The appeal of Baron Münchausen’s Narrative is rooted in an unusual combination of understated satirical wit, exotic venue, and legendary tall tale. Obvious models are Lucian’s “Voyage to the Underworld,” which elevated the value of a lie; the fifteenth century Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, rich in supernatural and unexpected circumstances; and François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (1533-1567), exaggerations composed across time and by several hands. Voyages of discovery from Homer’s sixth century b.c.e. The Odyssey onward have captivated people’s imaginations, the exotic surroundings both entertaining and enlarging the capacity of readers to isolate themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, free from ordinary human constraints.
Like Rabelais and Jonathan Swift after him, Raspe developed his stories around contemporary events. The surname of the hero is taken from a noble family of Brunswick, the hero himself being patterned on a younger son, Captain Hieronymous Karl Friederich, Freiherr von Münchhausen. Although it is unclear if Raspe and Münchhausen ever met, the author had known Münchhausen’s cousin and certainly was aware of the German soldier’s legendary exploits in the Russian ser-vice. The real baron not only served against the Turks, witnessed the eclipse of German influence at St. Petersburg, and was driven from Russia—events that can be traced in Raspe’s narrative—but upon his retirement at the age of forty became known for his hospitality and “narration of palpable absurdities.” Added to the real-life adventures of this colorful figure, however, was the residue of a lifetime of eclectic reading, including popular collections of folk stories such as Scharaffenland, in which the biggest liar was the king. The substance of many of Raspe’s anecdotes can be found in medieval monkish drolleries composed to relieve the boredom of secluded life.
Raspe’s narrative is distinctive in taking direct aim at the perpetrators of preposterous memory, though one should not make too much of his achievement. Pompous old soldiers and country gentlemen are easy targets of satire. On the other hand, few have ventured to retell their exaggerations. Raspe succeeded in combining travel fantasy, local tradition, and contemporary gossip in exactly the right proportions, a feat that the lesser hands of the later editions were unable to achieve.