(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist, European Division.)
The tall tales of Baron Munchausen have been popular for more than 200 years, growing taller and more popular over time. Munchausen, the timeless adventurer, crisscrosses the world, visits the moon, and falls through the core of the earth to emerge on the other side. He flies on the back of an eagle, gets swallowed by a large fish, carries horses under his arms, and rides cannon balls through the air, among many other escapades. As an 18th-century officer and gentleman, Munchausen was no stranger to bloodthirsty fighting and hunting. Astounding events transpire during these exploits as when he is caught between a crocodile and lion, and falls, and the attacking lion flies straight into the crocodile’s outstretched jaws, thus ridding the Baron of both threats.
The name Munchausen originally belonged to a real-life German army captain, Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Baron von Münchhausen (1720-97). In retirement, this gentleman entertained his friends with preposterous stories, completely deadpan, about his time in the Russian army fighting the Turks. The original adventures of Munchausen, first published in the late 18th century, may have had some connection to the real-life von Münchhausen’s well-known stories. However, over time, newer editions added more adventures, often adapted from other literary works.
The stories have been translated into more than 40 languages and have appeared in hundreds of different editions, many adapted for children. Various artists have illustrated the Baron’s tales, most notably Gustave Doré (1832-83), who created the archetypal Munchausen character with a side-curled wig and an aquiline nose.
In this picture, Munchausen’s coat of arm depicts his various adventures and the motto reads “In lies, truth.” Quite mendaciously, in keeping with Munchausen’s tall tales, Doré has attributed the Baron’s bust to the famous sculptor Canova (1757-1822) who would have been a mere child in 1766 and could not possibly have created such a work.
Munchausen’s father was also quite the adventurer, if the son is to be believed. On a voyage from England to the Netherlands, papa Munchausen captured a sea-horse and rode it on the bottom of the sea. Munchausen junior was no stranger to the sea himself, having been swallowed by a sea monster, and flying to the moon in a ship propelled by a dreadful storm.
The intrepid Baron was, of course, a notable horseman. While visiting Lithuania, he tamed an unruly horse of which everyone else was afraid. To demonstrate his skill, he had the animal prance on a table without breaking any of the crockery. At another time, when caught in a swamp, Munchausen rescued himself and the horse by lifting them both up by his pigtail.
The baron’s first lunar escape came about because he had to retrieve his silver hatchet from the moon. Underestimating his strength, he had thrown the object farther than intended. Like another Jack with a beanstalk, Munchausen used the same means to climb up to the moon. He used a rope made of straw to come down. When he slid to the end of that too-short rope, he cut off the rope above him, tied it to the end he was still holding, and slid down using this unique method. His second lunar trip was the result of a dreadful hurricane that propelled his ship above the clouds to a shining island that turned out to be the moon.
On another adventure, Munchausen found gallon-sized fruit filled with a wine-like substance. Because he had earlier chanced upon a group of very large eagles, and used one for transport, he was able to carry away quite a bit of the fine beverage on the eagle’s back. Munchausen was, however, compelled to wait for some time because the birds had also tasted the potent drink and, after staggering around, needed a rest in order to recover from the wine’s effects.
Perhaps the Baron’s most incredible feat is his continuing appeal. This comic literary figure is as recognizable as Falstaff or Don Quixote. Not only are his outrageous adventures still in print, they have also been presented on stage, radio, film, and television.