Baron Münchausen's Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia

by Rudolf Erich Raspe
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 825

The first edition of Baron Münchausen’s Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia was a rather brief document, almost certainly written in English by Rudolf Erich Raspe, a German satirist forced to seek refuge in England in 1775 after allegedly stealing gems from an employer. He never formally admitted authorship of the work but was named as the original author by Gottfried Bürger, who translated the work into German. Its great success in England prompted the publisher to add more material to subsequent editions issued during 1786, which might have been by Raspe, although a marked difference in style makes it more probable that another writer was responsible.

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Late in 1786, a new publisher, G. Kearsley, produced his own rival version of Münchausen’s narrative. All the pirated material in this edition was considerably rewritten in a more pompous and cumbersome fashion, and much more of a similar stripe was added by an unknown hand. It is this text, originally titled Gulliver Revived: Or, The Singular Travels, Campaigns, Voyages and Adventures of Baron Munikhouson, Commonly Called Münchausen, that virtually all later editions follow in their early phases, although it ought properly to be regarded as a corrupt version of Raspe’s text.

Kearsley added yet more new material to his text between 1786 and 1792, at which point a new rival issued A Sequel to the Adventures of Baron Münchausen, whose substance was quickly coopted and added into Kearsley’s text. The author of these new materials remains unknown, but it certainly was not Raspe. To add to the complications, editions of Münchausen issued in France and Germany were augmented by native writers, thus diverging markedly from the parent text. In effect, the baron became common property and was adopted as a source and an authority for all manner of tall tales. The real Baron Münchausen thus found himself briefly notorious, somewhat to his surprise and much to his chagrin. He did not take kindly to being made to look a fool and deeply resented the fact that his reputation as a raconteur had been blackened by the utter absurdities and veiled obscenities favored by Raspe’s successors.

Raspe’s own version of the original anecdotes is much preferable to the Kearsley version. The improbabilities therein are modest enough to be amusing rather than appalling, and they are relayed in a delightfully laconic manner that suits their content well. The writers who added to Raspe’s work were decidedly inferior in both these respects, and they may fairly be said to have ruined his work, no matter how little damage they did to its salability.

What survives their mutilations, however, is the idea of Münchausen: the comical, yet somehow towering, figure of the teller of tales who insists that the most astonishing improbabilities are records of actual events. Münchausen is the incarnation of the power that stories have to grip and involve those who hear and read them, and the narrative draws on the remarkably rich “urban folklore” that is passed on by word of mouth, concerning events which—the tellers insist—actually happened to “a friend of a friend.” However unlikely these made-up tales might be, there is something about them that seduces belief and generates passionate insistence if a subsequent teller is challenged. Münchausen’s narrative is not a collection of such tales, for they are not of a kind that easily survives writing down, but Raspe’s original jottings are a deft literary parody of them and of the manner of their telling.

The transformation and growth of the Münchausen narrative once it was out of Raspe’s control is a curious phenomenon. The additional material is so bad, for the most part, that it is hard for later readers to understand how the book retained its popularity. The incidents became sillier and sillier and all topical material was soon outdated. Perhaps the work would have been forgotten, save as an example of eighteenth century grotesquerie, had it not been for several excellent film versions; the likelihood, however, is that it was sustained in spite of its inadequacies by the one great asset handed down by Raspe to his feeble imitators. Everyone understands Baron Münchausen and recognizes him because there is a little of Münchausen in everyone.

All human beings exaggerate when they relate the funny or horrible things that happened to them, all make their accomplishments slightly more “marvellous,” their escapes slightly more hairsbreadth, and their observations slightly more bizarre than they were in actual fact. This is a natural way of making the narratives of ordinary lives authentically dramatic. Baron Münchausen’s narrative pokes fun at one of the absurd necessities of everyday social intercourse and points up the fact that although social life would not be possible without trust, the insistence that people tell the truth at all times makes it necessary that they constantly tell lies.

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Critical Context