November 2012

Mary Mann


The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe

"You should never despair, Munchausen being your general." We know everything about our narrator and protagonist, Baron Munchausen, in this one line. With the Baron in charge, we're bound to enjoy ourselves.

Supposedly relating these adventures "to his friends over a bottle," the Baron casually tells of his extraordinary life. As David Rees points out in the introduction, the first note that something may be slightly unusual in the Baron's world comes early, on page two, when a storm carries all the trees "at least five miles above the earth."

This is one of very few disasters occurring regularly throughout The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen that is not put to rights by the Baron, who has a propensity for saving the day with very little trouble, himself. In the first volume of this two-volume book, the Baron uses his extraordinary strength and prowess to commit such Herculean feats as carrying horses beneath his arms, catching just-fired cannonballs in his hands, climbing a beanpole to the moon to retrieve his hatchet (which lodged there in the first place because he threw it too hard), and digging himself out of a hole nine fathoms deep with his fingernails, which "were then of forty years growth."

The Baron also possesses incredible good fortune. A lion and crocodile charge at him from either side and each ends up lodged in the other's jaws. His hunting dog smells game at sea, and his crew catches a shark with two dozen live partridges laying eggs in its stomach, providing enough food for the rest of the journey. He kills a stag with a cherry tree growing on its forehead, "which at once gave me the haunch and cherry sauce."

It's no wonder, then, that he charms everyone he meets. In the second volume he is funded and supported by English nobility with fantastical names (Hilaro Frostico, Lord Spigot, Lady Faucet) for his journey to Africa, where the natives present him with petitions "entreating me to accept the government." This culminates in the building of a bridge from central Africa to England and a lifelong dependence of the African people on English-made fudge.

Just who is this mysterious man? In the afterword, Thomas Seccombe lets the reader in on a secret: Baron Munchausen is real. Born in 1720, the genial German nobleman was known for telling heavily embellished tales of his adventures in a dry and natural manner. The tall tale, a genre later appropriated by Mark Twain and many others, originated with the Baron.

But the Baron did not publish his stories; they were written by Rudolph Erich Raspe, a "librarian, scientist and sometime gemstone thief," whose life, as related in brief by Seccombe, is nearly as interesting as the fictional life he created for the Baron, who was still alive at publication and very much annoyed at the effect the book had on his reputation. His name is now well known in psychology as well as history: Munchausen Syndrome is a disorder in which patients repeatedly feign illness.

This book is a patchwork, with Raspe's original four chapters joined by many more stories written by various people throughout the eighteenth century. They all borrow from Raspe's style: irregular, sometimes school-girlish punctuation; a terrific pace (everything is always happening "immediately"); and a casual, breezy voice that makes even the most astounding tale sound like just another day for the Baron. The stories and the fantastical world they're set in grow slowly in absurdity, and the second volume is patently political, with the Baron singlehandedly quelling the French Revolution. All chapters by all authors purport to be true: ever mindful of his reputation, the Baron is quick to remind us mid-adventure that he is "a traveler of veracity."

The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe, introduction by David Rees, afterword by Thomas Seccombe, illustrated by William Strang and J.B. Clark
Melville House
ISBN: 978-1612191232
208 pages