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The Key to Happiness - A Tale of Envy

Updated on October 27, 2017
Eva Weggelaar profile image

Eva Weggelaar is a writer and translator, especially interested in poetry and folklore. She also runs her own blog: Paradise is this Way.


Two Giants

Between Schoonloo and Zweel lies a large field, where no houses stand and through which only a few roads run: he who goes there must not fear loneliness. Once upon a time two giants lived there, named Brammert and Ellert. Brammert was so tall that he covered the entire width of the field when he laid himself down: Ellert would rest lying lengthwise, and in this manner one of them would always know when someone was passing, someone they could rob: either Ellert knew or Brammert, one of them would always know.

During the day they would wire the field and tie unbaptized bells to the wire. When a human approached, he would touch the wire, the bells would sound and Brammert and Ellert would hurry toward the sound; many a treasure they had uncovered through the years. But they weren't satisfied. For they didn't rob and kill just because of it. They robbed and killed because long ago it was prophesied that one day someone would pass along the field carrying the key to happiness. They desired that key, and they were disappointed when they'd killed a traveller in whose pockets they only found gold and silver... They always envied each other, as each of them thought that the other had deviously acquired the key without mentioning it. They kept guard over each other, like two dogs out for the same prey, they were each other's shadow, like two captives bound by a single chain.

Mistrust Between Father and Son

Once, during a dark night, Brammert, the father, who was three inches shorter than Ellert but had a brain that was three inches bigger, had killed a knight and, since Ellert hadn't woken up immediately, it took a while before the son discovered the body. They had found a purse, as full of gold as a fresh spring is full of water. But Ellert, with his limited mind (was his brain not three inches smaller?), immediately thought that Brammert had the key, and said to himself: 'First I must wait and see whether Brammert will confess voluntarily. Tomorrow I'll pretend that he has betrayed his secret in his sleep.`
They laid themselves down to rest and snored so loudly that the birds were too numbed to sing the following morning. Then Ellert loudly called Brammert: 'You've been dreaming a lot, dad.'
'What do you mean by that, dear son?' asked Brammert.
'Oh, I heard that you have found the key.'
'I found the key, dear son? Oh no, gold and silver, that was all that the man had on him and it wasn't much.'
'Come on chap, you and I don't have to tell each other tales. Just confess that you found the key and then we won't waste another word on the subject.'
'Ha-ha,' thought Brammert, who was the smartest, 'now you give yourself away, dear boy. You'll be out for my life the minute I have the key in my possession.' That was what he thought, but what he said was this: 'Do you suppose that I'd tell you now, if I have the key? No! When I do find it, you can keep it, because you are the biggest and strongest of the two of us. I'm three inches shorter than you are and I feel too weak for such a hard task.'

Dumb Ellert believed this until a salesman travelled through the field a few days later and Brammert was the first to profit from it. By the time Ellert approached the murder and robbery had already been done and again the son mistrusted the father. 'Why,' he wondered, 'is Brammert always first? That's easy to understand, he wants the key and doesn't want to give it to me.' He couldn't sleep a wink all night, because he kept thinking about how he could make his father confess. Finally, long after dawn as he had kept wondering how to do it, he went to his father and said: 'You know, father, what I dreamt last night?'
'How should I know, dear son?' asked Brammert, who had always learned that questions get you further in this world than answers.
'I dreamt that you found the key.'
'How could I have found it?'
'From the salesman!'
'He had much too much money with him. He was much too much troubled by worries.'
'You're right about that, father. No! then I dreamt wrongly.' Within himself he laughed, and considered: 'The third time he'll surely betray himself. Then I won't have to wait for an answer at all, he'll tell me in al innocence and I shall kill him to have the key to myself. Let one single human come and try to take it away from me then. My fists are stronger than hammers, the muscles of my arms are equal to swords, and who would dare to attack me anyway? Even my old father I will kill in honest battle, being three inches taller than he is.'
But had he known how Brammert thought about him, he would not have been quite as sure of himself. 'My dear son thinks he can conquer all the world by force. As if he doesn't know that my brain is three inches bigger than his... How did I father such a stupid son?'

Now there was enmity and distrust between them and they each desired to get away from the other. Certainly they would have, if it wasn't for the fact that they both desired the key. They wouldn't allow each other a thing, silently they perpetrated their evil deeds, no longer with the mutual sympathy that binds evil people. Aye, in Ellert the secret wish to kill Brammert lay hidden. Had he dared, he wouldn't have hesitated a single second. He had lost his conscience and the voices he heard inside his head stimulated him to perform bloody deeds. He had sworn never to wash his hands, so that they would retain the colour and the smell of blood.
Brammert noticed that Ellert was tortured by dark lusts: he could see it in his eyes, over which the dark shadow of a bright glow was cast; and also by the short, red fingers, which kept clamping in the palm of his hand, and by the way the thick lips would separate, exposing the white teeth in a grimace, and by the thoughtful smile etched along his mouth and cheek. He knew, and his mind hummed with it: 'He doesn't dare to kill me because I'm wiser than he is. He knows that my wit can conquer his force. As long as I am alert and watchful when he is near, he can't conquer me.'


A Girl

One day a girl came, who hadn't been warned, passing from the village Sleen through the field. She touched one of the ropes and immediately the bells began to sound. Brammert and Ellert hurried towards the noise. The girl tried to escape, running along the road – a person haunted: the fear of death was upon her. In a single leap Ellert, the largest of the two giants, had reached her. He grabbed her with both hands and laughed. 'This is something we've never had, a woman on the field. Now we have someone who can prepare our meals and wash our feet when they are hurt,' he joked.
'Let me go,' begged the girl.
'Let you go? We're much too happy that we've got you. We shan't kill you, either.’

The girl hid her face in her hands and wept. Never before had Brammert and Ellert seen tears, they'd only heard cries of fear and damnation, but never of sadness. Ellert stood chuckling: 'We've never had a catch like this, father. And the best thing is, that she hasn't got any money and couldn't possibly carry the key to happiness, as in that case she would look more content. But, as there has never been a woman here, we will keep her.'
Brammert looked at her, and there was an unusual kindliness in his eyes: such as one often sees, when a strong human meets a small and unhappy creature.... A quiet smile and a proud pity could be discerned in his eyes. The girl looked up at him, trustingly, and perhaps she sensed immediately that, though Ellert was stronger and seemingly more powerful to protect her, Brammert's brain was three inches bigger and he was prepared to be kind.

During the days that followed, Ellert forgot the key to happiness... a numb pain enveloped his heart, seeing the young girl smile when she was with Brammert and weep when Ellert came near her. Gloomily he stared at Brammert, whose face seemed transformed. Now he looked like one whose every wish has been granted. And suddenly it hit him, the way an arrow hits its mark, the thought came rising up from the depths of his soul: that Brammert had found the key to happiness and that he himself would be without it till the end of his days. Lonely he walked along the field and moaned like the wind. Before he knew what was happening, tears as big as a man's fist were running down his cheeks and he cried woefully, just as the young girl had done. 'Brammert has the key to happiness,' it hummed through his mind, ' and I may watch... How can I possess it? I want it so badly... I can't allow him the key. I'll kill him, as soon as I can.' He smelled his hands, which were like blood. 'Even tonight,' an evil voice whispered, 'as he lays himself down, his head on the hill, I will push an iron pin through his head, and never will he rise again: I shall take the key from him as soon as he lies dead.`


The Result of Envy

Brammert dreamed with open eyes. Now he did not suspect that Ellert wanted him dead. He drank of happiness until it bubbled up in his soul. Never again did he want to rob and kill, he wanted to leave the field and get far away from his past. It was the last night he spent on earth. His head lay back on the broad hill, which is still called the Brammert’s Mound. He was intoxicated by happiness, deeply and heavily his dreams sank into his consciousness.
The moon shone when Ellert moved closer and bent over him. The light of the moon formed a white cloud sunk to earth, and twilight covered the ground over which a vague, palely-silver sheen hovered. In that glow Ellert beheld Brammert's countenance. A smile guarded his sleep. 'He possesses the key to happiness,' thought Ellert. He took the pin and drove it into Brammert's forehead with a heavy hammer, deep into his brains until the giant's head lay anchored to the hard soil. No pain showed in his expression, the peaceful smile remained. Happiness filled him in that last second of his life.

There was a woman who wept for him at the first light of day. Ellert stood next to her, dark voices speaking in his blood: 'Never will you find the key that he has found. Generations on, your name will still be a curse, Ellert, Ellert, and never will your name be forgotten, Ellert, Ellert...' He took the sword, which had taken seven smiths seven years to make, and pierced his own heart. He fell down, next to his father, without complaint. Their blood mingled. The land where he died, bore his name: Ellert's field. It was a land cursed and damned.

-From ‘Nederlandse Sagen en Legenden’ by Josef Cohen, published by W.J. Thieme & Cie, 1917 and translated here by Eva Weggelaar-

An Old Version

The oldest known version of this tale was written down in 1660 by Johan Picardt:
'It was around this time that the folk believed these two infamous murderers named Ellert and Brammert to have lived, father and son remaining awhile on that great wide field between Scharloo and Sweel, which is said to be named Ellers-field after this Ellert, and Brammers-mound after this Brammer. These have plundered wagons and carts, murdered passengers and gentry, and many incendiary letters were written while they did much harm: and all the more safely as in those days Justice was not performed as the Bishop David of Burgundy would have. Of these murderers it was told that they had taken a daughter and also that she had been made pregnant; and that she had cut the throat of the father in the absence of the son and had fled upon discovering these horrors.’

-Annales Drenthiae by Johan Picardt, 1660 and translated here by Eva Weggelaar


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