Simplicius Simplicissimus is considered the first German adventure novel and published around 1669. It’s still assigned reading for German schoolchildren and considered an important text for anyone interested in Germany during the Thirty Years War.
Subtitled, “The life of an odd vagrant named Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim: namely where and in what manner he came into this world, what he saw, learned, experienced, and endured therein; also why he again left it of his own free will,” it was written by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, as an autobiography of his experiences during the Thirty Years War.
The story begins rather horrifically, with the attack on a farm by cavalry troopers. After witnessing the violence against his family and the destruction of their farm, the young protagonist is abducted by the soldiers and his journey begins. He spends time in the woods with a hermit, where he is first christened “Simplicissimus,” since he is so ignorant he is unaware of his own name, or of anything else for that matter.
Fortunately, the violence of the early chapters isn’t repeated, and the story becomes more a fantastical romp. The protagonist has many bizarre and frequently humorous adventures and his fortunes take him to the depths of misery and the heights of high society. He does time as a court fool, an outlaw, a military officer, a world traveler, a castaway, among others, and ends his story by becoming a hermit, almost exactly how he started.
For years, the book was considered a mostly accurate portrayal of Grimmelshausen’s life, though in recent years doubt has been cast on that. Scholars now think that he spent most of his life living quietly on the edges of the Black Forest and based the adventures of his novel on stories he heard from others and his own rather vivid imagination.
While much of the book does have a very gritty, realistic feel to it and period details are largely correct, there is too much of the fantastical for me to ever take it seriously as a memoir. Early in the story, some crazy parts of the tale could be written off as embellishment, but as soon as the protagonist asserted that he surprised a coven of witches in the living room of a house, whereupon they all mounted their brooms and flew out the window- which proved the existence of witches (what?) – I decided this was more or less a fairytale.
I was confirmed in this opinion near the end of the book when the protagonist spends an extended period of time living with mermen under a huge secret lake. Sorry, not buying that one either!
Though it was tedious at times, and the protagonist was usually just a jerk who richly deserved his misfortunes, I mostly enjoyed reading this. It was an interesting look at the time, and provided a glimpse into what could be considered the pop culture of late 17th century Germany.by