Raspe, Rudolf Erich

Tagged: Author

(1737-1794) German-born propagandist, amateur geologist, cataloguer, flim-flam artist, translator and author, in the UK from 1775. His career was harum-scarum; though he edited the posthumous papers of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) as Oeuvres philosophiques latines et francoises de feu Mr de Leibniz (1765), and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1769, he was more than once in deep financial trouble (the Royal Society ejected him in 1775) and narrowly escaped imprisonment. One of his earliest publications in English, Tabby in Elysium (1781 chap), was a translation from the German of an 1757 verse narrative by J F W Zacharia describing the eponymous cat's adventures in Hell; he is now remembered almost exclusively for his creation of Baron Munchausen, teller of fabulous tales. The source for this figure was a real person, Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen (1720-1797), who was famous for his skill in the German tradition of telling preposterous tales aloud, though never with the intention that these tall tales about exploits in Russia and elsewhere were to be believed. Freiherr von Münchhausen was deeply wounded by the appropriation of his name.

In any case, Raspe transformed these oral anecdotes into a series of seventeen tales (1781 Vade Mecum für lustige Leute number 8, and 1782 Vade Mecum für lustige Leute number 10); all but one of these were used in Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785 chap; vt Singular Travels, Campaigns, Voyages, and Sporting Adventures of Baron Munnikhouson, Commonly Pronounced Munchausen, as he Relates Them over a Bottle when Surrounded by his Friends 1786), published as by Anonymous; the original Club Story frame survives only in subtitles [see Checklist]. In this first version, Munchausen includes among his exploits one element of Proto SF interest: his first trip to the Moon, up a bean stalk. Raspe was not identified as the author of the 1785 volume, or any of its sequels, until 1824.

It is not known how extensively in fact Raspe did contribute to the first expansions of his original (perhaps not at all), though the expanding contents of new editions through 1792 are now treated as comprising the central Baron Munchausen corpus. In Gulliver Revived (1786) – and in similarly titled expansions of this volume [again see Checklist for full titles, and for the several exp vts] – further fabulous hoax-like sf episodes are recounted: Munchausen's second trip to the Moon, a narrative conspicuously influenced by Lucian's The True History (written second century CE), where he meets gigantic Aliens (see Life on Other Worlds); his trip through the crater at Mount Etna into a Hollow Earth where he meets Venus, and emerges in the South Seas; plus Fantastic Voyages to various Islands. A Sequel to the Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Humbly Addressed to Mr Bruce the Abyssinian Traveller (1792) – definitely not by Raspe – initially takes the shape of a Parody of the Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, In the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772 and 1773 (1790 5vols) by James Bruce (1730-1794), an account whose veracity was disputed at the time, but has later been confirmed. In the Sequel Munchausen employs some fantasticated forms of Transportation, including Balloons and a clockwork chariot, in his travels to Africa and elsewhere, during which he discovers a Lost World inhabited by descendants of Lunarians; rescues white men from durance vile on clement Islands at the South Pole; and builds a bridge from Africa to England.

What might be described as Sequels by Other Hands proliferated in the nineteenth century. They are not discussed or listed here. Terry Gilliam's film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), captures some of the surreal disjointedness of the eighteenth century continuations, though it does not convey much of the quick joyfulness of the 1785 original. [JC]

Rudolf Erich Raspe

born Hanover, Germany: March 1737

died Muckross, near Killarney, Donegal, Ireland: November 1794

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Baron Munchausen

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