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Daniel Kehlmann: Tyll (Tyll)

Till Eulenspiegel (sometimes called Tyll Eulenspiegel in German) is a mythical German trickster. Tradition has it that he was born around 1300 near Brunswick. He first appears in print in 1510. There is no firm evidence that he really existed, though there are various theories. He is probably best-known in English because of Richard Strauss’ tone poem but he appeared in English literature early on: in Henry Porter‘s The Two Angry Women of Abington (1599) and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610). He has continued to appear in the literature of various countries, including Mikhail Bulgakov‘s Мастер и Маргарита (The Master and Margarita).

According to the introduction to this book, this story is set in the early seventeenth century and therefore during the period of the Thirty Years War, a war which devastated the states of the Holy Roman Emperor, where it was fought, which included what we now know as Germany. Indeed, the story starts with a rural German village which has so far avoided the war and is grateful for it but fears the worst.

One day a gypsy caravan arrives. There are three people in it: an older woman, a younger woman and man. Though they do not know him, the villagers recognise Till Eulenspiegel. The three put on a show – long, with a mixture of tragedy, comedy, song and dance – which the villagers neglect their cow-miking duties to watch. Till then does a tightrope walk. He then asks the villagers to throw their right shoe. They hesitate but he tells them it will be fun, so they comply. Some of the shoes hit other people. Some people throw their left shoe. When they have finished, he mocks them for being so stupid not least, in the quets to find their own shoes, the villagers fight among one another. While leaving, he ask Martha, a twelve-year old girl to join them as she is one of them, he says. She declines. Shortly after the war arrives, in the form of mercenaries, Martha and nearly all of the villagers are killed.

We then jump back to his childhood. Till is the son of a miller and we meet him practising tightrope walking. He will continue practising, even though his parents need him to help. When one of the hired hands, Sepp, knocks him off, we see his first trickery, as he disguises pebbles in Sepp’s porridge and Sepp breaks a tooth, though Sepp has his revenge.

We also discover that his father, Claus, is a learned man and, more particularly, is into the magical arts, and uses various incantations, spells and herbs for this purpose. He had hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps but feels Till is not intelligent enough. Till’s mother, Agneta, has been pregnant several times but Till is the only one to have survived. Agneta is now pregnant and Claus is hopeful he will now have the son he wants.

A strange adventure in the woods, with his mother and one of the hired hands, finds him up in the trees, covered in flour, jumping from branch to branch, His father and the hired hands have no idea what is going on and nor, it seems, does he but clearly it is an important stage in his development.

His father’s magical arts were bound to catch up with him and the Jesuits eventually arrest him for witchcraft. Despite extensive torture and coercion of witnesses, he does not confess but is nevertheless executed. Till has to flee, as he does not want to be a day labourer. He goes with his girlfriend, Nele, who does not want to marry the man her parents have chosen for her. The pair join various travelling players. Till, by now, can both juggle and tightrope walk while Nele can sing and dance.

The Thirty Years War is in full force and they see clear signs of its effects. Indeed, they get caught up in a very bloody battle when Till is wounded and sees numerous deaths. This happens when he is on his way to see the Kaiser who sends the fictitious fat count, Karl von Doder, to fetch Till to Vienna, as Till’s reputation has spread far and wide.

Kehlmann now switches to politics as we meet Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, known as the Winter Queen and whom Kehlmann refers to as Liz. Elizabeth is Scottish but has married the not very bright Frederick V, King of Bohemia. Things are not going well for him. He has no money, a feeble army and he is losing battles. We follow the couple’s problems, though we see it through her eyes. We follow her early life, including her meeting the principal of a group of actors called the King’s Men who, though never named, is clearly Shakespeare. We also see Frederick’s devotion to his fool who is not named for some considerable time, though we have worked out that he is Till, still accompanied by Nele.

Till accompanies Frederick to visit Gustavus Adolphus where things do not go well and where Frederick later catches an infection and dies. Till and Nele leave and continue on their journey, with the book ending with the travails of Liz. (Historical note, not mentioned in the book: Liz goes to live in the Hague and finally returns to Britain, where she dies. Her daughter, Sophia of Hanover, missed being queen by about a month and was essentially the founder of both the modern British royal family, as mother of George I and the German emperors. Liz had twelve other children though her husband died when he was only thirty-six.)

This is something of a bitty novel, jumping back and forward in time, focussing mainly on Till but also devoting a large section to Queen Elizabeth and her husband Frederick. Much of the novel is essentially about the horrors of the Thirty Years War, from the point of view of the ordinary person unwittingly caught up in it, but also the politics of it. Like most wars, it was distinctly unpleasant, messy and badly organised and Kehlmann is at pains to point this out.

As well as following Queen Elizabeth and her husband and meeting Gustavus Adolphus and Shakespeare (and Burbage and Kemp), we also follow a couple of Jesuits, specifically Oswald Tesimond and Athanasius Kircher (who, amongst other things, were responsible for the execution of Claus, Till’s father) and their friend Adam Olearius, all of whom Kehlmann mocks for their intellectual pretensions.

The other key aspect of the story is the relationship between Till and Nele. Initially, they seem to boyfriend and girlfriend but this is clearly not the case. Nele says that she is Till’s sister but he is not her brother. In other words, she wants a romantic relationship while he does not. Such a relationship is doomed to failure.

This was something of a different approach for Kehlmann. It is certainly not his first historical novel but it is his most violent one. It has the post-modern touch, as he plays around with historical characters and historical facts, and with the chronology. Even Till, who may or may not be a historical character, is taken out of his traditional historical period and plonked down in the Thirty Years War, though Kehlmann is not the first author to move Till to another era. I am not sure that it entirely works but, as always, with Kehlmann, it is a book well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published in 2017 by Rowohlt
First English translation 2020 by Pantheon
Translated by Ross Benjamin