Livetweeting William Elliot Griffis’ Dutch Fairy Tales for Young Folk

Posted January 5, 2018 by Lynn E. O'Connacht in Books, Other People's Creations / 0 Comments

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Way back at the beginning of December 2017, I started a livetweet of a book I’d found on Project Gutenberg called Dutch Fairy Tales for Young Folks by William Elliot Griffis, an American. I was looking for a collection or an anthology to help a friend with a project and, well, I stumbled across that and I was curious. Do not make my mistakes.

I got about 5 stories in before deciding that I had to do a livetweet of the experience. And it is an experience because these stories are terrible. It’s not that Dutch fairy tales are inherently terrible – they are few, but there are some nice ones – but that Griffis just… isn’t a good storyteller and, sometimes, doesn’t know what he’s talking about to such an extent that I was left seriously doubting whether he’s not just made at least half of these stories up himself.

By the end, I counted about 3 or 4 stories that are actually known Dutch fairy tales or folk tales and one that is Belgian. (Which, fine, okay. Technically Flemish tales are Dutch folk tales because they both speak a regional variant of Dutch, but if that’s the case I’m going to expect a decent and proper balance between fairy tales from the Netherlands and ones from Belgium and… That’s not what we got. Griffis leans very heavily towards the provinces of Zuid-Holland, Noord-Holland and Friesland.)

Worse, though, is that many of the stories just don’t make any coherent sense. Griffis jumps from topic to topic with no regard for narrative relevance or continuity. Most notable for that is probably the The Goblins Turned to Stone which starts off being about how eating too much cheese gives one nightmares then segues into how the silly Dutch believe it’s goblins. But then it turns it actually is goblins! Female goblins, which presents us the weirdest swan maiden motif I have ever read and I’m still not convinced it makes any sense whatsoever. And then it shifts into this story about a male goblin whose red cap of invisibility gets stolen and did I mention yet that this story started off being about cheese causing nightmares because Griffis has clearly forgotten what his story was about.

There are allowances I make for fairy tales and folk tales in terms of how coherent they are, especially when the book I’m reading presents me with faithful transcriptions of an orally delivered narrative. That is not what this book is and the stories are short enough that the issues are incredibly glaring.

Worse, though, is Griffis’ retelling of Santa Klaas and Black Pete, which is about as racism as you’re likely imagining it is, but from a narrative point of view, there isn’t a story here. It’s just an explanation of what Sinterklaas is and collects some of the various backstories that are told about him. Also he gets the name of the guy’s horse wrong for the sake of pulling in Norse mythology that has absolutely no business being part of the narrative.

He does that a lot, actually. Which, you know? Is somewhat fine. The Netherlands is a Germanic country. I’m sure there are folk tales and Germanic myths being told in parts of the country, especially during the time Griffis is busy collecting his narratives, and we have at least a reasonable idea of how Norse and Germanic myths interact with one another. But he leans heavily on Norse mythology rather than on Germanic and, in any case, even in the time Griffis was writing this there would have been a whole load of stories that are actually clearly Dutch and well-known enough to have stood the test of time and would have suited his proposed theme better. Without having to cram in everything he thinks he knows about the tales and the Dutch language.

Points in case: Van de Vos Reynaerde, Karel ende Elegast, Beatrijs, the legend of the Bokkenrijders (or Buckriders if you’d like the English), the Witte Wieven, Walewijn, Tijl Uilenspiegel…

His goal is clearly to appeal to young American readers. So, okay, maybe we can leave off Beatrijs because that’s the narrative of how a nun went off into the world to have adventures (and kids) and Mary went and took her place so no one knew Beatrijs was missing and that’s probably not the early 20th century moral he was going for.

But you may have heard of the Fox Reynard. He’s a trickster and the Middle Dutch epic (among other languages; Chaucer reworks one of the stories too) has been reworked into a children’s story at least once. It’s fairly popular and the violence is reasonably easy to tone down if that’s what you want to do.

This short video gives you a brief explanation of who the buckriders were. CW: re-enacted scenes of torture and hanging. You can probably find a longer version of the Nat Geo show this is from if you look and want to know more. My point is: the legend is about Satan-worshiping highwaymen. There are waaaaaaaaays to rework that into a creepy-as children’s legend. (Oh, look. Someone did.)

The Witte Wieven are straight-up folklore, though, and not from any regions I have any familiarity with.

Karel ende Elegast, meanwhile, is a story from the Carolingean Cycle. It’s all about Charlemagne meeting a fairy knight who decides to help him keep his life (and kingdom) safe from evil knights plotting to overthrow him. It’s eerie and action-packed and, basically, I will not forgive Griffis for excluding this one because EPIC KNIGHT ADVENTURE.

Walewijn, similarly, is pretty much the Dutch’s only addition to the Matter of Britain. You may recognise Walewijn more easily as Gawain. Yes, one of the knights of the round table. I assume that its relation to the Matter of Britain may be what saw this one excluded because it hardly sounds particularly Dutch, what with it explicitly being Arthurian, but look. More epic knight adventure!

Tijl Uilenspiegel is Flemish and… heavily dependent on which version you pick. There’s the bawdy and hilarious version and the massively and ridiculously dry pious version (that you can find in English on Project Gutenberg and I wish you good luck not falling asleep). But Tijl is, like Reynard, a trickster figure and, unlike Reynard, his pranks are often a lot friendlier. At least assuming you’ve got one of the versions that takes out the scatological jokes. Anyway, my point is that a lot of the stories are fun, trickster stories that appeal to children or can be reworked into them fairly easily.

And that’s just a handful of options that I, to be quite honest, had expected the book to contain. Sadly, it does not. That said, it does contain the weirdest retelling of Snow White I’ve ever read.

Below I’ve collected the links to the start of each Twitter thread, so just click through to find all the comments. Some are pretty long (the final thread is over 175 tweets), so I’ve opted against collecting all of them into a single post. Enjoy!

Part 1

Covering: The entangled mermaid, The boy who wanted more cheese, The princess with twenty petticoats and The cat and the cradle

Part 2

Covering: Prince Spin Head and Miss Snow White, The boar with the golden bristles, The ice king and his wonderful grandchild and The elves and their antics

Part 3

Covering: The kabouters and the bells, The woman with three hundred and sixty-six children, The oni on his travels, The legend of the wooden shoe, The curly-tailed lion, Brabo and the giant and The farm that ran away and came back

Part 4

Covering: Santa Klaas and Black Pete, The goblins turned to stone, The mouldy penny, The golden helmet, When wheat worked woe and Why the stork loves Holland

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