‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann – Tyll the Trickster and Elizabeth Stuart the Winter Queen During the Thirty Years War


‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann  (2017) – 342 pages                     Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin

‘Tyll’ is brilliant. But don’t take my word for it. Let me quote this Good Book:

A dragon that had been sighted would be a dragon that did not possess the most important quality of dragons – that of making itself undetectable. For this very reason one must treat all reports of people having sighted dragons with extreme skepticism, for a dragon that let itself be sighted would be recognized a priori as a dragon that is no real dragon.”

Olearius rubbed his forehead.

In this region, evidently, a dragon has never before been witnessed. Hence I am confident that there must be one here.”

The perfection of this reasoning is why I read novels.

Above all, ‘Tyll’ is a playful fiction which was fun for me to read.

‘Tyll’ takes place during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), an especially grim and superstitious era of European history. An estimated 8 million people died from battle injuries, starvation, or disease. Most of the war took place in what is now Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria. The war started out as a religious war between the Catholics and the Protestants but got all mixed up. Frederick II as Holy Roman Emperor tried to impose the Catholic Church on even the Protestant states of northern Germany. The war started in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague when the Bohemian Protestants threw the Emperor’s representatives out of a window. Later Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden descended into Germany with his mercenary army and won some major battles before he himself was killed. Even though France was mainly a Catholic country, they sometimes fought on the Protestants side against their old enemies of the Holy Roman Empire. The war ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. The result of all this war was inconclusive.

There are two main characters in ‘Tyll’. The first is Tyll Ulenspiegel. He is a tightrope walker, a juggler, an actor, and an all-around trickster. He and his girl friend Nele keep popping up everywhere, performing for the beleaguered peasants as well as the displaced royalty. Tyll and Nele also dance for their audiences:

We could dance fairly well, we celebrated often, but none of us could dance like them; watching them, you felt as if a human body had no weight and life were not sad and hard. We too could no longer keep still, and we began to bob, jump, hop, and spin.”

The other main character is Elizabeth Stuart the Winter Queen or as she is known here, Liz. Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of English King James I, winds up the Queen of Bohemia through marriage. The terms Winter Queen and Winter King are derisive because Frederick V was only King of Bohemia for about one season, and now they are wandering around central Europe trying to find someone to intercede for them, and they are considered a joke. However I suppose Elizabeth Stuart had the last laugh as her progeny ruled England as the House of Hanover for over 200 years.

‘Tyll’ consists of set pieces which all fit together into an attractive puzzle.

It is most of all a sometimes light, sometimes black comedy which entirely suits the Thirty Years War. This novel is fascinating at the sentence level, a real accomplishment for both the author and the translator. Daniel Kehlmann brings a smart playful quality to his fiction that makes his writing well nigh irresistible.


Grade:    A+



5 responses to this post.

  1. Tyll is my book of the year so far. I loved the structure and the wonderful mix of humour and horror.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Cathy,
      Earlier on this year, I proclaimed ‘The Maias’ to be my Book of the Year’. Since then I have read three other books which could very well be my Book of the Year. ‘Tyll’ is one of them. 🙂



  2. That’s the thing about reading… there’s always another one waiting to displace our favourites, and we can’t complain about that!



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