Gustave Doré's portrait of Baron Munchausen
|First appearance||Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785)|
|Created by||Rudolf Erich Raspe|
|Based on||Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen (1720–1797)|
|Nickname(s)||Lügenbaron ("Baron of Lies")|
Baron Munchausen (German: Münchhausen)[a] is a fictional German nobleman in literature and film, loosely based on a real baron, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen (German pronunciation: [ˈmʏnç(h)aʊzən]; 11 May 1720 – 22 February 1797).
The real-life Münchhausen became a minor celebrity for telling outrageous tall tales based on his military service in the Russo-Turkish War. After hearing some of Münchhausen's stories, the writer Rudolf Erich Raspe adapted them into an anonymously published English-language volume about a fictional "Baron Munchausen." The book was subsequently translated back into German and expanded by the poet Gottfried August Bürger. The real-life Münchhausen was deeply upset at the development of a fictional character bearing his name.
Raspe's book was a major international success, and versions of the fictional Baron have appeared on stage, screen, radio, and television. In addition, three medical conditions (Munchausen syndrome, Munchausen syndrome by proxy, and Munchausen by Internet) and a logical problem (the Münchhausen Trilemma) are named after the character.
|Hieronymus von Münchhausen|
|Born||Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen
11 May 1720
|Died||22 February 1797
|Known for||Tall tales|
|Spouse(s)||Jacobine von Dunten
Bernardine von Brunn
Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen was born in Bodenwerder, Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg, into an aristocratic family of the Hanover region. His father's second cousin, Gerlach Adolph von Münchhausen (de), was prime minister under George III of Great Britain. Münchhausen started as a page to Anthony Ulrich II of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, and followed his employer to the Russian Empire during the Russo-Turkish War (1735–1739). In 1739, he was appointed a cornet in the Russian cavalry regiment, the "Brunswick-Cuirassiers". The following year, he was promoted to lieutenant. He was stationed in Riga, but participated in two campaigns against the Turks in 1740 and 1741. In 1744 he married Jacobine von Dunten, and in 1750 he was promoted to Rittmeister, a cavalry captain.
In 1760 Münchhausen retired to live as a Freiherr at his estates in Bodenwerder, where he remained until his death in 1797. It was there, especially at parties given for the area's aristocrats, that he developed a reputation as an imaginative after-dinner storyteller, creating witty and highly exaggerated accounts of his adventures in Russia. Over the ensuing thirty years, his storytelling abilities gained such renown that he frequently received visits from traveling nobles wanting to hear his stories. However, Münchhausen was considered an honest man in business affairs, rather than a liar. As one contemporary put it, Münchhausen's unbelievable narratives were designed not to deceive, but "to ridicule the disposition for the marvellous which he observed in some of his acquaintances."
Münchhausen married a second time, to Bernardine von Brunn, in 1794, which ended in divorce. He did not have any children.
The fictionalized character was created by a German-born writer, scientist, and con artist, Rudolf Erich Raspe. Raspe, while living at Göttingen, was introduced to Münchhausen and sometimes invited to dine with him at the mansion at Bodenwerder. Raspe's later career mixed writing and scientific scholarship with theft and swindling; when the German police issued advertisements for his arrest in 1775, he fled continental Europe and settled in England.
In his native German language, Raspe wrote a collection of anecdotes based on Münchhausen's tales, calling the collection "M-h-s-nsche Geschichten" ("M-h-s-n Stories"). It appeared as a feature in the eighth issue of the Vade mecum für lustige Leute (Handbook for Fun-loving People), a Berlin humor magazine, in 1781. Raspe published a sequel, "Noch zwei M-Lügen" ("Two more M-Fibs"), in the tenth issue of the same magazine in 1783. The hero and narrator of these stories was identified only as "M-h-s-n," keeping Raspe's inspiration partly obscured while still allowing knowledgeable German readers to make the connection to Münchhausen. Raspe's name did not appear at all.
Then, in 1785, while supervising mines at Dolcoath in Cornwall, he wrote a short English-language book based on Münchhausen's stories, identifying the narrator of the book as "Baron Munchausen." It remains unclear how much of Raspe's material comes directly from the Baron, but the majority of the stories are derived from older sources, including Heinrich Bebel's Facetiæ (1508) and Samuel Gotthold Lange's Deliciæ Academicæ (1765). Other than the anglicization of Münchhausen to "Munchausen," Raspe this time made no attempt to hide the identity of the man who had inspired him, though he still withheld his own name.
Raspe's English version of the Munchausen stories became the core text for most later versions. Translations into French and Spanish were published in 1786. At least ten editions or translations appeared before Raspe's death in 1794.
Gottfried August Bürger, a German Romantic poet, may have written the preface for the 1785 edition of Raspe's book. In 1785, Bürger translated the fourth edition of the book into German, with his own additions. He published it under the title of Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und zu Lande: Feldzüge und lustige Abenteuer des Freiherrn von Münchhausen ("Marvellous Travels on Water and Land: Campaigns and Comical Adventures of the Baron of Münchhausen").
Raspe, for unknown reasons, never admitted his authorship of the anonymously published book. It was often credited to Bürger, sometimes with an accompanying rumor that the real-life Baron von Münchhausen had met Bürger in Pyrmont and dictated the entire work to him. Another rumor, which circulated widely soon after the book was published, claimed that the book was a competitive collaboration by three Göttingen University scholars—Bürger, Abraham Gotthelf Kästner, and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg—with each of the three trying to outdo one other by writing the most unbelievable tale. The scholar Johann Georg Meusel (de) correctly credited Raspe for the core text, but mistakenly asserted that Raspe had written it in German and that an anonymous translator was responsible for the English version. Raspe's authorship was finally proven in 1824 by Bürger's biographer, Karl Reinhard. Because of the complicated history of additions, some nineteenth-century editions of the work are credited simply to "R. E. Raspe and Others."
In the first few years after publication, however, German readers widely assumed that the real-life Baron von Münchhausen was responsible for the stories. According to witnesses, Münchhausen was deeply angry that the book had dragged his name into public consciousness and insulted his honor as a nobleman. Münchhausen became a recluse, refusing to host parties or tell any more stories, and he attempted without success to bring legal proceedings against Bürger and the publisher of the translation.
The fictional Baron Munchausen is a braggart soldier, most strongly defined by his comically overexaggerated boasts about his own adventures; all of the stories in Raspe's book are told in first-person narrative, with a prefatory note explaining that "the Baron is supposed to relate these extraordinary Adventures over his Bottle, when surrounded by his Friends." The Baron's stories imply him to be a superhuman figure who spends most of his time either getting out of absurd predicaments or indulging in equally absurd moments of gentle mischief. In some of his most well-known stories, the Baron rides a cannonball, travels to the Moon, is swallowed by a giant fish in the Mediterranean Sea, saves himself from drowning by pulling on his own hair, fights a forty-foot crocodile, enlists a wolf to pull his sleigh, and uses laurel tree branches to fix his horse when the animal is accidentally cut in two.
In the stories he narrates, the Baron is shown as a calm, rational man, describing what he experiences with simple objectivity; absurd happenings elicit, at most, mild surprise from him, and he shows serious doubt about any unlikely events he has not witnessed himself. The resulting narrative effect is an ironic tone, encouraging skepticism in the reader and marked by a running undercurrent of subtle social satire. In addition to his fearlessness when hunting and fighting, he is suggested to be a debonair, polite gentleman given to moments of gallantry, with a scholarly penchant for knowledge, a tendency to be pedantically accurate about details in his stories, and a deep appreciation for food and drink of all kinds.
Because the feats the Baron describes are overtly implausible, they are easily recognizable as fiction, with a strong implication that the Baron is a liar. Whether he expects his audience to believe him varies from version to version; in Raspe's original 1785 text, he simply narrates his stories without further comment, but in the 1792 extended version, he is insistent that he is telling the truth. In any case, the Baron appears to believe every word of his own stories, no matter how internally inconsistent they become, and he usually appears tolerantly indifferent to any disbelief he encounters in others.
Illustrators of the Baron stories have included Thomas Rowlandson, Alfred Crowquill, George Cruikshank, Ernst Ludwig Riepenhausen (de), Theodor Hosemann, Adolf Schrödter, Gustave Doré, William Strang, and W. Heath Robinson. In the first published illustrations, which may have been drawn by Raspe himself, the Baron appears slim and youthful. For the 1792 edition, an anonymous artist drew the Baron as a dignified but tired old soldier whose face is marred by injuries from his adventures; this illustration remained the standard portrait of the Baron for about seventy years, and its imagery was echoed in Cruikshank's depictions of the character. Doré, illustrating the Théophile Gautier translation in 1862, retained the sharply beaked nose and twirled moustache from the 1792 portrait, but gave the Baron a healthier and more affable appearance; the Doré Baron became the definitive visual representation for the character.
The relationship between the real and fictional Barons is a complex one. On the one hand, the fictional Baron Munchausen can be easily distinguished from the historical figure Hieronymus von Münchhausen; the character is so separate from his namesake that at least one critic, the writer W. L. George, concluded that the namesake's identity was irrelevant to the general reader, and Richard Asher named Munchausen syndrome using the anglicized spelling so that the disorder would reference the character rather than the real person. On the other hand, Münchhausen remains strongly connected to the character he inspired, and is still nicknamed the Lügenbaron ("Baron of Lies") in German. As the Munchausen researcher Bernhard Wiebel has said, "These two barons are the same and they are not the same."
Critical and popular reception
This is a satirical production calculated to throw ridicule on the bold assertions of some parliamentary declaimers. If rant may be best foiled at its own weapons, the author's design is not ill-founded; for the marvellous has never been carried to a more whimsical and ludicrous extent.[b]
A writer for The English Review was less approving: "We do not understand how a collection of lies can be called a satire on lying, any more than the adventures of a woman of pleasure can be called a satire on fornication."
W. L. George described the fictional Baron as a "comic giant" of literature, describing his boasts as "splendid, purposeless lie[s] born of the joy of life." Thomas Seccombe commented that "Munchausen has undoubtedly achieved [a permanent place in literature] … The Baron's notoriety is universal, his character proverbial, and his name as familiar as that of Mr. Lemuel Gulliver, or Robinson Crusoe." Théophile Gautier highlighted that the Baron's adventures are endowed with an "absurd logic pushed to the extreme and which backs away from nothing."
Steven T. Byington wrote that "Munchausen's modest seat in the Valhalla of classic literature is undisputed," comparing the stories to American tall tales and concluding that the Baron is "the patriarch, the perfect model, the fadeless fragrant flower, of liberty from accuracy." In a 2012 study of the Baron, the academician Sarah Tindal Kareem noted that "Munchausen embodies, in his deadpan presentation of absurdities, the novelty of fictionality [and] the sophistication of aesthetic illusion," adding that the additions to Raspe's text made in 1792 and onward tend to mask these ironic literary qualities by overemphasizing that the Baron is lying.
During the nineteenth century, Raspe's book was widely popular, especially with young readers. Robert Southey referred to Raspe's text as "a book which everybody knows, because all boys read it." Similarly, Robert Chambers, in an 1863 almanac, cited the iconic 1792 illustration of the Baron by asking rhetorically:
Who is there that has not, in his youth, enjoyed The Surprising Travels and Adventures of Baron Munchausen in Russia, the Caspian Sea, Iceland, Turkey, &c. a slim volume—all too short, indeed—illustrated by a formidable portrait of the baron in front, with his broad-sword laid over his shoulder, and several deep gashes on his manly countenance? I presume they must be few.
In addition to the many augmented and adapted editions of Raspe's text, the fictional Baron has occasionally appeared in other standalone works. In the late nineteenth century, the Baron appeared as a character in John Kendrick Bangs's comic novels A House-Boat on the Styx, Pursuit of the House-Boat, and The Enchanted Type-Writer. Shortly after, in 1901, Bangs published Mr. Munchausen, a collection of new Munchausen stories, closely following the style and humor of the original tales. Pierre Henri Cami's character Baron de Crac, a French soldier and courtier under Louis XV, is an imitation of the Baron Munchausen stories.
Stage, radio, and audio
In 1932, the comedy writer Billy Wells adapted Baron Munchausen for a radio comedy routine starring the comedians Jack Pearl and Cliff Hall. In the routine, Pearl's Baron would relate his unbelievable experiences in a thick German accent to Hall's "straight man" character, Charlie. When Charlie had had enough and expressed disbelief, the Baron would invariably retort: "Vass you dere, Sharlie?" The line became a popular and much-quoted catchphrase, and by early 1933 The Jack Pearl Show was the second most popular series on the air (after Eddie Cantor's program). Pearl attempted to adapt his portrayal to film in Meet the Baron in 1933, playing a modern character mistaken for the Baron, but the film was not a success. Pearl's popularity gradually declined between 1933 and 1937, though he staged several comebacks before ending his last radio series in 1951.
On stage, Harlequin Munchausen, or the Fountain of Love, a pantomime based on the Raspe text, was produced in London in 1818. Baron Prášil, a Czech musical about the Baron, opened in 2010 in Prague. The following year, the National Black Light Theatre of Prague toured the United Kingdom with a nonmusical production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
For a 1972 Caedmon Records recording of some of the stories, Peter Ustinov voiced the Baron. A review in The Reading Teacher noted that Ustinov's portrayal highlighted "the braggadocio personality of the Baron," with "self-adulation … plainly discernible in the intonational innuendo."
The early French filmmaker Georges Méliès, who greatly admired the Baron Munchausen stories, filmed Baron Munchausen's Dream in 1911. Méliès's short silent film, which has little in common with the Raspe text, follows a sleeping Baron through a surrealistic succession of intoxication-induced dreams. Méliès may also have used the Baron's journey to the moon as an inspiration for his well-known 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. In the late 1930s, he planned to collaborate with the Dada artist Hans Richter on a new film version of the Baron stories, but the project was left unfinished at his death in 1938. Richter attempted to complete it the following year, taking on Jacques Prévert, Jacques Brunius, and Maurice Henry (fr) as screenwriters, but the beginning of the Second World War put a permanent halt to the production.
The French animator Emile Cohl produced a version of the stories using silhouette cutout animation in 1913; other animated versions were produced by Richard Felgenauer in Germany in 1920, and by Paul Peroff in the United States in 1929. The British director F. Martin Thornton made a short silent film featuring the Baron, The New Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in 1915.
For the German film studio Ufa's twenty-fifth anniversary in 1943, Joseph Goebbels hired the filmmaker Josef von Báky to direct Münchhausen, a big-budget color film about the Baron. David Stewart Hull describes Hans Albers's Baron as "jovial but somewhat sinister," while Tobias Nagle writes that Albers imparts "a male and muscular zest for action and testosterone-driven adventure."
In 1974 and 1975, four short cartoons were made in the Soviet Union (a fifth was made in 1995), called Münchhausen's Adventures.
A French cartoon version directed by Jean Image was made, called Les Fabuleuses Aventures du legendaire Baron de Munchausen (English: The Fabulous Adventures of Baron Munchausen). In 1984, a French cartoon sequel to the 1979 animated movie by Jean Image was made, called Le Secret des sélénites (English: Moon Madness).
In 1988, Terry Gilliam adapted the stories into a lavish Hollywood film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with the Canadian stage actor John Neville in the lead. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, described Neville's Baron as a man who "seems sensible and matter-of-fact, as anyone would if they had spent a lifetime growing accustomed to the incredible."
In 1951, the British physician Richard Asher published a Lancet article describing three cases of patients whose factitious disorders led them to lie about their own states of health. Asher proposed to call the disorder "Munchausen's syndrome," commenting: "Like the famous Baron von Munchausen, the persons affected have always travelled widely; and their stories, like those attributed to him, are both dramatic and untruthful. Accordingly, the syndrome is respectfully dedicated to the baron, and named after him". The disease is now usually referred to as Munchausen syndrome.
Asher's nomenclature sparked some controversy, with medical authorities debating the appropriateness of the name for about fifty years. While Asher was praised for bringing cases of factitious disorder to light, participants in the debate objected variously that a literary allusion was inappropriate given the seriousness of the disease; that its use of the anglicized spelling "Munchausen" showed poor form; that the name linked the disease with the real-life Münchhausen, who did not have it; and that the name's connection to works of humor and fantasy, and to the essentially ridiculous character of the fictional Baron Munchausen, was disrespectful to patients suffering from the disorder.
The name has spawned two additional coinages: Munchausen syndrome by proxy, in which illness-feigning is done by caretakers rather than patients, and Munchausen by internet, in which illness-feigning occurs in online venues.
There is a club "Munchausen's Grandchildren" (Внучата Мюнхаузена) in Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg), Russia, which contains a number of "historical proofs" of the presence of the Baron in Königsberg, including the skeleton of the whale in whose belly the Baron was entrapped.
On 18 June 2005, to celebrate the 750th anniversary of Kaliningrad, a monument to the Baron was unveiled as a gift from Bodenwerder, portraying the Baron's cannonball ride. A similar monument of the Baron is also installed in his city of birth, as well as a fountain of Münchhausen sitting on the front half of his horse.
At Duntes Muiža, Latvia (German name: Dunteshof), home of the real Münchhausen's first wife Jacobine von Dunten, a Münchhausen Museum was opened in 2005. The couple had lived there between 1744 and 1750, before moving back to Bodenwerder. The Latvian central bank produced a commemorative coin on this occasion.
- The German name for both the fictional character and his historical namesake is Münchhausen. The simplified spelling Munchausen, with one h and no umlaut, is standard in English when discussing the fictional character, as well as the medical conditions named for him.
- At the time, "ludicrous" was not a negative term; rather, it suggested that humor in the book was sharply satirical.
- Among Czech speakers, the fictional Baron is usually called Baron Prášil.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen.|
- Raspe's The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen at Project Gutenberg
- Bürger's Münchhausen at Project Gutenberg (German)
- The Munchausen Museum in Latvia
- The Munchausen Library in Zurich