Hans Brinker

Or: what does this legend have to do with Dutch folk narrative?

The oldest version of the supposedly Dutch story, known as the legend of Hans Brinker, is in English and goes like this:

The Hero of Haarlem

Many years ago, there lived in Haarlem, one of the principal cities of Holland, a sunny-haired boy of gentle disposition. His father was a sluicer, that is, a man whose business it was to open and close the sluices, or large oaken gates, that are placed at regular distances across the entrances of the canals, to regulate the amount of water that shall flow into them.

The sluicer raises the gates more or less according to the quantity of water required, and closes them carefully at night, in order to avoid all possible danger of an oversupply running into the canal, or the water would soon overflow it and inundate the surrounding country. As a great portion of Holland is lower than the level of the sea, the waters are kept from flooding the land only by means of strong dikes, or barriers, and by means of these sluices, which are often strained to the utmost by the pressure of the rising tides. Even the little children in Holland know that constant watchfulness is required to keep the rivers and ocean from overwhelming the country, and that a moment's neglect of the sluicer's duty may bring ruin and death to all.


One lovely autumn afternoon, when the boy was about eight years old, he obtained his parents' consent to carry some cakes to a blind man who lived out in the country, on the other side of the dike. The little fellow started on his errand with a light heart, and having spent an hour with his grateful old friend, he bade him farewell and started on his homeward walk.

Trudging stoutly along the canal, he noticed how the autumn rains had swollen the waters. Even while humming his careless, childish song, he thought of his father's brave old gates and felt glad of their strength, for, thought he, 'If they gave way, where would Father and Mother be? These pretty fields would all be covered with the angry waters - Father always calls them the angry waters. I suppose he thinks they are mad at him for keeping them out so long.' And with these thoughts just flitting across his brain, the little fellow stooped to pick the pretty flowers that grew along his way. Sometimes he stopped to throw some feathery seed ball in the air and watch it as it floated away; sometimes he listened to the stealthy rustling of a rabbit, speeding through the grass, but oftener he smiled as he recalled the happy light he had seen arise on the weary, listening face of his blind old friend.


Suddenly the boy looked around him in dismay. He had not noticed that the sun was setting. Now he saw that his long shadow on the grass had vanished. It was growing dark, he was still some distance from home, and in a lonely ravine, where even the blue flowers had turned to gray. He quickened his footsteps and, with a beating heart recalled many a nursery tale of children belated in dreary forests. Just as he was bracing himself for a run, he was startled by the sound of trickling water. Whence did it come? He looked up and saw a small hole in the dike through which a tiny stream was flowing. Any child in Holland will shudder at the thought of a leak in the dike! The boy understood the danger at a glance. That little hole, if the water were allowed to trickle through, would soon be a large one, and a terrible inundation would be the result.

Quick as a flash, he saw his duty. Throwing away his flowers, the boy clambered up the heights until he reached the hole. His chubby little finger was thrust in, almost before he knew it. The flowing was stopped! Ah! he thought, with a chuckle of boyish delight, the angry waters must stay back now! Haarlem shall not be drowned while I am here!

This was all very well at first, but the night was falling rapidly. Chill vapors filled the air. Our little hero began to tremble with cold and dread. He shouted loudly; he screamed, 'Come here! come here!' but no one came. The cold grew more intense, a numbness, commencing in the tired little finger, crept over his hand and arm, and soon his whole body was filled with pain. He shouted again, 'Will no one come? Mother! Mother!' Alas, his mother, good, practical soul, had already locked the doors and had fully resolved to scold him on the morrow for spending the night with blind Jansen without her permission. He tried to whistle. Perhaps some straggling boy might heed the signal, but his teeth chattered so, it was impossible. Then he called on God for help. And the answer came, through a holy resolution: 'I will stay here till morning.'


The midnight moon looked down upon that small, solitary form, sitting upon a stone, halfway up the dike. His head was bent but he was not asleep, for every now and then one restless hand rubbed feebly the outstretched arm that seemed fastened to the dike - and often the pale, tearful face turned quickly at some real or fancied sounds.

How can we know the sufferings of that long and fearful watch - what falterings of purpose, what childish terrors came over the boy as he thought of the warm little bed at home, of his parents, his brothers and sisters, then looked into the cold, dreary night! If he drew away that tiny finger, the angry waters, grown angrier still, would rush forth, and never stop until they had swept over the town. No, he would hold it there till daylight - if he lived! He was not very sure of living. What did this strange buzzing mean? And then the knives that seemed pricking and piercing him from head to foot? He was not certain now that he could draw his finger away, even if he wished to.

At daybreak a clergyman, returning from the bedside of a sick parishioner, thought he heard groans as he walked along on the top of the dike. Bending, he saw, far down on the side, a child apparently writhing with pain.

'In the name of wonder, boy,' he exclaimed, 'what are you doing there?'

'I am keeping the water from running out,' was the simple answer of the little hero. 'Tell them to come quick.'

It is needless to add that they did come quickly.

The legend of the brave Dutch boy - by others thought to be named Hans Brinker - who supposedly put his finger in the dyke to prevent a flood, was actually a literary invention by the American writer Mary Elizabeth Mapes Dodge (1831-1905), who was born in New York.

Mary Mapes Dodge

Hans Brinker was made famous in the USA by her children’s novel Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, dating from 1865. In the chapter called ‘Friends in Need’ there is this story read out in class called 'The Hero of Haarlem'. This is the story - quoted above - of the heroic boy who saves the land from drowning by putting his finger in the dyke all night long. The adventure is situated near Haarlem, not yet in Spaarndam (both in the province of North-Holland). Actually, the hero in the story remains anonymous, but still the adventure is mostly attributed to Hans Brinker, Hansie Brinkers or Peter of Haarlem. (By the way, several of the names Mary Mapes Dodge invented perhaps look or sound Dutch for Americans, but they are not, and sometimes they look more like German names - Hans' sister for instance is called Gretel, like in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale).

After the story about the ‘Hero of Haarlem’ is read out in class, the chapter continues, and another character in the novel claims the story is based on facts and concludes:

True! Of course it is! [...] I have given you the story just as Mother told it to me, years ago. Why, there is not a child in Holland who does not know it. And [...] you may not think so, but that little boy represents the spirit of the whole country. Not a leak can show itself anywhere either in its politics, honor, or public safety, that a million fingers are not ready to stop it, at any cost.

The novel itself is about something completely different: Hans and his sister Gretel want to win silver skates in a skating race, so that they can use the money for their poor father, Raff Brinker, who lost his job after a fall from a scaffolding.

Modern edition of Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates

The art historian Annette Stott states that with Hans Brinker Mary Mapes Dodge created a work of pure fiction: "She had not visited Holland when she wrote it and relied on a variety of published sources about Dutch life, literature, and art for her information. She also mined the memories of a Dutch-born couple living in the United States." (Holland Mania, p. 240). Stott concludes her research on the book by saying: "The fanciful tale of a finger in the dike, which was repeated by other authors of juvenile literature, undoubtedly went some distance toward establishing in young American minds a belief in the courage, independence and trustworthiness of the Dutch" (Holland Mania, p. 241). Somehow, Mary Mapes Dodge tried to depict Holland as an ideal and idyllic nation of brave, righteous, godfearing farmfolk on wooden shoes.

It is said that 99% of the Americans know this so-called Dutch legend about the courageous 'Hans Brinker', mainly by reading the book at school, or hearing the tale from their parents. In the past, many American tourists left the Netherlands in disappointment, because none of the Dutch natives could point out the dyke where Hans Brinker saved the country. Fact is that the story of Hans Brinker was hardly present in the oral tradition or cultural awareness of the Netherlands, even though the book had been translated into Dutch as early as 1867 by P.J. Andriessen (De zilveren schaatsen, een schets uit het Noord-Hollandsche volksleven, illustrated by Charles Braakensieck). The book has been reprinted several times, always with the following addition by Andriessen to the Hans Brinker legend: "This sweet story is entirely the author's view."

Another fact is that there was absolutely no dyke to be shown to the tourists: no dyke, no boy with a finger in it, no Hans Brinker. In order to please the American tourists, the Dutch Bureau for Tourism decided to place a statue of Hans Brinker at Spaarndam in 1950, made by Grada Rueb. In 1954 the Dutch author Margreet Bruijn rewrote the old story as Een nieuw verhaal naar het oude boek van Mary Mapes Dodge (illustrated by Maarten Oortwijn). For the first time now, the adventure is situated in Spaarndam, obviously because of the statue. The inscription beneath the statue is in Dutch and English (American spelling) and it reads:

Opgedragen aan onze jeugd als een huldeblijk aan de knaap die het symbool werd van de eeuwigdurende strijd van Nederland tegen het water.

Dedicated to our youth, to honor the boy who symbolizes the perpetual struggle of Holland against the water.


The statue of the boy with the finger in the dyke at Spaarndam, also known as Hans Brinker

Note the emphasis on the word 'symbolizes', because the story is not true and the story is not a popular folktale in the Netherlands. Furthermore, the name Hans Brinker is missing (because it isn’t there in Mary Mapes Dodge’s novel either). Still, thanks to the statue the American tourists can visit the Dutch hero that never was...

Although it is suggested in the book that there exists an old Dutch folktale dealing with a boy sticking his finger in the dyke, it has never come down to us. No folktale older than the book can be found. Even after 1865, the tale can hardly be found in publications on Dutch legends - because the story was not told in oral tradition, and if it was, the collectors were probably not interested in 'fakelore' rather than 'folklore'. If Dutch folklorists bother to pay attention to the story, they never fail to point out the American origin. As far as I can see, just in one collection of Dutch folktales, Volksverhalen uit Noord- en Zuid-Holland (1980), a full version of the story is presented.

I have been collecting folktales myself since 1994, and I ask students to collect for me as well. Only once, in 1998, a student came back with a record of a briefly narrated Hans Brinker version, told by a 26-year old student. The female narrator from Goirle, North Brabant, did not know more about Hans than other Dutch people (if they know him at all). She literally told:

Yes, certainly I know the tale of Hansje Brinker... One day, Hansje walked along the dykes. The weather was bad: it kept on raining and raining. As he took a closer look at one of the dykes, he saw there was a hole in it. He ran to the village to call for help, but no one would believe him. Then he stuck his own finger into the hole... I believe it was his thumb... and so he prevented a disaster. According to me, the story is not as well known in the Netherlands as it is in America, but it's a funny tale for sure.

In Amsterdam Hans Brinker is better known as the name of a local, cheap youth hostel - for American backpackers.

The Hans Brinker budget hotel in Amsterdam

What might be the reason why the Dutch are not that keen on the story? It cannot be that we do not import American tales; we do so on a large scale nowadays, for instance where urban legends are concerned. The main reason is probably that the legend of Hans Brinker is just a silly story which can only be seriously told in a country where people haven't got the faintest idea of what a dyke looks like or how it works. Our dykes are not stone dams or walls (or so) and one can't prevent a flood by putting a finger in the dyke. We are protected from the sea mainly by dunes - no use putting a finger in the sand when the water comes! Real dykes are used against rivers and lakes (our IJsselmeer was once a sea, though), and they mainly consist of clay. Again, when the water comes, the clay gets soaked up and the dykes cave in on a large scale - a finger in the dyke won't help a bit. Another reason why the story is not favoured, could be that the Dutch don't like heroes much; more about this further on.

The Dutch are aware that the Americans tell this story, but we hardly have taken over this story in the oral tradition, because - like I said - we consider it to be a silly tale. Shortly after the statue was erected at Spaarndam, a folklorist caught a local Dutchman poking fun at the tourist trap:

That boy over there near the sluice - it's the same thing as Little Red Riding Hood: it's all make-believe! Do you know the difference between Hansie Brinkers and Manneke Pis [= Little Peeing Boy, another statue] of Brussels? No? Well, Manneke Pis lets it all go, while Hansie holds it all up!

Outside Madurodam (at The Hague), a tourist attraction showing Holland in miniature, there is another statue of Hans Brinker. Nowadays, the Dutch recognise the image of the boy putting his finger in the dyke, thanks to the Americans, but most of us don’t know the whole story. Hans Brinker may be a ‘Dutch Icon’, but he is much more a hero abroad than in the Netherlands itself.

Still, in the Dutch folk narrative repertoire there are a lot of tales about the sea, rivers, water and dykes to be found. If one looks for popular traditional Dutch legends, the tales of the Woman of Stavoren (Het Vrouwtje van Stavoren) and the Flying Dutchman (De Vliegende Hollander) would be better examples. In a nutshell, the first tale - a Frisian one - goes like this:

The Woman of Stavoren

A rich female merchant living in the prospering Dutch seaport town of Stavoren sends out her shipmaster on a journey to obtain the most precious thing in the world for her. Since no man can live without grain, the shipmaster returns with a load of grain. This is a bitter disappointment to the rich woman of Stavoren. She asks the shipmaster on which board the grain was loaded. When this turns out to be on larboard, the woman orders to throw the load into sea over starboard. A beggar warns the woman she is not to waste this precious food: she might be poor and hungry one day herself! Hereupon the haughty woman takes a golden ring from her finger. She throws it into the sea and says: "Sooner will I recover this ring than I will become poor". Then the load of grain is thrown overboard. A few days later there is fish (cod or haddock) on the menu. To the utter amazement of the woman of Stavoren, her golden ring comes out of the fish when cut open. Soon the woman is reduced to poverty: she looses her fleet and her worldly possessions. The seaport of Stavoren silts up and year after year empty grain grows out of the water.

Statue of Het Vrouwtje van Stavoren in Stavoren

It obviously is a story about how arrogance and haughtiness - one of the deadly sins - will be punished in the end.

The story of the Flying Dutchman has been told in the Netherlands in several variations. It all comes down to the fact that a Dutch captain (Willem van der Decken, Barend Fockesz etc. from Terneuzen in the province of Zeeland) once called in the help of the devil or committed some other crime, and since is doomed to sail the seven seas with his ghost ship for all eternity. When ships at sea encounter the Flying Dutchman (most of the time in stormy weather) it is considered to be an evil omen. This story was based on the English play The Flying Dutchman (1826) by Edward Fitzball and the novel The Phantom Ship (1837) by Frederick Marryat - so the origin of the story is not Dutch once more. In 1846 the novel was adapted into a Dutch story (‘Het Vliegend Schip’, The Flying Ship) by the clergyman A.H.C. Römer for the Zeeuwsche Volksalmanak.

A traditional folktale that has been told in the Netherlands many times and in many variations, can be called ‘Here is the Place (or: Time), Where is the Man?’ Here is one such version, told in Utrecht:

Where is the Man?

A fisherman from Spakenburg could hear voices in the water. Other people couldn’t hear a thing, but he could.

Once sailing on the Zuiderzee, there came a voice from the waves, asking: "Here is the place, where is the man?"

The fisherman decided to tell the minister, who became curious and wanted to hear the voice himself. The next time, the minister came aboard and sailed along.

It happened during the night. The fisherman came to the cabin of the minister and woke him up. The minister ran to the deck. In his hurry he stumbled, fell overboard and drowned.

After that the voice was heard no more.

So the minister met his destiny.

Here is another folktale on the subject of fate from the province of Groningen:

The herring in the bucket

When the Dollard was not there yet, there was a large farm in the neighbourhood of Termunten. One morning the farmer drew water from the well for his cattle.

To his utter amazement he saw a herring swimming in the bucket. He kept on breaking his head over this matter. Finally he concluded that the fish must have swum through the earth into the well. That could only mean, that the sea was undermining the land. One autumn storm and all the land would be swept away by the sea!

The entire summer he walked around with this secret. The man completely lost his sense of humour. A snap and a snarl was all he was good for.

He sold the farm and moved to another place on higher grounds. He could not find any peace of mind though. He could not sleep at night. In the daytime, he sat in his yard for hours, just staring...

As the first autumn storm came, the inevitable happened.

That same stormy night the farmer was found dead in the barn.

Basically, what the story means is: if your time has come, there is no escape. The farmer did not drown, but he died of misery after all. It's a peculiar version of this type of legend, by the way; in other versions the farmer, after finding the fish, leaves and survives, while the people that stay behind all drown.

The Dutch have several folktales about floods. Here is an example from the province of Zeeland:

Woodcut of the mermaid of Westenschouwen (1933)

The mermaid of Westenschouwen

One day the fishermen of Westenschouwen caught a creature, half human, half fish, in their nets. They took the ‘animal’ ashore. It was covered with seaweed and cried her eyes out. The whole day people gathered around the mermaid and just stared at her in amazement. In the evening a male voice was heard from the sea. It was the husband calling his wife and shouting to the fishermen that he wanted her back. Time and again the voice was heard, but the men refused to return their catch. The husband of the mermaid came back once more and spoke the following prophetic words:


Het zal je berouwen,

Dat je genomen hebt mijn vrouwe.


Zal vergaan

En de plompe toren zal blijven staan.



You will regret,

That you have taken my wife.


Will drown,

Only the plump church-tower will remain.

And that is exactly what happened.

Well, according to the legend that is. In fact the story gives a narrative explanation why the village was lost to the sea and why people had abandoned the houses and the church.

Another story about a flood and a mermaid was told in the province of North-Holland:

The mermaid of Edam

It happened in the first years of the fifteenth century. During a severe storm, a fierce and wild creature of the sea floated into the Zuiderzee. After that, this mermaid washed into Lake Purmer through a huge hole in the dyke. Here the mermaid floated around from one bank to the other, sleeping and waking. She was unable to reach the sea again, because, in the mean time, the hole in the dyke had been closed. She did not wear clothes, but she was covered with seaweed and moss. She searched for food at the bottom of the lake.

Women and girls sailed in small boats from Edam and other places to the other side of the lake, where they went to milk the cows. These women and girls noticed the mermaid and, at first, they were scared stiff by this strange appearance. However, after a while, when they saw her more often, they had the courage to surround the mermaid with their boats. They pulled her out of the water by force and took her to Edam. Over there, nobody was able to understand her language, whereas she did not understand our tongue. The people took the seaweed and the moss off her and she was dressed. She started to eat our food. Still, time and again she tried to jump into the water, so she was well guarded. A lot of folk came to look at her. The people of Haarlem wanted to have her, and the people of Edam decided to present her as a gift to the city of Haarlem. There she learned how to spin. For a long time, she lived in Het Gat in the Grote Houtstraat. In Haarlem she was burried at the churchyard, because she often made the sign of the cross like a good Catholic.

On the Purmer Gate in Edam, which was demolished in 1835, there once stood the statue of a mermaid. The following words were written there:

Dit beeld hier opgericht tot een gedachtenis

Wat in het Purmer-meyr voorheen gevangen is.

Anno 1403.


This statue was erected in memory

Of what had been caught in Lake Purmer.

In the year 1403.

In the past, it was actually believed that creatures like mermaids and water spirits existed.

The following folktale was told in the province of Groningen:

The fall of Tidde Winnenga

The farmers of Reiderland were the richest farmers of Groningen. The richest of them all was Tidde Winnenga.

One day, a severe storm was rising. Everybody worked to strengthen the dyke, except Tidde. His farm stood on higher grounds, so he didn't worry.

The neighbours urged him to help; the entire land was in great danger. Tidde Winnenga was stubborn. He would not leave his farm, he said, until the water on his land would be six feet high.

The dyke broke and the sea washed away the entire Reiderland. This is how the Dollard came into being.

In the middle of the night a man knocked at the door of the monastery Palmar, which was spared from the flood. A tall bowed figure asked for bread and shelter. Not for one night, but for good.

It was Tidde Winnenga, who lost all he'd got.

There was room for him at the convent, and they gave him food and lodging, for as long as he lived.

The story shows how a rich man can fall to poverty due to his stubborness and - above all - his selfishness: he should have helped the others to defend the land against the sea. Actually, this is the tale of Hans Brinker told the other way around, the way the Dutch people like it! Americans have a liking for heroes, and therefore like to tell stories in which a hero comes to the rescue with succes. The Dutch don't like heroes that much (except when they play football / soccer). Heroism is just showing off. We easily assume that 'heroes' feel themselves better than others, and we consider that to be a vice. One of the most common sayings in the Netherlands is: "Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg", which means: "Be normal, that's crazy enough". So a folktale-the-Dutch-way about a flooding should be: all goes wrong, not a hero in sight, the dykes break, everything gets flooded and (if possible) the one most guilty gets punished.

Here is another example of a Dutch folktale, from the province of South-Holland, dealing with a flood:

Childrensdyke (Kinderdijk)

It all happened during the Saint Elisabeth’s Flood [November 18th, 1421]. The waves washed over the low lands in a fury and everywhere dykes were swept away as if they were made of paper. People and cattle drowned and died a miserable death. Cries of dispair were heard all over the land.

But what does the sea care for lamentations? The water ran through the huge holes in the dykes, and swept away all that it encountered. This way no less than seventy-two villages near the city of Dordrecht drowned. The fertile soil changed into a vast stretch of salt water. Where once was life and industriousness, there now remained the Biesbosch with its creeks and its inlets.

Certainly, this is what happened during the days of the Saint Elisabeth’s Flood. Nothing remained of the seventy-two prospering villages. Houses and churches, people and cattle, it was all swallowed up by the sea.

It so happened that in these days one miracle occurred.

One human life was spared.

As far as the eye could see, there was water - there were waves everywhere. All that once lived, had gone under; but see, what was floating over there? That tiny dot over there, that object that rocked on the waves? Was it a cradle?

By all means, it was a cradle and there was a tiny rosy child lying in it. It sucked its little thumb and his blue eyes looked at the grey sky in an innocent way.

How was it possible that the cradle didn’t turn over? How could it be that the waves did not wash it away?

The answer was a cat on the hood of the cradle, jumping from left to right and back again, thus keeping the strange vessel in balance.

Where did the cradle come from and whatever happened to the child?

Nobody knows, but up until today, the very spot where the cradle came ashore is called Kinderdijk - Childrensdyke.

Windmills at Kinderdijk in the wintertime

All these Dutch legends are a bit gloomy - like legends should, for there is seldom a happy ending in legends. All the legends mentioned above somehow deal with the topics of destiny, fate, doom and misfortune. Man is powerless against these forces. Furthermore, the legends confirm that the water and the sea can give and take. Every once in a while there is room for a small miracle. Hardly any heroes can be found in our legends - victims can be found in abundance. If the victims are innocent, we sympathize. If the victims are guilty... serves them right!

The Netherlands have had their share of floods. In the Middle Ages they could come every decade. In the previous century there were two mayor floods in 1916 (Waterland) and 1953 (Zeeland). It's a disaster when the dykes break, but most of the time, throughout Dutch history, they stay intact and protect us perfectly. In approximately 98% of our days in time, the dykes did not break! Although it may be hard to believe to foreigners, there is no constant fear of flooding in the Netherlands, at least not in the recent past. We hardly give it a thought that we live below sea level - we don't feel threatened by it. Which is probably the best way to avoid an eternal depression. By the way, nowadays, most of the water that floods in, is not coming from the sea, but from the rivers, washing melted snow and rainwater from Switzerland, Germany and France towards us. Since we built houses beyond the dykes, people occasionally get wet feet. In order to prevent this, we are planning to break some dykes on purpose if necessary and inundate rural areas in order to spare urban areas. How about that, Hans Brinker?

Theo Meder

(Meertens Instituut, Amsterdam)