The Adventurous Simplicissimus

By Eric Bentley

2,057 ratings - 3.73* vote

Being the Description of the Life of a Strange Vagabond Named Melchoir Sternfels Von FuchshaimSimplicissimus, which has more than once been called the greatest of all German novels, has a terrible relevance in the America of today, writes Eric Bentley in his preface to this edition. "For the Thirty Years' War, which is its subject, was not just any war. It was a war which Being the Description of the Life of a Strange Vagabond Named Melchoir Sternfels Von FuchshaimSimplicissimus,

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Book details

Paperback, 398 pages
May 1st 1962 by University of Nebraska Press

(first published 1669)

Original Title
Der Abentheuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch
0803250770 (ISBN13: 9780803250772)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Bill Kerwin

This 17th century picaresque novel is the first person account of the adventures of Simplicius, a young man growing up amid the violent disruptions of the Thirty Years War. He begins as a country bumpkin, but in the course of his journey takes up many professions, roles, and disguises: apprentice hermit, stable boy, court fool, common soldier (on both sides of the conflict) guerrilla commander, freebooter, sneak thief, lover, husband, masquer, adulterer, female prostitute, merchant, world traveler, wealthy noble, and...back to hermit again.

The author doesn't seem to be much concerned with character development. Although our hero tells us at the end of the narrative that he has become disillusioned with the world, we would have never inferred this from his actions or his tone, for he seems much the same as before, his disillusionment little more than another mask. The novel, however, makes up for its lack of character development through its precise, inventive narrative, crowded with incident and teeming with life.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this book is the way it can move abruptly from homespun humor to bloody battle raid, from fart jokes (of which there are many) to the torture of civilians, from rogues' tales of trickery to a mock scholastic lecture and then on to a genuine encounter with the occult. Some of this is just part of the picaresque design (or lack of it), but it also seems to me that the author wishes to communicate something about the arbitrary violence of war, that it not only encourages randomness but also deprives the person who is immersed in it of the ability to be either surprised or shocked.

This book is uneven, and I never wished it longer. Many scenes, however (the war atrocities, the "school" for professional fools, the witches sabbath, and Simplicius' encounter with the mermen who live beneath a local lake) were vivid, memorable and amusing.

If someone asked me where they could learn what it was like in war-torn Germany during 17th century, I would without hesitation send them to this book. And I don't even like fart jokes.


Sometimes described as the first great German novel, Simplicissimus is a big, flatulent, romping picaresque that careens its way across the patchwork of German states at the height of the Thirty Years War. In its mixture of realist war commentary, knockabout scatology, and magic-realist flights of fancy, it comes across as something like Rabelais meets Goya's Disasters of War.

Our eponymous hero – nicknamed for his naïveté – is born in the Spessart, and grows up in a little farming hamlet which is unfortunate enough to be in the path of some marauding soldiers, who promptly kill the men in a variety of inventive ways before raping the women. Simplicissimus, as a child, is spared long enough to escape to live wild in the forest. The harsh naturalism of these early scenes, and others like them throughout the book, is still genuinely shocking, and has a documentary interest; much of it is thought to be autobiographical. From there, our ingenuous hero travels up to Westphalia and down to the Breisgau, with excursions to France, Switzerland, and the centre of the earth, fighting at various times on both sides of the conflict.

Like many picaresque novels, Simplicissimus presents the world as a place of endless opportunity, novelty and adventure; and yet the wartime realities give it a grounding in real life, and a consequent seriousness, that I find somewhat missing in, say, its more famous contemporary Don Quixote. Though occasionally moralistic, it's never boring, if only because the genre shifts almost as often as the setting – from satire to fantasy to religious allegory to shaggy-dog story. One minute he's expatiating on the importance of Christian virtues, the next he's devoting a whole chapter to how he farted at an inopportune moment.

At times too it is fascinatingly subversive. Despite all the fighting, the only real description of wartime combat we get is a parodic one, when Simplicissimus goes off alone into the woods to kill the lice infesting his body:

I took off the cuirass, even though others put one on before going into battle and started such a massacre that soon my two swords – my thumb-nails – were dripping with blood and covered in dead bodies. Those I could not kill I sent into exile, wandering under the tree.

And his status as eternal innocent allows him to ask the religious questions that no one else can; when a Reformed minister demands that he recognise the truth of his denomination, Simplicissimus objects immediately:

‘But, pastor,’ I answered, ‘that is what all the other churches say of their faith as well. Which one should I believe? […] Which one should I join when each is screaming that the others are the work of the devil?’

The translation from Mike Mitchell is just fantastic, employing a complex, often specialist vocabulary which reads completely fluently while also giving plenty of seventeenth century flavour. (Unfortunately, there are some editing mistakes – ‘gaol’ has been replaced by ‘goal’ in every instance, apparently by some overzealous spellchecker, and similarly we read more than once of someone getting their ‘just desserts’, which rather puts me in mind of people being punished with bowls of Angel Delight.) In any case, this strange and exuberant novel is of much more than historical interest – full of life, and learning, and delights that have been snatched from a capricious world. A world closer to us than we sometimes remember.


A lad is given a set of bagpipes, and the way he plays them would kill a wolf (if it had musical taste), and is sent out to mind the sheep. In hindsight, the narrator thinks, wasn't this the best upbringing parents could give a child, seeing as King David also started out in life as a shepherd?

So begin the adventures of Simplicissimus, an early novel written in the seventeenth-century, set during the thirty years war which soon sweeps up the narrator and carries him into the conflict. Catholic or Protestant seem to be much the same, occasionally organised banditry rather than grand strategy or big battles is what we see as Simplicissimus grows up.

It has a certain type of humour, as in the men who realise that their hangovers prove how far the German nation has degenerated since clearly their grandsires could drink all night and have a clear head the next morning, but also a certain degree of darkness as when the same men realise it might be fun to trick the young Simplicissimus that he has died and been reborn as a cow by getting the boy blind drunk and then stitching him up inside the skin of a calf.

As a boy-calf playing the part of a Fool the narrator becomes a truth-teller. A figure on the margin who can point out the absurdities of life to those who have power and authority, though he does go on to escape and take a more active part in the ongoing war.

I read a different, older translation to the one here on Goodreads. Grimmelshausen wasn't immune to the lure of writing sequels and the version I found had abbreviated versions of some of the continuations of the story including Simplicissimus', as far I remember, not very good adventures in Russia. It's the earliest part of the story which is the strongest and most interesting.

K.D. Absolutely

This is one of the ancient books in the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die that I really liked. Originally written in German and published in 1668 by German author Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (1671-1676), the autobiographical book is considered as the first adventure novel in the German language and greatest German novel of the 17th century.

Its backdrop is the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) that was said to be the longest and the most destructive conflict in European history. It was also one of the longest continuous wars in modern history. The original issue in this war was the conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire. However, it spread throughout Europe with other issues involved and with Germany being the most devastated in the end.

The story is about a boy baptized by a hermit this name Simplicius Simplicissimus because the hermit thinks that he is simple-minded. Simplicius is 11-y/o at the start of the story, an orphan and a witness of the murder of his loved ones in the hands of bandits. The narration is episodic, does not have a big cohesive theme and similar to the language used by John Bunyan in 1678 religious work, The Pilgrim's Progress (3 stars). However, this one is a picaresque novel, i.e., it is realistic yet funny most of the time and Simplicius is a roguish poor hero who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque genre originated in sixteenth century Spain and flourished throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Spanish novel that started this genre was La vida del Lazarillo de Tormes (3 stars). Picaresque novels or those with picaresque elements are still being written even up to now. Recent examples of these are Iris Murdoch's Under the Net (1 star) and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (1 star). Well, this is my first time to have given a 4-star rating to a picaresque novel. Maybe I am truly maturing when it comes to appreciating different literary genres. I think my main issue with picaresque before was its being episodic.

I have many favorite scenes here but the one that really left a mark on me is that scene when the Thirty Years' War is being described. I think this is a good book if you want to read something very descriptive on how was it to be in that war. The weapons were crude and primitive but you'd be amazed how much you can visualize it with the vivid description written by the author. As you can see in the dates mentioned in the first paragraph of this review, Grimmelshausen did not really experience that war. For me, the ability to describe the war vividly was proof enough for his great capability as a writer.

MJ Nicholls

The first German novel is a lacerating Sturm und Drang picaresque, a rambling war-scorched epic with a pious vagabond anti-hero, a wisecracking wanderer schlepping the murderous wastelands of the Thirty Years War. The first novel to use sardonic humour in the face of human barbarity, setting the stage for later imitators Hasek and co., this translation renders the 17thC German patois into a mix of modern Cockney and nonspecific English slang. This mix of slang and formal English prose (“I and my friends”, etc) can render the translation awkward at times, and the shower of clichéd phrases that appear might be attributable to the novel’s age, rather than the translator’s sloppiness. Whatever, the novel builds to a misanthropic crescendo rarely bettered in any of the many frothing antiwar novels that followed.


In this 17th century picaresque novel Von Grimmelshausen presents the horrors of war through the eyes of a rural simpleton, who witnesses all the cruelties and evils that humans can inflict on one another without understanding them. I don't remember whose translation I read, but it was certainly pre-1995. Mine had a pretty good vernacular style, which I think is important to the effect of the book, which is at once satirical, sad, humorous, and depressing.

Paul Christensen

While I’m not a huge fan of picaresque novels, ‘Simplicissimus’ is interesting because the author fought in the Thirty Years’ War, and conveys the violent, near-nihilistic atmospheric of that time better than any non-fiction work could do.

Sherwood Smith

Rereading this after many years is like encountering a massive rewrite. When I first struggled through it in German class, I knew the general facts of the Thirty Years War, but as usual, from the top--the various Kings, Battles, Generals, Princes and Prelates involved.

Grimmelshausen gives us a peasant's eye view of the war. One can see how German culture was being shaped by this disastrous war stretching out over a couple of generations. Simplicius's story begins with his ignorant childhood in the forest, when soldiers come and rape his mother, sister, and the milkmaid, and kill his father, slaughter all their animals, and burn down their house. The milkmaid staggers out of the barn, all disheveled, and tells the boy to run.

The story is bawdy, gross, funny, harrowing, inspiring, instructive, ruminative, and gross by turns. Always sharply insightful, it demonstrates human habits and views that we share today--and then it steps sideways and gives us a glimpse into manners and views that seem quite alien.

We also get plenty of advice, like on how best to get lice out of your clothes (bake them) and the etiquette of male servants picking fleas off their boss's wife. We get a closer look at banquets of the so-called great, and life at all levels. Also, how armies were organized, trained, and run.

Think of this book as a mini series running for a season--it was enormously popular for many, many years. If you don't read German, get a good translation and unabridged so you get the breezy style and the details.

Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly

I told myself I am not reading, at the moment, any modern novel with its difficult style, convoluted plots and abstruse language which make my eyes redder than they already are. It has to be an old book written during those less sophisticated times when writers just write to tell stories and entertain. So I got this, written sometime the middle of the 17th century, originally in German, by a guy with a long name, Hans Jacob Christoph Von Grimmelshausen, a writer whose biography was said to be as shadowy and as elusive as that of Shakespeare, the work carrying an equally-long subtitle "Being the Description of the Life of a Strange Vagabond Named Melchior Sternfels Von Fuchshaim."

Divided into short chapters I was into the third, amused by its antiquated tone (in English, but it must have been like that, too, in German), when I blinked. Then I blinked again. And again. I realized, that in a consistent monotone the narrator, then a boy of ten, is actually telling the story of how some bandit-like "troopers" had descended upon their household, ransacked the place, held captive his Dad, Mammy and sister Ursula, tortured their male hand, raped their maid, and took everything they can get.

Some who reviewed this here at GR say the family members were massacred. But, spoiler alert, in the end you'll find out they were not. You'll find out too, spoiler alert, that the Dad and the Mammy were not really the boy's parents.

The setting is supposed to be during the so-called Thirty Years War of which I know nothing about and too lazy to google what went on during these troubled part of history. But I am sure that it was about killings, with crude weapons like bows and arrows, catapults, spears and lances, axes and those stuffs you see in movies with knights and princesses on them. Anyway, reading this novel would give you the impression that the narrator lived in a world where pillaging towns, villages and kingdoms, soldiering or banditry are honorable professions and the best ways for young lads to advance in life.

In any case, to get on with the story, the boy escaped and went deep into the forest. There he met a holy hermit who, spoiler alert, may have been his true father, but I am not telling. Not now, at least. Of course, the hermit later dies. For a while the boy lived there like a hermit himself, alone, contemplating in the wild the wise words and ways of the dearly departed saint.

Now, at this point, the reader tries to predict how the story will go. Most readers would think: the boy will grow up handsome and strong, virtuous, a champion of the poor and the oppressed, and avenge, in the end, the wrong done to his family. Wrong! This boy, spoiler alert, will do all sorts of things and one of them would be to engage in banditry himself, killing for sport and money, waylaying innocent travelers and killing many of them. He'll become famous/notorious as the "Huntsman of Soest."

(So recently I was watching a movie starring this stupid girl from Twilight now playing the role of Cinderella and paired with another handsome dude, not a vampire anymore, but a "Huntsman." I was telling myself, not original, you guys took this from Grimmelshausen, 17th century. )

But back to the story, spoiler alert. Some reviewers say this novel portray the horrors of war. Hardly, in my opinion. The language of the narrator, insofar as violence is concerned, is much too sterilized and subdued to evoke any sense of horror upon the reader. The outstanding quality here, IMHO, is not in its portrayal of wars or conflicts, but the HUMOR in the principal protagonist's exploits. There are humor in how the boy came to be called Simplicissimus; on how he became rich, then poor, then rich again; how he was forced into marrying a maiden under the most ridiculous circumstances; how he--a brave warrior and a feared bandit--was cuckolded; how he became a widower, a treasure-finder, a vagabond; the lies and inventive strategems he resorted to to survive dangerous situations.

Ah, even those which were not written, or had been omitted (in the edition that I read), can probably make you smile. Here, for instance, is Simplicissimus, during one of the stages in his life where he was at the top of the 17th century food chain, confessing in the third chapter:

"...Nor will I deny that I gave myself up to the temptations of the Frenchwomen, that entertained me secretly and rewarded me with many gifts for my services, till in the end I was wearied of so vile and shameful a trade, and determined so to play the fool no longer."

Thereupon follows this "NOTE"--

"NOTE.--The fourth and fifth chapters of the original edition are devoted to a prolix and tedious account of an adventure--if adventure it may be called--of the kind hinted at in the last sentence of the third chapter. It is absolutely without connection with Simplicissimus's career as an actor in the war; has no interest as a picture of manners; and finally, can be read much better in Bandello, from whose much livelier story (vol. iv., novel 25, of the complete editions) it is copied. It is therefore omitted here."

And here is the down-and-out Simplicissimus, with very little money, staying in a boarding house with a very stingy landlord--

"The fellow (the landlord) had, as I have said, all manner of trades by which he scraped together money: he fed with his guests and not his guests with him, and he could have plentifully fed all his household with the money they brought him in, if the skinflint had so used it: but he fed us Swabian fashion and kept a mighty deal back. At the first I ate not with his guests but with his children and household, because I had little money with me: there were but little morsels, that were like Spanish fasting-food for my stomach, so long accustomed to the hearty Westphalian diet. No single good joint of meat did we ever get but only what had been carried away a week before from the students' table, pretty well hacked by them, and now, by reason of age, as grey as Methuselah. Over this the hostess (his wife), who must do the cooking herself (for he would pay for no maid to help her), poured a black, sour kind of gravy and bedevilled it with pepper. Yet though the bones were sucked so dry that one could have made chessmen of them, yet were they not yet done with, but were put into a vessel kept for the purpose, and when our miser had a sufficient quantity, they must be chopped up fine and all the fat that remained boiled out of them. I know not whether this was used for seasoning soup or greasing shoes. But on fast-days, of which there happened more than enough, and which were all religiously observed (for therein our host full of scruples), we had the run of our teeth on stinking herrings, salt cod, rotten stockfish, and other decayed marine creatures: for he bought all with regard to cheapness only, and grudged not the trouble to go himself to the fish-market and to pick up what the fishmongers themselves were about to throw away. Our bread was commonly black and stale, our drink a thin, sour beer which well nigh burst my belly, and yet must pass as fine old October. Besides all this, I learned from his German servant that in summer-time 'twas yet worse: for then the bread was mouldy, the meal full of maggots, and the best dishes were then a couple of radishes at dinner and a handful of salad at supper. So I asked him why did he stay with the old miser. He answered he was mostly travelling, and therefore must count more on the drink-money of travellers than on that mouldy old Jew, who he said would not even trust his wife and children with the cellar-key, for he grudge them even a drop of wine, and, in a word, was such a curmudgeon that his like would be hard to find; what I had seen up till now, said he, was nothing: if I did but stay there for a while I should perceive that he was not ashamed to skin a flea for its fat. Once, said he, the old fellow had brought home six pounds of tripe or chitterlings and put it in his larder: but to the great delight of his children the grating chanced to be open: so they tied a tablespoon to a stick and fished all the chitterlings out, which they then ate up half-cooked, in great haste, and gave out 'twas the cat had done it. That the old coal-counter would not believe, but caught the cat and weighed her, and found that, skin, hair and all, she weighed not so much as his chitterlings.

"Now as the fellow was so shameless a cheat, I desired no longer to eat at his private table but at that of the before-mentioned students, however much it might cost: and there 'twas certainly more royal fare; yet it availed me little, for all the dishes that were set before us were but half-cooked, which profited our host in two ways--first in fuel, which he thus saved, and secondly, because it spoiled our appetite: yea, methought he counted every mouthful we ate and scratched his head for vexation if ever we made a good meal. His wine, too, was well watered and not of a kind to aid digestion: and the cheese which was served at the end of every meal was hard as stone, and the Dutch butter so salty that none could eat more than half an ounce of it at breakfast; as for the fruit, it had to be carried to and fro till it was ripe and fit to eat; and if any of us grumbled thereat, he would begin a terrible abusing of his wife loud enough for us to hear: but secretly gave her orders to go on in the same old way."


The late J.B. Pick recommended this interesting picaresque to me on 12 June 2011, prior to his sad passing in January 2015. Pick's 'The Last Valley' is one of my favourite historical novels, even though it has long been out of print. Few people have heard of it, and a handful more probably know that it was made into a decent movie directed by the Sydney-born James Clavell (also the author of Shogun, King Rat etc) and starred Michael Caine and Omar Sharif, with a soundtrack written by John Barry. Although Pick's book is also about the 30 years' war, he stumbled across Simplicissimus after 'The Last Valley' was published. Simplicissimus is considered to be the first adventure novel in the German language and the first German novel masterpiece. Set during the tragic conflict that wrecked Germany between 1618 -1648, it contains a lot of inhumanity and brutality that is candidly recounted in the first person by its protagonist Simplicius. Although Simplicius is regarded as a simpleton by his parents and subsequent guardians, his observations are often unexpectedly perceptive and at times downright hilarious. Anyone expecting long-winded prose will also be surprised to find that the humour in this novel is often unexpectedly crude and side-splittingly funny. Mike Mitchell's translation of this novel was shortlisted for The Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 1999, and I personally think that he did a great job of sprucing up the narrative and dialogue for a more modern readership. Simplicius' life takes many twists and turns in what is after all a highly dystopic Germany, and he finds himself playing many roles along the way which include a jester, war hero and even a woman. Although the pace is brisk the story goes on forever, and anyone wishing for a quick and enjoyable page turner will be disappointed. The novel also lacks any real goal, being simply a large number of life experiences recounted by Simplicius, so that the reading of it can at times get quite tiring. That said, it contains many insights into the early-modern way of life both in Germany and beyond, making it a good read for research purposes.