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Canada through the eyes of world literature

The Abodes of Despair (Munchausen Part I)

raspecover

Rudolf Erich Raspe, The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1785)

This edition of Baron Munchausen, published in 2012 by Melville House as part of the Neversink Library, is based on an edition published in London in 1895. There is a lengthy “Afterword” by Thomas Seccombe, which I think served as an introduction to the 1895 edition; in it, Seccombe suggests that Raspe was the author of only a relatively small portion of the present book (Chapters II through VI of the first volume), and that what Raspe published in 1785 was little more than what we might think of as a “pamphlet,” as opposed to a full-length book. The stories told in Raspe’s chapters are all quite short, and mainly concern exploits in war and hunting, which could conceivably be exaggerrated versions of events from the life of the historical Baron Munchausen.

According to Seccombe, following the success of Raspe’s work, the publisher employed other writers to add to and expand the Baron’s adventures; by the seventh edition, in 1793, they had reached essentially the form in which we have them now.

But then there is this edition:

 carswellmunch

In his Introduction, John Carswell attributes more of the work to Raspe than Seccombe does, and argues….

But I find myself unwilling to venture too far into the thickets of these questions of authorship; for our purposes, the book was written near the close of the 18th century, and can be taken to represent some ideas that Europeans had about Canada at that time. Those who wish to know more about the history and authorship of the Baron’s adventures can follow those questions on their own.

The book is divided into two volumes, each containing references to Canada, and each slightly different stylistically. I’ve decided to treat the two volumes in two separate posts, mainly to keep the treatment of Raspe from becoming too unwieldy.

The First Volume

The Baron’s adventures are narrated in the first person, as if he were relating them to dinner guests. The events become more outlandish as the first volume proceeds, ranging  from the highly improbable (single-handedly killing thousands of polar bears with a knife) to the utterly impossible (making love to Venus (the goddess, not the planet) at the centre of a volcano) to the completely fantastical (his trip to the Moon).

Here’s one example, just for fun: while travelling in Ceylon, the Baron is suddenly confronted by a hungry lion about to spring at him; he turns to run away, only to find a crocodile right behind him with its jaws wide open, about to devour him. Seeing no hope for escape, when the lion springs at him, the Baron simply falls to the ground; to his great delight, the lion jumps headfirst into the crocodile’s mouth, and the Baron is saved.

But on to the references to Canada. This first one comes from a part of the book which Carswell attributes to Raspe, but Seccombe does not; I prefer to think it is by Raspe, just so that our country (or at least one of its major features) can be mentioned by the original author:

I embarked at Portsmouth in a first-rate English man-of-war, of one hundred guns, and fourteen hundred men, for North America. Nothing worth relating happened till we arrived within three hundred leagues of the river St. Laurence, when the ship struck with amazing force against (as we supposed) a rock….  (35)

Of course it’s not a rock – it’s the nose of a gigantic whale, which attacks the ship, then takes the anchor in its mouth and drags the ship off. There isn’t much about Canada here; the St. Lawrence river (note the alternate spelling)  is merely used as a marker of location, and one could argue that it is really just a generic feature of North America. However, the river played such an important role in Canada’s history that we Canadians tend to feel somewhat proprietary about it.

A more interesting reference comes after Munchausen has flown from Europe to South America on the back of one of two giant eagles. (To avoid any possible confusion, the “bladders” mentioned in the passage below are pods that grow on a certain South American tree and are filled with “the most delicious wine”.)

Each [i.e. each eagle] reassumed its former station; and directing their course to the northward, they crossed the Gulf of Mexico, entered North America, and steered directly for the Polar regions, which gave me the finest opportunity of viewing this vast continent that can possibly be imagined.
Before we entered the frigid zone the cold began to affect me; but piercing one of my bladdders, I took a draught [aren’t you glad I explained the “bladders” in advance?], and found that it could make no impression on me afterwards. Passing over Hudson’s Bay, I saw several of the Company’s ships lying at anchor, and many tribes of Indians marching with their furs to market….
In these cold climates I observed that the eagles flew with greater rapdity, in order, I suppose, to keep their blood in circulation. In passing Baffin’s Bay I saw several large Greenlandmen to the eastward, and many surprising mountains of ice in those seas.  (112-13)

What we have here are not the genuine impressions of a European traveller who had visited our country; rather, we are treated to a tour of what an educated European would have thought he knew about Canada in the absence of any direct knowledge.

First, a very familiar idea: ice, cold, Polar regions, frigid zones – in a couple of short paragraphs we have a catalogue of different ways of making essentially the same point: Canada is cold.

But then, a reference to something we haven’t come across before: “the Company,” which, coupled with the mention of Hudson’s Bay, can only refer to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Founded in 1670, the Company was more than just a trading concern; for a long time, it owned and essentially governed a large swath of what is now Canada, from the area around Hudson’s Bay west to Vancouver Island. The reference here is brief, but the description of the “tribes” bringing their furs to market offers a clear (though obviously oversimplified) picture of European colonialism exploiting the natural resources of the New World for profit.

An Aside

For those unfamiliar with the world of Canadian retail shopping, the Hudson’s Bay Company still exists, now in the form of a chain of department stores. My recollection is that for a long time it was known as “The Bay” and seemed, if anything, to want to elide its history and present itself simply as a one-stop destination for contemporary shoppers. Recently, however, “The Bay” has begun to incorporate historical elements into their branding, as you can see from the current version of the bag you get when you shop there:

hudsonsbaybag

Yes, that’s the official company coat of arms, including the company’s Latin motto, “Pro pelle cutem” (which translates roughly as “we have skin in the game“). Does Google have a coat of arms and a Latin motto? I think not.

Back to the Main Subject

At this point the Baron and his eagles are leaving what we would think of as Canada; unfortunately, his eagles crash into a frozen cloud (?) and fall to the ice below; the Baron does everything he can to resuscitate them,

fully sensible that was only by means of them that I could possibly be delivered from these abodes of despair.  (114)

Don’t worry – he survives. But not without first serving Canada one final insult, calling our land an “abode of despair.” We could make the case that the “abodes of despair” referred to here are not clearly in Canada, but it seems that our nation’s polar regions are more or less the location of these events, and on the whole the phrase seems a little too close for compliment.

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3 thoughts on “The Abodes of Despair (Munchausen Part I)

  1. Pingback: A Perfect Destination for Honeymooners (Munchausen Part II) | Wow - Canada!

  2. Pingback: Canada’s Image Turned Upside Down | Wow - Canada!

  3. Pingback: The Fur-Rich Forests of Canada | Wow - Canada!

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