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

by Rudolf Erich Raspe
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The Plot

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

The original Baron Münchausen’s Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia was published late in 1785, though its title page bears the date 1786. Published anonymously as authentic reminiscences, this slim volume recounted in fourteen anecdotes of some four thousand words each the preposterous experiences of an old German soldier. As a result of its immediate success, Rudolf Erich Raspe brought out a new edition with five additional “naval adventures,” published as Singular Travels, Campaigns, Voyages, and Sporting Adventures of Baron Munnikhouson, Commonly Pronounced Munchausen; as He Relates Them over a Bottle When Surrounded by His Friends (1786). At this point, Raspe’s influence ends. A host of ambitious editors and authors added to, embellished, illustrated, and amended the original author’s work. By the turn of the century, there were at least fifteen editions, and Raspe’s humble collection of tall tales had grown ninefold in the hands of inferior writers.

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As a picaresque romance, Baron Münchausen’s Narrative minimizes plot. Each of the stories introduces a separate conflict that bears little or no relation to previous circumstances. Using resources beyond belief and his own supernatural skills, the baron stretches luck to the limit. For example, on a snowy journey from his home to Russia, he ties his horse to a stump in the square of a Polish village. Upon waking, he notices that a “sudden change of weather” has taken place and that his horse is now dangling far above him, tied to the weathercock of the steeple. He quickly resolves the problem, using his pistol to shoot through the bridle, enabling the horse to continue the journey. Only the baron and his resourcefulness remain constant, however. In the very next anecdote, the faithful horse, now pulling a sledge, is eaten by a ravenous wolf that, by virtue of its meal, slips into the harness and carries Münchausen on to his destination.

The original narrative of 1785, comprising chapters 2 through 6 of most modern editions, was restricted to Münchausen’s travels in northeastern Europe, a brief period of slavery in Turkey, and an even briefer sojourn to the Moon for the purely practical purpose of retrieving a royal axe that he had flung inadvertently into space. The success of these grand impostures led Raspe to expand the memory of his imaginary hero, who swore that his naval adventures were “equally authentic.” These incorporated further improbable adventures in England, France, the Mediterranean, and Turkey, including the story of how Münchausen’s friend (or the baron himself in some editions) was conceived in the subterranean apartment of an attractive but promiscuous seller of oysters who attracted the roving eye of Pope Clement XIV as he passed her on a Roman street.

Without copyright provisions, publishers were free to expropriate Raspe’s version of what were anyway popular folktales emanating from the human propensity for exaggeration. Various authors led Münchausen on extraordinary adventures farther and farther afield. Whereas the core of Raspe’s laconic narrative had been relatively coherent and rooted in eighteenth century events, new anecdotes often were disconnected, ponderously developed flights of pure fancy. In one chapter alone, for example, Münchausen is made to travel through the deserts and forests of North America, where he is scalped and burned in making his way to the Kamchatka peninsula, from there down to Tahiti and over to Panama, where he repeatedly ploughed the isthmian earth with the chariot of Queen Mab before returning to England, “having wedded the Atlantic Ocean to the South Seas.”

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

In Baron Münchausen’s Narrative, a series of tall tales purportedly document the adventures and exploits—both on land and at sea—of the infamous Baron Münchausen. (In English-language editions, the name is commonly spelled “Munchausen” or “Münchausen”; the real figure on which the character is based was Baron Münchhausen.) Told in the form of first-person memoirs as if to a circle of intimate friends, these short narratives derive their charm in large measure from the tension between the constant and overstated reassurances of their veracity and the patently impossible situations that they describe. In this spirit, several of the editions are prefaced by a sworn attestation that the adventures are true to fact, and the alleged document is signed authoritatively “in the absence of the Lord Mayor of London” by such reliable witnesses as Gulliver, Sinbad, and Aladdin.

The humorous vignettes depicted in this collection present the Baron as an extraordinarily fortunate fellow. Wherever his travels take him, he manages to find himself in the most miraculous of circumstances. On his way to St. Petersburg, Russia, for example, a blizzard prevents him from locating a certain Lithuanian town in which he had intended to seek lodgings. At the point of exhaustion, he hitches his horse to a lone post jutting out of the snowy ground and lies down in the open to rest. At daybreak, he awakens in a village square without his horse. Soon he hears neighing and looks upward to see the horse hanging from the top of a church. He surmises that previously the village had been covered with snow, but that a weather change during the night caused the snow to melt. As a result, the Baron had been gradually lowered to the ground, while his horse was hitched to what turned out to be a church steeple. A skilled marksman, the Baron shoots the bridle in two, which brings the horse down and allows him to proceed on his journey to St. Petersburg.

The waggish storyteller always manages to underscore his own irrepressible ingenuity. In another preposterous episode, he recounts a hunting expedition during which he runs out of ammunition just as a stately stag happens upon the scene. Ever the master of his predicament, Münchausen quickly loads his rifle with a handful of cherry stones left over from a recent snack. He is able to hit the animal between its antlers, but this action only stuns it and the beast staggers off relatively unscathed. A year later, on another hunting party in the same forest, Münchausen spies the same stag. In the meanwhile, the cherry stone has taken root and a full-grown cherry tree extends from between its antlers. The Baron takes aim and is this time more successful: A single shot results in a meal of savory venison accompanied by a delicious cherry sauce.

The adventure to end all adventures is without question Münchausen’s successful, if not entirely intentional, journey to the moon. While on an ocean expedition to the South Seas, a fortuitous combination of meteorological events carries the Baron’s ship to the moon. The diverse lunar population, the reader is informed, includes natives of the dog-star, whose faces are like those of large mastiffs but without eyelids. Their long tongues cover their eyes at night during sleep. The indigenous inhabitants, by contrast, are no less than thirty-six-feet tall and have only one finger to a hand; their heads are generally located under their right arms but can be conveniently removed if necessary, for example when exercising. Readers are never told how Münchausen accomplishes his return to the earth, but that feat—one can be certain—would have been hardly a challenge for the celebrated Baron.

Places Discussed

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*Moon

*Moon. The baron twice visits the Moon. In chapter 6 he tries to recover a silver hatchet from the Moon, which he reaches by climbing up quick-growing turkey-beans that he plants. On the Moon, everything is silvery bright, but the baron finds the hatchet in a heap of hay and straw, which he plaits into a rope for his return to Earth. His second trip, in chapter 18, is aboard a sailing-ship, lifted into the sky by a hurricane. The Moon now is like Earth, with cities, trees, mountains, rivers, and seas, where all creatures are extraordinarily large. The Moon’s people, the Lunarians, stand more than thirty-six feet tall; they carry their heads under their right arms and have only a single finger on each hand. They eat only once a month, by opening doors into their stomachs and placing whole meals inside themselves at one time. Their eyes are removable and interchangeable.

*Africa

*Africa. Traveling north from the Cape of Good Hope, the baron discovers an unknown land. It is green and fertile, full of trees and wildlife. The inhabitants are white-skinned pygmies. As described in chapter 26, the only barbarity of these otherwise charming and civilized people is that they eat the raw and still-living flesh of cattle (a practice attributed to Ethiopians by European travelers in the late eighteenth century). By a ruse, the baron persuades the pygmies to eat fudge instead. He causes a great bridge to be built, linking the center of Africa with Great Britain. It is soon completed, dwarfing the Tower of Babylon and the Great Wall of China. When the baron uses the bridge he admires the view from its high point. Africa seems “in general of a tawny brownish color, burned up by the sun.”

*Egypt

*Egypt. The baron’s first tale about Egypt (chapter 9) begins with a diplomatic mission. Afterward, he hires a barge to travel down the River Nile, from Cairo to Alexandria. A great flood covers the land, and the barge becomes entangled with an almond tree. For more than forty days the travelers are stuck sixty feet from the original ground level, living on almonds; then the waters recede rapidly.

On another occasion the baron is traveling in a great chariot pulled by bulls. His chariot gets mixed up with the Needle of Cleopatra and leaves a deep track across the swampy ground of the isthmus of Suez.This gives the baron the idea for a canal that will link the Mediterranean and Red Seas. (The real Suez Canal was completed more than seventy years after Rudolf Eric Raspe wrote this book.) The baron digs the channel with his chariot (rediscovering the long-lost great library of Alexandria in the process) but requires two million laborers from Russia and Turkey to finish the job.

Strange islands

Strange islands. While sailing home from Australia, the baron’s ship is caught in a storm and conveyed to an island from which is flowing a river of milk, fresh and delicious. On landing, he discovers that the island is made of cheese. Upon it grow vines, with grapes full of milk, and corn, “the ears of which produce loaves of bread, ready made.” The island, larger than Europe, contains many rivers of milk and wine, fruit trees of all kinds, and large birds.

On a later voyage the baron encounters an island of ice, off the Guinea coast of West Africa. His ship is wrecked upon it, but he manages to secure the ship to the ice and to tow it back to England. En route he has seeds planted and succeeds in growing crops of fruit and vegetables on the ice, one of which is a tree that bears plum-puddings.

While sailing across the Atlantic to North America, the baron’s ship discovers a floating island inhabited by both white-and dark-skinned peoples. Although he describes the island as delightful, sugarcane fails to grow properly there due to the great mixture of climates to which the island is subject. The baron then finds a huge iron stake, which he thrusts through the center of the island and fastens to the bottom of the sea.

*North America

*North America. While the baron is exploring the “frightful deserts and gloomy woods” of North America (chapter 32), he and three companions become separated from the rest of their party and are set upon by hundreds of savage Indians. All four men are scalped and tied to stakes to be burned, but they escape when their captors become drunk. They recover their scalps and fasten them back in place with the sap of a tree.

*Poland

*Poland. In chapter 2, while the baron is in Poland, he spends a winter night in the open. It is an apparently deserted area, covered by snow. He ties his horse to a stump sticking out of the ground. Overnight there is a thaw, and he wakes to find himself in the middle of a village, actually lying in the churchyard. His horse is hanging by its bridle from the weather-cock on the steeple of the village church, but a well-aimed shot from his pistol releases the horse, which seems none the worse for its ordeal. In chapter 6 the baron mentions a European winter so severe that the postilion on a horse-drawn coach could not get a sound out of his horn until, later at an inn, the notes and tunes inside the horn had thawed out.

*London

*London. Although England’s capital is mentioned several times, the book contains little description of the city. In chapter 12, when the baron constructs a balloon in London (the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated hot-air balloon ascents in Paris only two years before the book’s publication), he must buy silk from all the mercers and weavers in London in order to get enough for the canopy. Later, he goes to sleep inside a cannon at the Tower of London and is inadvertently fired across the River Thames, landing in a haystack between Bermondsey and Deptford.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 189

Carswell, John. The Prospector: Being the Life and Times of Rudolf Erich Raspe, 1737-1794. London: Cresset Press, 1950. A useful biography of Raspe, including a commentary on his most famous invention.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. Into Other Worlds. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1958. Cites Raspe’s narrative in chapter 5, “A Lunatick Century,” in the context of other fictional lunar voyages.

Raspe, R. E., et al. Singular Travels, Campaigns and Adventures of Baron Münchausen. London: Cresset Press, 1948. An edition of Raspe’s original text and its earliest embellishments, together with the first version of the sequel that was later integrated with Kearsley’s text. The introduction by John Carswell is an invaluable history of the text.

Rose, William, ed. Introduction to The Travels of Baron Münchausen; Gulliver Revived: Or, The Vice of Lying Prophecy Exposed. London: G. Routledge & Sons, 1923. Provides a brief history of the work and a commentary on its genesis.

Welcher, Jeanne K., and George E. Bush, Jr. Introduction to Gulliveriana IV. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1973. Discusses the fifth edition (Kearsley’s), which is here reproduced in facsimile, with particular reference to its contemporary critical reception.

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