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This article is taken from PN Review 63, Volume 15 Number 1, September - October 1988.

Munchausen Tells the Tale Idris Parry

In the Viking boat museum at Oslo there are three ships which were found buried in the graves of great warriors, no doubt to take them even further from home on a voyage to the other world. Three wings of the museum are given over to the ships, the fourth holds a collection of artefacts also found in the graves. For me the most interesting object in the museum, more interesting even than the ships, is a fragment of stone which became an artefact over a thousand years ago when somebody scratched three words on it. When translated, the inscription makes three words in English too: 'Mankind knows little.'

The antiquity of folklore is testimony to that ancient wonder. Folklore thrives on magical connections. Magic is our term for the connection we cannot explain because we know too little. We are still looking. The Viking voyages were impossible journeys, like flying a man to the moon. Or the adventures of Baron Munchausen, which must be the most 'impossible' stories in world literature.

Two hundred years ago a German named Rudolf Raspe was working as a scientist in the Cornish mining industry. His job was to test the quality of copper for Matthew Boulton, remembered as an outstanding figure of the Industrial Revolution. In October 1785 Raspe had to travel to London on business, and he must have taken time off to go down to Fleet Street, because we know a manuscript of his was delivered ...


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