Written by Dyami Millarson
The Hielepen or Hindeloopen Frisian poem titled ‘t Tòltjen fan Eerendel en Raabiₐd ien ‘t kòts òp stouwerien, which translates to ‘the tale of Eerendel [hero] and Raabiₐd [dwarf] in short in alliterative verse,’ was published on our blog. Before delving into the content of the poem, let us take a proper look at the structure of the poem.
Alliterative verse (stouweriem in Hielepen Frisian), which is an ancient poetical form, means practically that the Hielepen Frisian words in the poem are not rhymed based on the terminal sounds of stressed syllables like ‘wine and line,’ ‘beard and weird’ and ‘hearth and earth,’ but words are matched based on the first sound of stressed syllables like ‘street and sight,’ ‘age and old’ (rule of thumb: all vowels are treated as the same sound in alliterative verse) and ‘light and look.’ Let us take a look at one example from the poem and find the words that are matched by alliteration: Jem óm freede friggen de Hielepes! (Them for peace asked the Hieleper people).
The words freede and friggen are alliterated in this instance. Each line is based on 4 strongly stressed syllables/words and each couplet consists of 4 lines, which means every couplet contains 16 (4 times 4) strong stresses. Compound words such as Séélâând (Sea-land) may be counted as containing 2 strongly stressed words/syllables. The 4 stressed words are divided into two parts: the first part is where the two words may be introduced randomly and the second part is where the poet makes up his mind about the alliteration (the poet has freedom basically until he reaches the third stressed word/syllable). Usually the third stressed syllable/word in each line – so the first word of the 2nd part – is the one that the alliteration is based on, in the case of the aforementioned example it is friggen.
Since alliterative verse works in this peculiar way, not all combinations of words will work, and the poet may have to meditate on each line to make it work. I imagine that the poets of yore, who only had an oral tradition, would have sat down in a spot they found comfortable or (divinely) inspiring and they would there have taken the time to compose their alliterative verses. One can create one line at a time in this fashion, memorise the ones that work and discard the ones that do not work.
A speaker of Schiermonnikoog Frisian, who is more than 100 years old, told me on my birthday once that a Schiermonnikoog Frisian poet always used to lie in the dunes and compose poems there. (A relevant cultural note: the local people of Schiermonnikoog traditionally believe their island is populated by kami-like dune spirits called dúnatters and this increases their respect for nature.) This is really how I imagine the ancient poets to have lived, they would have enjoyed the beautiful local scenery of nature and the old masters would have allowed this pleasure to help them compose verses of oral poetry.
The ancient poets ought to have had excellent memories, because recalling the verses that one has composed orally is no easy task, but they had plenty of time to perfect their craft and as the alliterative saying goes in Latin, repetitiō māter memoriae (repetition is the mother of memory). I wanted to bring up that Latin saying not only because of the truth value it holds, but also because it demonstrates that alliteration helps one to remember the truth that is expressed in this saying.
Alliteration is commonly used in Dutch sayings and advertisements, because the rhythmic pattern that is produced by alliteration catches the listener’s attention without being too obvious that words are being linked in a poetical manner. Rhyme often comes across as childish, yet alliteration comes across as mature. Whilst alliteration catches the attention of the listener, it also aids the poet to remember a single verse, hundreds of verses or thousands of verses. The poet is basically a story-teller. A practical problem the poet has to solve/overcome is memorising thousands of sentences, and the poet basically summarises stories in a rhythmic way that helps him remember the content.
Just as the alliteration of repetitiō māter memoriae helps one to recall the truth that is expressed by that saying, a poet can remember thousands of truths by means of his alliterative verse; after collecting information, alliteration is basically a device the poet uses to restructure it in such a way that he can easily recall it. The poets of yore might have heard many oral tales and they could have used these oral tales to compose their poems; poets, therefore, had the the function of helping the people with storing information in a structured way. Not everyone could compose poetry, but those who had this gift would have been esteemed in their respective community. From this perspective, it is no wonder that, for instance, the old poets of Schiermonnikoog were/are well-respected among the locals.
When I studied Schiermonnikoog Frisian, I read all of the works of these poets to learn the language. Apart from alliteration aiding the memory of the poet, the poet may also improve his craft during each performance; after all, one learns by doing and whenever the poet recounts the tales of yore in alliterative verse, he can keep improving upon his verses and his delivery.
The wonder of the human mind is not only that it can remember, but it can also creatively restructure; so the poet can change his verses at will. Since if the poet does not like this or that verse, he can simply improve it to his liking and a really good poet can do this even during his performance. Therefore, if a poet forgets a line, it would not matter so much since he can fill in the gaps; context and rhythm help the poet to be able to restore forgotten verses or create entirely new ones. Finally, to conclude the section about structure, let me make a few lexical analytical statements: some of the vocabulary in the poem is entirely poetical, so it is linguistically relevant to note that the Hielepen Frisian poem uses archaic words such as nin (no) and naa (never), which Hielepen Frisians do not use anymore today, and it treats the noun Gòd (God) as neuter, which is in line with old Germanic languages.
The poem written in Hielpen Frisian (read more in this extensive article of mine from 2019 on the language of Hielepen), which is natively called Hielepes or Hielpes while popularly known in Frisia (Frieslâând in Hielepes) as ‘ancient Frisian’ (âld Frysk in Clay/Wood Frisian, literally ‘old Frisian’) and is an isomorphic Frisian language as the language of Hielepen is so archaising that it retains the vast majority of its old structural forms without any significant changes whilst its linguistic environment has already undergone countless changes during that same period of time in which it stayed almost entirely identical to its historical original form in which it was first recorded resulting in a situation which is basically akin to Old Norse surviving to varying degrees more or less intact in Iceland, the Faroese Islands and Älvdalen while the languages of Scandinavia have generally changed dramatically, is itself hard to translate, because much of its nuance – as well as my precious time from a personal perspective – would be lost if I were to make a translation, and so I will not even attempt it; I want to encourage people to simply learn Hielepen Frisian and read the original for themselves. However, since my readers expressed curiosity about the content of the poem, I will strike a compromise between my readers’ curiosity about what is said in minority languages and our desire to promote the originals written in minority languages so that people are compelled to learn the languages due to the mystery surrounding the languages while the X in the name Operation X refers to our mission of intriguing people with the X, the undefined mystery, of minority languages: I will now offer a summary, not a translation, of the poem.
The Hielepen Frisian poem called ‘the tale of Eerendel [hero] and Raabiₐd [dwarf] in short in alliterative verse,’ which, as the title suggests, is the abridged version of a tale that is rendered into an alliterative poem, talks about Eerendel, a hero who meets a dwarf (Hielepen Frisian: dwerg). The Hielepen Frisian poem introduces the dwarf as a little earth-man (èₐdmantjen), which is a type of magical creature usually found in the fields outside Hielepen – which is evidenced by the poem speaking of dwergen buuten Hielepen (dwarfs outside Hielepen) – as the creature is connected with the earth and therefore has an inherent connection with agriculture. Most of Frisia is traditionally an agrarian society and Frisians are proud to be a European aboriginal tribe of farmers and cattle herders, yet Hielepen Frisian culture, which traditionally focuses on fishing and trade, is different in this regard.
The poem informs us that the earth-man has a red and rough beard. Interestingly, the adjectives ‘red’ and ‘rough’ alliterate both in Hielepen Frisian and English, which may help the English reader to get a grasp of what kind of associations the poem is creating/forging by means of alliteration; the poem is truly dragging the reader into its story on a psychological level by introducing alliterated associations. When the poem has introduced our characters in the first two lines, it abruptly moves on to say that the hero Eerendel hits the dwarf in the face because he refuses to talk. The dwarf then starts talking and he informs Eerendel that his mother called him ‘Mouse-silent’ (Muusstòl), meaning he is as silent as a mouse according to his mother, and his father called him ‘Fire-red’ (Fiirraa), referring to the fact that his long beard is as red as fire. When the dwarf has introduced himself, Eerendel introduces himself by stating that the dwarf may call him ‘man of the morning’ (man fan ‘e mòòn) and he informs him that he is a ‘son of the wide and wild water’ (sóón fan ‘t wiede en wielde wetter), which may be among the most comprehensible lines to the English reader when making an effort to decipher the Hielepen Frisian poem.
Descent is very important in Frisian cultures, including Hielepen Frisian culture, which may be regarded as being related to Germanic ancestor veneration, and that is why there is an identical question in all Frisian languages, of which I am now going to give the Hielepen Frisian variant: Fan waa bist-stoe ‘r een? (Of whom are you one?). This reflects how individuality is regarded as being linked to one’s family clan, and that is definitely why it aids our project, in this cultural context, that my father always accompanies me while visiting the Frisian communities; this allows the various Frisian tribes (= communities), composed of family clans (= families), to trust me. They know where I come from and they know that I am supported by my ancestors, which is a clear suggestion to them that they can take my project seriously and trust my word that I am dedicated to saving their language and culture and lore (in the sense of folk narrative or folk knowledge that used to be orally transmitted from generation to generation). After stating his descent, Eerendel, the hero of the Hielepen Frisian poem, informs the dwarf or earth-man that he has never wholly broken his word and he always faithfully keeps to his oaths.
When the dwarf and hero have said their introductions to each other, the dwarf recognises Eerendel and demonstrates his profound wisdom by telling Eerendel about his descent; he informs Eerendel he knows who his father is, namely the Southern Sea (Suuderséé). As a historical sidenote, the Southern Sea, which may be so called as it is located relative to the South of the North Sea, has more or less ‘disappeared’ while it has been turned into IJssel Lake (IJsselmeer with ‘i’ and ‘j’ being capitalised as the sound ‘ij’ is considered a digraph in Dutch spelling for historical reasons on account of its connection with ‘y,’ hence it is no wonder ‘ij’ is spelled as ‘y’ in the Afrikaans language which I began studying in February) and for a part into the new province called Flevoland in the previous century by a Dutch process called inpoldering which allowed the Dutch to turn this sea into a freshwater lake and into land. We are informed by the wise dwarf that the father of Eerendel is called Waade, which is related to the concept of ‘Wadden’ as in ‘Wadden Sea.’ The dwarf also informs us about Eerendel’s mother: she is the river IJssel (called Iesel in Hielepen Frisian; the river IJssel, which Jan de Vries believes might be related to the Old Norse verb eisa meaning ‘to rush on; foam (said of waves),’ is traditionally spelled as IJsel with one s in Dutch). A geographical note for the readers: the river IJssel historically flowed into the Southern Sea and now into the IJssel Lake. The dwarf says Waade is a ‘water king’ (wetterkóóning), which, probably without being a mere coincidence, is a term that alliterates with the name Waade and it alliterates with Eerewendel, which is the elder doublet of the name Eerendel.
Later in the poem, the dwarf alludes to the notion that the Southern Sea is a deity of sorts, informing us that Eerendel’s father fought with another mytho-historical Frisian deity called Fesitte and he designated this deity as well as Eerendel’s father as ‘Gods of the Sea’ (Séégóóden). Whilst the name Waade is related to Wadden, we may also deem Waade a symbolic deity of the Wadden Sea, which is a natural area officially designed as UNESCO-protected world heritage. The dwarf says that Waade frequents ‘sea-lands and islands,’ which may refer to him travelling all across the North Sea coasts and Frisian islands. Fesitte is called ‘God of the Frisians,’ while the dwarf tells us that the people of Hielepen (called Hindeloopen in Dutch) invited Waade to stay with them, thus suggesting that Waade is a native deity of Hielepen. According to the dwarf, the conflict between Waade and Fesitte, which may psychologically reflect a conflict between (Shire) Frisian identity and Hielepen Frisian identity, was resolved when the Hielepen Frisians asked for peace, upon which the Gods decided to share the seas and basically became parallel Gods of the Sea, which may reflect symbolically that (Shire) Frisian and Hielepen Frisian identities can exist side by side, without one having to extinguish the other. There does not need to be a clear victor in this conflict and one might conclude that, although not clearly defined, the moral of this story is as follows: ‘Know how to pick your fights wisely and choose only to fight for what matters.’
While the Hielepen Frisians bade Waade, Eerendel’s father, to make his home in Hielepen, the Frisians called Fesitte back, which sends a clear signal that the deity had been summoned by the Frisians. This poem gives no further details about how Fesitte was summoned, but it leaves enough space for the readers’ imagination to suppose that some kind of magic was involved, perhaps akin to how Frisians describe the magic of the earth-men in their own folk tales. The Hielepen Frisian poem does itself feature magic, and we will come to that in a minute.
After the dwarf has narrated the long story of Eerendel’s background, Eerendel challenges him to forge (smeie) something and in doing so, he reveals what we might assume to be the true name of the dwarf or earth-man: Raabiₐd de Wieze (Red-beard the Wise). The dwarf, who mocks Eerendel for challenging him, accepts the challenge, stating that he is called ‘Forge-dwarf’ (smeidwerg) among the dwarfs while also claiming he is the best smith of all smiths. It seems in the poem that the dwarf was offended by Eerendel and that this sense of offence led him to accept the challenge. In ancient Germanic culture, one had to preserve one’s honour and when offence had been caused, one was compelled to defend one’s honour lest that honour be completed lost in the eyes of the on-looking human and spiritual surroundings.
Similarly to the Germanic notion of honour (which is called eer in Hielepen Frisian), the Chinese believe in face and one has to always make sure one does not suffer loss of face, which is a terrible disgrace. The dwarf continues to forge a sword that he enchants when he gives it a name. It appears that the destiny of the sword is determined upon it being forged and named by the dwarf. The poem states it explicitly that the name of the sword creates a dwergenbetjoeₑning (a dwarfen spell). Our hero Eerendel proceeds to fashion a sword of his own as well, and he gives it a name like the dwarf did before him. So this is where the magic came into play. There are no further details about how the challenge between the two ended. However, in the final couplet, which is introduced by the statement ‘the rest of the tale in short’ (De rest fan ‘t tòltjen ien ‘t kòt), informs us that Eerendel’s sword was made for slaying dwarfs, hence the dwarf died, and the hero lost his left toe as this was what the destiny of the sword meant.
The death of the dwarf as a sympathetic antagonist may come as a shocking conclusion to the tale, but it was a fitting conclusion to his life as he died in a worthy manner, defending his honour. Furthermore, the dwarf left an eternal mark on Eerendel, who suffered the loss of his toe, and consequently his lost toe may be regarded as a memory of the dwarf’s honourable death. The passing of the dwarf may be regarded as tragic, yet such was his fate and he had shared his wisdom; people will remember the words of the dwarf thanks to his climactic end. So while the poetical tale ends in a tragic climax, the life of the dwarf is remembered and we cannot but conclude that his death, which some readers may regard as wrongful while he was insulted, has been resolved by the poem itself.
The poem highlights two imperfect characters who competed against each other; the limits of the dwarf’s wisdom were highlighted by his demise whereas the limits of the hero’s strength were highlighted by the loss of his toe. One may seek beauty in the imperfection that is highlighted by the poem, it does not represent our protagonists as flawless superheroes as featured in modern films but it lets us know their very real limitations and it allows us to mourn for their losses by remembering the poem itself. The tragic climax, although expressed very tersely in the final couplet, is what makes the tale all the more memorable. I hope that sharing this poetical tale will make readers all the more hungry for lore in Hielepen Frisian, and if this particular topic interests readers, I will share analyses and summaries more often with my readers so that they can follow what is being shared in the minority languages that we actively use on this blog and thereby seek to keep alive. To my readers: please let me know in the comments below whether you would like to read more articles like this one.