La Légende et les aventures héroïques, joyeuses et glorieuses d’Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzak au pays de Flanders et ailleurs, 1867 (The Legend of the Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel in the Land of Flanders and Elsewhere, 1918)
Legendes Flamandes, 1858 (Flemish Legends, 1920)
Les Contes Brabançons, 1861
In Belgian literature the names most familiar to English-speaking readers have been Maurice Maeterlinck and Émile Verhaeren. A name that has largely been overlooked is Charles Theodore Henri de Coster (KAWS-tur), the man whom Verhaeren called “the father of Belgian literature.” De Coster studied law at the University of Brussels. Later he filled a responsible position with the Société Générale, but he found this work too constricting. Instead, he began writing political articles and novels, first as a freelance writer and later as instructor of French literature at the Military School of Brussels. It was here, after a quiet life, that he died, relatively unmourned for one so important to Belgian letters.
The task de Coster set for himself was to create the conscience of his people. He believed, however, that the people of the middle class were all “tarred with the same monotony,” so he went to the peasants and collected their tales, and he looked to the Flemish past and studied its history and its painters. These interests gave direction to his talent and shape to his art.
His collection of folktales, Flemish Legends, sketches the vigor and wit of peasant life turned to a purpose beyond folk learning and beyond art for its own sake. One tale, for example, contains the familiar pact with the devil and three wishes motifs, but the story points to a political moral. Smetse Smee, a Flemish peasant, outwits the devil each time, and the three guises of the devil correspond to three enemies of Flanders, culminating in the one most hated, Philip II of Spain.
That monarch also appears in de Coster’s greatest book, The Legend of the Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel in the Land of Flanders and Elsewhere. Here Philip is villainously opposed to Tyl, the popular, quick-witted, open-hearted prankster of German and Flemish folklore. The subject is ostensibly the sixteenth century revolt of some Low Country provinces against Philip and his hangman in Flanders, the duke of Alba. The novel outgrows its historical setting; it is the epic of the race, and Ulenspiegel is the soul of Flanders. Reading Tyl’s episodic adventures, the reader may laugh, but at the same time there is a somber strain that de Coster never lets his audience forget. This is a history chronicling a people who have suffered and endured. At de Coster’s death he was unheralded, but succeeding generations have come to recognize his worth.