Considered an oasis within a desert of medieval German novels, Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s The Adventurous Simplicissimus was a critical flop but was quite influential and extremely popular. Critics often refer to it as the greatest prose work in German literature, and it has influenced many others. Grimmelshausen is said to have been influenced by Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines (1668).
The actual name of the author of The Adventurous Simplicissimus was not discovered until 1838. Grimmelshausen’s work possesses autobiographical elements, especially in scenes tied to the Thirty Years’ War. The novel is a picaresque most of the time, but in addition it could be interpreted as a bildungsroman. In a picaresque novel the protagonist is someone of low birth. This low status gives a worm’s-eye view from which the narrator can comment on, criticize, and assess the different strata of society. The plot is generally loosely organized. The protagonist never fully develops; he remains a rogue and his experiences do not educate him. The bildungsroman describes the complete development of a character. The protagonist of a bildungsroman slowly achieves moral, spiritual, psychological, and social harmony. The bildungsroman is about a character’s struggle toward a better life, whereas the picaresque character merely experiences life. The Adventurous Simplicissimus has attributes of both types of novel, but on balance it is more picaresque. The protagonist is a rogue, although of noble birth. He tries to fulfill his urge to be noble but does not yearn for it very strongly. Simplicissimus merely experiences and comments upon the various situations happening in his life and never learns much from them.
Grimmelshausen strips his character of familial ties and replaces them with religious ties. All of Simplicissimus’s interpretations are religious. The author couples all observances with religious interpretations of action, and in the end the protagonist fulfills the circle as he returns to the life of his father, the hermit. Throughout the work the author has the protagonist complete many circles. Simplicissimus starts out on top of the circle. Then, through his simpleton ways, he falls prey to situations for which he is not prepared.