My Writing Soundtrack – Part 1

A lot of people showed interest when I asked if I should share my writing soundtrack, so here comes part 1. It’s a rather massive collection of playlists giving my the inspiration while I type away, so this will be a series of posts.

This part features the medieval ballads with lyrics, each one has a rather interesting background story. Of course not all of the songs have such extensive stories, a lot of them are instrumental, including video game and movie soundtracks. But the background stories of the medieval ballads are full of great stories which could inspire fantasy writers out there so I’m including them in this post.

Here goes the list:

Rolandskvadet – Norwegian version of Roland’s Song

This is the Norwegian retelling of the famous French epic from the 12th century AD. It’s a rather sad story of a heroic martyr. The events in the legend take place in the 8th century but the poem was written much later, in the medieval times.

Story of the Song of Roland: Charlemagne’s army has been fighting the Muslims in Spain for the last seven years, and the last city standing is Saragossa, held by the Muslim King Marsile. Marsile fears the might of Charlemagne’s army and decides to surrender, sending messengers to Charlemagne promising treasures and converting the Christianity if the Franks leave.

Charlemagne receives the message and summons his nobles for a council, Roland and his stepfather Ganelon are among them. The emperor decides to accept the offer of peace and send an emissary to Marsile’s court to relay this message. Protagonist Roland nominates his stepfather Ganelon as messenger. Ganelon turns out to be a coward and traitor, however, thinking Roland nominated him to put his life in danger. He informs the Saracens of a way to ambush the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army, led by Roland, as the Franks re-enter Spain through the mountain passes.

The Saracens ambush the rear guard at Roncesvalles, and the Christians are overwhelmed. Roland’s comrades ask him to blow his olifant to call for help from the Frankish army; but Roland proudly refuses to do so.

The Franks fight valiantly but they are ultimately outnumbered, until almost all Roland’s men are dead. Roland finally blows his olifant to summon Charlemagne’s army, until his temples burst and blood pours from his mouth. He dies a martyr’s death, refusing to let the Saracens have his sacred sword Durendal, which has many relics of different saints embedded in it.

Charlemagne and his men reach the battlefield but find Roland’s men all dead. They pursue the Muslims into the river Ebro, where the lot of them drawn. Charlemagne and his barons weep over their fallen martyrs.

When Charlemagne returns to France, Roland’s fiancee asks where her bethrothed is. Charlemagne tells her with great grief that Roland has fallen in the battle, and he will give her his own son. She says she doesn’t want to live without Roland, and drops dead at the feet of the emperor.

The Franks discover Ganelon’s betrayal in the end and put him in chains. Ganelon argues what he did was for revenge on Roland and not treason. While the council of barons assembles to decide the traitor’s fate and get almost swayed by Ganelon’s plea, a man called Thierry stands up and challenges Ganelon’s claim. He points out that Roland was serving Charlemagne when Ganelon delivered his revenge on him, therefore Ganelon’s action is treason.

Ganelon’s friend Pinabel challenges Thierry to trial by combat, but Thierry bests Pinabel and slays him. The Franks are convinced that the divine intervention is at play, proving Ganelon’s treason. Justice is served in the end, Ganelon is torn apart by having four galloping horses tied one to each arm and leg and thirty of his relatives are hanged.

You can read the detailed version here:

It’s beautifully written, I highly recommend reading the whole thing and I think I will recycle this into a fantasy story, since I have a soft spot for flawed heroes and martyrs. In fact I think Tolkien drew inspiration from it too, if you recall the scene where Boromir dies after blowing the horn of Gondor. Roland talking to his named sword Durendal reminds me of Turin talking to his sword in The Silmarillion, the pattern is quite similar. Durendal has special powers due to the holy relics in it, which sounds a lot like the special named swords in Tolkien’s books. Tolkien also took the name olifant (modified as oliphaunt) to name the elephant like animals in the LOTR.

The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, from an illuminated manuscript c.1455–1460.

Here is the English translation of the lyrics:

Six men stayed behind
To guard their gold;
The other six in heathen lands
Brandished cold steel.

They rode out of Frankish lands
With spoils in their saddles.
Blow your horn, Olifant,
At Roncevaux.

They fought at Roncevaux
For two days, if not three;
And the sun could not shine clear
Through the stench of men’s blood.

They rode out of Frankish lands…

Roland placed the horn to his bloodied mouth
And blew with all his might.
The earth shook and mountains resounded
For three days and nights.

They rode out of Frankish lands…

Herr Mannelig

This is a medieval style Swedish ballad that tells the story of a female mountain troll who proposes marriage to a knight. There are Norwegian and German versions of it also. It has a haunting, sad melody.

The troll is trying to convince Sir Mannelig (Swedish: Herr Mannelig) to marry her. She offers him many great gifts but he refuses her, because she is not a Christian woman but a troll (a Pagan creature).

English translation of the lyrics:

Early one morning before the sun ran up
Before the birds began to sing
The mountain troll proposed to the handsome young man
She had a false tongue
Herr Mannelig, herr Mannelig, will you be betrothed to me?
For that, I offer you gifts very gladly
Surely you can answer but yes or no
If you wish to or not
To you I wish to give the twelve steeds
That go in the grove of roses
Never has there been any saddles upon them
Nor bridles in their mouths
To you I wish to give the twelve mills
That stand between Tillö and Ternö
The stones are made of the reddest gold
And the wheels are silver-laden
To you I wish to give a gilded sword
With a blade of fifteen gold rings
And battle how you will [well or badly]
The battle you would surely win
To you I wish to give a shirt so new
The best you will want to wear
It [literally: she] was not sewn by needle or thread
But crocheted of white silk
Such gifts I would surely accept
If thou wert a Christian [or: pious] woman
However, thou art the worst mountain troll
The spawn of a Neck and the Devil
The mountain troll ran out the door
She shakes and wails hard
Had I got the handsome young man
I would have got rid of my plight
Herr Mannelig, herr Mannelig, will you be betrothed to me?
For that, I offer you gifts very gladly
Surely you can answer but yes or no
If you wish to or not

Villemann og Magnhild

This one is known as Harpans kraft, a supernatural ballad type, with many versions in various Scandinavian languages. Main theme is the magical powers of the harp.

Main plot (from Wikipedia): 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.

English translation of the lyrics:

Villeman went to the river
To the most beautiful of all the lime trees
There he wanted to play the golden harp
Then the runes promised him luck

Villeman went to stand over the stream
To the most beautiful of all the lime trees
He could play the harp so skillfully
Then the runes promised him luck

He played it tenderly, he played it smartly
To the most beautiful of all the lime trees
The birds went quiet in the trees
Then the runes promised him luck

He played it softly, he played it loud
To the most beautiful of all the lime trees
He played to release Magnhild from the arms of a Troll
Then the runes promised him luck

Then the Troll rose from the depth of the sea
To the most beautiful of all the lime trees
Mountains rumbled, and the clouds thundered
Then the runes promised him luck

Then he hit the harp with all his fury
To the most beautiful of all the lime trees
And so took his strength and power
Then the runes promised him luck


This is an early 13th century crusader poem written at the time of the fifth Crusade by Walther von der Vogelweide, the most celebrated German mediaeval lyric poet. The melody of it was composed in the 14th century. I am a pagan, but I won’t dismiss a good song on the grounds of religion. I listen to plenty of Byzantine Orthodox chants for writing inspiration, since the melodies help me get into the Byzantine setting where I built my fantasy world.

Here is the link to the lyrics and translation:

Collection of Medieval Songs about Love And Loss

This is a very nice collection by Gilles Binchois I stumbled upon while surfing youtube. The haunting songs are excellent for writing the sad, tear jerker scenes and melancholy reflections of characters. Gilles Binchois is a Netherlandish composer from the early 15th century and one of the earliest members of the Burgundian school. His melodies are said to be the finest of that period.

Á Sprengisandi

This Icelandic folk song is dedicated to Sprengisandsleið which is a road that connects the north and the south of Iceland, going through a barren wasteland in the highlands. It had a rather bad reputation, since there was no fodder for the horses in the barren wastelands, people had to cross it as fast as possible. There are superstitions, ghost stories and rumors of bandits hunting there, which is evident in the lyrics. The elf queen mentioned in the song refers to the hostile supernatural creatures in the Icelandic folklore, not Tolkien’s elves 🙂

English Translation of the lyrics:

Ride, ride, ride over the sand
the sun is setting behind Arnarfell.
Round here there are many (dirty) spirits
’cause it’s getting dark on the glacier
Lord, lead my horse,
the last part of the way will be hard

Tssh, sssh! Tssh, sssh! On the (small) hill a fox ran
her dry mouth she wants to wet with blood;
or perhaps someone was calling
with a strangely dark male voice.
Outlawers in Ódáðahraun
are maybe rounding up some sheep secretly

Ride, ride, ride over the sand
There’s getting dark on Herðubreið.
The elf queen is bridling her horse.
There’s not good to meet her
My best horse I would give to
reach Kiðagil

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