Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443
It is difficult to see in the Münchausen stories much more than their obvious entertainment value. They are inspired by the memoirs of the real-life Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymus von Münchhausen (1720-1797), who indeed served in the Russian army in two campaigns against the Turks and is said to have had a penchant for gross exaggeration in the retelling of his adventures. Rudolf Erich Raspe was a court librarian at Cassel when he became acquainted with the stories, but it was only after he fled to England to escape a criminal charge that he first compiled and published in English a version of the narratives. The collection enjoyed immediate and enormous popularity among English readers and quickly saw a second edition. The German Sturm und Drang poet Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794), adding additional anecdotes, translated Raspe’s work into German, and it was Bürger’s version in 1786 that secured for the mendacious Baron lasting popularity with the German reading public. The figure of Münchausen has attained to the status of folk hero in German-speaking countries, where he is often referred to as “der Lügenbaron” (the baron of lies).
These sometimes grotesquely absurd tales—one describes a horse that was cut in half by a town gate, drank ravenously from a fountain, and then was sewn back together—fit neatly into a long and distinguished tradition of literary prevarication that stretches far back into classical antiquity and includes the prose satires of the Greek writer Lucian, certain Talmudic stories, and The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. In the same vein, though of more recent provenance, belong the German Till Eulenspiegel stories, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), as well as the American Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed tall tales.
What perhaps accounts for the success of the Münchausen tales, beyond their sheer hilarity, is the positive representation of what even in the eighteenth century were already becoming old-fashioned values: the pleasures of eating, drinking, riding, hunting, fishing, and warring. With the help of Baron Münchausen’s down-to-earth inventiveness, these essentially feudal pastimes are set in direct opposition to those values associated negatively with Enlightenment intellectualism and the rise of a society forced to rely increasingly on dehumanizing technology. While these themes and motifs found a distinct resonance in particular during the historically momentous period immediately preceding and following the French Revolution, it may be that the triumph of human wit and imperturbability against overwhelming odds are themes that retain universal applicability. One may suspect, however, that it is most likely the humor in these tales, not their meager social content, to which their long-lived success must be attributed.
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