Monday, 10 August 2009

Folklore in local novels

I whiled away some time on holiday reading a Dutch translation of Joost Hiddes Halbertsma's Frisian novella 'It Heksershol' (The witch-hole, a local name for the village of Molkwerum).
I'm always wary of reading local novels as simply ethnological records. There are two main dangers. One is that authors don't get the artistic credit for adapting folk culture in their own literary constructions. (They cease to be artists, and become just observers). The other, especially problematic with authors who are consciously attempting to establish the literary credentials of a minority language, is that the broadly political aspects of their work tend to get sidelined. Such writers are often trying to create a regional cultural identity in their work, rather than just reflect one. This involves a highly focused use of source folkloric material.

That said, such novels do rest heavily on local folklore. Halbertsma's account of how Gosse Knop sold his soul to the devil, the amazing things that happened to him on his travels through Friesland, and how he came to a bad end, weaves rich elements of local lore into its narratives. These can be teased out: they're not the whole picture, but they add to it.
In one sequence Gosse has lost his shadow, which is discovered when he steps into the light during a dance. That's the point of the episode, but Halbertsma enriches it with all sorts of details about the dance itself. He tells us when such a dance might be likely (after an auction), the instrument they danced to (a fiddle), and even some of the dances and tunes (they dance the Schotse-drie, and Gosse's predicament is revealed during the Utrecht march).
It's also possible to hear something of the spoken language culture. This has the huge caveat, of course, that I read it in a Dutch translation and not in its original language, but the sound of language is emphasised in some of the stories. An origin story is offered for the name Ameland. According to the skipper of a boat, Heintje Pik (the devil) had given names to all of the islands along the Frisian coast and written them down in his notebook. Beneath the last name he wrote 'Amen', but then realised that he'd forgotten one of the islands, so he wrote '-land' after it. Because Heintje is from Amsterdam he doesn't pronounce the -n at the end of words, so Amenland becomes Ameland. This isn't just a story directed against Amsterdammers, it gives a sound to history.


  1. Humphrey, I agree completely. By the way, the audio-file of this novella is available at:


  2. Hi Frisophile, thanks for this. I don't speak it myself, but I've friends learning Frisian who'll be pleased to know about the recording. (They've also drawn my attention to the Frisian language campaign which would tend to reinforce my point about the political aspects of minority-language publications).

    I do think it's a pity that Halbertsma's novella isn't available in English - any small presses out there with Frisian translation capacity willing to take it on?