Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann Translated by Ross Benjamin

1. First lines. 2. Published 2020 by Penguin Random House; Quercus; Hachette Australia 3. Nuremberg Chronicles [Public Domain] via Wikimedia 4. What was life like for a court jester? [No known copyright] Image source: History Extra

Tyll is a fictional character from German folklore of the 14th century. This book places him in the time of the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 in Europe. He leaves his village as a boy, and travels as an entertainer. He juggles, performs plays, walks a tightrope, and sings, and as he travels, he meets many different kinds of people, including real historical figures.

“We knew his pied jerkin, we knew his battered hood and the calfskin cloak. we knew the gaunt face, the small eyes, the hollow cheeks, and the buckteeth. His breeches were made of good material, his shoes of fine leather, but his hands were a thief’s or a scribe’s hands, which had never done work; his right hand held the reins, his left the whip. His eyes flashed as he greeted this person or that.”

” … it was his very duty – to tell her what no one else dared. That was why you had fools, and even if you didn’t want a fool, you had to consent to one, for without a court jester a court was not a court, and if she and Friedrich no longer had a country, at least their court had to be in order.”

“Above us Tyll Ulenspiegel turned, slowly and carelessly—not like someone in danger but like someone looking around with curiosity. He stood with his right foot lengthwise on the rope, his left crosswise, his knees slightly bent and his fists on his hips. And all of us, looking up, suddenly understood what lightness was. We understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one; we understood what it would be like to be such a person, and we understood that we would never be such people.”

~Quotes from “Tyll” by Daniel Kehlmann
My opinion:
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This is a very entertaining read. The dialogue between Tyll and various others has a modern feel. This book also brought my attention to the catastrophic Thirty Years War, of which I knew little (actually nothing). The author has been able to describe the brutality of the times without making it too dark.

The opinion of others:
  • Guardian: “It’s a testament to Kehlmann’s immense talent that he has succeeded in writing a powerful and accessible book about a historical period that is so complicated and poorly understood. He never pushes the parallels between present and past, but there are many ways in which this strife-torn Europe, fractured by religion, intolerance and war, is a reflection of our own times.”
  • Kirkus: “A richly inventive work of literature with a colorful cast of characters.”
  • Financial Times: “… playful historical fiction that juggles fact and fantasy”

Historical background: The Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 engulfed central Europe in a destructive conflict, that started as a battle among Catholic and Protestant states. Hundreds of thousands died, and many more were displaced. Famine followed as a result of the war, and disease was rife, including a typhoid epidemic.

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