Daniel Kehlmann’s “Tyll” takes us on a beautiful journey. Tyll, like many characters in world literature, is an embodiment of that most ambiguous of characters: the joker.
We know, for example from Shakespeare’s plays or from recent Hollywood blockbusters, that jokers are essentially shapeshifters. And also we know from mythology that shapeshifters are often gatekeepers, often guides.
When they are gatekeepers, they test us. When they are guides, they impart on us valuable information. In both roles, however, they rarely speak plainly.
This is why Tyll throws at us many jokes. Not only because he is essentially a joker, but because he knows much more than most of us (the readers of Daniel Kehlmann’s book) do. And he, like all jokers in world literature, knows that we do not accept or easily absorb knowledge given in stark forms. We usually find it boring, heavy. But disguised under layers of jokes, knowledge seeps into us, into our consciousness.
Tyll does that. But as a shapeshifter, he also tricks us. His tricks, again like those of many jokers in world literature, can be those of a mere prankster. Those might get us to laugh or might get others to laugh at us. In both cases, they are momentary indulgences. But the tricks could also have a more lasting impact. They could engrave a lesson inside our minds, our psyches.
Here we see the true shapeshifter. Because the shapeshifter, in his (or her) many layers, carries a message, one that is supposed to impart knowledge, which in turn, is supposed to effect change within us.
The ultimate shapeshifter in world literature is the Devil. But Tyll does not test our minds or our imaginations as much as that much older one does. Tyll shows us a classic shapeshifter, similar to these we encounter in many folk tales. The one who waits for the hero before he is about to enter a real ordeal, and tries to give him forms of knowledge that would be valuable to him once he is embroiled in that ordeal. Yet, the shapeshifter’s imparting of knowledge becomes, in itself, an episode of the journey, because the shapeshifter makes sure the hero struggles to understand the information given, the knowledge imparted. The logic, again and as always in most folk tales, is that knowledge given freely and easily, gets lost in the labyrinth of the conscious human mind. But if the mind exerts energy to try to decipher it, the knowledge will get stored, will find its way to the inner reservoirs of the self.
This book takes an interesting direction, though. Shapeshifters are rarely the heroes of tales. In most cases, they are secondary figures, with lasting impact on us (the readers) but rarely the ones commanding our attention throughout the journey. However, in this book the joker, the shapeshifter, is the hero. Not a hero who undergoes a journey of transformation, as heroes usually do. But a hero who carries a message of transformation for others, and whose journey is about witnessing and contributing to the changes of others.
Of course, the changes of those others, that the joker (the shapeshifter) witnesses and plays a role at effecting, correspond with his nature - for, obviously, the shifting of shapes entails in itself change.
In Tyll, the shapeshifter is also a storyteller. This is a classic feature of the shapeshifter. Readers of Joseph Campbell know that shapeshifters impart knowledge, or deceive, through riddles, which are often the core of stories they tell the heroes on the journeys of transformation. And so, Tyll, being a storyteller, reverts to what we (the readers) expect of a shapeshifter.
But there is a single element of storytelling here that is worth pausing at: Tyll tells a big story. His is not a story about a single hero, out to achieve a difficult objective, out to save the princess in the tall tower, or out to fight a pack of villains to protect his people. Here, Tyll tells us a story of humanity’s movement through thresholds separating old and modern ways of living. In particular, the big story here concerns the Western civilisation as it leaves behind some of its foundational aspects (beliefs, values, ways of living) and seems on the verge of stepping into a ‘brave new world’.
But since the story is being told, or rather hinted at, by a joker (a shapeshifter), that big story is not clear for all to see. It is shrouded in many episodes in the book, and in successive riddles of conversations. And yet, it is there in Daniel Kehlmann’s book, for those willing to follow the big arcs, willing to dive into the inner meanings.
This is why the threshold that Tyll draws our attention to, the one that the Western civilisation is ready to cross, is in fact a test. The threshold separates two worlds that the hero (here, perhaps the entire civilisation .. or is it the culture) must pass through. And part of the test is to recognise what will be lost when that threshold is crossed. And because this is an important crossing, it must entail an ordeal. Otherwise, the hero – here, the entire culture – might just foolishly cross, oblivious to the dangers it steps over.
Here Kehlman’s book takes a beautiful twist. Tyll becomes the tester (as we expect a gatekeeper to be), as well as a guide (who helps in illuminating what the crossing entails). And by embodying two roles at the same time, he is, indeed, true to his essence: a shapeshifter.
The themes in Daniel Kehlmann’s book are old, as old as folk tales. For many readers, they will also be familiar, because they have been repeatedly used in modern storytelling, particularly by Hollywood. But within this book there is joy and there is a valuable message. The joy lies in zooming in on the rich motif of the shapeshifter, and exploring its many faces in an intriguing and innovative way. The message is that of our sleepwalking into new ways of life, all promised by new technologies, new sciences, new luxuries, yet without seriously understanding the costs entailed in that new way of life.
It is particularly interesting to read this book while the world has come to a stop, because of the Corona virus. A mind steeped into history might be tempted to see this episode gripping the world as an ordeal for the entirety of humanity, forcing it to stop and pause and reflect before it makes that crossing. .