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...
(The entire section is 410 words.)