for si skjønn jomfru (So delightfully Villemann played for his virgin so fair)", which is echoed by e.g. the Hans Ross versions,. Other variants have a single burden though worded differently.

However, Espland likes to class "Villemann og Magnhild" as a type that features "interior refrain" and a "final burden" (in italics below):

The "interior refrain" and "burden" are repeated in the second and last lines of each quatrain stanza, a common formula found in other ballads. They precisely match the refrains performed by Høye Strand (1891-1972), recorded by Rolf Myklebust. Strand had learned from the ballad-singing tradition of singers who once performed for Jørgen Moe and Sophus Bugge. Here the de rone or rune is construed as "the spell", or "the wiles". Earlier transcribers heard these words as "dragonerne" (meaning "dragoon" or "firearm-bearing type of soldier"), and the contention has been made that this may have been the transmitted form, nonsensical as it appears to be. Still, the exact refrains including the use of "rune" are attested elsewhere in much earlier documents, e.g. Bugge's ms. of 1867 and others.

Norwegian variations

The scene of tavl (board game) being played by the two is not omnipresent in all versions. Instead, the playing of the gullharp by the hero occurs in the version performed by Strand and recorded by Myklebust.

In some variants, the gull element is seen in the hero's altered name: Gullmund, Guldmund, Gudmund, etc. The hero could be called Gaute also (which is close to the name of the hero in the Icelandic version). And Villemann may be seen under slightly different spellings: Villemand, Vellemand, Vilemann, even Wallemann.

The name "Vendel's river" ("Vendels å") occurs in Liestøl and Moe's version as well as the Gruntvig text, but may be replaced by other river names such as "Vendings" in variants. The "Blide bridge" that ironically means "Blithe Bridge" features in Danish versions as well.


The analogue in Iceland is known as Gautakvæði "Gauti's ballad", for which Grundtvig and Sigurðsson printed a critical text based on variants A–D (Íslenzk fornkvæði no. 3).

In the Icelandic version, the main characters are Gauti, a fine knight, and his wife Magnhild, wearing much gold jewelry and clad in black dress. While they lie in bed together, he asks her, "What grieves thee, my sweetheart?" and she answers it is because she will inevitably will be drowned in Skotberg River. He assures her she will not be drowned because he will build an iron bridge over the river. She replies "Though thou make it as high as a cloud, none can flee one's fate (tr. Kemp in his summary)" (str. 1–4). After three days of drunken revelry, they ride out to the Skotberg's river (str. 6), and Gauti asks his swain (youth) about what has happened to Magnild, and receives report that just as she reached the midpoint, the iron bridge broke into pieces. 50 men fell in, and no one was paying attention about Magnhild (str. 10). He tells his swain to fetch his harp, and hurls the harp against the floor, breaking twelve strings, and then five more (str. 13). He strums the first tune, and a star is shot into the murky sea. His playing coaxes a bolt out of its lock, a cow from its shed, horse from its stall, a fair hind from the mountain, a ship from the rollers for launching it (hlunnr), a fair maiden from the greenfield, and finally, wrenches his wife Magnhild onto the white sand upon land (str. 18). She is dead, and with much pain he kisses her, buries her flesh in consecrated ground, and takes strands of her gleaming hair to make into harp strings (str. 19–21). Variant B has an alternate ending, where he kisses her corpse and his heart bursts. In variant D, he kisses her and his heart shatters into three pieces, and three bodies went inside the stone-coffin together: Gauti and his wife and his mother who died of grief.

The name of the river in the ballad, "Skotberg River" (Skotbergs á), cannot be identified in Iceland's landscape but bears similarity to Skodborg River bordering North and South Jutland in Denmark, though none of the Danish ballad cognates give that river's name.

English Translations

English translations of this ballad have been published. Retellings include "Christin's Trouble" (prose) in Julia Goddard's anthology (1871)

From the Danish

  • "The Power of the Harp" by R. C. Alexander Prior (1860)
  • "The Power of the Harp" by George Borrow (1913, 1923).
  • "The Power of the Harp" by Alexander Gray (1954).
  • From the Swedish

  • tr. "The Power of the Harp" (1828), of Geijer and Afzelius, #91.3
  • Kenealy, Edward Vaughan tr. "The Power of the Harp" (1864), of Geijer and Afzelius, #91.1
  • Anonymous (attrib. Robinson, Thérèse Albertine L. aka Talvj (1836).
  • Reprinted in: Longfellow ed. Poets and Poetry of Europe (1847).
  • "The Power of the Harp" in Lord Peter and Little Kerstin (2013) by Ian Cumpstey.
  • From the Norwegian

  • "Villeman and Magnhild" (NMB) by Theodore Jorgenson (1950, 1954).
  • From the Icelandic

  • "Gauti's ballad" (ÍF 3) summarized in prose by Hallmundsson (1962).
  • "ÍF 3 Gauta kvæði," summary and commentary by Vésteinn Ólason (1982).
  • Recordings

  • Svea Jansson in 1958, on the record Den medeltida balladen, SR RELP 5003-5006 (Swedish) .
  • The group Folk och rackare, on the record Anno 1979 from 1979 (new melody) (Swedish) .
  • Berit Opheim Versto, Norske Ballader: 30 ballader – Om drap og elskov, skjemt og lengsel blant riddere, jomfruer, kjemper og dyr, Grappa 2009, HCD 7239, EAN 7033662072392 (Norwegian).
  • Høye Strand (of Seljord i Telemark), issued in album Haugebonden (Buen Kultu, 1992); originally recorded on tape by Rolf Myklebust.
  • Folkeviseautomat - Arkiv
  • Trio Mediæval, "Villemann og Magnhild" in Folk Songs (ECM Records 2007) (Norwegian).
  • Rita Eriksen and Dolores Keane, "Villemann og Magnhild" in Tideland (Alula 1996) (Norwegian).
  • Eli Storbekken, Sinikka Langeland, Agnes Buen Garnås, "Villemann og Magnhild" (several versions) in Det Syng! (Ballader på vandring) (Grappa 1997) (Norwegian).
  • References

    Harpans kraft Wikipedia