Monday, 13 November 2017

A Mysterious Stranger!

The scene, dear reader: a single horseman clops slowly down a road that leads from some minor Prussian-owned statelet in east-central Europe. Why our weary traveller is upon this road, we do not yet know. Probably he is lost. Or perhaps he is being pursued by some bloodthirsty brigands; or some dangerously hungry local wildlife. A wolf, perhaps. A large one, with something against men in tall hats.  Our horseman's reasons for taking this road must surely be pressing, for the road that he is on is not one that any traveller normally would take voluntarily. If one were to find this road upon a map, one could trace its eastward destination with one's finger. Upon discovering this destination, one would probably be moved to say something such as: 'Turn around! Turn around!''; or 'why has this bit of the map been crossed out and replaced with the words "Best left undiscovered;"or 'who has cut this big hole here in my map ?' Such words would be entirely understandable, given that the destination of this road is the Duchy of Mornig-Hesse-Burcken - westernmost of that collection of electorates, kingdoms, bishoprics, pig sties, baronies, mud pits, and landgravates termed by  geographers as "Mittelheim."  And the time: generally, some two months before the encounter between competing freibattalion forces at Donaukerbad, the outcome of which has so recently pleased Prince Dimitri von Osterburg-Feratu, Voivode of Vulgaria. More specifically, the time is sometime before dinner: sufficiently early that one might feel guilty at broaching a glass of wine; sufficiently late that one would drink it anyway.

We continue our perusal. A short time passes. Soon, ahead on the road can be espied a small border post. Our traveller, however, seems unperturbed that he is rapidly running out of Prussia and likely, in consequence, to end up in Mittelheim, a region which, when it was encroached upon by the Enlightenment, had it arrested and beaten for disturbing the peace. The border post itself is not owned by Mornig-Hesse-Burcken. States in Mittleheim realised long ago that the commitment of travellers to entering their region was probably already so low that adding any additional obstacles, such as the need to show papers at the border; to pay customs duties; to pause in order to adjust shoe buckles; or, indeed, to slow down to anything below a gallop, was likely simply to give them an unhelpful opportunity to reconsider their decision to enter Mittelheim at all. So instead, this is a Prussian border post. It's function in part is to offer helpful advice to any travellers going eastwards, on the assumption that anyone wanting to go in that direction is lost or mad (unsurprisingly, a high proportion are both). But the post also serves to offer warm congratulations to any personages heading westwards and leaving Mittelheim.

The object of our study approaches the post and halts to address the two figures manning it. The latter seem to be Grenzers - mercenary Croats. Technically, as noted, this border post does not levy customs duties on visitors. The Grenzers, however, tend to view themselves less as soldiers, per se, and more as an example of the hardworking self-employed. On their own initiative, therefore, they do impose a form of customs duty, it being the custom of the Grenz to introduce visitors to the Croats' duty to relieve them of their valuables. The two Grenzers approach our horseman warily, though. There is something strangely familiar about him.

'Sir, sir, I think that you must be lost,' says one of the Croats to the gentleman traveller. 'Because to go any further eastwards can only lead you to the states of Mittelheim.'
'Indeed, my man,' replies the horseman. 'I am not lost. Now, out of my way for I have urgent business to attend to.'
'But sir, you don't understand, sir,' says the other Croat. 'You've clearly got your map upside down because, although no doubt you intend to go westwards and thus increase the distance between yourself and Mittelheim, you are inadvertently going eastwards, straight into Mornig-Hesse-Burcken and thus the distance is decreasing. You are,' he says ominously, 'getting closer to Mittelheim.'
'Indeed, that is my intended destination,' replies the gentleman.
'Your intended ...?' The Croats look at one another in the same manner as if the traveller had said in a falsetto voice: 'Beware! I have a goblin in my britches. And he's loaded.' One of the Croats begins to inch slowly towards a nearby shovel, in case the traveller needs hitting on his head to let all of the little imps out.
'Indeed, yes, my good fellow,' says the horseman. 'Out of my way, for I have business to attend to,' he points eastwards, 'in those parts.'
'Those parts?' queries a Croat. 'Are you sure, sir, that there aren't any other parts that you'd like to see. In all honesty, sir, from what I've smelt of Mittelheim, a donkey has parts I'd rather visit ...'

Suddenly, however, the other Croat gives out a shout. 'But, sir, I know you! I knew I'd seen you before. In woodcuts! You're famous! You're the famous Baron Munchausen!'
'No, I'm not.'
'You are! You are!' interjects the other Grenz excitedly. 'You so are!'
Our horseman pauses, and then sighs resignedly. 'And what if I am?'
'But you're famous, Baron sir! And rich!'
'I'm not rich. And if I'm famous, it's only because of the lies told by my damned cousin in his silly after-dinner speeches. I've had enough. I intend to find my way to a place where no one can find me, and there I shall make my fortune.'
'But sir - why? You're the talk of Europe!'
'I didn't ask to be.'
'But you're famously amusing, sir!'
'No, I'm not. That's the problem. This is the fault of my damned cousin, Gerlach Adolf: making up stories about me to make fun of my lack of a sense of humour and my complete absence of imagination. But fools believed him and took them seriously!'
The Croats look aghast. 'But, but, Baron, sir! What about your famous love of japery? And your adventures across the kingdoms of this and other worlds?'
'I hate japery. I like long religious sermons. In Latin. And I have never left Prussia.'
'But what about your trip to the moon?'
'I drank five bottles of port. After that, I could float to any heavenly body that you care to mention.'
'And the trip on the cannon ball?'
'Gerlach promised me that the gun wasn't loaded, the bastard.'
'But you picked up a carriage!'
'A marriage.'
'And the hot air balloon made of women's underwear?'
'Not a balloon. My wife.'
'But you were found inside a whale.'
'Again, my wife.'
The Croats look crestfallen. 'And your travels underwater, baron?'
'More port. I fell out of a boat.  It's not a great challenge.'
'But ... the King of the moon: whose head came off and his moon queen wife who loved you!'
The Baron nods. 'Oh, well yes: of course that's true.'
'Hurrah! really!'

Dejectedly, the two Grenzers wave our baron onwards. There seems no reason to keep him here. As Munchausen is about to pass, one of the twosome pipes up again: 'So you've really got no funny stories?'
'No,' says the Baron firmly. 'I don't like humour, and I don't like adventure. I do like collecting potatoes and going to bed early.'
'But, you're witty and amusing ...'
'No. I'm Prussian.'
'Come on sir, I bet I can make you smile - two parrots on a perch: one says to the other "Can you smell fish?"'
Munchausen keeps riding.
'No? Nothing?' shouts the Croat. 'Well, how about two cannibals eating a clown: and then one says to the other "does this taste funny to you?" No? Not a glimmer, sir?'
Munchausen trots onwards, leaving the border post behind.

After a way, he halts. Behind, the sound of a cart can be heard. A Prussian farmer has arrived at the border post, bringing pigs to Mittelheim. Munchausen sighs. Looking down at the road, it's clear by the state of the highway where civilised Europe stops and Mittelheim starts. Then, visibly bracing himself, he spurs his horse forwards once again. But why is Baron von Munchausen entering Mittelheim? What is he really fleeing from? And what does he really hope to achieve by entering a region of Europe so backwards that even morris dancing might seem civilised by comparison. Perhaps, dear reader, if we follow the Baron, we might find out .....


  1. Wait a minute....hang on...A man (famous at that) attempts to leave Prussia and comes upon a 'Prussian' border post manned by Croatian Grenzer (obviously subjects of the Austrian Emperor)! A farago of nonsense - worthy of Baron von Munchausen himself....And does a horse clop or clip down a road?

  2. You have me on the clops: but otherwise I assure you, sir, that this is all the absolute truth: I have the facts of this tale on authority from a Russian source.

  3. Munchausen must be wealthy indeed to afford a matching pair of coconut shells...