After watching the utterly amazing, epic and awe-inspiring The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last week, a movie directed by Peter Jackson and filmed in New Zealand, a country made for epic story-telling, I was once again reminded how important location is for writers to set a scene.
Just like Pierrefonds Castle became another character in the BBC’s Merlin series and J K Rowling’s Hogwarts was instrumental in luring us into Harry Potter’s magical world, the various locations Tolkien uses on Bilbo’s journey all signify different stages of the hobbit’s “inner” journey, showing us where young hobbit Bilbo’s at in his development to become a bona fide hero.
The opening sequences of the beautiful “shire”, where the hobbits live, are reminiscent of a brief and blissful time in Tolkien’s childhood. At dream-like Rivendale, where wise elves rule, Bilbo reaches adulthood, realising for the first time, there’s so much more to the world than just the little shire outside his own windows. However, the landscapes soon turn into a nightmarish labyrinth of inhospitable terrain, alternating between mysterious forests, bleak rocky deserts, harsh snow-capped mountain terrain where giants rage against one another and dark caves where cruel orks prowl. In other words, adulthood and the dangers all around us besiege our young hobbit – in Tolkien’s own life the arrival of a senseless world war put an end to the joys of his youth.
It also struck me how great authors can weave history, in particular “legendary” characters, into a tale without disrupting the fantasy world they have created. Merlin may or may not have spun his magic to impress guileless ancient Britons but he became the inspiration for Tolkien’s Gandalf and therefore we no longer care whether or not Merlin really lived.
King Arthur may or may not have fought at Camlin and in the process inspired every heroic sword-fighting battle scene ever written; dwarves may or may not have been famous miners throughout the medieval world, prompting countless tales of underground wealth, but in a carefully crafted fantasy story, real history and invented “historical” figures can blend successfully to draw on our combined cultural references and make us believe that all these legendary figures actually existed.
One such “legendary” character has fascinated me since childhood. On my father’s side of the family, people came from Mecklenburg and the Duchy of Lauenburg in Schleswig Holstein in Germany, where the medieval town of Mölln is another good example of how location and local historic characters make for a brilliant setting for a fantasy novel. The town was founded in the early 12th century and is another one of those medieval towns with a natural moat surrounding it.
Ring-fenced by several small lakes (to whit the States, Schulte, Ziegelsee, Hegesee, Schmalsee, Lütauer See, Drüsensee and Pinnsee) and traversed by the Elbe-Lübeck Canal, Mölln was once part of the famous Old Salt Route, on which salt produced in the salt mines of Lüneburg in Lower-Saxony was transported on horse-drawn carts to the Baltic Sea, namely to the harbour in my home town Lübeck.
While salt may be a cheap ingredient to flavour your chips today, it was once as valuable as gold and any town along the medieval Salt Route was as rich as a Middle Eastern oil state by modern standards. Hence the enormous number of monuments such as vast cathedrals and imposing town halls that can be found in relatively small towns like Mölln. Think Dubai architecture and more oil money than sense and you’ll get the medieval picture.
Although located in the middle of the Duchy of Lauenburg, medieval Mölln was mortgaged to the Free Hanseatic City of Lübeck, which legislated and ruled Mölln from 1359 to 1683 with an iron merchant fist.
However, the town’s most famous inhabitant is not a rich merchant or romantic highway robber attacking carts on the Old Salt Route but lowly Till Eulenspiegel, who wasn’t actually born there, but came to Mölln to “retire” from his duties as court jester, charlatan and medieval prankster.
Till Eulenspiegel reputedly lived in Brunswick (Braunschweig in Germany), before moving to Mölln, where he allegedly died of the plague in 1350. There is no actual proof he existed or even lived in Mölln, but throughout the centuries various documents appeared that related to him and today an entire museum is devoted to the antics of this medieval confidence trickster, juggler, comedian and irresistible charmer.
Throughout the town there are several statues commemorating his pranks and colourful life. Here are some Google pictures of the town:
Till’s career as a prankster reputedly flourished in the rich medieval merchant towns of Germany, the Low Countries (Flanders) and France. Today, most historians believe Eulenspiegel was just a literary figure that populated stories in medieval cities like Braunschweig, Cologne, Bremen, Marburg and Rostock – or indeed anywhere, where rich burghers had been the victim of a prankster and felt enraged enough to report such misdeeds to the authorities.
Such pranksters soon entered local folklore and if you can’t remember the name of the chap who pulled wool over your eyes and a purse out of your waistcoat, you might as well call him Eulenspiegel and pass the warning on to your wealthy friends.
Stroll through Mölln and wherever you look, you’ll see Till Eulenspiegel holding up his mirror, reminding us who we pretend to be and who we really are. In Welsh tradition those who master “the word” and can “read” people are deemed to be magicians or sorcerers like Gandalf or Merlin. The modern day equivalent are perhaps genius tricksters like Simon Baker’s The Mentalist, a man who solves crimes by noticing even the tiniest things about people, thus unmasking their real motives and manipulating them into revealing their guilt.
Till Eulenspiegel strikes me as just such a character, someone who knows instinctively where society is going wrong and what makes people tick. Interestingly, like the aforementioned sorcerers, Till uses communication to make fools of his contemporaries, although occasionally he can’t resist employing slapstick humour such as tricking a priest to voluntarily cover his hands with poo or by causing a medieval traffic jam with horse-drawn carts.
Despite historians telling us Till never existed, a gravestone emerged in the itinerary of one Fynes Moryson in 1591 that proclaimed in its epitaph Don’t move this stone, let that be clear – Eulenspiegel’s buried here” in Low German dialect – reminding us that Till is still a force to be reckoned with even after death. Or as Mulder and Scully would say…the truth is out there…and no matter how hard you try to cover up your misdeeds, eventually truth will bite you in the rear and your secrets will be outed.
Till’s practical jokes aimed to expose his contemporaries’ vices such as greed, hypocrisy and folly and in Till’s pranks, literally anything that can go wrong, when people communicate, does go wrong and with spectacularly funny results. Till is a master of communication, and acts as the intrinsic trigger, the unpredictable factor of complication that can throw any communication totally off course. I’ve always loved the list of his pranks that highlight our narrow-minded outlook on the world and show us how this outlook can be subverted and turned up-side-down: he reveals a universal truth to us…
…just like any gifted fantasy author would do.
Here are some Eulenspiegel Museum pictures and information on Till and the town of Mölln, where he reputedly died after playing his final prank on the priest who read him his last rights:
If your feet are aching as much as your credit card, perhaps it’s time to leave the shopping to somebody else and take a critical look in the mirror instead; why no adopt the Eulenspiegel view of Christmas and play a prank on your nearest and dearest?
Dear Word Press children, this year our stockings only appear to be empty…for Santa’s blessing us with the gift of “air”!