• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #128: Baron Munchausen


"I'm tired of the world and the world is evidently tired of me."

Hieronymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen, to be precise, the central figure and towering presence in Terry Gilliam's bizarre, wonderful 1988 film. Based loosely on Rudolf Raspe's 18th-century novel, the movie is complete visual spectacle. Gilliam (and some of his fellow Python alums) give free rein to imagination during what was a reportedly brutal production, and the result is strange and colorful and truly enjoyable, if not always comprehensible.

Munchausen himself is a sort of version of the Most Interesting Man Alive, a lightfooted adventurer and doer of gallant deeds, a throwback to a more chivalrous and elegant time, a wooer of ladies and charmer of crowds, with a smile so perfect it actually sparkles as he prances through a fanciful landscape of marvels. We're never quite sure how much of what he tells us about his exploits is true and how much is invented from whole cloth, but it hardly matters. Munchausen is spinning the yarn of his life, and it's a damn good one. In the end, faced with the dual threats of advancing Turks and advancing age, the good baron never submits, drawing on his considerable resources of courage.

The central contrast of the film is whimsical inanity versus the pretentious empiricism of the Age of Reason, the baron's soaring enthusiasm with the dreary everyday. The world wants everything to make sense, to be neatly ordered and thoroughly understood, but Munchausen defies scientific explanation (and often the laws of the physical world), and the world wants no part of it. As Munchausen tells us himself, "Because it's all logic and reason now. Science, progress, laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this, that, and the other. No place for three-legged cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me."

I beg to differ! There's always a place for adventure. I prefer to remember Baron Munchausen by another of his lines: "Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."

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