Till Eulenspiegel: “winking and smirking at the eternal foolishness in us all”

Till Eulenspiegel Well in Mölln. Photo by Hans Weingartz (Wikipedia).

He is “described variously as an ‘avenger of peasants, a representative of the oppressed, a romantic loser, a rebel, a nilhilist, a callous judge of humanity, an embodiment of German motherwit, a critic of language, a good-for-nothing, a cataloguer of Low German humor, a symbol of Satan, a parasite….a traitor to humanity, a cynic, and a representative of a new age’”(Rachael Haring, 2003), but the “good-natured rogue and insatiable mischief-maker” of the Late Middle Ages is also “irresistible” according to Elizabeth Robbins, writing for the Atlantic in the late 19th Century:

“Whether we follow him to the bee-hive where he set two thieves to fighting while he made his escape, undetected; whether we accompany him to the church spire in Magdeburg on that famous occasion when he assembled crowds around the church, only to tell them they were bigger fools than he was himself; or whether we are witness of his imposture upon so august a person as the Pope , we cannot resist laughing heartily with him, while we admire his amazing ingenuity.” — Elizabeth Robbins (1881)

Till Eulenspiegel, depicted with owl and mirror (1515) — Public Domain.

Born around 1300 according to legend, this thrice baptized “jester par excellence for the past five hundred years” was a Landfahrer (“vagrant”) who roamed around the Holy Roman Empire exposing human folly until he died of the “Black Death” (plague) in 1350. Eulenspeigel literally means Owl-Mirror, with the owl symbolizing at that time the “stupid and evil or wicked man” — hence “a mirror of the stupid and wicked.” While his appeal as a mythic folk hero may be universal and primal, he also inspired Richard Strauss’s “familiar charmer” — Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. In 1867 he became the Protestant hero of the 16th Century Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule in a novel by Belgian author, Charles De Coster. As Haring concludes:

“His appeal is universal and primal — he is a rogue and trickster who shows the honest truth and deflates the egos of the pompous. He is a complex jester who shows a wicked cleverness above all expectation. He delights in wordplay and deceit, sadism and humor, weaving a raunchy tapestry of the inherent bumbling and figurative dishonesty of man and woman, rich and poor, noble and common. He disgusts our sensibilities even as his mischievous genius delights our intellect. It truly matters little whether such a man ever drew breath; Till Eulenspiegel will continue to live in the hearts and minds of those who know him, winking and smirking at the eternal foolishness in us all.” — Rachael Haring (2003)


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Till Eulenspiegel: “winking and smirking at the eternal foolishness in us all” was originally published in Kühner Kommentar an Amerika on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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