I’ve been reading a great deal since 2020 began, and while most of what I’ve read has been enjoyable (or I wouldn’t finish), only a few books have hit that high note that makes reading truly exciting. That’s why I had high hopes for Daniel Kehlman’s Tyll. I was not disappointed. Tyll is set during the Thirty Year’s War in central Europe and it ranges widely: from domestic to royal settings; from rural peasant life to circuses and war; and from witchcraft to pseudo-science. All this in under 350 pages: a full canvas of human emotions.
Tyll is based on the German folk character Tyll Ulenspiegel (there are various spellings). He’s a joker and trickster with magical powers: a magician and an exposer of human foibles. The original stories about Tyll are set earlier, in the 1300s, but many writers and musicians have made use of this archetypal character ever since. Kehlman’s book is set in the 1600s which allows him to take advantage of the political turmoil of the Thirty Year’s War, a horrifically bloody contest between Catholics and Protestants and a struggle for hegemony among various states.
This was a time when Satan could be blamed for almost anything and frequently was. Tyll grows up in a rural village; when his father is executed by the Jesuits for heretical beliefs, Tyll runs off with a neighboring girl, Nele. They travel from town to town where Tyll’s skills as a tightrope walker bring in spectators and a little cash. Their adventures and misadventures bring them close to danger and put them in the middle of war and politics. There’s a fair amount of satire. It all felt very Brechtian to me–a good thing. There have been many adaptations of the Tyll Ulenspiegel story in all types of media: music (Richard Strauss), films, novels, and comics. You’ll often see the story used in children’s books, but it’s really quite dark and satiric. There’s very little in Kehlman’s version that would be suitable–or understandable–for children.
Characters in folktales are often enigmatic so they provide fertile ground for writers to create character and motivation. For readers, it’s a chance to see a story from a different angle. One of my favorite novels is The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s brilliant retelling of the story of the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus. Margaret Atwood’s novel The Penelopiad reimagines the life of Penelope as she waits for Odysseus to return. And Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, about Briseis, the woman who played a pivotal role in the Trojan War, is also excellent and a great companion piece to The Story of Achilles. And now you know my weakness for literature about the classical era.