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The Night Ferry: Sailing Souls to England

Updated on February 6, 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.

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The Night Ferry

The seagull slept in the dunes, huddled down in her feathers. The slumbering surf merely rustled. From the farthest dales, the little owl's complaint sounded through the tangible dark of the mist: it was the midnight hour. And on the dark slope of the quiet and lonely dune, a wooden dwelling humbly rose up. There, fisher Aescwin was resting after the hard labour of the day. There, youthful Aescwin rested and dreamed of his bride. The black raven of the night cawed: it was the midnight hour.


Then there sounded a soft knocking on the window. A shiver ran through the stout son of the sea, through his dreams, their substance slipping away. He shivered, and woke, and sighed: 'Again, so soon!'. But he hurriedly jumped out of his bed of straw and lowered his window. The moon hid among the clouds, it was a dark night and the humming surf rustled like a lament of the dead. In sombre silence he went to the still and lonely beach.


The waves carried a strange craft onto the sands, the whispering waves washed up the strange vessel. It was as if the dark sea steadily rose. And deeper, ever deeper sank the boat in the flood, as if heavily loaded with an unseen host. Deeper and deeper the boat sank in the flood, until it passed the bed of waves. Then an icy breath silently blew the ferryman on his way.


And he understood the sign and grasped the double oars. An audible, pressing silence surrounded the hollow craft; but as fast as light the boat glided through the smooth bed of the sea. The heavens were black and dark, the sea didn't make a sound; it was as if the coolness blew out its last breath. But as fast as light the boat moved through the smooth bed of the sea. And audibly, the pressing silence surrounded the hollow craft.


At times the moonlight broke through the black clouds, casting its glow only on Aescwin in the strange boat. And nothing but the strange vessel, which cut through the bed of waves, was seen that night on the endless waste of the sea.


He had set off from the beach at the midnight hour and barely an hour later he reached the opposite shore. He heard a murmuring rustle which hovered around him; he heard a hollow whispering, as if names were being read out. He heard of the far and strange, of an unknown tribe, he heard of one who witnessed this with silent sighs. And the boat rose higher and higher, ever higher on the flood, as if an unseen host departed.

Among those names, as mumbled by unseen lips in the loneliness of the night, he heard, with a shiver that froze the blood in his veins, the name of Elva Béowulf, the bride he loved with his very soul. He sank down in the boat, which floated away across the water: he now knew that his Eva had died that night. He never touched the oars; but still the light craft cut as if on the crest of the storm through the smooth water.


At dawn he entered his Elva's dwelling, where he found her father in tears and the family crying: she was lying there so fast asleep, his fair young bride, but would not wake up: she was death's prize.


And in the dark twilight of that new midnight, another ferryman carried the invisible load of souls. And when he landed on the other side, holding his breath, he heard the name of the lad Aescwin in the mumbling.

From Kennemerlandse Balladen/Ballads of Kennemerland by Willem Jacob Hofdijk, 1850. Translated from Dutch poetry to English prose by Eva Weggelaar.

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Between Brittia and the Low Countries

Procopius, a writer from the sixth century, tells of a local legend alive among the Austrasian subjects of the Merovingian Franks who inhabited the north-eastern part of the Frankish territory:

"They imagine that the souls of the dead are transported to that island. On the coast of the continent there dwell under Frankish sovereignty, but hitherto exempt from all taxation, fishers and farmers, whose duty it is to ferry the souls over. This duty they take in turn. Those to whom it falls on any night, go to bed at dusk; at midnight they hear a knocking at their door, and muffled voices calling. Immediately they rise, go to the shore, and there see empty boats, not their own but strange ones, they go on board and seize the oars. When the boat is under way, they perceive that she is laden choke-full, with her gunwales hardly a finger's breadth above water. Yet they see no one, and in an hour's time they touch land, which one of their own craft would take a day and a night to do. Arrived at Brittia, the boat speedily unloads, and becomes so light that she only dips her keel in the wave. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see any one, but they hear a voice loudly asking each one his name and country. Women that have crossed give their husbands' names."

From Procopius’ De Bellis. History of the Vandal Wars, ca. 540s CE, Books III and IV, translated by H. B. Dewin. 1916.

While Dewin’s translation renders both Brittia and Britannia as islands, only Brittia is actually described as an island by Procopius. Several other things mentioned by him, such as the name of the island, the three nations which inhabit it – the Frisians, the Angles and the Britons - and the wall that traverses it, make it more than likely that ‘Brittia’ means Britain. Stories like this were still known in parts of The Netherlands, Belgium and France in the 20th century.

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