What, Dutch language loving ladies and gents, is the national heroic story of the Netherlands?
Greece has its ‘Iliad’ and its ‘Odyssey’; India its ‘Mahabharata’; Italy its ‘Aeneid’ and ‘Divine Comedy’; England its ‘Beowulf’ and its ‘Paradise Lost’; Spain its ‘Poema del Cid’ and ‘Don Quixote de la Mancha’; Norway its ‘Edda’; Germany its ‘Nibelungenlied’ and its ‘Faust’, France its ‘Chanson de Roland’ and ‘Les Misérables’, Ireland its ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge’ and ‘Ulysses’ and the Netherlands….?
Yes, ladies and gents, what is the Dutch epic? And who are the Dutch national heroes?
According to Dutch literary and non-literary historians Dutch culture has no national epic of consequence. The Dutch, they say, have no heroes of decisive importance. There are no courageous characters here like Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Krishna Vasudeva, El Cid etcetera. Apparently the nineteenth century poet Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831) tried his hand at it but failed miserably and therefore we must conclude that the Netherlands is a country devoid of heroes, fictional or real…
Difficult to believe that the Dutch have no talent for HELDENDOM (heroism). What makes us so different from other nations? As shown above, each nation in the world has its own epic stories. An EPOS (epic) is an exciting story about the achievements and adventures of a heroic personage. Yet it is more. An EPOS (a Greek word derived from the verb for ‘speaking’ or ‘telling’) tells us about the history, the traditions and the identity of a people or a nation in a certain period.
When our new Queen Maxima said in 2007 that she did not know what a ‘Nederlander’ is and that she had not yet found the Dutch identity after having searched for seven years, she was voicing a sense or feeling, shared by many Dutch people, that the Dutch in all their Calvinistic modesty should not be boastful and refrain from venerating individuals as heroes.
So the Netherlands is supposed to be ‘hero-less’. Nonsense of course. As David Bowie sang in 1977: ‘We can be heroes… I will be king/And you, you will be queen/Though nothing will drive them away/We can beat them, just for one day/We can be heroes, just for one day.’
The Dutch have had their fair share of men and women of superhuman strength and world fame: Anne Frank, William I (father of the fatherland), Hugo Grotius, Erasmus, Oldenbarnevelt, Johan de Witt and (fictionally speaking) Max Havelaar, Jan Cremer, Hans Brinkers, Nijntje…
Nijntje? Yes, Dick Bruna’s picture books about a female rabbit have conquered the world since 1955. Nijntje, is a shortened diminutive of ‘konijntje’ meaning ‘little rabbit’. In English speaking countries she is known as Miffy. No doubt, I’ll return to Dick Bruna (1927) and his legendary hero in a later posting.
In yesterday’s posting we had a look at Queen Wilhelmina, a royal being of flesh and blood who possesses all the characteristics of a real HELD (let’s not use feminine forms anymore). EENZAAM MAAR NIET ALLEEN (lonesome but not alone) was her maxim, words that could be applied to all great heroes of world history.
The word ‘hero’ and its feminine variant ‘heroine’ originally meant ‘defender’ or ‘protector’ in Greek. A Latin ‘heros’ was a ‘demi-god’. The Dutch word HELD or its feminine variant HELDIN have a more mysterious history. The medieval word means ‘brave warrior (dappere strijder) and appears as such in various Germanic languages. In Old English it was ‘hæle’ or ‘hæleþ’. Modern English unfortunately lost this wonderful word and replaced it with the Greek/Latin word via French ‘héro’. In modern German it is still ‘der Held’.
If Wilhelmina is, as I think she is, the HELD of the nation, then what is her EPOS? I suggest that the Dutch national EPOS of the 20th century is (lights please and roll of drums!):
Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange), the heroic true story of second World War resistance warrior Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema (1917-2007). This EPOS was made into a book (1970), a film (1977) and a musical (2010).
Tomorrow I’ll continue this posting.