Till Eulenspiegel

For the Strauss tone poem, see Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks. For the opera, see Till Eulenspiegel (Karetnikov opera).
The prankster Till Eulenspiegel, depicted with owl and mirror (Straßburg edition of 1515)

Till Eulenspiegel (German pronunciation: [tɪl ˈʔɔʏlənˌʃpiːɡəl], Low Saxon: Dyl Ulenspegel [dɪl ˈʔuːlnˌspeɪɡl̩], Dutch: Tijl Uilenspiegel) is a trickster figure originating in Middle Low German folklore. He appeared in chapbooks telling episodes that outlined his picaresque career in Germany, the Low Countries, Denmark, Bohemia, Poland, and Italy. He made his main entrance in English-speaking culture late in the nineteenth century as "Owlglass". However, he was first mentioned in English literature by Ben Jonson in his comedic play The Alchemist, or even earlier  Owleglasse  by Henry Porter in The Two Angry Women of Abington (1599).

Origin and tradition

According to the tradition, Eulenspiegel was born in Kneitlingen near Brunswick around 1300. He travelled through the Holy Roman Empire, especially Northern Germany, but also the Low Countries, Bohemia, and Italy. His mobility as a Landfahrer ("vagrant") allows him to be envisaged anywhere and everywhere in the late Middle Ages. Eulenspiegel was said to have died in Mölln, near Lübeck and Hamburg, of the Black Death in 1350, according to a gravestone attributed to him there, which was noted by Fynes Moryson in his Itinerary, 1591.[1] "Don't move this stone, let that be clear  Eulenspiegel's buried here"[2] is written on the stone in Low German.

Since the early 19th century, many German scholars have made attempts to find historical evidence of Till Eulenspiegel's existence. In his 1980 book Till Eulenspiegel, historian Bernd Ulrich Hucker mentions that according to a contemporary legal register of the city of Brunswick one Till van Cletlinge ("Till from/of Kneitlingen") was incarcerated there in the year 1339, along with four of his accomplices, for highway robbery.[3]

Till Eulenspiegel memorial stone (grave) in Mölln

In the stories, he is presented as a trickster who plays practical jokes on his contemporaries, exposing vices at every turn, greed and folly, hypocrisy and foolishness. As Peter Carels notes, "The fulcrum of his wit in a large number of the tales is his literal interpretation of figurative language."[4] In these stories, anything that can go wrong in communication does go wrong due to the disparity in consciousness. And it is not the exception that communication gives rise to complications; rather, it is the rule. As a model of communication, Till Eulenspiegel is the inherent, unpredictable factor of complication that can throw any communication, whether with oneself or others, into disarray. These irritations, amounting to conflicts, have the potential of effecting mental paradigm changes and increases in the level of consciousness. Although craftsmen are featured as the principal victims of his pranks, neither the nobility nor the pope is exempt from being affected by him.

Many others of Till's pranks are scatological in nature, and involve tricking people into touching, smelling, or even eating Till's excrement.[5]

The tales in print

Till Eulenspiegel Well in Mölln
Man dressed as Till Eulenspiegel at an event in Schöppenstedt

The two earliest printed editions,[6] in Early New High German, "Ein kurtzweilig Lesen von Dyl Ulenspiegel, geboren uß dem Land zu Brunßwick, wie er sein leben volbracht hat …", are Johannes Grüninger's in Strassburg, 1510–11 and 1515. The 1510-11 edition is considered the definitive text as far as it has been preserved; only one relatively complete copy (missing about 30 pages, which were replaced by pages from a then-contemporary edition when the book was rebound by an unknown owner around the year 1700) and a few pages that appear to have been printer's trials, made before the actual printing run began, are known to survive. In fact the page that would have contained the year number being among those lost, the time frame has been inferred from details of the type used by the printer: other books from Grüninger's shop dated 1510-11 were set from the same lead type (lead type had to be recast fairly frequently since it would be worn down rather quickly in a busy print shop). The 1515 edition is decidedly inferior, missing many of the illustrations of the older edition, and showing signs of careless copying of the text; a third Strassburg edition, of 1519, is better again and is usually used in modern editions to provide the sections that are missing in the surviving 1510-11 copy.[7] In spite of often-repeated suggestions to the effect "that the name 'Eulenspiegel' was used in tales of rogues and liars in Lower Saxony as early as 1400",[8] previous references to a Till Eulenspiegel actually turn out to be surprisingly elusive, Paul Oppenheimer concludes.[7] The author is supposedly Hermann Bote. Recent research has established that it was written in Early High German.

The literal translation of the High German name "Eulenspiegel" is "owl mirror", two symbols that identify Till Eulenspiegel in popular woodcuts (illustration). Another meaning hypothetically attributed to his name is "wipe the arse". In the eighteenth century, German satirists adopted episodes for social satire, and in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century versions of the tales are bowdlerized, to render them fit for children, who had come to be considered their chief natural audience, by expurgating their many scatological references.[4] In the current Oppenheimer edition (see above) scatological stories abound, beginning with Till's early childhood (in which he rides behind his father and exposes his rear-end to the townspeople) and persisting until his death bed (where he tricks a priest into soiling his hands with feces).[7]

Current popularity

The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak, a 1867 novel by Belgian author Charles De Coster, has been translated, often in mutilated versions, into many languages. In De Coster's story Uilenspiegel is said to have been born in Damme, West Flanders. The author gives him a father, Claes, and mother, Soetkin, as well as a girlfriend, Nele, and a best friend, Lamme Goedzak. Throughout the story Claes is taken prisoner by the Spanish oppressors and burned at the stake, while Soetkin goes insane as a result. This tempts Thyl to start resistance against the Spanish oppression. Thanks to the novel Uilenspiegel has become a symbol of Flemish nationalism. He also has a statue in Damme.

There are three museums in Germany featuring Till Eulenspiegel. One is located in the town of Schöppenstedt in Lower Saxony, which is nearby his assumed birthplace Kneitlingen. The second is located in the supposed place of his death, the city of Mölln in Schleswig-Holstein, and the third in Bernburg (Saale), Sachsen-Anhalt. In the town of Damme, Belgium, there is also a museum honoring him. Damme was Till's (Tijl in Dutch) birthplace in the novel by De Coster. And there is a fountain and statue featuring Till Eulenspiegel in the Marktplatz of Magdeburg, capital city of Sachsen-Anhalt.



In 1867 Belgian author Charles De Coster wrote The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak, a novel that reinvented the trickster character as a resistance leader against the Spanish occupation in the 16th century, making him a symbol of Flanders.

In 1927 Gerhart Hauptmann wrote the verse Till Eulenspiegel.

Between 1945 and 1950 a German satirical magazine was called: Ulenspiegel.

Ulenspiegel was mentioned in Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" as a possible prototype for the black cat character Behemoth.

Michael Rosen adapted the story into a 1989 children's novel, illustrated by Fritz Wegner: The Wicked Tricks of Till Owlyglass, ISBN 978-0744513462.

Clive Barker adapted it into the novel Crazyface.


Richard Strauss wrote the tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28, in 1894-1895.

In 1902 Emil von Reznicek adapted the story into an opera: Till Eulenspiegel.

In 1913 Walter Braunfels adapted the story into an opera.

The Ballets Russes adapted the story into a ballet in 1916, later re-adapted by George Balanchine for Jerome Robbins at New York City Ballet.

Wladimir Vogel was a Russian composer who wrote a drama-oratorio Thyl Claes in the late 30s or early 40s, derived from De Coster's book.

The Soviet composer Nikolai Karetnikov and his librettist filmmaker Pavel Lungin adapted De Coster's novel as the samizdat opera "Till Eulenspiegel" (1983), which had to be recorded piece-by-piece in secret and received its premiere (1993) only after the Soviet Union collapsed.


Dutch comics artist George van Raemdonck adapted the novel into a comic strip in the 1920s.[9] In the 1940s Ray Goossens made a gag-a-day comic about Uilenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak.[10] Willy Vandersteen drew two comic book albums about Uilenspiegel, "De Opstand der Geuzen" ("The Rebellion of the Geuzen") and "Fort Oranje" ("Fort Orange"), both drawn in a realistic, serious style and pre-published in the Belgian comics magazine Tintin between 1952 and 1954. They were published in comic book album format in 1954 and 1955. The stories were drawn in a realistic style and in some instances followed the original novel very closely, but sometimes followed his own imagination more.[11]


In 1956 the film Les Aventures de Till L'Espiègle was made by Gérard Philipe and Joris Ivens, which adapted De Coster's novel. (English title: "Bold Adventure"). The film was a French-East German co-production.

In 1973 Walter van der Kamp directed Uilenspiegel, a Dutch film.

Rainer Simon directed Tijl Eulenspiegel in 1975, which was an East-German production.

Ulenspiegel (Legenda o Tile), was a 1976 Soviet film, based on De Coster's novel, and directed by Aleksandr Alov and Vladimir Naumov, "The Legend of Till Ullenspiegel" (1976).[12]

In 2003 Eberhard Junkersdorf adapted the story into a feature-length animated film.

In 2014 Christian Theede directed the film Till Eulenspiegel.

Television programs

In 1961 the BRT (nowadays the VRT) made a children's TV series, Tijl Uilenspiegel.

See also



  1. John A. Walz, "Fynes Moryson and the Tomb of Till Eulenspiegel" Modern Language Notes 42.7 (November 1927:465-466) p 465; Walz quotes Moryson's description of "a famous Jester Oulenspiegell (whom we call Owlyglasse)": "the towns-men yeerly keepe a feast for his memory, and yet show the apparell he was wont to weare." The earliest reference to the gravestone is of the mid-sixteenth century, in Riemar Kock's Lübscher Chronik. By the seventeenth century it was noted as "often renewed".
  2. "Disen Stein sol nieman erhaben. Hie stat Ulenspiegel begraben. Anno domini MCCCL jar" (Diesen Stein soll niemand erhaben, hier steht Eulenspiegel begraben; Eulenwelt - Eulen und Käuze: Till Eulenspiegel)
  3. Hucker, Bernd Ulrich (1980). Till Eulenspiegel: Beiträge zur Forschung, Brunswick: Stadtarchiv und Stadtbibliothek, 1980
  4. 1 2 Peter E. Carels, "Eulenspiegel and Company Visit the Eighteenth Century" Modern Language Studies 10.3 (Autumn 1980:3-11) p. 3.
  5. "Till Eulenspiegel". Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  6. Fragmentary manuscripts of ca. 1510 were found by Honegger, and an almost complete manuscript of Grüninger's 1510-11 edition by Paul Ulrich hucker in 1975 (Paul Oppenheimer, Till Eulenspiegel: His Adventures" (1991), Introduction, p. xxix).
  7. 1 2 3 The early editions have been translated by Paul Oppenheimer as A Pleasant Vintage of Till, Eulenspiegel (Wesleyan University Press) 1972, with introduction and critical apparatus; Oppenheimer, Till Eulenspiegel: His Adventures was published in the Garland Library of Medieval Literature, 1991
  8. Ruth Michaelis-Jena, "Eulenspiegel and Münchhausen: Two German Folk Heroes", Folklore 97.1 (1986:101-108) p. 102.
  9. "George van Raemdonck". Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  10. "Ray Goossens". Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  11. "Willy Vandersteen". Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  12. Legenda o Tile (1979), IMDB.com

Further reading

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Till Eulenspiegel.
Wikisource has the text of a 1905 New International Encyclopedia article about Till Eulenspiegel.

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