The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of the most famous book of tall tales. It is based on stories told by Karl Friedrich von M?nchhausen, a retired army captain, who was noted for his exaggerated and fantastic accounts of his war adventures and hunting experiences. The German scientist and librarian Rudolf Erich Raspe produced the first, small book based on these and some other stories. His work was followed by enlarged collections, composed by other authors, of whom Gottfried B?rger (1747-1794) is the most notable.

Rudolf Erich Raspe was born in Hannover, Hanover. He studied philology and natural sciences at the universities of G?ttingen and Leipzig, and worked as a librarian in university libraries (1762-1766). Raspe then moved to Kassel where he became a teacher at Collegium Carolinum, and custodian of the collection of gems and coins owned by the landgraf of Hesse-Kassel. For his knowledge of ancient English poetry Raspe acquired much academic fame, and in 1769 he was elected to the Royal Society. He also wrote articles on mineralogy and geology. Raspe’s carefree life-style led him into troubles.

In 1775 he fled first to Holland and then to England to avoid arrest, after he was found to have been selling the precious gems and medals in his care to pay his debts. Whe was dismissed from the Royal Sociary but he found work as a maining expert for Sir John Sinclair. During this period Raspe produced Baron M?nchhausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels (1785), which was published anonymously. As his source he used M?nchhausen’s hunting stories, which had appeared in Berlin in the magazine Vade Mecum f?r lustige Leute (1781 -1783). Some of tales were created by Raspe himself - they also show the influence of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It is assumed that Raspe had known the fabulous Baron when he was living in G?ttingen - at least he had had been acquainted with his kinsman.

M?nchhausen’s stories were in debt to earlier travelers’ tales and anecdotes. The deeds of Odysseus can be classified as tall stories, and examples can be found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (1st c. AD), Lucian’s Dialogues (2nd c. AD), Rabelais’s Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua (1534), and Voltaire’s Candide (1759). The Adventures of Baron Munchausen defy logic or laws of physics, or everyday thinking. The “Baron of lies” dances in the belly of a whale, rides on a cannon ball, and gets with one shot and a ramrod seven hazelhens. Once he rode on a horse which was cut in two, and the back part of the horse ran to a meadow. This story had appeared already in Heinrich Bebel’s book Facetia Bebelianae (1508). Also from older sources is derived the story in he ties his horse to a stake during a heavy snow storm. In the morning the snow has melted and the horse is dangling from a high steeple.

The poet Gottfried August B?rger translated the second edition of M?nchhausen’s Narrative into German as Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und zu Lande, Feldz?ge und lustige Abenteuer des Freyhernn von M?nchhausen (1786). He also included several of his own stories into it. B?rger’s work became the most popular, and a new edition was published in 1788. Raspe’s groundwork was forgotten, but it was revealed in 1847 in Heinrich D?ring’s biography of B?rger.

Raspe’s career in England came to a sorry end: he had to flee again in 1791, under suspicion that he was swindling his employer. Raspe headed to Ireland, where he died of a fever in Muckross, County Kerry. It is possible that Raspe was a friend of the poet and translator James Macpherson (1736-96), whose Ossianic poems gained a huge success. Raspe had been one of the first scholars who had examined the work of Ossian, the supposed author of epic poetry “discovered” in Scotland. Macpherson presented the work as his rendering into English of an ancient Gaelic epic, but some critics were sceptical, and Samuel Johnson denounced it as a fraud. Later it was found that Macpherson had treated the Gaelic poems in a “free and selective fashion”.

Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr v. M?nchhausen (also known in Englan- as Baron Muchausen) was born in Bodenwerder, Hanover. He was sent as a page to the court of the Duke of Braunschweig. At the age of seventeen he joined the army. He served in a Russian regiment and gained in 1739 the rank of Lieutenant and later he became cavalry captain. Apparently fought in two Turkish wars in 1737-39, although there are not much documents about his military career from this period. After resigning in 1752 he retired to his country estate. M?nchhausen loved the company of his old friends, and storytelling, although he was not happy about his sudden fame as a liar, L?gerbaron. His straight-faced narrations of his supposed adventures as a soldier, hunter, and sportsman were based on his skillful improvisations, but apparently his audience did not record immediately these tales.

M?nchhausen’s first marriage with Jacobine von Dunten was childless, and after his first wife died in 1790 he married a young woman, who made his life miserable - M?nchhausen complained about her extravagance and she spent too much time with her young friends. Baron M?nchhausen died in Bodenwerder on February 22, 1797. After his death it was nearly forgotten that M?nchhausen was not a fictitious character. However, a monument was built in memory of the Baron’s “ride on half a horse” in front of the Town Hall of Bodenwerder.