Tyll Eulenspiegel was a clown, a mischievous fellow. No one ever enjoyed a good joke as much as fun-loving Tyll. He wandered from town to town in Germany, playing tricks on everyone he met, traveling wherever his fancy took him. Sometimes Tyll stayed in one place for a while, but before long he would be on his way again. Tyll's quest was to find adventure and a good laugh.
One day as Tyll was riding along upon his mare, he came upon a group of professors who were journeying to the university for a meeting."Ah," Tyll chuckled to himself. "These men in their black robes and spectacles think they are wiser than everyone else because they bury their heads in their books. But we shall see who has the sharpest wits."
He galloped up to the professors and tipped his hat saying, "Hello, good sirs. I see you are traveling to the university. I, a student, am going there too. Do you suppose I might have the honor of your company on our journey?"
The professors glanced at Tyll but took little notice of him and continued to talk among themselves. Soon Tyll entered the conversation, making the professors believe he was quoting from ancient Greek and Roman books. He spoke low and solemnly, just as he had always heard learned men speak.
"I'm afraid I've never heard of these books you mention," said one of the wise men.
"Never heard of them?" Tyll said, pretending alarm. "Can that be?" He looked at the others, but every one was just as puzzled as the next. You see, the books Tyll talked about existed only in his imagination.
"Well, I have," said one of the learned men, for no one wished to admit that he knew less than this stranger.
"Oh, I, too, have read that book," said a second, and soon all of the professors were discussing among themselves the books Tyll had invented.
When Tyll at last grew tired of teasing the professors, he whipped his horse and rode away, chuckling to himself, thinking about how easy it is to fool wise men. And that evening he had a good laugh at the inn when he told the tale of how he had fooled the professors.
When the story got back to the professors, they were furious. "We shall have to get back at that rascal," they said. "We will come up with a way to fool Tyll.
"We shall have to think a while. We shall try to find a way to outsmart Tyll," they said.
One of the professors smiled brightly. "I know! We shall trick Tyll into trying to do something that is completely impossible. That will show him!"
The professors thought for a while until at last they came up with a plan. "A marvelous plan," they congratulated each other. And off they went to buy a donkey.
When they had their donkey, they sent for Tyll. When Tyll arrived, they sat him down and said, very solemnly, "Tyll, we wonder if you could possibly teach our poor donkey how to read. We've heard you're the only man for the job."
Tyll grinned broadly. "Certainly," he said. "But of course it's hard work teaching a donkey to read. It may take me quite some time, and I'm afraid it will be very expensive."
"How much?" the professors asked.
"Five hundred pieces of silver," Tyll answered quickly.
"Ahh," said the professors, and rubbed their beards. "That's quite a lot. We have only this bag of coins just now."
"I'll take it for the first week. Next week you can return with more."
"But how long will it take altogether?" they asked.
"Twenty years, I'd say." Tyll thought that by the time 20 years had passed, the donkey would die, or perhaps the professors would be dead, or perhaps even he would die, which would at least be the end of the matter.
But the professors only nodded and agreed to return the next week.
Tyll Eulenspiegel bought some oats for the donkey. Then he bought a big book and propped it up in the feed rack in front of the donkey. He placed some oats inside the pages. The donkey understood at once what to do. To eat, he would have to turn the pages with his tongue. And this he did, nibbling the oats from one page, turning to the next and nibbling these, and on and on this way until he had eaten up every last oat. Then he began to bray - ee-aa! - and when he did, Tyll gave him more oats.
At the end of the week, the professors returned. They walked into the stable, followed by their students and many of the townspeople eager to see Tyll outdone.
Tyll led them all into the donkey's stall. He had already placed the book in the feed rack. Then he led the hungry donkey into the stall. The donkey ran to the book and began to turn the pages with his tongue.
The professors leaned in close to watch this amazing display. "Can this be?" they whispered to each other.
But this time Tyll had shaken all the oats out of the pages. The hungry donkey began to complain. "Ee-aa, ee-aa," he brayed. He stamped his foot and turned the page. "Ee-aa, ee-aa!" He scanned each page, searching carefully to see if he might find a tiny speck of grain.
"Well, my learned friends, you see," Tyll said proudly. "My student has begun to learn his letters. He knows the first two vowels already. Tomorrow I shall teach him I, O, U - which is exactly what you owe me."
The professors opened their mouths wide in surprise. The angry townspeople shouted at them: "You said you would trick Tyll! You are not wise after all! Tyll has outsmarted you as easily as he outsmarts the rest of us!"
And with that the townspeople angrily stomped out of the stable. The professors, heads bowed, tiptoed after them.
As everyone departed, Tyll cried out to the donkey, "Go now! Join the other donkeys!" And with that the hungry donkey ran out of his stall, braying at the top of his lungs, "EE-AA! EE-AA!"
Tyll laughed and laughed and skipped off to the inn to feast on a grand meal. And the next day he journeyed on, to play yet another trick!
Tyll Eulenspiegel was a practical joker who lived in Germany around 1250. The first collection of Tyll stories was published in Germany in 1400, and in English in 1660.