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

 

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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

 

 

2.   The return of the dying son to his mother’s because of poisoning

Il testamento dell’avvelenato / Den Lillas Testamente

(Poisoned Man’s Will)

It is likely that this ballad was first sung in Italy where we find versions in almost all the languages and dialects spoken on the peninsula.

From Italy the story arrived in all of the countries in Europe and later the United States and Canada. As usual it is very difficult to say when it was first sung, still we are sure it was before 1629. In a piece of theatre from Siena (Tuscany) dating back to that year - L’Incatenatura del Bianchino - there is a speech that quotes the ballad.

Ormai, signori,                                       And now, gentlemen,

dette tante e tante,                                 After telling many stories,

la mia voce è straccata:                          My voice is tired:

io vo’ finir con questa d’un amante        I’ll finish off with this about a lover

tradito dall’amata                                   Betrayed by his beloved.

Oh che l’è sì garbata                              Oh, it is so kind

a cantarla in ischiera:                             To sing it all together:

Dov’andastù, jersera, “                         Where did you go last night,

figliuol mio ricco, savio e gentil?            My rich, wise and gentle son?

Dov’andatù jersera?”                             Where did you go last night?”

 

 

Il Testamento dell'Avvelenato

(Como, Italy)

 

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(Giordano Dall'Armellina, Silvia Bozzeda, Maurizio Dehò)

 

Characters: The dying son, his mother

Setting: Home.

 

«Dove si sta jersira                              “Where did you go last night,

figliuol mio caro, fiorito e gentil?         My dear, young, and gentle son?

Dove si sta jersira?»                             Where did you go last night?”

«Son sta dalla mia dama:                     “I was at my lady’s:

signora mama, mio core sta mal!          Madam mother, I am sick at heart!

Son sta dalla mia dama,                       I was at my lady’s,

ohimè! Ch’io moro, ohimè!»                Alas, I’m dying, alas!”

 

«Cossa v’halla de cena                        What did she give you for supper

figliuol mio caro, fiorito e gentil?        My dear, young, and gentle son?

Cossa v’halla de cena? »                      What did she give you for supper?”

«On inguilletta arrosto:                       “A roasted eel:

signora mama, mio core sta mal!         Madam mother, I am sick at heart!

On inguilletta arrosto,                         A roasted eel,

ohimè! Ch’io moro ohimè!»                 Alas, I’m dying, alas!”

 

«L’avi mangiada tüta?»                       “Did you eat it all?”

«Non n’ho mangia che mezza.»          “Only half of it.”

 

«Cossa avi fa dell’altra mezza?»          “What did you do with the other half?”

«L’ho dada alla cagnola.»                    “I gave it to my dog.”

 

«Cossa avi fa della cagnola?»               “What did you do with the dog?

«L’he morta dre la strada!»                   “She died along the road!”

 

«La v’ha giüst da ’l veleno.»                She just gave you some poison.”

«Mande a ciamà ’l dottore.»                “Send for a doctor.”

 

«Perché vorî ciamà ’l dôttôre?»                Why do you want to call for a doctor?”

«Per farmi visitare.»                               “I want him to see me.”

 

«Mandè a ciamà ’l cürato.»                     “ Send for the priest.”

«Perché vorì ciamà ’l cürato?»                  “Why do you want to call for the priest?”

 

«Per farmi confessare.»                           “I want to confess.”

«Mandè a ciamà ’l notaro.» “                   Send for the notary.”

 

«Perché vorî ciamà ’l notaro?»                  Why do you want to call for the notary?”

«Per fare testamento.»                            “ To make my will.”

 

«Cossa lassè alla vostra mama?»         “What will you leave to your mother?

«Ghe lasso ’l mio palasso.»                 “I'll leave her my palace.”

 

«Cossa lassè ali vostri fratelli?»            “What will you leave to your brothers?”

«La carrozza coi cavalli.»                     “The carriage with horses.”

 

«Cossa lassè alle vostre sorelle?»         “What will you leave to your sisters?”

«La dote per maritarle.»                       “The dowry to marry them.”

 

«Cossa lassè alli vostri servi?»                  “What will you leave to your servants?

«La strada d’andà a messa.»                    “The road to go to Mass.”

 

«Cossa lassè per la vostra tomba?»             “What will you leave for your grave?”

«Centocinquanta messe.»                           “One hundred and fifty Masses.”

 

«Cossa lassè alla vostra dama?»           “What will you leave to your lady?”

«La forca da impiccarla.»                      “The gallows to hang her.”

(This version was collected on Como Lake in 1867 by Bolza)

In all European and American versions of this ballad there is no introduction by a narrator. We are plunged into the story with a mother's pressing questions. She must have guessed that something had gone wrong as she asks “Where did you go last night?” in a dramatic way. In the Italian versions the reason for the son's poisoning seems mysterious. In the piece of theatre from Siena we are told that he has been betrayed by his lover, but we do not know why. It is likely that the singers that have handed down the story, lost the link with older tales: for them the son has been poisoned by his lady, and that's it, no further investigation.

It is then our task to try to find an explanation. We can do it, perhaps, by comparing this ballad to the previous one (Olof/Re Gilardin). We can suppose that both had their roots in an older matrix from which an outstanding number of variants developed that lost contact with the original story. Our investigation should then be based on these questions: what remains in common to all variants and what was the original story about?

Every version is more or less close to the matrix and it is obvious that the farther it is away, the more difficult it is to give an interpretation because you lose the link with the primeval meaning. The story in The Concealed Death is almost certainly older than the ones about the Poisoned Man's Will. Consequently we are inclined to sustain that the former is the matrix for the development of the latter.

As for the reported Italian version we can suppose that the hero went hunting with his hound. He has to show his manhood by providing food in spite of his being rich, as was the habit in archaic societies12.

As Don Bosco, in the Spanish version of The Concealed Death, our hero fails and meets his lady who offers him poisoned eels. The lady is actually death, but his feeling of frustration for his failure makes him see in the lady/death the face of his beloved. In a sort of transfer she humiliates and punishes him in his manhood by offering him his own sex, well represented by an eel. When a man becomes an adult he is supposed to get married and beget many children as sign of his manhood. But if he fails the passage from childhood to manhood his penis is not a guarantee for a future family and the woman refuses him. Death is like an allegorical refusal. Eating his penis he loses his strength, and as a consequence, his life.

His hound is also guilty for not helping him in his hunt so it must die too sharing the same eel. At the end of the will, when his mother asks him what he will leave to his lady, he casts a curse on her wishing for her the gallows. But death cannot die.... However, it is a curse for his beloved too, because it is for her that he underwent that trial to prove his manhood.

In the evolution of the ballad we have lost the links with the deepest roots and what remains today is a story of a presumed betrayal. In any case the killer is always a woman, a derivation of the witch-death of ancient times.

As for the structure of the ballad we should focus our attention on the pressing repetitions that makes the narration more dramatic. On the other hand, though, repetitions help us memorize the lyrics. One of the reasons for the enormous success of this story should be searched in the easiness of memorizing it. Another archaic element in this version is the expression Ohimè ch’io muoio, ohimè, a lamentation that reminds us of the choruses of the tragedies in Greek theatre.

L’avvelenato

                         (The Poisoned Man)

 

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(La Macina)

We can compare the previous version, both for the lyrics and for the melody, to this one collected in Ancona (centre of Italy).

Characters: Mother and son.

Setting: Home.

 

«Dove sei stato ier’ sera,                             “Where did you go last night,

mio caro fijo dal sangue gentil?                    My dear, gentle blooded son?

 

Dove sei stato ier’ sera,                              “Where did you go last night

gentile mio cavalier?»                                 “My gentle knight?”

 

«So’ stato dalla dama,                                  “I was at my lady's

mia cara mamma il mio cor’ mi sta mal’.      My dear mother, I'm sick at heart.

 

So’ stato dalla dama,                                    I was at my lady's,

ahimé, io moio, aihmé.»                               Alas, I am dying, alas.”

 

«Cosa t’ha dato da cena,                              What did she give you for supper?”

«Un’anguilletta arosto »                               “A roasted eel.”

 

«E ddove la prendesti,»                               “And where did you catch it?”

«Nella frattà dell’orto.»                                “In the hedge of the orchard.”

 

«E ddove la cocesti?»                                  “And where did you cook it?”

«Nella gratà d’argento.»                              “On the silver grill.”

 

«Qual parte fu la tua?”                                “What did you eat of it?”

«La testa e la coda»                                     “The head and the tail.”

 

«Qual pane ci mangiasti?»                          “What kind of bread did you eat with it?”

«Il pane bianco e nero»                              “The white and black one”

 

«Qual vino ci bevesti?»                              “What kind of wine did you drink with it?”

«Il sangue dell’anguilla.»                            “The blood of the eel.”

 

«Cosa lasci alla serva?»                               “What do you leave to your maidservant?”

«La brocca e la spara»                                “The jar and the dishtowel.”

 

«Cosa lasci al cocchiere?»                           “What do you leave to the coachman?”

«La frusta e ’l cavallo.»                               “The whip and the horse.”

 

«Cosa lasci a tuo padre?»                           “What do you leave to your father?”

«Le chiavi del tesoro.»                               “The keys of my treasure.”

 

«Cosa lasci a tua madre?»                          “What do you leave to your mother?”

«Le lacrime e ’l dolore.»                            “Tears and sorrow.”

 

«Cosa lasci allà dama»                               “What do you leave to your lady?”

«La forca pe’ ’mpiccalla»                           “The gallows to hang her.”

(This version can be found in the album Marinaio che vai per acqua and is interpreted by the folk group La Macina. Original version collected by Gastone Pietrucci and Giorgio Cellinese in 1984 at Ancona from the voice of a woman. Recording authorized by Gastone Pietrucci)

In this version from Ancona, in which the melody is typical of the centre of Italy, we find the father in the last will. It is not usual in European versions, although we can find it in more recent variants. In older versions the father is absent. The father is always absent in all versions of The Concealed Death.

The return of the dying hero to his mother can be seen as the return to the Mother Earth who will welcome her son back to her womb. In the collective mind a paternal figure would have disturbed the archetypical vision of the consoling hug of the Great Mother.

Finally in this variant we do not see the hound. It is the proof that each version evolves on its own in the handing down of the lyrics.

Lord Randal

(Child 12)

 

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(Giordano Dall'Armellina, Maurizio Dehò, Gianpietro Marazza)

Francis Child in his five volumes, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, proposes quite a few versions of this British ballad and he chooses the title Lord Randal. Actually the name changes in other variants as well as in the Italian ones when the hero has a name.

 

Charaters: Lord Randal, his mother, a fairy.

Setting: The sacred wood, home.

 

Oh where ha you been, Lord Randal, my son?

And where ha you been, my handsome young man?”

I ha been at the greenwood, mother, mak my bed soon13.

For I’m wearied wi’ hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

 

An’ wha met you there, Lord Randal, my son?

An’ wha met you there, my handsome young man?”

Oh I met wi’ my true-love, mother, mak my bed soon,

For I’m wearied wi’ hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

 

And what did she give you, Lord Randal, my son?

And what did she give you, my handsome young man?”

Eels fried in a pan, mother, mak my bed soon,

For I’m wearied wi’ hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

 

And wha gat your leavings, Lord Randal, my son?

And wha gat your leavings, my handsome young man?”

My hawks and my hounds, mother, mak my bed soon,

For I’m wearied wi’ hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

 

An’ what becam of them, Lord Randal, my son?

An’ what becam of them, my handsome young man?”

They stretched their legs out and died14, mother, mak my bed soon,

For I’m wearied wi’ hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

 

Oh, I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son!

Oh, I fear you are poisoned, my handsome young man!”

Oh yes I am poisoned, mother, mak my bed soon,

For I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie doon.”

 

What d’ye leave to your mother, Lord Randal, my son?

What d’ye leave to your mother, my handsome young man?”

For and twenty milk kye, mother, mak my bed soon,

For I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie doon.”

 

What d’ye leave to your sister, Lord Randal, my son?

What d’ye leave to your sister, my handsome young man?”

My gold and my silver, mother, mak my bed soon,

For I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie doon.”

 

What d’ye leave to your brother, Lord Randal, my son?

What d’ye leave to your brother, my handsome young man?”

My houses and my lands, mother, mak my bed soon,

For I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie doon.”

 

What d’ye leave to your true-love, Lord Randal, my son?

What d’ye leave to your true-love, my handsome young man?”

I leave her hell and fire, mother, mak my bed soon,

For I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie doon.”

In this Scottish version, instead of death, we can suppose that his true-love was actually a fairy. It is likely that both the Italian versions and the Scandinavian ones regarding Prince Olof are somehow interwoven, combining the theme of the dying hero who comes back from hunting with the testament of the poisoned one. The contamination between one ballad and another was quite common and in this specific version of Lord Randal we can sustain this hypothesis. If we read Lord Randal's answer to the first question we find the sentence Mother mak’ my bed soon that is typical of many versions of The Concealed Death. Then we have the word greenwood, which is not just a common forest, but a sacred one both for the people of Scandinavia and for the Celts. It was the thickest part of the forest where they believed there was the entrance to the world of the dead and to Fairyland. That entrance could be identified with a hollow trunk, a hole in the ground, a well and was defended and protected by fairies and elves. On Halloween night the spirits of the dead used to come out of the greenwood to pay a visit to the living ones. The people were afraid of going to the greenwood15, and if they could, they avoided it. In any case if they ventured to pass by it, they would not speak in a loud voice so as not to disturb the spirits of the dead, they would not damage nature and above all, they would not hunt.

Lord Randal challenges this taboo by hunting there, but cannot catch anything. Suddenly a girl appears: she looks like his true-love and has got a pan with fried eels. The story sounds absurd: what is she doing in the greenwood with a pan? How could she know he would hunt in that part of the forest? We can presume that she was waiting for him as a fairy was waiting for Olof. Lord Randal, either because he was hungry or more likely because he was under her spell, accepts the food. The eels are poisoned to punish Lord Randal who dared hunt where he was not allowed. He believed he had met his true-love but actually he had met death in the cloak of a fairy. If we want to translate the tale from a psychoanalytic point of view, we can assume that the fairy, by looking like his true-love, becomes a projection of the hero's unconscious. Lord Randal failed; he did not catch any game for his true-love and has not become the adult who could look after her. On the contrary it is her who feeds him, and humiliates him by offering him the symbol of his missed manhood. Therefore Lord Randal is punished for two different reasons: he has not overcome the trial through which he would have entered the world of the adults, and he has broken a taboo: he did not respect the sacredness of the greenwood, that is, Nature and the spirits of the dead. Hounds and hawks, that in fairy tales would be his positive and resolute helpers, must die too as they are guilty for not being able to hunt.

Lord Randal and Herr Olof have these points in common:

Both Olof and Lord Randal went hunting with hawks and hounds.

Both met a fairy.

Both were killed by the fairy.

Both had their last conversation with their mother.

The ballads we have seen so far follow a common scheme from which all variants have their root.

  • A man leaves (to go hunting or to a war).

  • There is always a woman (a wife or a true-love).

  • He comes back deadly wounded.

  • He has his last conversation with his mother.

Bob Dylan took inspiration from one of the versions of Lord Randal to write A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, one of his most beautiful songs. As it often happened, an old ballad has been the source for a modern song.

Henry my son

Henry my Son is an Irish adaptation of Lord Randal.

 

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(Giordano Dall'Armellina, Silvia Bozzeda, Maurizio Dehò, Gianpietro Marazza)

 

Characters: Henry, Henry's mother.

Setting: Home.

 

«Where have you been all day,  Henry my son?         

Where have you been all day, my beloved one?»  

 

«Away in the meadow, away in the meadow.              

Make my bed I’ve a pain in my head and I want to lie down.» 

 

«And what did you have to eat?»   

«Poison beads.»        

 

«And what colour were them beads?» 

«Green an’ yellow.»                

 

«And what will you leave your mother?» 

«A woollen blanket.»                

 

«And what will you leave your children?»

«The keys of heaven.»          

 

«And what will you leave your sweetheart?»

«A rope to hang her.»   

(Version from the booklet 100 Irish Songs, Soodlum, vol. 2) 

We understand that Henry was not a lord and was not rich: he only leaves a blanket for his mother and nothing (the keys of heaven) for his children. Some traits of the old ballad remain, particularly in the last stanza that ends with a curse that is very similar to most Italian variants. Eels were probably unknown by the interpreter of this version, therefore he invented some strange poisoned green and yellow beads.

 

Großmutterschlangenköchin

(The cooking-serpent grandmother)16

 

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(Giordano Dall'Armellina, Simona Scuri, Alessandro Brasca)

In its continuous evolution the ballad has changed the characters and partly the story. However, it has maintained the same scheme.

Here one of the German variants.

 

Characters: Maria, Maria's mother, Maria's grandmother.

Place:   Home.

 

«Maria, wo bist du zur Stube gewesen?                  «Maria, where have you been for lunch?

Maria, mein einziges Kind!»                                  Maria, my only child!»

«Ich bin bei meiner Großmutter gewesen.             «I have been at my grandmother's.

Ach weh! Frau Mutter wie weh!»                          Alas! mother, alas!»

 

«Was hat sie dir dann zu essen gegeben?               «What did she give you to eat?

Maria, mein einziges Kind!»                                  Maria, my only child!»

«Sie hat mir gebackne Fischlein gegeben.              «She gave me a little baked fish.

Ach weh! Frau Mutter, wie weh!»                          Alas! mother, alas!»

 

«Wo hat sie dir dann das Fischlein gefangen?        «Where did she find the little fish for you?

Maria, mein einziges Kind!»                                   Maria, my only child!»

«Sie hat es in ihrem Krautgärtlein gefangen.         «She found it in her orchard.

Ach weh! Frau Mutter wie weh!»                          Alas! mother, alas!»

 

«Womit hat sie dann das Fischlein gefangen?       «What did she find the little fish with?

Maria mein einziges Kind!»                                   Maria, my only child!»

«Sie hat es mit Stecken und Ruten gefangen.        «She found it with sticks and canes.

Ach, weh, Frau Mutter wie weh!»                         Alas! mother, alas!»

 

«Wo ist dann das Übrige vom Fischlein hinkommen?     «Who ate the leavings of the little fish?

Maria mein einziges Kind!»                                             Maria, my only child!»

«Sie hat’s ihrem schwarzbraunen Hündlein gegeben.     «She gave them to the black and brown dog,

Ach weh, Frau Mutter wie weh!»                                    Alas! mother, alas!»

 

«Wo ist dann das schwarzbraune Hündlein            «What happened to the the black and brown dog?

hinkommen? Maria mein einziges Kind!»               Maria, my only child!»

«Es ist in tausend Stücke zersprungen.                  «It blew up in a thousand pieces.

Ach weh, Frau Mutter wie weh!»                           Alas! mother, alas!»

 

«Maria, wo soll ich dein Bettlein hinmachen?        «Maria, where shall I make your bed?

Maria mein einziges Kind!»                                    Maria, my only child!»

«Du sollst mir’s auf Kirchhof machen.                   «You'll have to make it in the churchyard.27.

Ach weh, Frau Mutter wie weh!»                           Alas! mother, alas!»

(Version from: Aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn, I. Band
aus mündlicher Überlieferung in Maria's Godwi. Bremen 1802, II. B. S. 113. abgedruckt)

This version was collected by Clemens Brentano, a German romantic writer. His father's family was from Tremezzo, a village on the Lake of Como, not far from Loveno, the village where the Italian version of our The poisoned man's will was transcribed.

In German and Scandinavian versions it is a grandmother who poisons her granddaughter. Apparently it is quite awkward, yet if we analyse the story from a psychoanalytic point of view and we base our results on the reports in real life, we might state that the ogre is often in the family itself.

In his survey in 1887 about homicides in the family environment, Cesare Lombroso referred of a grandmother who said these words after killing her granddaughter: “Half an hour before killing her, I hadn't even thought about it.” This is just to state that the ogre is inside everyone and is ready to kill when an uncontrollable and long time repressed impulse emerges from the unconscious. It is the dark side of everyone. The aim of the ballad is not the one of explaining the homicide, it just shows the deed. It is our task to dig into the story to find out a truth that sometimes is too appalling to be accepted with a light heart.

Finally let us see a Swedish version.

Den Lillas Testamente

 

 

l.

Hvar har du va't så länge,                      “Where have you been so long

Lilla dotter kind?”                                    my dearest child?”

Jag har va't hos Amma, Styfmoder min,  “I have been to see my nurse, stepmother mine.”

Aj, Aj, ondt hafver jag, aj!                        Ouch, ouch, I have a terrible pain, ouch!

2.

Hvad fick du, der att åta,                       “What did you eat there

Lilla dotter kind?”                                    my dearest child?”

Stekter ål och peppar" Styfmoder min,  “Pepper-roasted eel, stepmother mine

Aj,aj,ondt hafver jag aj!”                          Ouch, ouch, I have a terrible pain, ouch!”

3

Hvad gjorde du af,'benen?”                  “What did you do with the bones?”

Kasta dem för hundarne”                     “I gave them to the dogs.”

4

Hvart kommo de hundarne?”               “What happened to the dog?”

Remna i femton stycken.”                    “It blew up in fifteen pieces.”

5

Hvad ger du då din fader? ”                  “What will you give your father?”

Godt korn i lador.”                               Loads of good barley.”

6

Hvad ger du då din moder?"                   “What will you give your mother then?”

Himmelen den gode!”                             “Heaven´s delight.”

7

Hvad ger du då din broder? ”                 “What will you give your brother?”

Vida skepp i floder.”                               Big ships out in the see.”

8

Hvad ger du då din syster?"                    “What will you give your sister then?”

Gullskrin och kistor.”                               “Gold case and chest.”

9

Hvad ger du din styfmoder?”                   “What will you give your stepmother?”

Helvetes bojor.”                                      “All of Hell's burden.”

10

Hvad'ger du då din ammna?"                  “What will you give your nurse?”

Helvetes sammal.”                                  “Hell's fire.”

Were the stepmother and the nurse accomplices to the crime? This is only a supposition. The question remains: why did the two women want to kill the young girl?

These are the commonest situations in most variants of this ballad:

There is always a conversation between a mother and her son/ daughter.

The mother asks where the son/daughter has been.

The son/daughter has been poisoned and the murderer is always a woman.

Eels and fish are usually the poisoned food.

There is a testament and the curse for the killer.

 


Notes

 

12 In archaic societies the youth had to spend some days in the wood and survive on their own to demonstrate they could enter the world of the adults. They had to undergo difficult and hard tasks and at the end they were allegorically eaten by an ogre (lat.Orcus), that is, by death. There was then the rebirth: once they had won fear and overcome the tasks they could come out of the belly of the ogre and be part of the world of the adults. Traces of this archaic world can be still found in fairy tales as archetypes.

13 This sentence is a typical stock phrase or “revealing code” that informs the mother, as well as the audience, that the hero will die at the end of the ballad. The same stock phrase was in Comte Arnau and Le Roi Renaud.

14 In the recorded version: They died on the way.

15 Robin Hood used to hide in the greenwood. He knew that the soldiers of the sheriff of Nottingham were afraid of going there lest they could meet evil spirits. The tales regarding Robin Hood, all deriving from ballads, are called The Greenwood Stories. In Child’s collection, the ballads numbered 117 to 154 are all about Robin Hood’s gests.

16This is the conventional title for the German versions of the ballad. Usually the grandmother poisons her granddaughter with a serpent. In this one with a fish.