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Till Eulenspiegel

from Vanamonde #766 (2008)

It's a vexed question whether or not Till Eulenspiegel had any existence other than in legend. The Entertaining Book about him (that's the title, Ein kurzweilig lesen von Dyl Ulenspiegel) was printed at Strassburg in 1515, or at least the oldest known text was; it says he was born at Kneitlingen, and died in 1350 at Mölln, which is proud of him or at least keeps saying so. There's a Till Eulenspiegel Museum at Schöppenstedt, but it acknowledges the lack of historical evidence. "The jests and practical jokes ascribed to him were collected – if we may believe a statement in one of the old prints – as early as 1483.... In England, 'Howleglas' (Eulenspiegel, German, in English is "Owlglass", "glass" in the sense of mirror, like "looking glass") ... was long a familiar figure," Encyclopædia Britannica (14th ed. 1929).

As to what, if anything, to draw from his reported pranks on the nobility, we have some reason to believe in court fools who jested at the expense of their masters – "licensed fools" – a relief from the cares of authority, and a medicine against the blindness of importance, need of the former often recognized, of the latter sometimes. The place of coarse or even harsh joking is vexed too – as in fact with subtle joking – perhaps any joking. Among the brilliant touches in Clarke's novel The City and the Stars (1956) is the introduction of Khedron the Jester in the city of Diaspar whose timelessness includes a role for the likes of him, then his discomfiture after tens or hundreds of millions of years by the innocent Alvin who keeps asking the next question.