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Canada through the eyes of world literature

A Perfect Destination for Honeymooners (Munchausen Part II)


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

The Second Volume

As I noted at the beginning of the post on the first volume, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is actually the product of several hands, and while the differences are not quite so noticeable in the first volume, the second volume marks a significant turn in the work. In the Preface to the second volume, the author writes:

I do not say that the Baron, in the following stories, means a satire on any political matters whatever. No; but if the reader understands them so, I cannot help it.  (117)

It’s hard to imagine a more direct way of informing the reader that the ensuing chapters are meant to be read as a satire on political matters. And a few lines later, referring ahead to the chapter where the Baron comes upon a ship of Africans transporting a cargo of white slaves:

If we were to think this a reflection on any present commercial or political matter, we should be tempted to imagine, perhaps, some political ideas conveyed in every page, in every sentence of the whole. Whether such things are or are not the intentions of the Baron the reader must judge.  (118)

This is a fascinating comment on literary interpretation, seeming to suggest that once you see an allegory in one place, you’re likely to start seeing them everywhere (“in every page, in every sentence”) until you finally lose yourself in a forest of multiple meanings. In the case of the reversed slave ship, the idea is fairly obvious; in many other parts of the book, however, one has a feeling that some point is being made, but without knowing the specific historical context (this edition provides no notes to elucidate such points), it’s difficult to figure out exactly what is being satirized. The writing style is also somewhat garbled in places, and weird details are piled on without in any way clarifying what is being described, which makes the second volume notably more difficult and bizarre reading than the first.

Before I journey too far down the path of criticism, however, I should recall the wise words of Lady Fragrantia, a character introduced in the second volume:

The fact is this, there is a right and wrong handle to everything, and there is more pleasure in thinking with pure nobility of heart, than with the illiberal enmities and sarcasm of a blackguard.  (181)

In any case, the following passage is clear; it recounts a conversation between the Baron and the Lady Fragrantia at a concert. She is talking about the benefits of the waters at a spa:

“…There is a certain something in the waters that gives vigour to the whole frame, and expands every heart with rapture and benevolence. They drink! good gods! how they do drink! and then, how they sleep! Pray, my dear Baron, were you ever at the falls of Niagara?” “Yes, my lady,” replied I, surprised at such a strange association of ideas; “I have been, many years ago, at the Falls of Niagara, and found no more difficulty in swimming up and down the cataracts than I should to move a minuet.” At that moment she dropped her nosegay. “Ah,” said she, as I presented it to her, “there is no great variety in these polyanthuses. I do assure you, my dear Baron, that there is taste in the selection of flowers as well as everything else, and were I a girl of sixteen I should wear some rosebuds in my bosom, but at five-and-twenty I think it would be more apropos to wear a full-blown rose, quite ripe, and ready to drop off the stalk for want of being pulled – heigh-ho!” ‘But pray, my lady,” said I, “how do you like the concert?”  (179-180)

Now admittedly Niagara Falls has both Canadian and American parts, but since the Horseshoe falls, located mainly in Canada, are higher, and therefore swimming up the Canadian falls would be a more impressive feat than swimming up the American, I think we can safely assume that he is referring to the Canadian falls here. He would never brag about a lesser accomplishment when the option of bragging about a greater one was available.

More interesting, however, is the surrounding context. The Baron admits himself puzzled by why Lady Fragrantia suddenly brings up Niagara Falls; however, as the immediately following passage about the nosegay makes clear, the lady is obviously making a (somehwat clumsy) pass at the (oblivious? or just uninterested?) Baron. (He has, after all, turned down marriage proposals from queens and empresses and been thrown out of a volcano by Vulcan for seducing Venus herself.) So Lady Fragrantia wants the Baron to marry her; reading backwards, then, we must ask ourselves: could the apparently unmotivated question about Niagara Falls have also been a hint at marriage? And if so, is this the earliest ever reference to one of the great cliches of Canadian culture, the honeymoon at Niagara Falls?

I think we have to assume it is.

A Land Without a Name

Finally, it’s interesting to note that all the references in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are to places in Canada (the St. “Laurence” river, Hudson’s Bay and Niagara Falls), but none of them actually uses the name “Canada”. To the author, the St. Lawrence, Niagara Falls and Hudson’s Bay are known as places of importance (major river, high waterfall, fur trade) but the country that surrounds them is not named. Canada contains certain specific features that Europeans know about, but as a whole it has no national identity, and so no real existence.


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One thought on “A Perfect Destination for Honeymooners (Munchausen Part II)

  1. Pingback: The Romance of Canada 1: Chateaubriand Pays Us a Visit | Wow - Canada!

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