Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Ross Benjamin) – A Book Review

Daniel Kehlmann and Ross Benjamin have together created an updated version of the tales of Tyll Ulenspiegel, trickster. There is a long line of retellings of this man’s story. He first appeared in print in a pamphlet published in 1515 which has Tyll born in Brunswick in the 1300s and dying of the plague in 1350.

Since his original appearance this impish man and his tales have been revamped in many contexts. In Kehlmann’s Tyll, Tyll’s life and times have been transposed to the Holy Roman Empire’s Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) one of the most brutal and longest wars in history. Tyll is the magic thread connecting a miscellany of stories and characters, reaching from the late English Reformation and Guy Fawkes, through to the death of King Gustav Adolf of Sweden.

As a young boy Tyll leaves his home village somewhere south of Mölln Schleswig-Holstein, with his friend Nele. For many years the two of them travel the length and breadth of the Holy Roman Empire taking up with vagabonds and minstrels, learning many tricks along the way. Tyll juggles, sings, tightrope walks and dances with Nele shocking their audiences, entertaining and manipulating them and never staying around for very long. As they travel across devastated lands they bear witness to the horror and fragility of life in a world where war defines life and death, and everything in between hobbles along in grim parade. We traverse a world of terrifying primitiveness, despite the trappings of educated religious authorities. It becomes quite clear that fear and how to wield it, is the currency of the times.

Tyll Ulenspiegel (Owl Mirror) is all of us, our glories and our not-so-glories, our ambitions, wants, all of it including our deviousnesses and dishonesties. Kehlmann’s Tyll is part philosopher, part scholar, always moving never certain, never fixed, fluid like the mill stream in which he got his second baptism and nearly drowned as a boy. Kehlmann links Tyll, Nene and multiple other characters to a series of secondary stories that mostly work. Through these vignettes we learn more, too much even, about the Thirty Years War and its destruction of so many lives.

Ross Benjamin’s translation is excellent, capturing the rhythm and nuances of the original German. His English version is lyrical and evokative of the grim reality of times when there is rarely enough to eat or somewhere safe to rest. Roving labourers, be they mercenaries or mill hands, are as much victims of their times as the famers and villagers trying to grub a living surrounded by danger and threat. No one is safe. Disease and superstition are rampant and as Tyll and his various companions move across the landscape, Kehlmann shows us just how deadly even a tiny dose of either can be. Interweaving folklore, myth and religion constantly juxtaposes the most basic questions of life (gas-food-lodging) with our need for spiritual comfort, enlightment and protection. Ignorance and Christianity are as much enemies as friends and the fears of Protestants for and of their Catholic breathren weaves throughout the texts. Like Tyll on his tightrope, they are another reminder of the precariousness of existence both in life and afterwards. Fear of what God and the devil might do to you is constantly balanced with fear of what your fellow man might do to you. This tension runs through the narrative and is evident in most of the digressions into different characters and their stories.

The need to rationalise is with us still, as are the motivations of many of these individuals, from wanting to help and heal, through to wanting power and legacy. There is always a risk that deliberate motivations and rationales will lead to corruption. Destruction and death is obviously a powerful a theme in this book, but neither is constrained to the times of the Thirty Years War. We come to understand that death is just another state or phase of existence. In the seventeenth century that state of light or dark was not necessarily so dreadful. At least not when compared to existing in a world shaped by war, want, disease, loss and futility, spells and relics. Read Tyll  and feel the slippery touch of those times.

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