Translated from German by Ross Benjamin
The jester or trickster is a ubiquitous figure, popping up in mythologies, literature, street theatre, and in playing cards and tarot. He (it’s almost always a man) is an entertainer, mentally and physically agile, and able to speak truth to power. He lives by his wits and is a creature who adapts to his surroundings.
Daniel Kehlmann has taken this figure, fleshed him out and built a narrative around him. Tyll is a novel set during the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648). Catholic and Protestant factions battled for dominance in a war that has shaped present-day Europe and that resulted in millions of deaths (estimates range from 4.5 to 8 million).
To give a brief summary of the part of the war relevant to Tyll: in 1618, the Protestant nobility of Bohemia deposed the Catholic King Ferdinand II. They offered the crown to the Protestant Friederich V of the Palantine, who was married to Elizabeth, daughter of James I of England. Friederich accepted, against the advice of his father-in-law, and his acceptance of the crown led to the Bohemian Revolt. The Winter King, as Friedrich was known, was eventually deposed and exiled.
Back to the book. This was a time when parents tried not to get too close to their children, as many of them died young. Tyll Ulenspiegel is the only surviving child of his parents, Claus, a miller, and Agneta. The boy is not like the other children, preferring to spend his time learning to walk a tightrope and juggling. When he is about 10, he goes with Agneta to deliver some flour. But when the pregnant woman notices that she is bleeding, she leaves Tyll in the forest with the flour and the donkey cart and tries to get home. The forest is said to be haunted by spirits at night. What happened on those two nights when Tyll was alone there? The father finds him naked in the trees, covered in flour and giggling, with the donkey slaughtered. Had he been possessed? When the boy comes to, he can’t remember anything.
Claus is an self-taught man, a healer who reads widely, traits that are dangerous at the time, when anyone who is different is suspected of witchcraft. His reputation reaches the ears of witch-hunters, who seek him out, torture him, and persuade his wife and son to stand witness against him. Tyll, sure that his father will be put to death, runs away with Nele, his best friend, who is escaping a marriage to a brute.
Tyll and Nele team up with a singer and become travelling entertainers. They are both talented and draw in crowds. Tyll becomes famous and is sought after by lords and princes.
The book moves back and forth in time between various periods in Tyll’s life: his childhood; when he is employed as a jester by Elizabeth, the Queen of Bohemia, just before King Friederich is defeated in battle; in the middle of a battlefield; at the Court of the Holy Roman Emperor; and at the siege of Brno.
Daniel Kehlmann gives us a glimpse into life and the politics of the time, telling the story through different points of view, including the Queen’s, a Duke, and of course, Tyll and Nele. You don’t need to know about the Thirty Years’ War to enjoy the book, but I was intrigued enough to look it up.
I liked Kehlmann’s writing and the way he captures a person or a moment. A man at Frederich’s and Elizabeth’s court is “an excited hero, so moved by himself that tears came to eyes”. The passage describing Claus’s last meal before he is executed as a witch is a study in contrasts and irony. As someone who has lived with hunger for years, Claus asks for everything he has ever wanted. “He didn’t know such good food existed. … As Claus eats at his small table in the cowshed and feels his stomach filling up with warm, fine things, he thinks that a meal like this is ultimately even worth dying for. … With your arms chained together it’s hard to hold the meat, the iron chafes, your wrists are sore, but that the moment it doesn’t matter, so good does it taste. And on the whole his hands no longer hurt as much as a week ago. Master Tilman is also a master of healing; Claus has to admit that the executioner knows herbs that he has never heard of.”
Using a jester as a central figure to recount history works really well. Tyll acquires an almost mythological status as someone who seems to be ubiquitous and immortal. The novel gives us a multi-faceted picture, not just of the war and the political intrigues, but also of the time. This is a masterful retelling of a period in history that I, for one, knew almost nothing about.
 German folktales tell of a prankster called Till Ulenspiegel, born in Brunswick and supposed to have died in 1350. His tombstone still exists in Lauenberg (see https://www.fairietales.com/writings/till2.html).
 For more information on the Thirty Years’ War, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years%27_War and https://www.history.com/topics/reformation/thirty-years-war.