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Sunday, August 16, 2015

"A Knights' Tale": Bendik and Årolilja

Besides being beautiful tales from a lost time, the medieval ballads are also fantastic sources to understanding the ethics and morality of our ancestors. Telling stories that are set to higher social circles, the ridderviser (eng. «Knight songs”) provide a realistic depiction of human conflicts, especially related to love affairs. In these ballads we encounter a general European, courtly ideal, but only few of the Nordic ridderviser are actually directly related to the musical tradition outside the Nordic region. It is possible that ballads like these have served as a model for the whole Nordic ballad genre. In the Nordic countries, 300 ridderviser have been registered, and it is likely that the Danish region has played a significant part in the conception of these songs.

A great example of a typical riddervise, is the ballad of Bendik and Årolilja. The oldest written version of this song stems from the county of Finmark in Norway, where it was recorded as late as in 1698. However, the theme of the ballad probably originate from the old Danish legend of Hagbard and Signe, the riveting tale of a loving couple who cannot be with together because of a feud taking place between their families. Hagbard and Signe therefore choose to face death, together. For those of you familiar with the likes of Tristan and Iseult, for not to mention Romeo and Juliet, it might be just about time to also be intrigued by the Nordic medieval ballads.

For Bendik and Årolilja is indeed a tale of two star-crossed lovers, involved in a forbidden relationship. Being the daughter of a King, Årolilja has to meet her beloved, Bendik, in deep secret. However, a deceitful servant informs the King about the affair, and the king sentence Bendik to death. Årolilja pleas for his life, but the King ignores her, and Bendik is beheaded. Årolilja dies of grief, and the two are buried on opposite sides of the church. Something happens, however, that the King did not foresee; from the graves, two trees start to grow, so tall that they intertwine with each other over the church roof. The irrevocable bond between his deceased daughter and her love finally dawns on the King, leaving him in deep remorse for executing Bendik.

The following version of this gripping ballad is performed by the former Norwegian crossover-band Gåte. While the original “recipe” of the ballad consists of 58 verses, the band chose to use merely 4, making it an action-packed story about love, loss and deceit. In my opinion, this version really underlines the tragedy of this tale, as the original ending (which initially is quite atoning) is completely ruled out. The fierce interpretation of the ballad also displays that tales like these never ceases to enchant.

Bendik rode to Sølondo, He wished to see the maid.
He wasn't allowed to visit (her), And therefore he had to die. 
- Åroililja, why do you sleep so long?   
The next day, Bendik rode out to the woods, and hunted for wild deer.
By night he would visit the maiden's side indulged with a loving cheer.- Årolilja, why do you sleep so long? 
- Årolilja, why do you sleep so long?  
In came the young king's hand, He brought forth the news: “Bendik stepped into the maiden's chamber, disregarding the king”. 
- Årolilja, why do you sleep so long? - Årolilja, why do you sleep so long? 
St. Olav's church in Trondheim It is covered in lead. Bendik shall not enjoy life, even if it was three times new!  
- Årolilja, why do you sleep so long?

(As a bonus, I thought I might throw in a video, released by the band in 2003. Although being somewhat confusing according to the original storyline, it remains nonetheless as a beautiful and enchanting portrayal of this mesmerizing ballad.)


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