Academic journal article Folklore

The Translation of the Unseen Self: Fortunatus, Mercury and the Wishing-Hat

Academic journal article Folklore

The Translation of the Unseen Self: Fortunatus, Mercury and the Wishing-Hat

Article excerpt


This article examines the popular early German prose text Fortunatus both as folktale and as mercantile myth, concentrating on the hitherto critically neglected Wishing-Hat, which is regarded in this essay as a descendant of the Petasus of Mercury. In the original Fortunatus text dating from 1509, there are many points of contact centred in the Hat, such as its appearance, the themes of speed, secrecy, invisibility, theft, and commerce, between Fortunatus and Mercury. The manner in which these themes were developed in subsequent German revisions of Fortunatus and in seventeenth-century English translations and adaptations of the text is discussed. From embodiment of knowledge to a signifier of multipresence, from being a representation of travel to an accessory to raptorial attack, the uses and meanings of the Wishing-Hat are seen to be many and varied.


One of the finest creations of early German prose, Fortunatus enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout Renaissance Europe. The numerous sixteenth-century reprints in Germany have been classified into two groups: the "Augsburg Fortunatus" of the first half of the century, which followed the editio princeps of 1509, and the "Frankfurt Fortunatus" of the second half (1549 onwards). It was the latter group that was translated into Dutch, Polish, Danish, Hungarian, Low German, English, French, Swedish, Icelandic, and Italian by the late seventeenth century. [1] Fortunatus caught the imagination of readers in several countries for centuries--the first English translation, composed around 1610/12-1615, was being reissued with minimal alterations as late as 1779--and interest in the text was centred in the two magical objects that fall into the possession of the eponymous hero, and are bequeathed to his two sons, Ampedo and Andolosia: the Purse of Plenty and the Wishing-Hat. [2] They first appear in the German title in 1531 and thereafter become fixtures; in the titles of English versions, they become common after around 1700 (Anonymous 1700; 1715). Yet the two items are not of equal value in the eyes of the characters, who covet the Purse and show little awareness of the possibilities offered by the Hat.

This article will examine the meanings and implications of the neglected object, concentrating on the depiction of the Hat in the Augsburg and Frankfurt texts, and in English translations and adaptations of the seventeenth century, which produced the three most substantial extant versions of Fortunatus in English: Thomas Dekker's free adaptation, entitled Old Fortunatus (1600); the oldest extant English translation, by T. C. (1610/12-1615); and the anonymous adaptation of the T. C. translation (1682, probably first composed in the mid-seventeenth century).

I shall initially draw parallels between Fortunatus and folktales in order to highlight the individual manner in which the author treats common material, before concentrating on the Hat, the nature of its relationship to the Petasus of Mercury, and the kind of travel that it symbolises. The focus is on translation in three senses: the translation of a literary text; the translation of a symbol; and translation as journey, as flight, as freedom, as theft, and as relocation. Central to this disquisition is the theme of (in)visibility: an act of translation makes suddenly visible something that had been hidden, the translator paradoxically becoming invisible at the same time. Visibility is synonymous with knowledge--seeing is believing--and it is the desire to see with one's own eyes that induces Fortunatus, and later Faust, to travel the world. Travel, knowledge, and visibility converge in the Wishing-Hat, and in the god who gave it origin: the oscillating, unstable, multifarious Mercury.

The Classification of Fortunatus and the Practical Sense of its Author

Fortunatus has been classified in the Aarne-Thompson/Uther systems of folktale types as AT/ATU 566 "The Three Magic Objects and the Wonderful Fruits. …

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