(a German folktale)
Many people find Baron Munchausen’s stories difficult to believe, for the way he tells it, he was perhaps the bravest and wisest soldier and traveler who ever lived. He traveled everywhere, and if he is to be believed, his adventures were always marvelous. He rode a cannonball, traveled to the moon, fought a giant crocodile and enticed a wolf to serve as his horse. Indeed, he fixed his horse when that creature was accidentally cut in two, and he ran his greyhound so far and fast that he wore off the animal’s legs.
But Munchausen was also wise beyond imagination, a scholar and a gentleman — gallant and debonair. Some say he exaggerated. Others called him a liar. But never mind that. This is one of his stories.
It happened on a hot summer day, in the beautiful sea near Marseilles. The baron was swimming when he suddenly noticed an extremely large fish swimming right at him. That might have been fine, but this fish’s jaws were wide open, and he was swimming as fast as a bullet races through air.
The baron had no time to lose. He had to think fast if he was going to avoid being eaten. Since he was as smart as they come, he made himself as narrow as possible. He pulled his legs tightly together. He placed his hands by his sides. And in that position he passed directly into the fish’s mouth and slid between its jaws and stomach.
There he was, trapped inside the fish’s belly and warm and comfortable, but unable to see a thing. After all, inside a fish it is pitch-dark!
So the baron wondered what precisely to do inside this fish. After a while, he had a brilliant idea. He had to cause this fish some pain if he wished it to open its mouth. The baron began to roll around, tumbling and hopping and jumping and leaping. That wasn’t enough. The fish barely seemed to notice.
So he started to dance a hornpipe — a fast kind of dance. Most who dance a hornpipe usually wear hard shoes. But the baron had been swimming and had no shoes. Still, he danced the famous dance, pounding his feet as hard as he could, humming to himself all the tunes he knew.
Sure enough, the syncopation and the steady rhythm of the baron’s feet disturbed the fish’s belly, and it began to heave and twist and turn. The baron smiled. So he kept dancing a curious jig, something that later became known as the Riverdance, which the baron claims he invented. And that did it. The fish twisted and turned and wailed and roared, and a moment later it was almost standing straight up in the water, its head well above the waves.
The fish was just in time. A big Italian trading vessel was just traveling by, and when the traders on deck saw the fish, they shouted, “Let’s get it!” and many men reached for their harpoons.
Sure enough, they caught that fish and hauled it up on board.
The baron says he heard all this — he felt the stab of the harpoon and the tug of the lines. When the fish was safely onboard, the baron heard the crewmen talking. Naturally, he understood Italian — the baron understood most languages. And he began to worry again, for the men were discussing how to cut up the fish to preserve as much oil as they could.
Of course, he worried that their weapons might cut him, too. Although he claimed there was room in that belly for more than a dozen men, the baron moved himself as close to the center as possible, thinking he could somehow avoid those knives and harpoons.
The Italians, it turned out, began by opening up the bottom of the fish’s belly. The moment the Baron saw a streak of light pour into that dark spot, he called out, “Hey, careful! There’s a man inside this fish! I’m going to come out now, just hold your fire!”
The baron laughs when he tells this part of the tale. When the crewmen heard a man’s voice calling to them from deep inside the belly of the fish, they were shocked. Some of them wept. Some of them screamed. And pretty soon everyone onboard that ship was running toward the fish to see what the commotion was.
Of course, they were astonished to see a man wearing only a tattered bathing suit stepping out of the body of the fish.
And because he was such a gentleman, Baron Munchausen saluted everyone. Pretty soon he was telling everyone yet one more tale.