Preoccupied with his Flemish heritage, Charles-Theodore-Henri de Coster in 1858 published his first work entitled FLEMISH LEGENDS, which was immediately successful. His new reputation brought him a job which freed him from material problems and allowed him to write. In 1867, he produced his masterwork THE LEGEND OF TYL ULENSPIEGEL, an epic reworking of the German legends collected about 1519 by Father Thomas Murner and published at Strasbourg. Coster’s version of the legends, however, bears little resemblance to the original.
The figure of Tyl was originally that of a lowly peasant turned merry prankster. His tricks and practical jokes, although often cruel, generally sprang from the impulse of an essentially good heart; they were most often perpetrated on greedy merchants, foolish noblemen, or hypocritical priests. The earliest written versions of the legends, which appeared in two different texts in Germany in 1483 and 1515, were satirical in spirit and emphasized Ulenspiegel’s triumph over his social superiors; his roguish adventures embodied peasant wit victorious over the snobbish pretentiousness of the townspeople.
In Coster’s work, written in French, the character of Tyl has been infused with symbolism. Coster’s hero is born during the years of Flanders’ domination by foreign powers; Tyl and King Philip are born on the same day. Tyl Ulenspiegel is more than a mere peasant—he is the Flemish spirit incarnate. His destiny is to struggle to avenge not only his father’s death but also the blood of all the people of Flanders who have died cruelly at the hands of foreign oppressors. Tyl is presented in symbolic terms from the very beginning, when his birth is accompanied by supernatural signs, portents, and prophesies. That his mission is successful is symbolized in the resurrection scene in which Tyl throws off the dirt covering him and rises from the grave, following his prophetic dream in which he envisions that he and his wife will never die, because they are Flanders. Thus, Coster’s book is much more serious and fraught with meaning than the original legends and, as a result, is less a chronicle of pranks than an epic of a nation. It is a work steeped in the richness of Flemish folklore, complete with scenes of brutal and violent death, redemptive virtue and humanity, noble high adventure, and mystical and supernatural happenings.