13 April 2007

Norwegian medieval ballads

I wanted to write a short essay about Norwegian medieval ballads, but, of course, short became long and long became longer so this is the introduction, lol.

In Norway they are usually called ‘folkeviser’, folk songs. However, this is a term from the 18th century, so I’ll use the word ballad, which is older (and easier to type too).

Originally, these ballads were part of an oral tradition. They were passed on from person to person, from generation to generation, and not written down until much later. All these people could add new verses and remove things they did not like, and as a result, there are dozens of different versions of the same ballad.

It’s difficult to say how old these ballads are (that’s the trouble when stuff is passed on orally), but the oldest written ballad is from 1612 (Friarferdi til Gjøtland). Most of the ballads were written down in the 19th century, though. Norway had gotten its own constitution in 1814, after being in a union with Denmark for about 400 years. During this period the Danish had a lot of influence – they were the elite, Danish was the written language, Norway didn’t even have its own university until 1811, etc.

After Norway had ceded from the union with Denmark there was a growing enthusiasm for everything Norwegian. It became increasingly important to get some of the “real” Norwegian culture back – the folk traditions, all the oral tales. This Norwegian romantic nationalism was at its height in the middle of the 19th century. The most important writers from this period are probably Johan Sebastian Welhaven (1807-1873) (his later works anyway), Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812-1885) and Jørgen Moe (1813-1882). Asbjørnsen and Moe travelled through the country and collected folk tales. Their “Norske Folkeeventyr” is still read today, it’s something just about everyone has on their bookshelf.

Also important was Ivar Aasen, who wanted to ‘Norwegianize’ the language (after all, Danish had been the administrative language). He wrote down words from different dialects and eventually created ‘landsmål’, which is now called nynorsk. It’s still an official language, along with bokmål, which is a more Danish version of Norwegian (though nynorsk and bokmål have become increasingly similar over the years – to the great annoyance of every student, because now you have to look up every other word in the dictionary when writing in whichever of the two is your secondary language form to avoid confusing the two).

Other people who are worth a mention are the composer Ole Bull and the artists Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude. These two painted “Brudeferd i Hardanger”, which is *the* painting of the Norwegian romantic nationalism.

But I was going to write about medieval ballads, not Norwegian romantic nationalism. One of the most important collectors of ballads was Olea Crøger (1801-1855) who lived in Telemark. She collected a huge amount of ballads but didn’t manage to get them published. However, in 1853 Magnus Brostrup Landstad (1802-1880) published a collection of ballads, Norske Folkeviser. This collection included all of Crøger’s ballads, but she wasn’t even mentioned (nice, huh?).

Sophus Bugge (1833-1907) and Moltke Moe (1859-1913) also collected a great deal of ballads. Now, for fear of being sidetracked again I’ll just get to the point.

The Norwegian ballads are usually divided into six categories:

The mythic ballads (naturmytiske viser): These are about meetings between humans and supernatural creatures. There’s a subcategory here; “bergtakingsviser” – ballads about humans who are captured or lured by the mountain king.
The religious ballads, ballads about legends (religiøse viser, legendeviser): About saints and their lives, as well as various religious themes (heaven, hell, purgatory).
The historical ballads (historiske viser): These are about historical people and events, but there are very few of them.
Knight’s ballads (ridderviser): Two words: unattainable love.
Ballads about trolls and giants (troll- og kjempeviser): They’re not only about trolls and giants though, but also about heroes (they usually kill the trolls and other nasty creatures). These ballads have the most in common with Norse myths and sagas.
Humorous ballads (skjemteviser): They make fun of everything. Many of them are about animals.

As you can see, there’s a diversity of themes, some are inspired by tales from continental Europe, while others are based on various Norse myths.

When it comes to the composition of the ballads, there are two types: one has stanzas of four lines each; the other has stanzas with two lines. Then there’s the refrain – omkved – which consists of one or more lines. If the two-line stanza is used, the refrain usually consists of two parts: the first part (mellomstev) comes after the first line, and the second part (etterstev) comes after the last line. Four-line stanzas usually only have the etterstev. The omkved is repeated after each stanza. Usually it expresses the main theme of the ballad, but other times it’s got nothing to do with the story at all (it can be about dancing, for example).

Lines or stanzas are also frequently repeated – three being the magic number, obviously. This is of course to make the ballads easier to remember, in the times before they were written down.

Rhyme is widely used in the ballads. There’s the good old alliteration, which was so widely used in Norse poetry, but also end rhyme. The two lines of the two-line stanza rhyme, and so do the second and fourth of the four-line stanza. However, this end rhyme is not completely the same as the end rhyme that’s used today – sometimes just assonance is used.

I’ve translated a few ballads for my online friend, I’ll see if I can dig up those files from the incredible mess that is ‘My Documents’. I’ll see if I can translate and write a commentary for at least one ballad from each category.

There is a great website, here, which lists all the different ballads (it’s all in Norwegian though). They’re currently busy adding sound files (“Ballader med noteoppskrift og lyd), but there’s only one song there at the moment. If you go to the website of the Norwegian folk-rock band Gåte, here, you can find a few videos and sound files (or search for them on youtube). They’re really great – one of my favourite bands :)

Also, thank your book recommendations. I’ve decided to wait a while before I buy the Nibelungenlied (I’ll see if I can find a Dutch version this summer), and I’ll probably buy Redwall for my brother - someone recommended it to me and it sounded as something he'd like.

Okay, time for homework. Someone thought it was a good idea to have a three-hour physics test on Tuesday. Hmm… or maybe I’ll just read a bit first. Dad gave me a book about the history of the Roman Empire, made up of different texts by various Roman and Greek historians. Great stuff. Highly addictive though, and full of plotbunnies.

And, some cool book news: The Children of Húrin, by JRR Tolkien, will be released on Tuesday. They've made a trailer of it too. I've watched it about twenty times already, and preordered my copy yesterday (along with 15 other books... I think I need a new bookshelf soon).

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