Common tales in Italian, Swedish and British Ballads: a comparison


Back to the Index

1. The concealed death     2. The return of the dying son     3. Edward/Sven I Rosengard     4. How an old Viking saga  

5. Brun the Robber/L'inglesina/Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight     6. De Två Systrarna / The Cruel Sister     7.  Interactive Exercises


1.   The concealed death


We shall start with a typical European ballad that has been collected in almost all the countries of the Old Continent. The oldest versions are likely to come from the Scandinavian countries. However they are the Breton versions that have influenced the ones from the south of Europe.

In the versions collected in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and The Far Øer Islands, the hero’s name is generally Oluf, Olof or Olaf.

This is a summary of the story we can find in Professor Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads1.

Oluf rode out before dawn but it seemed to him bright as day2. He rode to a hill where elves were dancing. A maid stepped out from the dance, put her arm round his neck, and asked him whither he would ride. “To talk with my true-love,” “But first,” said she, “you must dance with us”. She then went on to make him great offers if he would plight himself to her: a horse that would go to Rome and back in an hour, and a gold saddle for it; a new corselet, having which he never need fly from man; a sword such as never was used in war. Such were all her benches as if gold were laid in links, and such were all her drawbridges as the gold on his hands. “Keep your gold,” he answered; “I will go home to my true-love.” She struck him on the cheek, so that the blood spattered his coat; she struck him midshoulders, so that he fell to the ground: “Stand up, Oluf, and ride home; you shall not live more than a day.” He turned his horse, and rode home a shattered man. His mother was at the gate: “Why comest thou home so sad?” “Dear mother, take my horse; dear brother, fetch a priest.” “Say not so, Oluf; many a sick man does not die. To whom do you give your betrothed?” “Rise, my seven brothers, and ride to meet my young bride.” As the bride’s train came near the town they heard the bells going. “Why is this?” she asked, her heart already heavy with pain; “I know of no one having been sick.” They told her it was a custom there to receive a bride so. But when she entered the house, all women were weeping. “Why are these ladies weeping?” No one durst answer a word. The bride went on into the hall, and took her place on the bride-bench. “I see,” she said, “knights go and come, but I see not my lord Oluf.” The mother answered, Oluf is gone to the wood with hawk and hound. “Does he care more for hawk and hound than his young bride?” At evening they lighted the torches as if to conduct the bride to the bride-bed; but Oluf’s page, who followed the lady, revealed the truth on the way. “My lord,” he said, “lies on his bier above, and you are to give your troth to his brother.” “Never shalt thou see that day that I shall give my troth to two brothers.” She begged the ladies that she might see the dead. They opened the door; she ran to the bier, threw back the cloth, kissed the body precipitately; her heart broke in pieces; grievous was it to see.

In this Swedish version that follows, that you may hear on the website of the Swedish folk group Garmana, the story is not complete. Here Herr Olof meets a mermaid, he makes love to her, but we do not know what happens after.  

                                                                  Herr Olof

Herr Olof han sadlar sin gångare grå                   Herr Olof has saddled his good grey mare,
Så rider han sig till havsfruns gård                      And off he has ridden to the mermaid's lair.
Herr Olof han red guldsadeln flöt                       His saddle of gold floated high on the waves
Han sjunker i havsfruns sköt                              And down sank Herr Olof to the mermaid's embrace.


Välkommen välkommen herr Olof till mig         “O welcome, Herr Olof, and welcome to me!
I femton år har jag väntat på dig                         Full fifteen years I have waited for thee.
Var är du födder och var är du buren                  Where were you born, and where you raised,
Var haver du dina hovkläder skuren                   And where were your courtly garments made?”

På konungens gård är jag födder och buren        “Twas in the king's castle I was born and raised,
Där haver jag mina hovkläder skuren                 And it's there that my courtly garments were made.
Där har jag fader och där har jag mor                  There lives my father, there lives my mother,
Där har jag syster och bror.                                 And there live my sister and brother.”

Men var har du åker och var har du äng             “But where are your fields and where are your lands,
Var står uppbäddad din bruaresäng                     And where in the world does your bridal bed stand?
Var haver du din fästemö                                    Where in the world does your true love lie,
 Med henne vill leva och dö                                With whom you will live and die?”

Där har jag åker och där har jag äng                    “There are my fields and there are my lands,

Där står uppbäddad min bruaresäng                    And there is the place where my bridal bed stands.
Där haver jag min fästemö                                  There is the place where my true love does lie,
Med henne mig lyster att leva och dö                  With whom I have sworn to live and to die.”

Men hör riddar Olof kom följ med mig in           “Come in now, Herr Olof, sit down by me here,
Och drick ur min kanna det klaraste vin             And drink from my goblet of wine so clear.
Var är du födder var är du buren                         Now where were you born, and where were you raised,
Var haver du dina hovklädder skuren                 And where were your courtly garments made?”

Här är jag födder och här är jag buren                “Here I was born, and here I was raised,
Här haver jag mina hovkläder skuren                 And here is where my courtly garments were made.
Här har jag fader och där har jag mor                  Here lives my father, and here lives my mother,
Här har jag syster och bror                                  And here are my sister and brother.”

Men var har du åker och var har du äng              “But where are your fields and where are your lands,
Var står uppbäddad din bruaresäng                     And where in the world does your bridal bed stand?
Var haver du din fästemö                                    Where in the world does your true love lie,
Med henne vill leva och dö                                 With whom you will live and die?”

Här har jag åker och här har jag äng                    “Here are my fields and here are my lands.
Här står uppbäddad min bruaresäng                    Here is the place where my bridal bed stands.
Här haver jag min fästemö                                  Here is the place where my true love does lie,
Med dig vill jag leva med dig vill jag dö              With you I will live and with you I will die.”

Translation by Alistair Cochraine

In this version it is likely that Olof drank a magic potion that stunned him and carried him to another dimension in which he was enthralled by the mermaid. Olof will not go back home anymore and his last words herald his death. According to a popular belief the mermaids were jealous and envious of life and would do anything to entice sailors with their songs. Once landed they would kill them. Ulysses3 escaped this tragic doom because he was bound to the mast but he realized that their songs were irresistible. It was the erotic call men could not resist.

In a dream also Dante meets a mermaid in Purgatorio (XIX) and realizes the danger when he sees that his male imagination is led astray by feminine sensuality. It turns to be an erotic desire no more sustained by rationality. Virgil will help him in showing him that the siren's womb is actually rotten. An allegory to demonstrate the vanity of erotic love.

Therefore men become pure instinct when facing an erotic perspective. The siren, a woman who shows her breast but not her sex, entices men to show them what she hides and in so doing she leads them astray and to death.

For Olof, meeting the mermaid, is part of an erotic dream that makes itself real just on the eve of his wedding day. Why should Olof meet the mermaid the day before his marriage? Was he afraid of losing his erotic potential tied in a marriage with a lusty and therefore possessive dame who would not leave room for other erotic adventures? However, his lusty dame is not strong enough to tie him somewhere and Olof's will is weakened by his own lust. Therefore he falls into the trap and sinks into the mermaid's embrace. He is punished because he does not acknowledge his faults.

In other Scandinavian versions the corrupting woman is a fairy, the elf-king's daughter.

In this good translation from another Swedish version the story is more complete and similar to Professor Child’s summary.

The Elf King’s Daughter

Sir Olaf rides from house and hall

Till late, his wedding guests to call.


There, elves are dancing on the green,

Elf King's daughter amidst them is seen.


Welcome Sir Olaf, your hand I'll take,

Come dance and join us for my sake.”


I shall not dance nor dance I may,

Tomorrow will be my wedding day!”


Mark well, Sir Olaf, and dance with me,

Two golden spurs I'll give to thee!


A silken sark snow white and fine,

My mother bleached it by moonshine.”


I shall not dance nor dance I may

Tomorrow will be my wedding day!”


Mark well, Sir Olaf, and dance with me,

A mountain of gold I'll give to thee!”


To a mountain of gold I'll not say nay,

But I shall not dance nor dance I may.”


If you refuse to dance with me

Illness and pest shall follow thee.”


Over his heart she struck amain,

Never he felt such bitter pain.


Pale-faced he sat on his horse so tame:

Go back"”, she cried, “to your worthy dame.”


And when at last he reached his gate

Trembling his mother stood to wait.


My son, my son, oh tell me true

Why is your face of deathlike hue?”


Of deathlike hue it needs must be

For Elf King's daughter did I see.”


My son so dear, and loved so well,

What to your bride I needs must tell?”


Tell her that to the woods I'm bound

To exercise my horse and hound.”


At early dawn, at break of day,

Came bride and guests in their wedding array.


They feasted and drank of wine and beer.

Where is Sir Olaf, my bridegroom dear?”


Sir Olaf to the woods is bound

To exercise his horse and hound!”


The bride she lifted the cloth so red

There lay Sir Olaf,  and he was dead.


In other Swedish versions4 we have these lines that mark the idea of the concealed death, that is, the main feature of all versions from the south of Europe.


The bride unto her maid spoke so:

What does it mean that the bells thus go?”


It's the custom of this our isle, they reply,

That each young swain ringeth home his bride.


The truth to you to tell I fear,

Sir Olaf is dead, and he's laid in his bier”.


And on the morrow, e'er light was the day

Around Sir Olaf's house three ghosts did stray.


It was Sir Olaf and his young bride

And also his mother, of sorrow she died.

The Danish versions known as Elverskud have influenced German Literature. Thanks to the poet Johann Gottfried von Herder, there is a German translation: Erlkönigs Tochter (The Elf-King’s Daughter). Goethe used it to write a “romantic” ballad and Schubert wrote a musical composition that bears the same name5.

In Great Britain the collected versions are generally titled Clerk Colvill (Child 42). The British versions are a bit confused and without the knowledge of the Scandinavian variants it would be hard to understand the real meaning.

Clerk Colvill

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(Giordano Dall'Armellina)


Clerk Colvill and his lusty dame

Were walking in the garden green,

The belt around her stately waist

Cost Clerk Colvill pounds fifteen.


Oh promise me now, Clerk Colvill,

Or it will cost you muckle strife,

Ride never by the wells of Slane,

If you would live and brook your life.”


Speak no more, my lusty dame,

Speak no more of that to me;

Did I ever see a fair woman

But I would sin with my body?”


He’s taken leave of his gay lady,

Not minding what his lady said,

And he rode by the wells of Slane

Where washing was a bonny maid.


Wash on my bonny maid,

That wash so clean your sark of silk;”

It’s all for you, gentle knight,

My skin is whiter than the milk.”


He’s taken her by the milk-white hand,

And likewise by the grass-green sleeve,

And laid her down upon the green,

Nor of his lady speered he leave.


Then loud cried Clerk Colvill,

Oh my head it pains me sair;”

Then take” the maiden said,

And from my sark you’ll cut a gare.”


Then she gave him a little bane-knife,

And from her sark he cut a share;

She’s tied it round his whey-white face,

But ay his head ached mair.


Then louder cried Clerk Colvill:

Oh sairer aches my head.”

And sairer, ever will,

Till you be dead.”


Out then he drew his shining blade

Thinking to stick her where she stood,

But she was vanished to a fish

And swam far off, a fair mermaid.


Oh mother, braid my hair,

My lusty lady, make my bed.

Oh brother, take my sword and spear

For I have seen the false mermaid.”

(Adapted from a version in Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English Speaking World, music by Giordano Dall'Armellina)

Clerk Colvill buys an expensive belt for his bride-to-be as tithe for the future marriage. We can suppose that her dowry was quite interesting and the marriage arranged consequently. She knows he has a lover and wants him to promise he will not go to the wells of Slane where his lover resides. The man is resentful after her request not to go there, and responds rudely as one who knows that she has unmasked his intention. The well, being a cut in the mother earth where water springs out, represents the erotic energy of life where Clerk Colvill is enticed. Indeed he cannot resist the call of erotic love, seen here as something magical that gives addiction, and rushes to the wells of Slane to meet his lover. She is washing a shirt for him and shows him, as erotic call, her milk-white skin6. Then we find the typical sentence we meet in other European ballads, revealing that they will make love: he takes her by her milk-white hand. As we know from the Scandinavian versions, he tells her he is going to marry another woman and she revenges by means of a bane-knife. The poison causes a more terrible head-ache and when he realizes he is doomed, tries to kill her with his blade but as in Dante's dream the mermaid vanishes and shows the perverted side of erotic love. She turns into an elusive fish and swims off.

In the British variants the death is not concealed thus marking an important difference with the ballads of the rest of Europe. The dying man asks to have his bed made, a request we find in many European ballads. He also tells his brother to take his sword and spear that will be buried with him in his grave as the ancestral custom was for noble knights.

The ballad wants us to believe that his death is due to a supernatural being who enthralled him. So the mermaid, or the daughter of the kings of elves, becomes a fatal woman men cannot resist.

More realistically today we would just say that his lover did not accept to be forsaken by a man who had decided to marry another woman, and killed him out of rage.

Professor Child also reports the summary of a version from Brittany that is likely to be the link between the Scandinavian variants and the ones collected in the south of Europe.

The count Nann and his wife were married at the respective ages of thirteen and twelve. The next year a son was born. The young husband asked the countess if she had a fancy for anything. She said that she should like a bit of game, and he took his lance and went to the wood. At the entrance of the wood he met a fairy (a dwarf in other versions). The fairy said that she had long been looking for him. “Now that I have met you, you must marry me.” “Marry you? Not I. I am married already.” “Choose either to die in three days or to lie sick in bed seven (three in other versions) years” and then die. He would rather die in three days, for his wife is very young, and would suffer greatly. On reaching home the young man called to his mother to make his bed; he should never get up again. He recounted his meeting with the fairy, and begged that his wife might not be informed of his death.

The countess asked: “What has happened to my husband that he doesn’t come home to see me?” She was told that he had gone to the wood to get her something. “Why were the men-servants weeping?” The best horse had been drowned in bathing him. She said they were not to weep; others should be brought. “Why were the maids weeping?” Linen had been lost in washing. They must not weep the loss would be supplied. “Why are the priests chanting (or the bells tolling)?” A poor person whom they had lodged had died in the night. “What dress should she wear for her churching – red or blue?” The custom had come in of wearing black.

On arriving at the church she saw that the earth had been disturbed; why was this? “I can no longer conceal it”, said her mother-in-law: “Your husband is dead.” “Take my keys, take care of my son; I will stay with his father.”

Count Nann refuses to become the fairy’s lover, still his fate will not be different. The concealed death here becomes more evident and will greatly influence the variants collected in the south of Europe.

Let us see now versions in Langue d’Oc, French, Piedmontese, and Spanish. 

Comte Arnau

(Earl Arnau)


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(Giordano Dall'Armellina, Alessandro Panella)


Character: Earl Arnau, Arnau’s mother, Arnau’s bride

Setting:     Piedmont (Italy), Arnau’s home, the church of the village.


Lo comte Arnau, lo chivalier,                   Earl Arnau, the knight

dins lo Piemont va batalhièr.                    Joins in a war in Piedmont.

«Comte Arnau, ara te’n vas;                     “Earl Arnau, now you are going;

digas-nos quora tornaràs.»                        Tell us when you come back.”


«Entà Sant Joan ieu tornarai                     “I’ll come back before Saint John’s day.

e mort o viu aicì serai.                              Either dead or alive I will be here.

Ma femna deu entà Sant Joan                   My wife, just before Saint John’s day,

me far lo pair d’un bel enfant.»                 Will make me father of a beautiful son.”


Mas la Sant Joan ven d’arribar.                  But Saint John’s day comes,

lo Comte Arnau ven a mancar.                  Earl Arnau is missing.

Sa mair, del mai naut de l’ostal,                 His mother sees him coming on horseback

lo vei venir sus son caval.                          From the top of the house.


«Mair, fasètz far viste lo lèit                     “Mother have my bed made,

que longtemps non i dormirai.                   I won’t sleep long.

Fasètz-lo naut, fasètz-lo bas,                    Make it high or make it low,

que ma femna n’entende pas.»                  Provided that my wife doesn’t hear.”


«Comte Arnau, a qué vos pensatz,           “Earl Arnau, what are you thinking of,

qu’un bel enfant vos quitariàtz?»              That you will leave your beautiful son?”

«Ni per un enfant ni per dus,                    “Neither for one son, nor for two,

mair, non ressuscitarai plus.»                    Mother, I won’t raise from the dead.”


«Mair que es aquel bruch dins l’ostal?     “Mother what’s that noise in the house?

Sembla las orasons d’Arnau.»                   It sounds as if they were Arnau’s prayers.”

«La femna que ven d’enfantar                 “Woman who has just given birth to a child

orasons non deu escotar.»                        Must not listen to prayers.”


«Mair, per la fèsta de deman                   “Mother, for tomorrow’s feast,

quina rauba me botaràn?»                       What will they wear me with?”

«La femna que ven d’enfantar               “Woman who has just given birth to a child,

la rauba negra deu portar!»                      Must wear a black dress!”


«Mair, porque tant de pregadors?           “Mother, why so many people praying?

Qué dison dins las orasons?»                  What do they say in the prayers?”

«Dison: la que ven d’enfantar               “They say: who has given birth to a child

a la misseta deu anar.»                           Must go to the Mass.”


A la misseta ela se’n va,                         She goes to the Mass,

vei lo Comt Arnau enterrat:                   Sees Earl Arnau buried:

«Vaqui la clau de mon cinton,               “Here is the key of my belt7,

Tòrnarai plus a la maison.                      I won’t come back home anymore.


Terra santa, tel cal obrir,                       Holy land, you must open up,

Voli parlar a mon marit.                         I want to talk to my husband.

Terra santa, tel cal barrar,                     Holy land, you must close,

Amb Arnau voli demorar.»                    With Arnau I want to remain.”

(Lyrics and music from the album by Rosina and Martina de Peira Cançons de femnas, Edicions Revolum, Tolosa)

We realize immediately that death does not occur because of an evil mermaid or fairy. The war is responsible for the tragedy. The tale becomes more realistic and universal and stresses on the dramatisation by focusing more on the concealed death.

Arnau joins in a war, he is wounded and comes back at the beginning of summer (on Saint John’s day8). He asks to have his bed made and after his last conversation with his mother he announces his death. Once the magical elements have been disregarded and substituted by a more realistic view of life, the second part can continue by adapting the version from Brittany to the story. The most important difference is that the hero’s wife has just given birth to a child. That makes the story more dramatic and the concealed death creates a sympathetic suspense in the audience until it is revealed. This is a common trait in most European variants. Another curiosity found in most versions concerns the dress she will have to wear while going to church: it must be black! It is basically a theatrical device. The listeners of ballads used to visualize the story with their third eye and could “see” the mother in law who actually spoke to them. It was as if she said: “You and I know why I have answered so.” The story is then similar to a Greek tragedy, like Oedipus King. We know the truth, but the characters do not; the truth will be revealed only in the topic and dramatic moment of the tragedy. In both cases the concealed truth gives vent to pietas as sympathetic attention toward the fragile and mortal. It is in this way that the tragedy of Arnau's wife, amplified by the birth of a child, becomes a projection of something already lived, or hypothetically lived, in which we all recognize ourselves. With all the other listeners we become a sort of silent Greek chorus expressing a feeling of pietas.

The following French version focuses even more on the dramatisation. The wife asks more questions and her mother-in-law is compelled to find piteous answers to conceal the truth.

Le Roi Renaud

(King Renaud)



Characters: King Renaud, Renaud’s mother, Renaud’s wife, three shepherds.

Setting:      The battlement, home, the road to the church, the church.


Le roi Renaud de guerre revint,         King Renaud comes back from the war,

Portant ses tripes dans ses mains.      Holding his guts in his hands.

Sa mère était sur le créneau,              His mother who was on the battlement,

Qui vit venir son fils Renaud.            Saw her son Renaud come.


«Renaud, Renaud, réjouis-toi!            “Renaud, Renaud, cheer you up!

Ta femme est accouchée d’un roi!»    Your wife has given birth to a king!”

«Ni de la femme, ni du fils,                “Neither for my wife, nor for my son,

Je ne saurais me réjouir.                     May I cheer up.


Allez, ma mère, allez devant,              Go, my mother, hurry up.

Faites-moi faire un beau lit blanc;       Have a fine white bed set ready for me;

Guère de temps n’y resterai:                I have short time to remain here:

A la minuit trépasserai.                       By midnight I shall pass away.


Mais faites-le faire ici-bas,                   But have it done it down here

Que l’accouchée n’entende pas!»         So my wife in childbirth will not hear!”

Et quand ce vint sur la minuit,            And when midnight came,

Le roi Renaud rendit l’esprit.                King Renaud gave back his soul.


Il ne fut pas le matin jour,                        Morning had not broken yet,

Que les valets pleuraient très tôt                And soon the valets were all weeping.

Il ne fut temps de déjeuner,                        And even before breakfast,

Que les servants ont pleuré.                       All the maidservants have wept.


«Dites-moi, mère, m’amie                        “Tell me my mother dear,

Que pleurent nos valets ici?»                     What are our valets weeping for?”

«Ma fille, en baignant nos chevaux,          “My daughter, while washing our horses,

ont laissé noyer le plus beau.»                   They let the finest drown.”


«Et pourquoi, mère, m’amie                     “And why, mother dear,

Pour un cheval pleurer ainsi?                    Such a weeping for a horse?

Quand le roi Renaud reviendra,                When King Renaud comes back,

Plus beaux chevaux amènera.»                 He will bring finer horses.”


«Ah! Dites-moi, mère, m’amie,            “Ah! Tell me, my mother dear,

Qu’est-ce que j’entends cogner ici?»    What are those beatings I hear?”

«Ma fille, ce sont les charpentiers,       “My daughter, it’s the carpenters

Qui raccommodent le plancher.»          Repairing the floor.”


«Ah! Dites-moi, mère, m’amie,            “Ah! Tell me, mother dear

Qu’est ce que j’entends sonner ici?»    What do I hear ringing here?”

«Ma fille, c’est la procession,               “My daughter, it is the procession,

Qui sort pour les rogations.»                Going out for the rogations.”


«Ah! Dites-moi, mère, m’amie,            “Ah! Tell me, mother dear,

Que chantent les prêtres ici?»              What are the priests singing here?”

«Ma fille, c’est la procession,              “My daughter, it is the procession,

Qui fait le tour de la maison.»              Turning round the house.”


Or, quand se fut pour relever,             And when she could get up,

A la messe elle voulut aller.                 She wanted to go to the Mass.

Et quand ce fut passé huit jours,         And when eight days had passed,

Elle voulut faire ses atours.                 She wanted to dress up to the nines.


«Ah! Dites-moi, mère m’amie,              “Ah! Tell me mother dear,

Quel habit prendrai-je aujourd’hui?»     Which dress shall I wear today?”

«Prenez le vert, prenez le gris,              “Wear the green, wear the grey,

Prenez le noir pour mieux choisir.»       Wear the black to choose best.”


«Ah! Dites-moi, mère m’amie,             “Ah! Tell me mother dear,

Ce que ce noir là signifie?»                   What does this black mean?”

«Femme qui relève d’enfant,                “To a woman who has given birth to a child,

Le noir lui est bien plus séant.»            Black is the most convenient.”


Mais, quand elle fut parmi les champs,   But when they were amidst the fields

Trois pastoureaux allaient disant:            Three shepherds were saying:

«Voilà la femme de ce seigneur               “Look at the wife of that lord9

Que l’on enterra l’autre jour!»                  Who was buried the other day!”


«Ah! Dites-moi, mère m’amie,             “Ah! Tell me mother dear,

Que disent ces pastoureaux-ci?»          What are those shepherds saying?”

«Ils disent d’avancer le pas,                 “They say to hurry up,

Ou que la messe n’aura pas.»              Otherwise we’ll miss the Mass.”


Quand elle fut dans l’église entrée,     When she stepped inside the church

Le cierge on a lui présenté;                 She was given a church candle.

Aperçut, en s’agenouillant,                 She realized, while kneeling,

La terre fraîche sous son banc.           That the earth was fresh under her bench.


«Ah! Dites-moi, mère m’amie,            “Ah, Tell me, mother dear

Pourquoi la terre est fraîche ici?»         Why is the earth fresh here?”

«Ma fille, ne puis plus le celer:            “My daughter, I cannot hide it any longer:

Renaud est mort et enterré.»               Renaud is dead and buried.”


«Renaud, Renaud, mon réconfort,      “Renaud, Renaud, my consolation,

Te voilà donc au rang des morts!        There you are among the dead!

Divin Renaud, mon réconfort,            Divine Renaud, my consolation,

Te voilà donc au rang des morts!        There you are among the dead!


Puisque le roi Renaud est mort,          Since King Renaud is dead,

Voici les clefs de mon trésor,             Here are the keys to my treasure.

Prenez mes bagues et mes joyaux,      Take my rings and my jewels,

Nourrissez bien le fils Renaud!           Feed well Renaud’s son!


Terre ouvre-toi! Terre, fends-toi!        Earth, open up! Earth, burst open!

Que j’aille avec Renaud mon roi!»       Let me join Renaud, my king!”

Terre s’ouvrit, terre fendit,                  Earth opened up, earth burst open,

Et fut la belle engloutie.                     And the beauty was swallowed.

(Lyrics and music from Les Chansons de France, Editions Slaktine, 1907, new edition in 1980)

The French text is longer with more details. The son comes back holding his guts while his mother is watching him from the battlement. The description of this awful scene is breathtaking but it must have been common in the times the ballad was sung. Then, after his last conversation with his mother, Renaud dies at midnight.

In this version there are even more questions asked by a wife who becomes more and more dubious. Her mother-in-law, although torn by grief, tries to find plausible answers to conceal the truth. This crescendo amplifies the feeling of pietas in the audience that reaches its climax with the final suicide that completes the tragedy. It is obvious that the earth never opened, but popular fancy synthesized the story and “saw” the couple reunited in the grave immediately in a romantic embrace.

Version from Piedmont (Italy)

Re Gilardin (Nigra 21)10

(King Gilardin)


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Characters: King Gilardin, the mother, the bride, an altarboy.

Setting:       The war, home, the church.


Re Gilardin, lü ’l va a la guera,              King Gilardin goes to war,

lü ’l va la guera a tirar di spada,             He goes to war, sword in hand,

lü ’l va la guera a tirar di spada.             He goes to war, sword in hand.


O quand ’l’è stai mità la strada,             When he was half way down the road

Re Gilardin ’l’è restai ferito.                   King Gilardin was wounded.

Re Gilardin ritorna indietro,                   King Gilardin returns home

dalla sua mamma vò ’ndà a morire.        He wants to die at his mother’s.


O tun tun tun, pica a la porta:                Oh, knock, knock, knock at the door:

«O mamma mia che mi son morto.»       “Oh, my mother, I am dead.”

«O pica pian caro ’l mio figlio                “Knock softer, my dear son,

che la to dona ’l g’à ’n picul fante.»        For your wife has given birth to a tiny baby.”


«O madona, la mia madona,                  “Oh, my mother–in-law,

cosa vol dire ch’i sonan tanto?»              Why do they ring the bells so much?”

«O nuretta, la mia nuretta,                    “Oh, my daughter-in-law,

i g’fan ’legria al tuo fante.»                     They are celebrating your child.”


«O madona, la mia madona,                   “Oh, my mother–in-law,

cosa vol dire ch’i cantan tanto?»             Why are they singing so much?

«O nuretta, la mia nuretta,                     “Oh, my daughter-in-law,

i g’fan ’legria ai soldati.»                          They are celebrating the soldiers.”


«O madona, la mia madona,                   “Oh, my mother–in-law,

disem che moda ho da vestirmi.»            Tell me how I should get dressed”

«Vestiti di rosso, vestiti di nero,              “Wear red, wear black,

ma le brunette stanno più bene.»             But to the brunettes it fits better.”


O quand l’è stai ’nt l’üs de la chiesa        When she arrived at the door of the church

d’un cirighello si l’à incontrato:               She met an altarboy:

«Bundì bongiur an vui vedovella.»          “Good day to you, recent widow”


«O no no no che non son vedovella,       “Oh no, no, no, I am not a recent widow,

l fante in cüna                                   My child is in the cradle

e ’l marito in guerra.»                               And my husband at war”

«O si si si che voi sei vedovella,              “Oh yes, yes, yes, you are a recent widow,

vostro marì l’è tre dì che ’l fa tera.»          Your husband has been three days in the ground.


«O tera o tera apriti ’n quatro,                “Oh earth, earth split up in four parts,

volio vedere il mio cuor reale.»               I want to see my royal heart.”

«La tua boca la sa di rose                        “Your mouth tastes of roses,

nvece la mia la sa di tera.»                     Whereas mine tastes of earth.”

Note how in this Piedmontese version things happen quickly. King Gilardin goes to war and after three stanzas only, he is wounded and dying at his mother’s. King Gilardin is wounded half way down the road. This sentence is a typical stock phrase, or revealing code, we find in other European contexts. In some Spanish versions it becomes en el medio del camino. This stock phrase meant that something important would change the hero’s life forever. In this case it is death, but in other cases the solution of a difficult problem.

The similarities of this version with the previous ones are striking, still the end is different. She does not throw herself into the grave but listens to her dead husband who magically tells her that her devoted words of love, symbolized by roses, will not bring him back to life. Therefore he asks her not to sacrifice her life. This version was collected from the mouth of a woman who probably could not stand that terrible end. Love is a very strong feeling, but let us not exaggerate! Actually in other versions from Piedmont we have the same end as in the French ones.

It is not surprising that Gilardin talks to his wife after death. We find the same situation in other European ballads. For example in the British The Unquiet Grave.

King Gilardin is one of those ballads that was turned into a play by country-folks. They were generally acted in stables. This demonstrates the thread that links epic-lyric songs to the theatre.   

In Canti popolari del Piemonte, by Costantino Nigra11 after his comment to the ballad, he added a tale that he had collected from the mouth of a woman in the country of Piedmont. The tale has many common traits with the Scandinavian and Breton versions of the ballad.

The Fairy’s Gift

Once upon a time there was a hunter who used to hunt in the mountains. Once in the wood, he saw a very beautiful woman in rich attire. The woman was a fairy and enticed the hunter. Soon after, she asked him to marry her. The hunter refused alleging that he was already married and would not leave his young bride. To these words the fairy gave him a locked box telling him that inside there was a beautiful gift for his bride. She recommended that he should give the box to her and not to open it before. The hunter left with the box but his curiosity was so strong as to push him to see what was inside. He opened it and he found a marvellous belt. It had thousand colours, woven with gold and silver. To see it even better, he tied it to a tree. Suddenly the belt caught fire and the tree was struck by lightning. The hunter, touched by the lightning, dragged himself home, went to bed and died.   

Version from Spain

La Muerte Ocultada

(The Concealed Death)


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(Giordano Dall'Armellina)


Charaters: Don Bosco, Don Bosco’s mother, Don Bosco’s wife.

Setting:      The wood, home, the church.


Don Bosco se fue de caza,             Don Bosco went hunting,

A cazar como solía.                       He went hunting as usual.

Los perros llevan cansados,           The hounds come back tired,

La caza no parecía.                        With no game.


Se volvió donde su madre,            He returned to his mother’s,

Con más pena que alegría              With more sorrow than cheer,

Y en el medio del camino              And half way down his road

mal de muerte le venía.                 He was sick with death.


«Lo que le digo mi madre,             “What I tell you, my mother,

Respóndame, madre mía,              Answer me, my mother,

no se lo diga a mi esposa,              Don’t tell my bride,

Hasta pasar año y día.»                  Till after one year and one day”


«A usté, le dijo mi suegra,            “To you I say, my mother-in-law,

Respóndame, suegra mía,              Answer me, my mother-in –law,

¿A dónde está mi Don Bosco        Where is my Don Bosco

Que él a verme no venía?»             Who has not come to see me?”


«Tu Don Bosco no está aquí,         “Your Don Bosco is not here,

Fue a una santa romería,                He has gone on a pilgrimage,

Y me dijo que no vuelve,              And he told me he would not return,

Hasta pasar año y día.»                  Till after one year and a day.”


«Pues hoy se cumple el año,          “Then today one year is over,

Mañana se cumple el día,             Tomorrow is then the day,

¿De los vestidos que tengo            Of all the dresses I have got,

Cuál yo mejor me pondría?»          Which is the best I could wear?”


«Ponte tu vestido negro                 “Wear the black one

Que muy bien que te estaría.»         That would fit you well.”

«Ay, malhaya la mi suegra,             “What a wicked mother-in-law,

Consejo que me daría.                    With the advice she would give me.

Estar mi Don Bosco vivo              My Don Bosco is alive

Y yo de luto vestida.»                    And I in my mourning dress.”


«Pues ponte el que tu quieras        “Then wear what you feel like,

Que a mi igual que me daría.»        For me is the same.”

Vestida iba de seda,                      She went dressed in silk,

Calzada de plata fina.                   Wearing silver-plated shoes.


Cuando iban a la iglesia              When they go to the church

La gente mucho la mira:             The people gaze her:

«La viuda de Don Bosco:            “Don Bosco’s widow:

¡Oh qué linda viudina!»              Oh, what a beautiful widow!”


«A usté le digo, mi suegra,           “To you I say, my mother-in-law,

Respóndame, suegra mía,              Answer me, my mother-in –law,

Mucho me mira la gente                The people stare at me

Y mirarme no solía.»                     And they didn’t usually.”


«Es que como eres tan guapa,      “As you are so beautiful,

Seguro les gustarías.»                   They would certainly like you.”

Cuando entraron a la iglesia,        When they stepped into the church

Una mala seña había.                  There was a bad sign.


«A usté le digo, mi suegra,           “To you I say, my mother-in-law,

Respóndame, suegra mía:              Answer me, my mother-in-law,

¿De quién son aquellas velas         Whose candles are those

Que arden en nuestra capilla?»      Burning in our chapel?”


«Las velas son de Don Bosco         “Those are Don Bosco’s,

Que en la caza se moría.»              Who died while hunting.”

«Pues quién le dio a él la muerte   “Then who gave him death

Que me quite a mi la vida.»           Can take my life as well.”

Y al otro día temprano,                 And at dawn, on the following day

Entierran la viudina.                     They bury the widow.

In the versions we have seen so far it is the beginning of the story that varies mostly. We can distinguish at least two different schemes.

In Re Gilardin, Comte Arnau and Le Roi Renaud the hero leaves to join in a war and comes back wounded and dying. In the Spanish version the influence of the Scandinavian and Breton versions is more evident. He goes hunting but instead of meeting a fairy, he meets death. 

In another version the meeting with death is accompanied by the symbols of death itself.

A cazar iba don Pedro              Don Pedro goes hunting

Por esos montes arriba;            Up to those mountains;

Caminara siete leguas               He walked seven leagues

Sin encontrar cosa viva            And he met noone,

Si no fuera cuervos negros       But black crows

Que los perros no querían.       The dogs refused to hunt.


Apéose a descansar                  He dismounted his horse to rest

Al pie de una seca encina;        At the foot of a dry oak;

Caía la nieve a copos               The snow was falling heavily

Y el agua menuda y fría.          And rain thin and cold.

Allegósele la Muerte                Death came close to him

A tenerle compañía.                To keep him company.

The symbols of death are number seven, the black crows, and the absence of life in the landscape.  

In the same version, when the dying hero goes back home to his mother, he will utter the usual sentence: «Hagame, madre, la cama», (“Mother, make my bed”). He dies at midnight as in the versions from France.


1 Vol. 1 page 375.

2 Only the elves had the power to change the intensity of light. Therefore the audience of the ballad that knew about the power of elves, realized immediately that something magical was going to happen.

3In Greek mythology, though, the sirens were half women and half birds. Only in Medieval times they were turned into creatures who were half women and half fish.

4 For an Icelandic version see Olafur Liljuròs and for a Norwegian one Olav Liljekrans on YouTube.

5 For the German text you might search Erlkönigs Tochter on the web. You might also listen to Shubert’s composition on YouTube.

6 All over Europe a white skin was a sign of beauty and nobility. Peasants, who worked in the fields, were darker and as such considered as vulgar.

7 This is her personal key to her belongings that she keeps in her belt.

8 On Saint John’s day people used to celebrate the beginning of summer (solstice) with big bonfires. Still today in many parts of Europe people continue to do it.

9 Here again the king becomes just a lord. Storytellers liked to turn common people into kings but often the truth about the identity of the characters is revealed in other stanzas.

10 Italian ballads are classified with the number given to them by Costantino Nigra, a researcher who wrote Canti popolari del Piemonte.

11 Volume I, Page 169. Einaudi Editors.