This is how Charles De Coster begins his masterful legend of Tijl Uilenspiegel in 1867. Under his pen, Uilenspiegel becomes the symbol of the Flemish popular soul. Together with Nele and Lamme Goedzak, the indomitable geus and mischief-maker wanders through Flemish fields and meadows.
Surprisingly, the original Uilenspiegel is a completely different character. The Low German Dil Ulenspiegel originated in the mind of the town writer Hermann Bote around 1500. Dil Ulenspiegel is a brutal villain, who systematically flouts the rules of the rising bourgeoisie and turns the world upside down. With this figure, the social-conservative Bote wants to hold up a cautionary mirror: don't act like Uilenspiegel!
Bote's work is printed in Strasbourg. It gets distributed all over Europe via Antwerp and the Dutch adaptation. The prose printing enjoys tremendous success: the work is reprinted almost continuously. The sharp edges of the devilish bawler are smoothed out into scheming pranks of a roguish joker.
With De Coster's novel La Légende d'Ulenspiegel, 1867, the figure experiences a new youth. The age-old tradition undergoes a landslide. Tijl becomes the opponent of the fanatical Spanish king Philip II and turns up on the front line of the Dutch revolt.
Whether inspired by De Coster or not, from then on he is put to the most diverse carts: he becomes both a critical individualist and a fighting proletarian, both a representative of the 'Herrenvolk' and a resistance hero during World War II. He becomes the main character of children's and youth stories, the valedictorian of comic strips, the hero of films, plays, musicals, oratorios and songs.
Every time he appears, something happens: he shakes things up, turns the world upside down, shows us in his mirror our true doings.