On the trail of golden threads and rusty nails of Dutch folk and fairy tales.
I’ve been telling stories for about 15 years. I’ve had an automatic relationship with the ones I’ve told. I saw them in a book or heard them and knew pretty soon I had to tell them. Before I knew it, I had a store of tales from Ireland, Britain and Europe – mostly ancestral lands of mine. But during 15 years of telling, only one or two from where I lived – the watery, fecund, flat country of the Netherlands.
I felt deeply at home when I visited Snowdonia in Wales at New Year. Not only does my sister live there – a constant homing presence – I’ve also told stories from the Mabinogion for years. I could feel those hills because I’ve carried their imagination with me. We’re a part of each other. Returning to the Netherlands, felt dry in comparison. I love this land, as flat as it is. I love its people, as wary as they are of complexity. It’s been a good home to me. It’s raised my family, it’s given me storytelling. But I still hadn’t learned the language of its land. I hadn’t learned its stories.
The Dutch generally don’t know their stories either. An excellent kids podcast retold origin myths, all drawn from Greece. When PostNL placed the Lady of Stavoren on its stamps, it was observed that few could retell it in full. We miss something when the song of the soil remains unsung. We’re more likely to treat it as object and as fact. Folk tales aren’t just a record of human awareness, they are a record of awareness over a particular land. To put it more romantically, they are the thinking and feeling of place. As I say, 15 years is long enough to not have told too many.
Like most of Europe, the Netherlands let its oral tradition slide. The stories haven’t been coaxed into shape by generations of poets. There’s been no Yeats to lead a movement to reawaken them, less still unbroken generations of poet priests as in Nigeria and India where the rhythm, the lilt and import is maintained for millenia. We think we know a lot but oral transmission is bodies in communion. You can’t convey that information onto a page. Flattened – even when beautifully written – we don’t feel the living force of the stories as when they’re told. We think the people were simple because we can’t experience how imaginations were lit up when, after a day of work, images would parade through the mind providing deep refreshment. We’re trying, desperately, in so many ways to hold on to signs of an old life as the world digitises. What we’ll never reclaim is an imagination that has never seen an artificial image.
I’ve known a few stories from Terschelling. The island is a wilderness on a postage stamp, folds of dune, forest and field and a beautiful old town that the British brutally burned in 1666. The stories are of Witte Wijven – apparitions of betrayed or widowed women and witches who occupy younger women’s bodies and crawl out of their noses as mice. They carry an endless longing for the sea and the grief of a community who has lost sons and daughters to it. I’ve had permission from local storyteller Richard van der Veen to translate a few and will do so soon. I’ve also told the Lady of Stavoren after seeing Helma Snelooper‘s luminous version, who permitted me to retell it.
Other than that, I spider around the internet. William Elliott Griffiths wrote a number of Dutch tales but mentioned no sources. They contain stories of mermaids imprisoned by dyke builders – a repeated theme – and a golden-tousled pig ridden by a fairy driven from Holland when its people invented the plough. This is a country that is so self-made, that’s mastered natural forces to an exceptional degree, that makes practical sense of undefinable things. These stories show a balancing conscience that in controlling the environment, the possibility for ephemeral wonder is lost.
Stories pull us in when a sense of ourselves is at stake. The signs and symbols of traditional tales are lost to us because we fail to see reality in them. Dragons and dwarves are niceties to the adult mind. It takes a leap – or a skilful storyteller – to portray them as threats to life or a vital assisting intelligence. There’s a temptation to reduce them to psychological events, but still that doesn’t quite cut it. In order to be known a story has to occupy a singular reality both of us and not of us at all – equally intimate and foreign. As trust in this precarious reality dawns, we see how fundamental it is to almost all our life – to imagining itself – our ability to be a thousand possibilities. We know diversity of culture provides resilience. Folk stories provide us with diversity of mind and diversity of being. They say, you’ve tried so many ways, here’s an invitation to one more.
One morning, I sat in a bustling Baarn cafe – an open book and empty cup on the wooden table top – readying myself for work. Of the books piled on the tables, one tugged at my attention, begging me to procrastinate. ‘Sprookjes van de Lage Landen’ is an A3-sized treasure with ornate, innocent sketches and sharply told stories. My noble intention to work was fatally undermined by a style that manages to keep both magic and simplicity alive. Perhaps providing rightly proportioned containers for mystery is Netherlands culture at its best.
But telling these stories is another matter. One grips me more than all the others. Its title sent a shock through my body as soon as I read it – The Man with No Soul. The writing is blunt and sections feel to my literal mind as overlong and irrelevant. But it feels urgent to tell it. We’re all that man. But I can’t yet see how it would hold a room’s attention. I want it to be relevant – not curious and obsolete. Telling it too soon would dishonour the ripples of power I can feel underneath its tightly woven surface.
In shape it’s the same as the Bear King Valemon and Eros and Psyche – lovers split by error go on a journey to find each other back. I’ve not only told those stories, but heard them told magnificently. I’ve lived moments from them, they’re fused inextricably with the unfolding of my life. This is a good foundation to enter this story. And then, digging deeper, shadows in the story echo those I’ve read in Inuit and Chagossian stories. Of an incomplete youth traversing the world below and above in order to return whole. This is more than intellectual curiosity. The migration journeys between Africa and the Arctic Circle are at least 50,000 years old. The archaeology of this tale is immense – a fundamental witness to human histories. The magnitude of these considerations do nothing to open it up. The distance between book and telling seems unbridgeable.
Do I really need to tell this story? Is it mine to tell?
Martin Shaw’s guidance in appreciating a story is not to digest it as a whole, or to divine a single meaning, but sit at moments in the story – for months if necessary. And gradually, unmanipulated, the stories start to speak. A kayak trip turns into a meditation on pressure points in the story. People in it leap up and offer lines of dialogue. I start puzzling, really puzzling, about the ways and wherefores of the experiences in it. Why feed fish? Why go after the princess?
I begin to enter a world rather than a story. Walks and kayak trips turn up more material. The story is no longer in the space between the book and my head, but here, ambling among its toepaths and elder hedges – borrowing bird calls and flipping into conversations with the neighbours. It’s returning to itself as a place inhabited. Remembered in a place that knew this story far longer than its known us.
And maybe, such a story can give us a clue to the imagination between the ploughfolds and billowing sail. An imagination that maybe we can rest in rather than accumulating, appropriating and doing so much scurrying around. The story is already here.
I’m looking immensely forward to sharing a few at my show Understory in September.
During the time of reading and surfacing Netherlands stories, life here is changing. Friendships are maturing, I’m welcomed into more houses than before, I’m more at ease in the landscape than before. I’m more at home than I ever was in the Netherlands before. Whether the stories have anything to do with it or not is beyond my powers of divination to understand. Needless to say, things having been moving along nicely since that dry time when I picked up a few books of folk tales in January.