The Owlglass & the Moon of Gold:Tyll Eulenspiegel & Kim Seon–dal

by Heinz Insu Fenkl


Every culture has its trickster tales of both the animal and human variety. It’s unfortunate that contemporary American children miss much of the performative storytelling tradition of the past, but even urbanites see figures like Bugs Bunny,whose anthropomorphism serves as a convenient interweaving of the two categories of animal and human. The traditional rabbit–as–trickster (which those urbanites would see in the Disney rendition of Br’er Rabbit) combines with a sort of campy Groucho Marx figure in Bugs Bunny, providing stories that endure repeated engagement over the years.My 10–year–old nephew has just begun to notice some of the layered humor in the Warner Brothers cartoons, and he already refers back to his 7–year–old self as naive. Now he asks if Bugs is gay.)

I spent most of my childhood years in Korea, hearing a great deal of the oral tradition from my storyteller uncles, so by the time I was exposed to figures like Bugs Bunny, I associated them with already familiar characters. Bugs was like the clever rabbit who tricked the Dragon King (who wanted to eat the poor rabbit’s liver), or the kind rabbit who helped the hapless man put the hungry tiger back into the pit.

Animal stories are usually easier for purposes of comparison because the characters are quite distinctly iconic — they wear their symbolism and often the thematic qualities of the tales on their very skin, as it were. Human characters are a bit harder to compare because they require a more abstract engagement with theme and structure, but as we grow older, we generally gravitate (at least for a time)toward the human tricksters because they appeal more to our developing "mature" sensibilities. I think this happens when our own sense of rebellion becomes conscious, when our acts of rebellion become willful, and when our knowledge of social rules and the consequences of transgression are more fully—formulated than when we were children.

My father was a German in the U.S. Army, and I also heard stories from him on the occasions when I saw him as a child. It was not long before I began to notice parallels between the Korean and German tales, and since I was an Army brat, by my teenage years I had begun to appreciate the antiauthoritarian gonzo trickster characters like Hawkeye and Trapper in Altman’s film version of M*A*S*H. My father was a sergeant,whose job it was to uphold the authority of officers for whom he often had little or no respect. I could understand why he would have a special fondness for tales in which a marginal figure like Tyll Eulenspiegel would play scatological pranks on greedy innkeepers and prideful kings.

The two Tyll stories I remember best from my father’s telling have to do with a certain kind of verbal or conceptual technicality — a playing with literal–mindedness and analogic thinking (to put it in abstract terms). The stories are quite simple.

In the first, little Tyll, an accomplished acrobat, brags that he can walk a tightrope with the other kids’ shoes. They, of course, know that it would be impossible, and so the neighborhood kids each bet him all their saved money and hand over their shoes. Tyll stuffs all the shoes in a large sack and then proceeds to walk the tightrope in his own shoes, carrying the sack.When he gets to the other side, he claims to have won the bet. "Pay up," he says. Of course, the children object. He did not walk the tightrope with their shoes. "I didnt say I would walk it in your shoes," he answers. "I said with your shoes. And I have. Pay up!" Now the children are angry, and they refuse to pay. Tyll leaves the sack of shoes dangling from the tightrope, high above their heads out of their reach, and runs away.

In the second story, Tyll is traveling. (He is often traveling because he must continually run away from angry crowds!) He arrives at an inn, so hungry his stomach is rumbling, and he inhales the wonderful smell of roast meat. He asks the innkeeper how much for dinner, but learns that it is far too expensive for him. "Never mind," he says. "I’ll just sit here and enjoy the smell." The innkeeper leaves him there for a while, but then, not wanting to missa chance at earning some easy money, he returns and demands payment. "Although you have not eaten anything, you have enjoyed the smell of my cooking, and so you should pay a fair price," he says. Tyll obliges. He asks if a penny will do. "That’s not much for the wonderful aroma of my roast, but it will do," says the innkeeper. Tyll makes a big show of opening his purse, removing the single penny from it, and dropping it into the innkeeper’s purse with a loud CLINK.But before the innkeeper can close his purse, Tyll quickly removes the penny. When the innkeeper objects, he replies, "The smell of a roast is only worth the clink of a coin."

When I think back on these stories, I realize they must have helped me learn English and eventually do well on the analogies and verbal comprehension on my SATs. But at the time, I loved these stories because they were clever. Tyll, who initially seemed to be the gullible one in each case, had mentally outmaneuvered the profit–minded neighborhood kids and the innkeeper. He had outwitted them, duping them with their own delusion of cleverness.

The stories play with social and linguistic assumptions, illuminating us in the process.

No wonder Tyll’s last name is Eulenspiegel, High German for "Owl Mirror," Anglicized as "Owlglass." A pretty obvious insight: the wise owl who holds an enlightened mirror up to society. After a year of college German, I remember telling my father about my new appreciation for the meaning of Tyll’s name, and he laughed at me. "That’s exactly the sort of thing Eulenspiegel is making fun of," he said. "You college boys thinking youknow everything about everything." He told me that Tyll’s name actually comes from the Low German (spoken by the common people) and that it is derived from u’ln Spegel, which means something like "Wipe–Ass." That rhymes better with the English "Owlglass," and it also reiterates the theme of not taking one’s assumptions for granted.