Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen Essay - Critical Essays

HansJakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen


In keeping with the traditional form of the picaresque novel, Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s The Adventurous Simplicissimus is written from the first-person point of view, and the events it relates are presented as autobiography. The protagonist narrates his life history from boyhood to early manhood against the background of the Thirty Years’ War and its aftermath. The contents of the novel are highly episodic and often anecdotal in character. Even though supernatural incidents occur with some frequency, most of the narrative is realistic in tone. There is, in fact, much gross physical detail depicting the sexual escapades of the hero as well as the act of brutality committed by combatants serving on both sides of this savage conflict.

Like many other creative spirits of the Baroque era, the author of the Simplician cycle was preoccupied with opposition and contradiction. The Adventurous Simplicissimus is frequently described as contrapuntal in its contrast of dualities such as innocence and experience, civilian and military, Catholic and Protestant, and spiritual and mundane. Another prominent feature of the novel is its allegorical character. Although far less didactic than John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), The Adventurous Simplicissimus is likewise an account of the journey of a human soul through the perils of a sinful world in a quest for salvation.

Of the various autobiographical parallels in The Adventurous Simplicissimus, the protagonist’s conversion to Roman Catholicism is certainly the most controversial. Many scholars suspect that Grimmelshausen’s own adherence to this creed was purely a matter of expediency. There is clearly much evidence in the novel to corroborate this opinion. At one point midway through the third book, Simplicius Simplicissimus informs a Protestant clergyman with whom he is debating the merits of competing Christian denominations that the doctrinal differences that separate these sects have nothing to do with the essence of Christianity. When Simplicius does finally convert to Catholicism, moreover, it is out of fear of the Devil rather than from any conviction in the absolute truth of Catholic theology.

In all likelihood, however, Grimmelshausen’s impatience with doctrinal disputes manifests itself most emphatically in the visionary exhortations of the madman who believed himself to be the great god Jupiter. In one of the opening chapters of the third book, “Jupiter” prophesies that Germany will one day play host to a national leader who will unify Europe under German hegemony and convene a church council to resolve all theological differences. After that, the prophet goes on to declare, anyone who continues to foster religious dissension will do so only on pain of death. In the light of twentieth century historical experience, the idealism that inspired this utopian vision has too much in common with the goals of the Third Reich to elicit any degree of sympathy from modern readers of The Adventurous Simplicissimus.

Grimmelshausen’s ardent desire to see religious unity restored to his homeland was a direct response to the horrendous suffering that he witnessed during the course of the Thirty Years’ War. This conflict, which lasted from 1618 to 1648, had its origin in the tensions between Catholic and Protestant rulers within the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation. Although the kingdom of Bohemia was traditionally part of the domain of the Habsburg emperors in Vienna, the Bohemian nobility struck a blow for religious freedom by choosing a German prince of the Calvinist faith as their king. Imperial forces soon reestablished Habsburg control over Bohemia, but their subsequent attempt to extend Catholic domination over other areas in Germany provoked a Protestant reaction on both a national and an international level. Before long, Denmark and Sweden sent in troops to aid the beleaguered Protestant states within Germany.

The emperor’s chief German ally was Bavaria, but he was also able to draw upon forces from satellite areas such as Croatia. France, despite its formal allegiance to Catholicism, consistently supported the Protestant cause out of fear that a Habsburg victory would pose a threat to its national interests and eventually intervened militarily in order to ensure continued sectarian division among the German states. The religious character of the conflict was thus diluted by political considerations. The German nobility, for its part, was likewise motivated by dynastic and property concerns. Grimmelshausen’s own bitterness toward his country’s rulers finds full expression in the assertion made by the prophet Jupiter, in which the promised German hero is described as depriving the nobility of its hereditary privileges altogether and instituting a parliamentary government whose membership will be composed of the two wisest men summoned from each town in all of Germany.

The Adventurous Simplicissimus

Grimmelshausen’s masterwork begins with a motif that later was popular among the Romantics: The child who comes to be known as Simplicius Simplicissimus is described as having been reared in total isolation from society on a farm in a forest region known as the Spessart. His putative parents are indifferent to his education, and he therefore grows up as a simpleton who spends most of his time tending to the needs of livestock. His greatest joy is to play the bagpipes, the sound of which, he is told, will scare off the wolves that might attack the sheep under his care.

At the age of ten, the boy is forced to flee for safety into a nearby forest in order to escape from a band of marauding soldiers who were plundering the farmstead and who were sure to abduct him if he fell into their hands. To his good fortune, a hermit living in the forest befriends him. It is this hermit who names him Simplicius and attempts to educate him. Among other things, the hermit teaches him to read and write; he also succeeds in transforming the boy into a pious Christian. This tutelage comes to an abrupt end after two years, upon the death of the hermit. Utterly distraught, Simplicius wanders about aimlessly until he is captured by a group of soldiers and taken to the city of Hanau, which at that time was a Protestant stronghold under the control of Swedish forces.

The governor of the fortress is James Ramsay, a Scottish soldier of fortune in the service of the Swedish crown and the sole historical personage to appear in Grimmelshausen’s novel. It is soon determined that the hermit who had come to the boy’s aid was Ramsay’s brother-in-law, an entirely fictional character whose surname is reported to be Sternfels von Fuchshaim and who at one time held the military rank of captain. This nobleman, already sickened by the war, decided to renounce the world altogether after his pregnant wife, Susanna, disappeared amid the turmoil of battle. Much later in the novel, Simplicius, during a visit to a spa near Strasbourg, encounters the peasant who reared him as a child and learns from him that the hermit and Susanna were his true parents. The peasant and his wife had assisted Susanna in the process of childbirth and had decided to adopt the baby after the mother died as a consequence of the dire circumstances surrounding the delivery. Ramsay, of course, has no knowledge of the fact that Simplicius is his nephew, but he takes an immediate liking to the boy and decides to make him his page. This partiality toward Simplicius, the reader is led to believe, may stem from the striking resemblance that the youth bears to his mother, the governor’s sister.

Shortly after Simplicius becomes a page, a commissioner representing the Swedish war council comes to inspect the garrison of Hanau. The boy is therefore required to have a family name in order to answer properly during the roll call, and it is the governor himself who proposes that he be called Simplicius Simplicissimus because of his extreme innocence. Totally unfamiliar with the ways of the world, Simplicius is continually appalled by the un-Christian behavior of the men whom he encounters in the garrison. He proves to be so inept as a page, moreover, that the governor finally decides to make him a court jester. A scheme is thereupon concocted to derange the boy’s mind in order to render him an even better buffoon than he already is. A clergyman who was a friend of the hermit discovers the plot and forewarns Simplicius of the ordeal that lies ahead. The next night, Simplicius is abducted by four men dressed like devils and is subjected to several unnerving experiences calculated to deprive him of his reason. Following the clergyman’s advice, he feigns madness and allows himself to be cast in the role of fool.

Despite the indignity of having to wear a costume that makes him resemble a calf, Simplicius finds the life of a court jester much to his liking; he not only is well fed but also is able to express his unconventional thoughts quite freely. Misfortune, however, soon strikes again. A raiding party composed of Croatian soldiers who were part of the Imperial army captures Simplicius during one of his frequent strolls outside the walls of the fortress and compels him to become a stableboy for their cavalry troop.

Highly dissatisfied with his new masters, Simplicius escapes from the Croatian cavalry unit at the first opportunity and takes to stealing food from peasant homesteads in order to survive. While in a forest, he comes upon a large knapsack containing some provisions and a purse within which is a large sum of gold coins. After consuming the food, he conceals the gold coins by cleverly sewing them into his clothing. Shortly thereafter, he comes upon a witches’ Sabbath being held in a wooded area and is obliged to participate. By invoking the Lord’s name, however, he manages to cause the entire gathering to disappear and finds himself flying through the air immediately. When he finally descends, Simplicius discovers that he has been supernaturally transported to an open field near Magdeburg, a city that at that time was under siege by Imperial forces.

The colonel in charge of the Imperial camp to which Simplicius is eventually taken decides to keep him on as a fool after hearing the boy’s story. Simplicius is, however, provided with a tutor named Ulrich Herzbruder to further his education. The tutor’s son, who bears the same name as his father, becomes a steadfast friend of Simplicius. The younger Herzbruder wishes to become the colonel’s secretary, a position already held by a villainous character named Olivier. In order to eliminate this threat to his position, Olivier plants evidence to make it appear that the tutor’s son has stolen a valuable object from the colonel. The younger Herzbruder, now in total disgrace, would like to be able to purchase an honorable discharge from the Imperial army, and Simplicius comes to the rescue by providing his friend with the necessary sum. A short while after his son’s departure, the elder Herzbruder is senselessly killed by an officer who has taken offense at a prophecy concerning his fate that was made by the clairvoyant tutor.

As Simplicius matures, he advances in rank from stableboy to dragoon and finally to elite cavalryman. Simplicius becomes part of a group of horsemen whose task it is to obtain supplies by foraging through the countryside around the Westphalian city of Soest. Military units of that day customarily lived off the land while campaigning. Dressed in the distinctive green attire of a hunter, Simplicius achieves great renown for his courage and resourcefulness and soon acquires the title of Huntsman of Soest. Simplicius considers the rich to be fair game, but he takes great pains never to exploit the poor. It is during this phase of his military career that Simplicius encounters the madman who believes himself to be Jupiter.

Another major episode that occurs at this point involves the entrapment of a villain who, dressed in a habit similar to the one worn by Simplicius, seeks to trade on his reputation as...

(The entire section is 4956 words.)