FANTASTIC STORIES from “the most truthful man in the world” about a wolf pulling a sled, a stag growing a cherry tree between his antlers after being shot with a pit, an eight-legged rabbit, and a horse tied to the top of a belltower, are the stuff of childhood in Russia. The improbable adventures of the legendary Baron von Munchausen have inspired more than six hundred books, as well as countless plays and films.
Interestingly, this wildly popular product of fiction had a very real prototype – Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen (1720-1797), from the German Electorate of Hanover. For more than a decade, he served in Russia, where he first arrived as part of the entourage of Duke Anthony Ulrich II of Brunswick. Münchhausen took part in the 1735–1739 Russo-Turkish War and distinguished himself during the 1737 capture of the Ottoman fortress at Ochakov. Official records attest that he was a brave and resourceful officer. In 1750, Münchhausen retired with the rank of captain to his native town of Bodenwerder. An exemplary family man and exceptional host, he was renowned for the food, drink, and amazing tales with which he entertained his guests. His storytelling prowess drew visitors from across Germany.
His rise to fame was helped along by various writers who had scant regard for accuracy. Taking advantage of the Baron’s reputation for stretching the truth, they stretched it even further, attributing to him all sorts of incredible feats far beyond what Münchhausen himself was concocting. The Baron’s international renown was achieved with the 1785 publication in London of Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia. This book, written by fellow Hanoverian Rudolf Erich Raspe (1737-1794), was an overnight sensation and sold out of bookstores in a week. As literary scholars discovered, the tales represented Raspe’s creative reworkings of comic tales in a number of genres, from sources as diverse as Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, and Germany past and present.
In 1786, a German version was published in Göttingen (although the title page claimed it was published in London). This edition represented a free translation and expansion of Raspe’s work by the professor and poet Gottfried August Bürger (1747–1794). The fictional Munchausen narrating these tall tales took them to yet more stellar heights.
While Baron Munchausen may have put Germany on the map as the motherland of the tall tale, in fact, Russian culture of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century had its own proud gallery of spinners of lies or creators of marvelous stories, depending on your viewpoint. The line between the unscrupulous liar and inspired inventor is a fine one and at times faded from view altogether.
The unbelievable can be found in the folklore of each of Earth’s many cultures. And Russian folk traditions feature a special genre known as nebyvalshchiny – an untranslatable word suggestive of big and grand things that never existed. The buffoonery of the nebyvalshchina drew its power from comic absurdities:
A bear flies high across the sky, Holds a cow in his claws as he flies high...
There’s a sow in the tree and she’s woven a nest,
Having woven a nest, now with piglets she’s blessed.
Медведь летит по поднебесью,
В когтях же он несет коровушку...
На дубу свинья да гнездо свила,
Гнездо свила да детей вывела.
Folk storytellers made little effort toward credibility. A sixteenth-century tale, for example, would have us believe that a peasant managed to escape being swallowed up by an eddy by grabbing onto the tail of a giant bear. A foreign visitor to Russia was told that, along the Dnieper, travelers’ words freeze in winter only to thaw in the springtime. Someone else claimed with utter seriousness to have a wonder-working plant whose seeds could generate a sizeable lamb. Stranger still, these and similar yarns were often believed by foreigners.
So, Russia’s penchant for the tall tale made it fertile ground for the Munchausen stories, and the equally free translation into Russian of Bürger’s free translation from English was enormously popular there. By the early nineteenth century it had gone through at least five editions. The translator, the well-known satirist, mimic, and parodist Nikolai Osipov, used a folk saying as the translation’s title: Don’t Listen If You Don’t Want To, But Don’t Stop Me from Lying. Much as the translator tried to give the book a foreign flavor, Osipov’s native realia shone through. In addition to typical Russian clothing and sleds, the book was replete with stereotypically backward and brutal rural gentry and quarrelsome coachmen who have to stop at every drinking establishment along the way and demand to be treated to vodka. One of its characters, a child of the gentry, raised among serfs and hunting dogs, is depicted reflecting:
The unbelievable can be found in the folklore of each of Earth’s many cultures.
The more I frolicked with the borzois and the pointers, the more I teased and beat the peasant children, the more delicious treats I got from mother, and father became more affectionate by the hour. I was nine years old, and at that age, I thought that a nobleman must be a very different creature from other people... Every thought with which I grew up and arrived at the present boiled down to this idea. I always had money jingling in my pocket while others had not a kopek; I threw my fists about, while others had to bear my blows patiently; I ordered, and others had to obey. I grew angry, and everyone else trembled.
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