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The tales below are rooted in Munchausen tales of Rudolf Raspe (1737-94), German scholar and adventurer, and Goettfied Bürger (1747-94), German professor and poet.

"Some years ago my beard announced I was approaching manhood. I was somewhere in between boy and man for some time. I wanted to see the world and often said it in conversations. My parents discouraged it. Yet my father had been a traveller himself.

The next you know is that my father said yes to letting me find my own horse and look around more than most other youths those days.

Meeting the stag

Baron Münchhausen
Munchausen meets againt the stag he shot at with cherry pits . . . From an illustration by Gustave Doré.

One day as I was hunting and had spent all my shots, I unexpectedly met with a stately stag. It looked at me as unconcernedly as it he had known of my empty pouches. I charged at once with powder and a good handful of cherry-stones upon it, for I had sucked the fruit as far as the hurry would permit. This I let fly at him, and hit him just on the middle of the forehead, between his antlers. It stunned him - he staggered - yet he made off.

A year or two after, being with a party in the same forest, I beheld a noble stag with a fine full grown cherry-tree above ten feet high between his antlers. At once I recollected my former adventure, looked on him as my property, and brought him to the ground by one shot.

This gave me the haunch and cherry-sauce; for the tree was covered with the richest fruit, and I had never tasted anything like it before.

  • Strong character depends not so much upon chances as upon choices. [American]
  • Foolishness may grow by degrees.

Fleeting years with the good dog

I can't help mentioning one of my favourite bitches to you. She was a greyhound, and I never had or saw a better. She grew old in my service and was not remarkable for her size, but rather for her uncommon swiftness. I always coursed with her.

Had you seen her, you must have admired her, not that I coursed her to my heart's content. She ran so fast, so much and so long in my service that she actually ran off her legs. So in the latter part of her life I had to work her and use her as a terrier. Thus my wonderful bitch still could serve me for many more years.

Coursing one day a hare that looked uncommonly big to me, I couldn't help pitying my greyhound bitch. For she was big with pups, and yet she would course as fast as ever. I could follow her on horseback only at a great distance.

Then I heard a cry as it were of a pack of hounds—but so weak and faint that I hardly knew what to make of it. Coming up to them, I was greatly surprised. The hare had littered in running. The same had happened to my bitch in coursing. Now there were just as many bunnies as puppies. By instinct the former ran, the latter coursed.

Thus I found I had got six hares and as many dogs, at the end of a course which had only began.

Baron Munchausen tale illustrated by Gustave Doré

Great charity at once applauded

One day I found myself in Rome. The next you know is that I set off on a journey to Russia in the freezing cold. It was mid-winter. I had thought that frost and snow would naturally mend the muck-soiled, nasty roads. These roads every traveller had described as uncommonly bad. They went through the northern parts of Germany, Poland, Courland, and Livonia.

I went on horseback, the most convenient way of travelling, and was only lightly clothed. This became all the more inconvenient as I advanced north-east. Somewhere in that area I came across a poor old man along the road. How he must have suffered in the severe winterland with its frosty weather and climate so bleakly common in Poland! I found him lying on the road, very helpless and shivering. He had next to nothing to cover his naked body.

I took pity on the poor soul. Though I felt the alarmingly cold air myself, I threw my mantle over him. Right there I heard a voice calling out loud from high above in the firmament somewhere. It kept on blessing me for the outstanding charity: "You will be rewarded for this in time, my son."

Baron Munchausen tale illustrated by Gustave Doré

Bathing into trouble

I was bathing in the pleasant sea near Marseilles one summer's afternoon, when I discovered a very large fish. It swam towards me at top speed with his jaws wide open. There was no time to lose, I couldn't possibly avoid him. At once I made myself as slim as possible by closing my feet and placing my hands near my sides. In that position I passed directly between his jaws and into his stomach. There I remained some time in total darkness. It was comfortably warm inside there.

At last I got an idea: Through pain he would be glad to get rid of me. I found out that tumbling, hop, step, and jump wasn't enough. But then I tried to dance a hornpipe. That disturbed the fish. Soon he tried to get me out by fits and starts. I kept dancing and invented a forerunner of Riverdance, and at last he roared horridly. He stood almost straight up in the water with head and shoulders exposed.

Through that the fish was discovered by the people on board an Italian trading vessel sailing by. The trader harpooned him in a few minutes. As soon as he was brought on board, I heard the crew talk about how they should cut him up so as to preserve as much oil as possible.

I had reasons to fear their weapons would cut up me too, not only the fish. And even though there seemed to be room enough for a dozen men in this creature's stomach, I stood as near the centre as possible to avoid getting cut and sundered.

But my fears were soon dispersed: The brave Italians began by opening the bottom of the belly. As soon as I noticed a glimmering of light, I called out lustily to be released from the now almost suffocating situation. It is impossible for me to do justice to the degree and kind of astonishment that my voice evoked from inside a fish. The people on the boat were even more astonished at seeing a naked man walk upright out of his body.

Baron Münchhausen
Munchausen gets out of the shark that had devoured him . . . From an illustration by Gustave Doré.

In short, gentlemen, I told them the whole story, as I have done you, while amazement struck them dumb.

After taking some refreshment and jumping into the sea to cleanse myself, I swam to my clothes. They lay where I had left them on the shore. As near as I can calculate, I was confined in the stomach of this animal for nearly four and a half hours.

  • You may consider this happening a pretty, deep symbol of a marriage out of one's waters.

The horse at the church-tower

I set out on my first travel to Russia in midwinter. For in spring and autumn the roads in Poland are so soaked by the rain that you get stuck, and in summer they are dry and so dusty that you can't stop coughing. Then you can't really make headway.

Therefore I travelled in winter on horseback. Regrettably, I froze more and more for each day, for I had put on just a light overcoat. The whole country was covered with snow. Often I couldn't see any road, path, tree or signpost. The winter darkness descended. Night and darkness. I could see no village ahead and didn't know the road.
      Very tired I stepped down from my good horse and tied it to something that looked like a pointed stump of a tree. It stood there above the snow. Then for the sake of safety, I placed my pistols under my arm and laid down on the snow and fell asleep.
      I slept so soundly that I did not open my eyes till full daylight. The sun was shining. I looked around and guess where I was? I lay in the middle of a small village on a churchyard! I couldn't find my good horse beside me. horse was gone! Then all of a sudden I heard wild neighing from somewhere above me. I looked up and saw my animal hanging by his bridle at the weathercock of the church-tower. It was neighing and struggling and wanted to get down, which was quite understandable.

Baron Münchhausen. Munchausen tale illustrated by Gustave Doré

What had happened dawned on me. The village, including the church-tower, had been snow-bound. And what I had taken for the top of a tree, had been the cross or weathercock of the church. At night the weather had changed dramatically and thawed. So while I was sleeping, I had been sinking down with the melting snow, gently and soon enough, till I woke up among the tombstones.

Without long consideration, I took one of my pistols, shot the bridle in two, brought down the horse, and proceeded on my journey. My horse was overjoyed when it trod on solid ground again. I vaulted into saddle and could carry on our adventurous journey together.

  • The judicious weather-cock isn't meant to be staunch support, or not support good enough. That can very well surface later.
  • Maybe failing support that you counted on, comes to the surface only when the need is grave. It can happen under circumstances that seem to have lowered or degraded your prestige at the time. The embarrassment you experience can be one token used to "let you down".
  • The jolly good fellow is nowhere meant to be outsmarted by the weather-cock, human or otherwise.
  • Those who seek support in the mere cross or crucifix, sooner or later end up on the churchyard - as so many others. It can hardly be different.

Taming the hungry wolf just halfway

My horse carried me well, and we made headway into the interior parts of Russia. There I found that travelling on horseback in winter was not too popular, so I submitted to the custom of the country. I now took a single horse sledge and drove briskly towards St. Petersburg.

Then something happened. I don't exactly recall whether it was in Eastland or Jugemanland. But I remember that in the middle of a dreary forest I became aware that a terrible wolf came after me. It did with all the speed of ravenous winter hunger, which is not little. He soon overtook me. I saw no way to escape. Mechanically I laid myself down flat in the sledge and let my horse run out for our safety.

Then, what I wished, but hardly hoped or expected, happened almost at once after that. The wolf didn't mind me at all, but took a leap over me. He fell furiously on the horse and began at once to tear and tear into the hind part of the horse. It ran the faster for the sudden shocks, pains and its terror. This went on for a long while through the wood.

Munchausen tale illustrated by Gustave Doré

Unnoticed and safe myself, I lifted my head slyly up. With horror I saw that the wolf had eaten his way into the horse's body. It wasn't long before he had fairly forced himself into it. Then I took my advantage and fell on him with the butt-end of my whip. This unexpected attack in his rear frightened him so much that he leaped forward with all his might. The horse's carcass dropped on the ground; but in his place the wolf was in the harness. I on my part kept on whipping and pacing him a lot.

So we both entered St. Petersburg at full speed. It was quite contrary to what we both had had in mind earlier. And the spectacle astonished the people that were out-of-doors tremendously.

I won't bother you this time with the politics, arts, sciences, and history of this magnificent metropolis of Russia. Nor will I trouble you with the various intrigues and pleasant adventures I had in the politer circles of that country, where the lady of the house always receives the visitor with a dram and a salute.

Instead I'll confine myself rather to the greater and nobler objects of your attention, horses and dogs. They're among my favourites in the brute creation.
      I may later have more than one look into foxes, wolves, bears and game in general, which Russia abounds with more than most other part of the world. And then you might feel inspired to turn to those sports or manly exercises, those and feats of gallantry and activity, that show the gentleman better than musty Greek or Latin, much more than all the perfume, finery, and capers of French wits, or petit-maîtres, I dare say.

  • So very often a man can only do as well as he can under the circumstances. Not a few of them turn horrible again and again, unless one rises into good urban-looking circles of gentlemen.

Those Sparkling Eyes

For several months I was at liberty to sport away my time and money in the most gentleman-like manner out of town with such gallant fellows as knew how to make the most of an open forest country. The very recollection of those amusements gives me fresh spirits, and creates a warm wish for a repetition of them.

One morning I saw, through the windows of my bed-room, that a large pond not far off was covered with wild ducks. In an instant I took my gun from the corner, ran downstairs and out of the house in such a hurry that I imprudently struck my face against the door-post. Fire flew out of my eyes, but it did not prevent my intention. I soon came within shot, when, levelling my piece, I observed to my sorrow, that even the flint had sprung from the cock by the violence of the shock I had just received.

There was no time to be lost. I remembered the effect the bang had had on my eyes, therefore opened the pan, levelled my piece against the wild fowls, and my fist against one of my eyes. [The Baron's eyes have retained fire ever since, and appear particularly illuminated when he relates this anecdote.] A hearty blow drew sparks again; the shot went off, and I killed fifty brace of ducks, twenty widgeons, and three couple of teals.

Travelling widely

Gentlemen, one of my aunts by my mother's side took a liking to me and often said I was a fine, forward youth. She wanted to help me along and openly let me have the means I needed for taking more than one very long journey.

And next my father said yes to letting one of his many brothers take me on a voyage to the island of Sri Lanka. My uncle's uncle had been the governor over the island for many years.

We sailed from Amsterdam carrying with us the needed official papers from Holland. During the voyage, when we lay at anchor at an island to take in wood and water, a storm broke loose. The wind blew up by the roots many trees of great size and height. Some of the trees weighed many tons. Yet they were carried by the wind so amazingly high that they looked like feathers of small birds floating in the air. They were at least five miles above the earth at the time.

But as soon as the storm ceased, they all fell straight down into their proper places where they took root again, all except the largest. For when that tree was blown into the air, there was an honest old couple on its branches. The man and his wife were out on its branches gathering good vegetables. You see, in that part of the globe useful vegetables often grow on trees, and that is more true than I care to tell. [Compare]

Munchausen tale illustrated by Gustave Doré.
Munchausen illustration by Gustave Doré

The weight of this couple over-balanced the trunk of the tree as the tree came down again from high above. So the huge tree came down lying flat. It also fell on the chief man of the island and killed him on the spot. As good luck would have it, he had gone out of his house in the storm for fear that his house would fall on him. He was returning through his own garden when the tree came banging down and killed him.

This was rather lucky, you see, for the chief was a tyrant, and greedy at that. Though he had no family, the natives of the island were all half-starved. The major goods that he had whipped from them were spoiling in his stores while the poor wretches he had taken them from, were pining in poverty. Now the people chose the strangely surviving vegetable gatherers in the tree for their governors as a mark of gratitude for destroying their oppressor, even though it happened by accident.

After we had repaired the damages we got in the marvellous storm, and taken leave of the new governor and his lady, we sailed further with a fair wind.

  • A good name is sooner lost that won. (British proverb - Fergusson 1983:88]

The lion and hungry crocodile

In old Sri Lanka my uncle and I were received with great signs of Oriental politeness. After we had lived there about a fortnight, I accompanied one of the governor's brothers on a shooting party. He was a strong, athletic man and was used to the lovely climate, for he had lived there some years. He could stand the sunshine far better than I could.
      While we strolled along, he went into a thick wood when I was only at the rim of it, near the bank of a large lake. I heard a rustling noise behind me at the time. On turning about I was almost scared to death at the sight of a lion that seemed hungry and drew nearer and nearer to me, without asking for my consent.

What should I do? I had not even a moment to reflect on that. My gun was only charged with swan-shot, and I had no other ammunition on me. Well, even though I couldn't hope to kill such an animal with the weak kind of ammunition I had, yet I had some hopes of frightening it by the bang. Maybe I could wound ita bit too.

I shot at once, without waiting till he was within reach. That just made the lion angry. Now it ran towards me at full speed. I tried to escape, but the moment I turned around to run, I found a large crocodile with its mouth extended almost ready to receive me. This was the situation, and on my right hand was the water's edge, on my left a deep precipice filled with poisonous creatures.

In short, while the lion was on its hind-legs, just in the act of seizing me, I dropped to the ground with fear. It made the lion miss the target and spring over me. As I lay there I expected to feel his teeth or talons in some part of me every moment, but after waiting like this for a few seconds, I heard a violent but unusual noise. It was different from any sound I had ever heard, and that was no small wonder: When I ventured to raise my head and look round, I saw the lion had jumped into the wide open mouth of the crocodile. It made me feel relief, if not jubilant joy at the moment.

Now the head of the one stuck in the throat of the other, and each of the animals fought to save itself. I remembered I had a large jungle knife by my side. I severed the lion's head with it at one blow, and the body fell at my feet. Then, with the butt-end of my rifle I rammed the lion's head farther into the throat of the crocodile and choked it - he could neither gorge nor eject that head. In this way I won over two rather powerful enemies of man.

Now my companion came back for me. When he got aware I wasn't following him into the wood, he came back, fearing I had lost my way or met with some accident.

When we had congratulated each other, we measured the crocodile, which was just forty feet long. As soon as we had told the governor of the astonishing happening, he sent a wagon and servants. They brought home the two carcasses. The lion's skin was properly preserved with its hair on. Then it was made into tobacco-pouches. And when we later returned to Holland I gave them to the burgomasters, who in return bravely asked me to accept a thousand ducats. The skin of the crocodile was stuffed in the usual way and sent to the public museum at Amsterdam. There the exhibitor tells the whole story to each one who comes to look at it. Some of his variations of the tale are rather unlikely. One of them is that the lion jumped quite through the crocodile, and was making its escape at his back-door when I cut its head off, and three feet of the crocodile's tail along with it. But that part of the story is purely invented.

  • Win a good reputation, and sleep at your ease. [Fergusson 1983:87]
  • Without a good reputation and a good night's sleep, a man often can do nothing.

Finding a disturbed whale, a helping sea-gull and a singular way out

I embarked at Portsmouth in a first-rate English warship. It was the sweetest man-of-war you could set eyes on. It had one hundred cannons and fourteen hundred men and headed for North America. When we came within 1500 kilometres of the river St. Lawrence, the ship struck with amazing force against what we thought was a rock. But it was not. When we threw the anchor overboard, we could find no bottom. That was strange, for the shock when we banged into the something, was so violent that we lost our rudder, broke our bowsprit in the middle, and split all our masts from top to bottom. Two of them went by the board.

A poor fellow who was up in the rigging, furling the main-sheet, was flung about ten kilometres from the ship. But as luck would have it, he saved his life by laying hold of the tail of a large sea-gull. It brought him back and lodged him on the very spot that he was thrown away from.

Another proof of just how violent the shock had been, was the force with which the people between decks were driven against the floors above them. I found my head was pressed into my stomach. It went on in that way for some months till it recovered its natural position.

While we were all greatly astonished in the unaccountable confusion we were in the middle of, the whole thing was suddenly explained: A large whale popped up. He had been basking asleep within sixteen feet of the surface of the water. Now he was much displeased with the disturbance that our ship had given him, for our rudder had scratched his nose while passing over. He beat in all the gallery and part of the quarter-deck with his tail. Almost at the same moment he took the main-sheet anchor - it was suspended from the head as usual - between his teeth, and ran away with the ship. He swam at least 300 kilometres, at the rate of sixty kilometres an hour. Then, fortunately, the cable broke, and we lost both the whale and the anchor.

However, on our return to Europe some months after, we found the same whale ten kilometres or so from the same spot, floating dead on the water. He measured above eight hundred metres in length. As we could take but a small quantity of such a huge animal on board, we got our boats out, and with much difficulty cut off his beard, where, to our great joy, we found the anchor and above forty fathom of the cable concealed. There were also splintered timber just under his tongue. Maybe this was the cause of his death, as that side of his tongue was much swollen, with a great degree of inflammation.

This was the only extraordinary circumstance that happened - but here I almost forgot to let you know how great and good relief good carpenters may give: While the whale was running away with the ship, she sprung a leak. The water poured in so fast that all our pumps could not keep us from sinking. However, it was my good fortune to discover it first. I found the problem to be a large hole about a foot diameter. You will naturally suppose it gave me a whole lot of pleasure to save our ship with all its crew, by sitting down over the hole. It was a most fortunate thought for those I saved that day. For me it soon turned out to be rather cool experience, till the carpenter's art relieved me.

  • Good things are as good as they seem.
  • Without a good rigging, the story-teller can lose his audience.
  • One is to stop up any leak in one's credibility or prowess, the sooner the better, or by any good, adequate means at hand.
  • The tools of the trade are not all there is to it to a handy man.

Contents


 Rich and Poor Peasant Remarks, LITERATURE  

Fergusson, Rosalind: The Penguin Dictionary of Proverbs. Penguin. Harmondsworth, 1983. ⍽▢⍽ A collection of over 6000 proverbs to dip into. There is much wit here. A second, extended edition from 2001 exists too.

Raspe, Rudolf Erich. The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen. London, Lawrence and Bullen, 1895. ⍽▢⍽ An eighteenth-century German noble ventured abroad for military service, After he returned to Germany, he told amusingly outrageous stories. The German librarian, writer and scientist Rudolf Raspe (1737-1794) took off from them. Raspe is best known for his collection of Munchausen tales. Later, printed versions contain astounding feats such as riding cannonballs, travelling to the Moon, and pulling himself out of a bog by his own hair. By the nineteenth century, several notable authors had translated and added to the tall and picaresque humour tales. The colourful baron appeals to artistic imagination, and has been depicted in numerous works of art. Gustave Doré's illustrations of him are the most famous of them so far.

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