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Literature / Till Eulenspiegel

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Till Eulenspiegel (low German: Dyl Ulenspegel or Till Ulenspiegel, Dutch: Tijl Uilenspiegel) is a folklore character originally from Low German oral tradition. He's a jester/fool who enjoys tricking people or driving them mad by taking things too literally. The first print version of his adventures, Ein kurtzweilig Lesen von Dyl Ulenspiegel, geboren uß dem Land zu Brunßwick ("An amusing reading of Till Eulenspiegel, born in the land of Brunswick"), appeared in Straßburg (now Strasbourg in France) ca. 1510 and became a best-seller by the standards of the age, being translated into Latin, French, Dutch, and Polish within the 16th century; under the name "Owlglass" he was also mentioned in Ben Jonson's play ''The Alchemist". Till Eulenspiegel appears to have been partly based on one "Tilo dictus Ulenspegel" (Tilo called Ulenspegel) who died in the town of Mölln in 1350. Some stories relate that for a time Till Eulenspiegel served king Kazimierz the Great of Poland.

In the 19th century the French-speaking Belgian author Charles De Coster adapted this folklore tales into the novel La légende et les aventures héroiques joyeuses et glorieuses d'Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzak au pays des Flandres et ailleurs ("The legend and the heroic, joyful and glorious adventures of Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak in the land of Flanders and elsewhere", 1867) which changed Ulenspiegel into a Flemish/Belgian Folk Hero who uses his intelligence and comedy to fight against the Spanish occupation during the 16th century. Ulenspiegel also got a new background story. He was born in the Flemish village Damme on the same day as Phillip II, the Spanish king who later would lead the Eighty Year's War against the Netherlands. Ulenspiegel's father is Claes, who is later burned at the stake by the Spanish occupiers, and his mother is named Soetkin. She later turns mad because of Claes' death. All these events motivate Ulenspiegel to fight against the Spanish oppressors. He is also given a girlfriend, Nele, and a gluttonous but jolly Sidekick named Lamme Goedzak. Ulenspiegel is seen as the incarnation of the spirit of Flanders, Lamme as that of the stomach of Flanders, and Nele as that of the heart of Flanders. The novel was adapted into a film with French actor Gérard Philippe playing the titular hero.

Comic strip artist Willy Vandersteen (of Suske en Wiske fame) also drew two well known comic books about the character. The first is more or less a retelling of De Coster's book with Uilenspiegel being a protestant freedom fighter taking on the Spanish occupation troops with trickery and subterfuge. The second sees him helping the Dutch by taking a ship to New Amsterdam and helping the natives fighting the corrupt Dutch governor.

In Germany, Richard Strauss composed a symphonic piece, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's merry pranks, 1895) and the East German satirical magazine Eulenspiegel, which continues to be published to this day, is named after him. There are museums dedicated to him in Kneitlingen (his birthplace), Mölln (the town where he died) and in Damme (the town where he was born according to De Coster).

Compare similar characters: Nasreddin from the Middle East, Herschel of Ostropol in Jewish folklore, Anansi the spider in Carribean folklore, Brother Rabbit in Afro-American folklore and even Alfred E. Neuman of MAD Magazine and Bugs Bunny seem to be made from the same mold.


  • Anti-Hero: Eulenspiegel is a trickster who enjoys fooling people.
  • Back from the Dead: The novel ends with Eulenspiegel's miraculous reappearance. He claims that his spirit cannot be killed.
  • Big Eater: Lamme Goedzak
  • Black Comedy: In one story, he "cured" all the patients in a hospital. How? He stated that he wanted to make some medicine for them... with a powder made out of the sickest one of them. After which they all wanted to prove that they were not that sick.
  • Book Ends: Just as his funeral was uncommon, the same applied to the start of his life. As the story goes, Eulenspiegel was baptized three times.
  • The Cameo: He has a cameo in the Suske en Wiske album "De Krimson Crisis".
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: Two albums were drawn by Willy Vandersteen.
  • Court Jester: Eulenspiegel served as one at the court of the Danish king.
  • Darker and Edgier: The Charles De Coster novel and especially the opera based on it take the character in a decidedly different direction than the original tales. De Coster makes him a jolly Robin-Hood-esque freedom fighter. The opera takes this even further and makes him a grim, determined badass in the end after all his loved ones are dead.
  • Exact Words: Eulenspiegel enjoys driving people crazy by taking things too literally. Only one of many examples: when the Duke of Lüneburg forbade Eulenspiegel to set foot in his country, Eulenspiegel bought a cart and filled it with soil that didn't belong to the duke. In a famous story, he goes into an inn and agrees to eat the nobleman's meal for ten guilders. After the last course is gulped down, he tries to convince the landlady that for him eating the meal SHE now owns him ten guilders (he agreed to eat the meal for ten guilders after all). Eventually they settle on him just leaving with a bottle of whine for his 'efforts'
  • Folk Hero: In Germany and Flanders Eulenspiegel is considered to be a folk hero. The Flemish see him as the spirit of Flanders and in 2003 the Germans even voted Eulenspiegel in 160th place in the election for "The Greatest German" ("Unsere Besten"). He is the only (arguably) fictional character to make the list!
  • The "Fun" in "Funeral": The guys who carried his coffin goofed up, and the coffin fell into the grave, standing upright instead of lying down. The priest decided this was OK: "He lived in a weird way, so he shall be buried in a weird way."
  • German Humor
  • Happy Harlequin Hat: Originally didn't have one, going hatless or having a different jester hat. However, later adaptations and monuments have him wearing it.
  • High-Altitude Interrogation: In a classic Eulenspiegel story Till is tightroping for money, when suddenly some spectators cut the rope, causing him to fall in the river across which he had tied the rope. He climbs ashore, tells the audience he enjoyed the joke and informs them that he will make his rope trick more complicated the next day. Out of curiosity the spectators return again the following day to see what he will do. Till then explains to them that he will climb the rope while holding two bags full of shoes. But since he hasn't got that many shoes he asks the spectators to give them one of their shoes for the act. Everyone does so, but once he is on the rope Till threatens to throw the shoes in the water if the audience doesn't pay him double what they paid him the day before. The frightened spectators pay up and Till disappears, after throwing the shoes randomly in the crowd, causing the spectators to fight for their possessions.
  • Iconic Outfit: Usually depicted as a medieval harlequin.
    • In Belgium, his companion Lamme Goedzak is forever typecast by wearing a broad-rimmed hat with a headband. However where other people where a feather in their headband as adornment, Lamme wears a large wooden spoon, indicating his love of food and his ability to eat everytime and everywhere.
  • Karmic Trickster
  • Lighter and Softer: Many early stories of him are quite crass (see: Toilet Humor, Mooning, Squick). In many stories many long after his death, he is more like a Karmic Trickster who fools stingy merchants or bad rulers.
  • Literal-Minded: Or acts like it, anyway. Never use Sarcasm Mode if you are his employer, he will do it.
  • Love Interest: Nele.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Till is able to convince people to do things that they wouldn't do in other situations.
    • He once made a waitress pay him for having worked so hard to eat and drink everything on his plate.
    • He once placed a bet with a priest, daring him to defecate in the middle of his own church. The priest takes the bet, but being a bit ashamed he does it at the back where nobody is able to see him. Till still wins, because the priest didn't do it in the middle of the church, as he had dared him to.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Literally, it means "owl-mirror". Other interpretations translate his name as uil en spiegel (owl and mirror, both symbols of foolishness as well as knowledge) or U-Li'en Spiegel (your people's mirror - as his jests hold up the mirror to his victim's foolishness).
    • In Medieval Low German, "eulen" meant basically "to clean", while "spiegel" was a slang euphemism for "buttocks". Subtle.
  • Mistaken Identity: One night, when Till slept inside a bee hive, two thieves who wanted to steal honey stole the hive, unaware that Till was still inside. So Till started to pull the hair of the thief in front of him and the beard of the one behind him. Both of them thought the other was bullying him and they started fighting, while Till managed to escape.
  • Mooning
    • This is actually referenced on tiled stove in Artus Court (a sort of hangout for merchants) in Gdańsk, where one particular tile depicted him giving this to the audience. A common joke played on new visitors was to "bet" that they won't be able to grasp the stove at the base of it - only for them to try... and find their lips at Eulenspiegel's buttocks (which was kinda true to his name - look at Meaningful Name above)
  • Not Quite Dead: Eulenspiegel is hanged near the end of Charles De Coster's novel, but miraculously revives, claiming that his spirit cannot be killed.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity
  • Sidekick: Lamme Goedzak
  • Significant Birth Date: In Charles De Coster's novel Eulenspiegel is born on the same day as Phillip II of Spain (21 May 1527). As fate will have it Philip II of Spain will terrorize the Low Countries as an adult and Eulenspiegel will lead the resistance against the Spanish king.
  • Sinister Minister: Eulenspiegel often tricks morally fallible priests.
  • Toilet Humor
  • The Trickster: Eulenspiegel claims that mankind wants to be tricked, thus justifying his actions.
  • The Unfettered
  • Walking the Earth: Till just goes from town to town.