Dutch Folklore: Elegast, The noble thief

Dutch Folklore: Elegast, The noble thief

This week we are going to delve into the wondrous journey that is Dutch Folklore yet again. This time we are looking at Elegast, the hero from the Dutch epic poem Karel ende Elegast. The original poem was probably written at the end of the 12th century and recounts the story of Elegast and Charlemagne the Great and how they discovered a plot to kill the king.

The outcast knight

Karel ende Elegast begins with Elegast, a knight of Charlemagne’s (Karel’s) court. He was once a friend of the great king but was disgraced and exiled from the king’s court. Elegast lived deep in the woods in the region around Charlemagne’s castle in Ingelheim, robbing from the rich and assisting the poor. His name suggests that he was elven, and indeed he was able to wield magic to help him rob others: he could speak to animals, put people into a magical slumber and cause locks to spring open with a single touch.

One night, Charlemagne is visited by a messenger of God in his dream. The heavenly vision told him to go thieving late the next night. The king, disguised as a lone thief, wanders the woods and comes across Elegast, who he instantly recognises. He approaches Elegast and suggests they plunder the untold riches hidden away in the great Charlemagne’s castle. Elegast, despite a strange feeling of familiarity, doesn’t recognise Charlemagne under the disguise.

Even though Elegast was exiled by Charlemagne, he refuses to steal from the king, thus proving his loyalty to Charlemagne. Elegast instead suggests they rob the castle of Eggeric van Eggermonde, Charlemagne’s brother-in-law. They break into the castle and, while sneaking around, Elegast overhears Eggeric plotting to kill Charlemagne to his wife. Elegast and Charlemagne sneak out of the castle whereby Elegast reveals the plot to the king.

Charlemagne invited Elegast back to his court. The next day, Eggeric enters Charlemagne’s court. He is accused by Elegast and is subsequently apprehended by guards, who find weapons concealed in his cloak. Elegast and Eggeric duel in the court and Eggeric is eventually killed. Charlemagne’s sister is married to Elegast, who is restored to his position in the king’s court.

King of the elves?

Elegast is often thought to be king of the elves. His name is derived from the same Germanic name as Elbegast. Eddic texts describe a dwarf named Elbegast, who in Northern European folklore is known as the king of elves and dwarfs. Scholars have also equated Elegast with Alberich, a sorcerer from Merovingian legends. He has also been linked with Oberon, King of the Fairies, who appears in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as other medieval and renaissance literature.

Historical Legend

Elegast is a unique hero in Dutch folklore for the time as he was Dutch, not Frankish. Most other poems from the time featured a Frankish hero and scholars believe that Elegast represents a pre-Christian archetype of a Dutch hero. The poem also supposedly describes how Ingelheim (Angel’s House) got its name, after the angel that visited Charlemagne in his dream.

The poem might also be based on a real-life event, specifically a plot to kill Charlemagne that was attested to in the Chronica Albrici Monachi Trium Fontium. The chronicle reads: “By the Austracians a dangerous plot was hatched against Charlemagne, of which Hardericus was the instigator. At the discovery of the plot, many were dismembered, and many were banished. [ ... ] And, as is told in a song, in order to discover this plot, Charlemagne, urged by an angel, went out thieving at night.”

Learning history

So that is the story of Elegast as told in the Karel ende Elegast. The character has unfortunately almost been lost to the mists of history; however, I hope you enjoyed learning about him today. Are there any characters from Dutch folklore you’d like me to explore next? If so, let me know in the comments! Until next time.

William Nehra


William Nehra

William studied a masters in Classics at the University of Amsterdam. He is a big fan of Ancient History and football, particularly his beloved Watford FC.

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