The Trees of Drie: A Tale of Three Giants

Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt van Rijn

Three Brothers

Once upon a time there were three Young giants; where they came from, no one knows, but there they were.
They lived carefree lives, they ate a lot and drank a lot and were happy and cheerful. When they were romping around together, the ground shook under their feet. The dwarfs, who lived underground, sat worriedly listening to all the violence, fearing the hills would come crashing down.
Frightened, they peered through the bushes, but when one of the young giants came running, they couldn’t hide away in their burrow soon enough.
In the evening, when the three exuberant savages were tired, they slept against the hillside and snored so loudly that the dwarfs, who lived in the hill, didn’t sleep a wink all that night.
Still, they weren’t evil or malicious giants; when they slept, a smile often passed over their pretty young giant’s face. Well, that can only happen when one is good and untroubled.

The next day the game began again. They chased the wolves, drove them into the wolves’ forest and locked them there. Or they caught a bear and made it dance; but the middle of the three brothers, the most kind-hearted one, released the wolves and the bear.
In that manner they romped around all day long, till they were tired.

In the evening they walked hand in hand, back to the great height, and the youngest was so very tired, that the two others had to support him.
When they arrived on top of the hill, the sun was just setting. The youngest two fell asleep immediately; but the eldest of the brothers sat there for a long time, watching the magical play of colours in the sky, and he was unable to explain why he felt so strangely moved. Until that night, he’d seen everything as it was, neither fair nor foul; but now he felt and unknown blessedness within himself. He knew that the god of the sun rode away through the gates of Asgard every evening; but this night it seemed as if he saw it for the first time.
From the other side the silent spirits of the mist now approached. They travelled around the hill, but not one of them came up to where he was sitting.
When the great eye of the night looked over the far woods, it could still see him there on the hill; but at last he laid himself down next to his brothers and was soon snoring as loudly as they were.
And again the dwarfs could not sleep a wink.

The third day, after they’d woken up, the giants looked around and saw that they could overlook the entire country from the hill.
There were the forests lying in the endless heath and, farther away, the rivers and the lakes. And the eldest said to the two others: ‘This is a fair land, we ought to settle here and build a hut.’
The two others agreed and they decided to start work immediately.
They lugged around trees and rocks and sods all day long. Four firm oaks were placed on the corners and between them they placed the pinewood planks and sods.
With an oak bludgeon they pounded the trunks into the ground, to the great fright of the dwarfs. Every beat held the sound of a giant’s will and then the tree would disappear a fathom deep into the earth.
When night fell the dwelling was finished and they made their first fire in the great hearth they’d built with rocks.

The Dwarfs

That night the dwarfs were again unable to sleep; but now they came together by the hundreds and decided to break down the house. They worked and carried all that night and tried to dig the trunks out of the ground; but by the next day they’d only managed to drag away a couple of heavy sods of dig a few tunnels around the posts.

When the giants woke up the following day, they said to each other: ‘There appear to be a lot of rabbits here’. One of them pounded down the soil with his heel so firmly that the tunnels could never be opened again, and another took up all the sods at once and placed them back on the roof.
In the evening, after the sun had set, the dwarfs convened again.
One of the principal dwarfs, who could speak well and enjoyed hearing himself, climbed on a rock and addressed the others: ‘Dear friends,’ he said, ‘our hills have been visited by a veritable plague. If we don’t chase those three giants away from here, we shan’t have a life anymore. They walk around so rudely that our houses are at risk. They snore so unbecomingly, that we can’t sleep at night. At the moment even my words are almost drowned by that scandalous noise. In one single day, they eat more than we do in an entire year; they act as if we don’t exist at all. It cannot, may not go on like this. Yesterday night we attempted to break down their house, but it’s built so well, that it’s a waste of time. What we destroy in one night they repair within moments. We’re not strong enough to withstand them, so we must try to make their lives impossible in as many ways as we can. Because, my friends, all our lives are built on these little things.’
The speaker was interrupted by another dwarf, who was standing farther back and disrupted the speaker by shouting nothing but: ‘I know a way, a good way, a proper way, a thorough way!’
‘Well come on then, what way?’ shouted the others.
‘A great way! A great way! We’ll steal the fire from their hearth and burn down their house.’
The crowd cheered loudly: ‘Yes, yes, we must set fire to the house, then we’ll be freed from the plague.’
‘But how will we get in,’ said one of the most staid dwarfs.
‘Well, we’ll dig a tunnel under the house, leading to the hearth,’ shouted one of the dwarfs.
Except the first speaker and the staid dwarf, who kept shaking their heads, all moved excitedly away from the speakers’ chair towards the hill, to start immediately.

They dug and dug, but the three young giants, who were lying there, sleeping unconcernedly, snored so loudly, that parts of the tunnel kept collapsing and many dwarfs died.

Eventually, no one felt inclined to go on and the whole attempt ended in flight.

The next day, the giants said to each other: ‘There seem to be molls around, there’s a tunnel right there. We will lay a stone floor and pound it firmly in place.’
That evening the giants were seated on their stone floor, around the hearth. The fire was burning merrily and they sat together for a long time, talking of their plans to sow rye and plant trees. The door stood open an inch, and out there, in the great silent night, the dwarfs were standing, peering inside. While they stood there like that, they had to admire the strong house and the three beautiful young giants; but because of their dwarf-souls, they expressed their admiration in a peculiar manner. ‘Look at that coarse house,’ said one.
‘Such ungainly beams,’ said another,
‘and such a hard floor made of rocks,’ said a third.
‘Those giants are such ugly, stupid, rude monsters,’ voiced a fourth, ‘they know nothing about engineering, they could learn something from us. What kind of fool builds a house above ground, when you know the spirits of the storm will destroy it. Such an ugly, course thing towers over everything, ruining the entire country. We must clean up that mess, and fast.’
‘I do think it pretty and stout,’ said a sweet dwarf-lady, who was standing modestly at the back.
‘Go home and mind the kitchen,’ snapped her husband, ‘but don’t speak of things you know nothing about.’
The giants didn’t notice any of this, submerged as they were in their great plans.

The youngest was the first to be woken by the smell of fire, and when he looked up, the room was full of smoke and there were flames everywhere. He woke up his two brothers. They managed to get out of the house just in time. They’d barely made it outside when the heavy beams and rafters of the roof came crashing down. It was useless to think of putting out the fire now.

Shocked, the three brothers witnessed the destruction of the lovely, strong house, which they’d built with such care.
Dwarfs sat giggling behind every bush, and in the clearing that surrounded the house they danced in the large circle around the burning building. But the three giants didn’t see that. Speechless they stood staring into the leaping flames. ‘We forgot to close the door last night,’ said the middle one at last. ‘I think, that the wind blew some sparks from the hearth.’
‘It could have been lit by and evil spirit that sneaked inside. We must be sure to lock our door in future,’ said the eldest.
‘First we must get a door,’ said the second.
‘Tomorrow we’ll start building again,’ they said almost at the same time, ‘and then we’ll build three houses instead of just one.’
‘If one of them burns down, we’ll have two left.’

Gone were the fear and gloom. Before the sun had even risen, they were on their way to fetch timber and sods. The dwarfs had to look on, hatred filling their hearts, while the building began where the ruin still smouldered.

Tending the Soil

In the sound of their pounding an even more powerful will could be heard. That night a new, even stronger and more beautiful house stood ready.
Within a week three such houses were standing there.
Around them, they’d planted elder bushes1 to keep the evil spirits out; on each roof lay a clump of Thor’s beard2 to prevent the lightning from striking, and at night the doors were locked.

When all this was finished, the giants began ploughing the earth and sowing rye, and while they worked they sang exuberantly.
But the dwarfs brought chafer grubs and weeds to the fields, causing the harvest to fail and turn out very meagre, and at night, even before the mowing had started, they beat down all the rye, making it extremely difficult to mow.
Bu the three brothers pulled out the weeds, ploughed the fields even deeper and surrounded them with thick hedges.

Once, when the giants had little to do, they went to the woods, fetched some beautiful young beeches and planted them on top of the mountain to protect their homes from the westerly gales.
The dwarfs undermined the trees and cut their fine root hairs. But when one tree died, the giants planted two others in its place.
The trees grew very slowly; but because they had to suffer so much they grew up to be very strong. Soon the roots were so tough that the dwarfs couldn’t possibly saw through them.

One day in autumn the youngest of the giants, who had always been of a restless nature, said: ‘I shall leave this place. The ground is fallow and poor and those sneaky dwarfs bore me. I’ll go West, they have better soil there.’
He packed his bag and walked away across the mountains and forests. The two others wistfully looked after him and said: ‘He’ll come back soon, there are dwarfs out West as well and they’re about as welcoming as the ones here.’
But winter came and went and the youngest of the giants did not return.

Spring came and then the middle brother said: ‘I think I shall go West myself, I believe the soil is better there. Our brother shan’t return, I’ll go to him.’
Wistfully the eldest watched the second brother, cheerful and full of courage, walk away across hills and forests, across villages, cities and rivers, seas and mountains. This one was so full of hope, that he couldn’t possibly suspect that he would never reach his goal.
When he had disappeared from sight, the last brother was left alone.
He closed up the two their houses, tended to the fields and the trees. Sometimes he felt the desire to go West himself and see how his brothers were doing; but who would look after the harvest and the trees then?
The place he had made so much of an effort for had grown too dear to him. He couldn’t leave it.


And in the evening, when he was sitting outside and looked West, where the god of the sun drove his golden wagon through the open gates of Asgard, then his thoughts would turn to the first night he had seen that spectacle, when his brothers had lain next to him, quietly sleeping: to the time when together they locked the wolves in the forest, made the bear dance and built the first house. Now there were two more houses, silent and abandoned.
In that manner he could sit, staring West, reminiscing for hours.
He tended the fields and the trees; perhaps his brothers would return, then everything would be good, the way it used to be, and they would find everything in perfect order.

One night, while he was sitting there, he saw them coming, from very far away, and the youngest was carrying the other and called out to the eldest in a loud voice. Quickly he stood up to go towards them, but when he was standing he realised that all he had seen were the clouds, and all he had heard was the voice of the wind.

Years passed. The fields became more fertile and the trees grew slowly but immensely, and bored their roots deep into the soil. More than once the spirits of the storm attempted to tear them down. During wild, dark nights they came, storming the trees in large wild hordes, tearing at their stout trunks, beating the treetops with their black claws and screaming devilish chords, so that the lonely occupant of the house was startled awake and fearfully thought of all his hard work, which might be destroyed; the next day only some tender leaves would be lying on the ground like torn off illusions; but the trees stood more strongly than ever before.

Many years after the last giant had died like a lonely watcher, humans came. They found fertile fields and three silent, moss-grown houses and the called the place Drie.
Now the trees are standing there like sheltering guardians. Their roots grow through the entire world, and their high tops are a steady beacon for the sailors3.
There they stand, high and mighty and inviolate.
But then, they were planted by giants.

This story and the footnotes were translated, and at times elaborated, by Eva Weggelaar from the Sagas of the Veluwe/Veluwsche Sagen, written by Gust van de Wall Perné and published in 1910-1912 by Scheltens & Giltay.

Wenceslas Hollar, Zuyder Zee
Wenceslas Hollar, Zuyder Zee


1. The elder was seen as a powerful defence against evil spirits. It was planted in front of cellar windows to protect the butter and milk against magic, and near the stables to guard the cattle. He who waved an elder bush around would hit the evil spirits with such force, that they would no longer be able to commit their evil deeds.
2. Thor’s beard or houseleek planted on the roof was thought to protect the home against bad weather.
3. Not far outside the ‘Oranjesluizen’ (literally, Orange-sluices) of Amsterdam, approximately opposite Naarden, the sailors of the Zuyderzee ( a former bay of the North sea, now dammed) could already see the trees of Drie (Three).

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