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Till Eulenspiegel - The Merry Prankster
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© Christine Till - CT-Graphics
Till Eulenspiegel was a 14th Century peasant whose pranks and drollness were the subject of widespread tales. The name Eulenspiegel literally means "owl glass" or "owl mirror". These devices also appear on Eulenspiegel's gravestone in Mölln in Schleswig Holstein, Germany. Metaphorically his name has been interpreted as "wise reflection," as Eulenspiegel was widely understood to be holding up a mirror by which society could judge itself.
Till's pranks were harmless, and their effect was soon gone. His artful shrewdness generally depended on a pun. But Eulenspiegel was able to victimize anyone, innocent or deserving. He was a mischief maker bent on deceit. While he did trick the dishonest, harsh, cruel, stupid, conceited, obnoxious, boring and pretentious - in short, the deserving - he also preyed on the naive, the gullible and the innocent. His tales are often explained as learned reflections on society, religion, education and political systems of the day. By satirizing and making fun of these institutions while taking advantage of their members, his tales were a popular source of laughter and relief from the uncertainty of everyday life.
It is safe to say that Eulenspiegel was a unique, complex and mysterious character, not at all what we infer from the title of Richard Strauss' symphonic poem, "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks." He died in 1350 of the Black Death. Following ancient custom, his body had been placed in a casket formed by the hollowed out trunk of a tree. As the tree was being lowered on two ropes into his grave, the rope at his feet broke, and the tree fell into the grave, leaving Eulenspiegel standing upright. It was quickly agreed, "Let him stand. As he was odd while he lived, he ought to be odd in death too." The grave was closed with Till Eulenspiegel standing upright. A specially carved gravestone, showing an owl clutching a mirror and providing his epitaph, was placed on his grave.
In the early 1500's the tales of Eulenspiegel were printed in one or more Early New High German language versions; the sole surviving copy is in the British Library, London. Often vulgar and scatological, both in language and story device, they were wildly popular in the "fool's literature" of 16th century. Everyone who could read was ready for a laugh, particularly when it came at someone else's expense. The books have been translated, often in mutilated versions, into many languages. The full narrative of Eulenspiegel's adventures, of which there are 95, was translated to English by Paul Oppenheimer. However, Oppenheimer's translation of the original tales of Tyl Eulenspiegel reveals something quite unexpected: 16th century humor, reflecting the social and moral climate of the times, seems harsh, unforgiving, and hurtful.
August 27th, 2012
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