Shawn's Reviews > The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe
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Mar 04, 12

bookshelves: read-fantasy
Read from February 16 to 21, 2012

I read this as another "palette cleanser" before returning to the unending flood of short horror fiction. Baron Munchausen is a figure much better known in Europe than here in the United States, where his equivalent might be something like... Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, maybe? (actually, those who remember the Tennessee Tuxedo cartoon show will find the closest analog we have to The Baron in blustering, "understated" British adventurer Commander McBragg).

The Baron tells stories of his amazing adventures and, astounded as you may be, you must remember they are all true ("I have ever confined myself to the facts" he states)! Being that the book is from 1785 or so, those modern readers who need crutches like "characters" and "plot" need not apply, as these tales are basically straight-ahead narration of events in a standard travelogue format - but what travels! Hunting trips, sea voyages, battles, explorations, diplomatic visits - everywhere from the surface of the moon to the inside of a sea-monster is touched upon. The Baron himself has amazing strength, speed, agility and perseverance ("persevere and fortune will second your endeavors" he says at one point - truly, he is the living embodiment of the old adage, "those that dare, win") but his astounding luck is also a factor. Horses jump through windows and dance on tea-tables, upsetting not one piece of china, wolves eat their prey from the inside out, elk sprout trees between their antlers when hit with cherry stones used for musket shot in a pinch, men survive inside a sea-monster and a bridge is built between Britain and Africa! Through it all, The Baron remains an charming, affable chap (although those for who violence to animals is a singular disturbance should avoid this book), kind to those in need and patriotic to a fault. Those who find the second section of the book - which leaves off the more straight-ahead tall tale type antics for some extended forays into a world-wide chase, diplomatic work, appearances by Don Quixote (which makes perfect sense) and the defeat of the spirits of Beelzebub, Rousseau and Voltaire along with a solution for the French Revolution - well, I see the point but I quite liked the different tack taken by the later section, allowing some good fun to be poked at the more political and social mores of the day (The Baron is appalled when he discovers a race of Africans who run slaving raids on British shores, and how these natives justify their trade because they believe that white men have no souls! Pretty damn dangerous satire for the 18th Century!).

There are a number of interesting strains running through the book. Bragging and lying are obvious, but touches of fantasy (Queen Mab's coach) and mythology (Gog & Magog) are evident, as well as the dream-logic of fairy tales (Munchausen escapes from the moon and lowers himself back to earth by tying a segment of plant stalk, climbing down, then untying the top and retying it to the bottom - don't try this at home!). There's also the occasional Rabelaisian touch, as the Baron plugs a hole in a ship with his bottom , or assures us of the noble parentage of a rival by describing the man's father (in glowing terms) as a guttersnipe and his mother as a woman who could refuse no man and later let Pope Clement XIV "sample her oysters".

Imagination is left to soar - the Library of Alexander is rediscovered! Oceans of wine are sailed! Enormous cheeses landed upon! The Baron falls through Etna and out the other side of the world! The Baron, in some ways, is a relic of a previous time when anything was possible ("Munchausen is a madman run riot in the age of reason", as the Introduction by David Blow puts it) - I am reminded of the rather wry joke that opens Terry Gilliam's wonderful cinematic celebration of the Baron, wherein we see a war-besieged, miserable walled town and the card soberly notes this is the late 18th Century - "The Age of Reason". And then we meet the Baron, who is dying...

My favorites moments were:

The aforementioned adventure of the stag with the cherry tree in its head (if St. Hubert can see a stag with antlers like a cross, why not a cherry tree?)

The attack by the deadly SEA-HORSE, terror of the seas (although it itself cannot swim!)

The "cooking animal" that trees on the moon produce!

The discovery that lobsters, crabs, oysters and the like are actually the fruit of enormous undersea trees!

The revelation that hailstones are actually the stones of grapes from the moon and if only treated correctly, would produce a wondrous moon-wine!

A fun, diversionary read!
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