(A Dutch Tale)
The Kabouters are short, thick, hearty elves who live in the deepest parts of the forest. Thousands of years ago, when there were no church spires or bells in the Netherlands, people came from the south to spread their wisdom. When the chief Kabouter heard strangers were coming to his land, he gathered all his elves together and they agreed: They would help the good and kind teachers, but they would punish anyone who was rough or cruel.
And sure enough, some of the newcomers behaved rudely, destroying sacred landmarks, laughing at the people’s rituals and swimming in holy waters. The Kabouters punished them, turning their milk and bread sour, overturning their beds and tossing rocks down their fireplaces. Hats and coats and shoes went missing; fisherman found their nets torn; pots and pans tumbled out of the cupboards; cows wandered away.
But kind and gentle teachers never had trouble. Their bread and milk were always sweet, their beds made up, their clothes clean. Sometimes they found their gardens had been plowed and planted overnight, and when they gathered to build a church or meeting hall, they would find the beams cut and ready before they’d begun. In the morning, they found porridge cooking on the stove and biscuits baking in the hearth.
One day, the good teachers built a beautiful church. They wished to hang a concert of bells, a carillon or glockenspiel made up of dozens of bronze, cup-shaped bells to call to all the people — this would be a way to notify everyone near and far of floods and storms, of wars and fires. This would be a way to call everyone together. The Kabouters learned of the people’s desire.
Usually the Kabouters did not like to give people metal they dug from the mines; they feared people would use it to make spears and swords and other instruments of war. But when they learned about the carillon, they knew the people would need plenty of metal, and so they set to work.
They began to work night and day with their picks and their shovels, their chisels and crowbars, their mallets and hammers. They dug up copper and tin and built great fires where the ore was smelted into ingots. Before long, anyone who happened to visit the mines would see all these short-legged fellows with their long white beards and tiny coats dashing here and there — up and down into the mines.
When the fire grew too hot, they threw off their little red caps and their long coats and kept working. They worked harder and longer than any man could, and they were proud of the work they did. They might not have been as pretty and delicate as the fairies. They might not have possessed wands and other magical powers. But they had all the tools they needed, and they had all the strength and will to make the carillon.
As the days passed, the Kabouters grew tired, of course, and they were filthy with sweat running down their faces. While the Kabouter fathers worked the fires, the mothers took care of the babies. On they toiled, for weeks and weeks until they were as sooty as the soil itself. But when they had finished, they invited the gnomes into the mines to inspect the work they had completed. What a sight!
There in the mines there were bells of all sizes — bells so big they wouldn’t fit inside a barn, and bells the size of barrels, and small ones, too. Beside these were stacks of iron rods, bars, bolts, nuts, screws, wires and yokes from which to hang those bells.
In Dutch, the name for bell is “klok,” and a wise gnome was chosen to be the “klokken-spieler,” or bell player who would test the bells. The Kabouters hung those bells, and they all lined up to sing along with the sound.
The klokken-spieler hummed a moment and started to play a tune, and all those Kabouters began to sing — some of them booming, some twanging, even some squeaking. It was quite a sound at first. But gnomes and Kabouters do not give up, and when the klokken-spieler frowned, they paid closer attention to their conductor. Soon, to everyone’s delight, the sound that came out of that church was a beautiful, ringing harmony.
The bishop of a great church heard that music ringing through the air, and he felt chills run down his spine. He had traveled the world, but he had never heard such a beautiful sound — it was the richest, loveliest music he had ever heard. “It’s a choir of angels!” he cried.
After that, carillon bells spread far and wide, from the forests of Ardennes to the islands in the North Sea, and everywhere people celebrated and gave thanks to the Kabouters for the beautiful sound they produced.