The University of Tennessee Libraries’ Newfound Press has published English language editions of two works from the 17th century picaresque novels of Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. The Wondrous Bird’s Nest I, translated from the German by Robert L. Hiller and John C. Osborne, is an adaptation of the 1672 Das wunderbarliche Vogelsnest. The Wondrous Bird’s Nest II, translated by John C. Osborne, brings the second part (1675) of Grimmelshausen’s tale to the English reader.
Picaresque novels follow a rogue or naïf hero through fortunes and misfortunes, combining adventurous episodes with moral admonitions. More than an aimless tale of worldly adventures or mere social satire, The Wondrous Bird’s Nest I follows the narrator-hero’s inner journey to self-awareness and humility before God.
The hero, Michael, possesses an enchanted bird’s nest that makes the owner invisible, allowing him to observe actions and misdeeds that are hidden from others. Michael first lashes out in anger at miscreants then, motivated by a sense of justice, attempts to reward good and punish evil deeds –- all the while accidentally and thoughtlessly doing harm to others. Eventually, he realizes that there is a difference between man’s justice and God’s; only God can pass judgment. Michael casts away the bird’s nest and submits to God’s will.
At the end of Bird’s Nest I, the miraculous bird’s nest that Michael has torn into seventeen-hundred pieces is gathered by an army of industrious ants and reconstituted by a sorcerer. The nest falls into the hands of an extremely wealthy merchant who, in The Wondrous Bird’s Nest II, uses its powers to commit even greater wrongdoings than the feckless Michael.
Newfound Press earlier published Osborne’s translation of the first work in Grimmelshausen’s cycle of picaresque novels, Simplicissimus, long acclaimed as the first great German novel. Osborne’s translation, which won a University of Colorado Kayden Award for best literary translation of the year, has been praised for its deft mimicry of the complexity and exuberance of the 17th century original.
Hiller and Osborne published English translations of the second and third novels as The Runagate Courage (University of Nebraska Press, 1965) and The Singular Life Story of Heedless Hopalong (Wayne State University Press, 1981). With The Wondrous Bird’s Nest, they completed their translation of the five novels in the Simplician cycle.
Robert L. Hiller and John C. Osborne, both now deceased, were formerly professors of German at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.