The magazine of the Meertens Institute in Amsterdam, Vertelcultuur, has published their last issue today with a blistering review for The Silent Listener. The Life and Works of J.H.W. Eldermans. The review is in Dutch and can be found here.
For non-Dutch speakers, here is a translation of the review, written by Prof. Dr. Theo Meder:
The Gnomes, magic and myth-making by J.H.W. Eldermans
In 2003 the Meertens Institute got word about a very special Dutch manuscript in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle (Cornwall). The title of the manuscript was: Nature spirits, pixies, gnomes etc. leftovers no. 16B. The name of the creator was also known: J.H.W. Eldermans (1904-1985). The handwriting was so appealing, with beautiful calligraphy and amazing drawings, that we would love to have a copy for further study. Intern Manon ter Hofstede studied the entire manuscript in 2008 (more than 450 pages) and extracted 97 folktales which she placed with metadata and pictures in the databank for Dutch folktales.
We are not dealing with a gnome-book of the type Rien Poortvliet. It appears to be a pre-study in folklore, as most of the citations are taken from books and other publications. There is no order or narrative. The dates suggested it to be a growing life’s work which started roughly in the 1930’s, but in reality Jan Eldermans started working on it from the 1970’s and onward (some sources are a complete fabrication by the way, like the Sammlung Schmidtke). What resides in Boscastle nowadays is far from complete: there are pages missing. The addition “Leftovers 16B” suggests there has to be more, not necessarily about gnomes, but at least about magic and folklore. Near the end of his life Eldermans has destroyed materials. A part of his works were about sexual magic, sadomasochism and secret occult societies. Apparently he wanted all traces gone before his demise. After his sudden passing a lot of the material was saved, inherited by various family members. A part was auctioned and a (smaller) part went to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.
Cultural historian Wilmar Taal has spent the past years in a detailed study of Eldermans and his manuscripts, and discovered parts with family members, but also in private collections in Switzerland and Austria, and he is convinced not everything has been recovered yet. Taal published his findings in an English book: The Silent Listener. The Life and Works of J.H.W. Eldermans. This voluminous and exciting study informs the reader about the secretive fascinations of Eldermans, but also debunks some of the mythical stories around him. According to these stories Eldermans was a top official of the Department of Justice and had access to the Royal Family. Nothing of the sort, says Taal, Eldermans was actually a simple probation officer most of his life. But he loved to appear as someone more important, like a Police-inspector or a criminologist. He also suggested to have ties or even lead secret occult (BDSM) societies, with imaginative names like Ars Amatoria, Mystica Maxima, Society Sanosex and Ars Amandi; none of these societies have been proven to have ever existed. Some of the SM-objects Jan describes and draws are not used in SM-circles or are even unknown to them. Eldermans’ collecting- and artwork, as well as his fantasies were supposed to spice up his somewhat boring life. In the imaginary world he created, he thought himself to be a magister with the magical name Janel Dermans.
As said before, the gnome-manuscript is not a coherent story, but more a collection of notes. Text and drawings do unveil what fascinated him in the first place. On one hand the appearance of the gnomes: their length, their beardy appearances, their clothing with pointy hat and diverse tools. On the other hand Eldermans was fascinated by the idea that gnomes can assist you in finding hidden treasure. These stories circulated in Twente, where Eldermans lived for a couple of years. Gnomes could direct you to the place where the treasure was buried, but once you start digging, you needed to repel the gnome as well: once you take the treasure with you, you must keep an angry gnome at bay (traditional gnomes are very unpredictable).
Very intriguing is the chapter about the myths around Eldermans. These mythical stories are often concocted by Jan himself, but also people around him started to tell tales that could not be true. For instance tall tales about Eldermans’ involvement in the arrest of the director of the Boymans museum who collaborated with the nazi’s, while his name is never mentioned in the official records. Or about a meeting with Houdini, who demonstrated to a couple of policemen how to escape from all kinds of handcuffs, except for the Chinese cuffs Eldermans presented. Alas… When Houdini passed away, Jan was still a student in the Sports Academy.
On internet Jan Eldermans is mentioned with the hazy, unscientific and wild conspiracy theories concerning the Round House of Frank van Vloten in Nunspeet, where an elitary pedophile network were sexually abusing girls, and the stage for human sacrifice in the woods in honor of an occult pagan-germanic ideology. Eldermans was supposed to have investigated this… Quod non! Eldermans never was a police-inspector, not a top official, didn’t work for the secret service, was not a criminologist, not a magister of an occult society and not even a freemason.
In the book The Silent Listener are a few small mistakes, quite often mistakes in translation, from English or Latin. These are the typical minor details which do not disturb the main narrative and can be corrected in a second edition. Much more important than these small mistakes is that many questions about the dark past and remarkable works which circulated for years, are finally being cleared up. From Wilmar Taal I understood that the publication of his book was an occasion for new informants to come forward to give their version of affairs. Eldermans himself wasn’t a Latinist, by the way, he copied Latin texts without even understanding what they were about – that is, how the missing words and incorrect grammar should be interpreted.
In The Silent Listener Jan Eldermans comes across after an intriguing quest as an avid collector and amateur-researcher, a gifted artist, an admirer of magical rituals and occultism, a believer and sceptic alike when it comes to gnomes and finally an air monger, a myth maker and a liar. Next to that he was a “Silent Listener” who consumed the folktales told by others – starting with the serious intended stories about Gnomes he heard as a young man on De Veluwe. But he also knew how to be silent, or put up a smokescreen about the dark aspects of his own personality and actions.
Wilmar Taal: The Silent Listener. The Life and Works of J.H.W. Eldermans. London, Troy Books, 2018, 413 pages.
© 2018 Theo Meder/Wilmar Taal