The chief character in the story is Peregrinus Tyss, who lived all alone except for an aged servant named Aline. Peregrinus was strange. He always celebrated the birthdays of his father and his mother, even though they both were dead. He also celebrated Easter regularly, as well as the day on which he had been baptized. In all these celebrations, he was the only one present. All the rest were imaginary guests with empty plates.
He also was prone to childish behavior. When he was 36 years old, he prepared a surprise for himself at Christmastime. He prepared presents for himself and opened them, just as he did when he was a kid. He even seemed to imagine that he was a child, at least temporarily. One of his self-prepared presents was a rocking horse, and he rode it with reckless abandon.
When Peregrinus had finished enjoying his Christmas surprise, he visited a poor bookbinder named Lämmerhirt and generously gave all his presents to this impoverished family.
As he was about to leave, he encountered a young woman who called herself Aline. This meeting was the beginning of a remarkable adventure.
Peregrinus Tyss had been avoiding social intercourse for a long time. He especially shunned beautiful girls and became flustered whenever he encountered one. So he was absolutely frightened when the beautiful stranger entered the residence of the bookbinder and forced him to give her a kiss.
The girl also gave some presents to the impoverished family She then compelled the thunderstruck Peregrinus to accompany her outside. She complained that she was cold and asked him to carry her. All the while she showered him with flattering endearments. She claimed that she was his Aline and lived with him, so he took her home, to the dismay of his aged servant, who initially thought that she was a girl of ill repute but changed her mind at a later date.
When the aged servant left the room, the girl explained why she had followed Peregrinus to the bookbinder’s place. She wanted him to give her his prisoner, claiming that her life depended on it.. When Peregrinus persistently averred that he did not know what she was talking about, she left the house in anger.
As Peregrinus later learned, his mysterious prisoner was Master Flea, who ruled over all the other fleas in the world. Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a famous microscope maker who had supposedly died in the 1720s, enjoyed a posthumous existence as a magician. He managed to capture Master Flea. By his control over the leader, Leeuwenhoek could enslave all the fleas in the world. He forced them to learn all kinds of tricks and put on public performances. The tricks of the fleas fascinated many people, so Leeuwenhoek earned a lot of the money from admission fees. However, these public shows came to an end when Master Flea escaped and eventually managed to attach himself to Peregrinus Tyss.
Dörtje Elverdink was the real name of the girl who called herself Aline. She was the niece of Leeuwenhoek and had been living with her uncle. When Master Flea escaped, she left home and frantically searched for the little insect. She learned that the flea had taken refuge with Peregrinus Tyss, even before the latter know about his presence.
In the distant past, Dörtje Elverdink had been a princess called Gamaheh. To explain how this royal personage had come to enjoy his care and protection, Leeuwenhoek told the following story to George Pepusch.
Princess Gamaheh was the daughter of the fabulous King Sekakis. She had been the victim of a terrible tragedy. While she was in the land of Famagusta, she fell asleep in a pleasant cypress grove. The odious Leech-Prince saw her and fell in love with her. He kissed her under the left ear and sucked so much blood out of her that she died.
A genius named Thetel killed the Leech-Prince with some rock salt and tried unsuccessfully to revive the princess. Much later Jan Swammerdam, a colleague of Leeuwenhoek who had supposedly died in 1680, found her inside a tulip. She was very tiny, but Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam managed to restore her to her original size and bring her back to life. After a dispute, Leeuwenhoek gained custody of the princess.
George Pepusch did not fully agree with Leeuwenhoek’s account of the tragedy. Pepusch claimed that he used to be a thistle named Zeherit in the distant past. He claimed that Thetel had not killed the Leech-Prince. He himself (Zeherit) had killed the villain with his thorns. He then tried to bring the princess back to life, but he could not do so because of the bungling interference of Thetel.
Pepusch also pointed out that the princess would have died soon after Leeuwenhoek and his colleague had revived her if Master Flea had not helped her.
After this discussion, George Pepusch went out to look for Dörtje Elverdink alias Princess Gamaheh. He was motivated by love. He had met the girl at the residence of Leeuwenhoek, who had been using her as an added attraction when he put on a show in which trained fleas performed for the public..
As Pepusch roamed the streets at night looking for his beloved, he spotted a light in a window and decided to investigate. To his surprise, he saw Dörtje Elverdink inside and tried to enter the building. However, a policeman thought he was a thief trying to break in and arrested him.
In the meantime, Master Flea revealed his presence to Peregrinus Tyss. His account of the death and resuscitation of the princess differed from that of Leeuwenhoek and Pepusch. He told the following story.
Master Flea had been in love with Princess Gamaheh, and was present when she died. He claimed that he could have brought her back to life if Thetel and Zeherit had not interfered.
When Leeuwenhoek later restored the princess to life, they encountered a serious problem. The blood of the princess could not flow past the place where the Leech-Prince had kissed her. As a result, she would have died again if Master Flea had not intervened.
Leeuwenhoek had captured Master Flea and put him in chains. However, when Master Flea saw that his beloved princess was about to die a second time, he broke his chains and bit the princess on the spot where her circulation was blocked. This bite caused her blood to flow normally.
With amazing ingratitude, the princess delivered Master Flea into the hands of Leeuwenhoek, who put him in chains once more. However, the little creature eventually escaped again and took refuge with Peregrinus.
His escape not only deprived Leeuwenhoek of his income, since he could control and train fleas only when Master Flea was his prisoner. Moreover, his escape caused great distress to the princess. She needed Master Flea because her health would deteriorate if he did not bite her periodically in the spot where the Leech-Prince had kissed her. This is why she tried to persuade Peregrinus to hand over his prisoner, who was none other than Master Flea.
Master Flea knew that the princess would continue her attempts to get control of him, and he figured that she would again turn him over to Leeuwenhoek. This would mean renewed captivity, and the fleas of the world would again be slaves of Leeuwenhoek. Peregrinus solemnly promised the worried flea that he would resist the temptations of the princess. Since he liked the girl, he found it hard to keep this promise.
An additional circumstance caused further worry to Master Flea. Mr. Tyss had a boarder who called himself Mr. Swammer, but was actually Jan Swammerdam, the colleague of Anton van Leeuwenhoek. Dörtje Elverdink, alias Princess Gamaheh, had persuaded Swammerdam to allow her to take refuge with him. She consequently lived close to Peregrinus and could constantly charm him with her blandishments.
In return for protection, Master Flea gave Peregrinus invaluable help in his dealings with society. The flea had a microscopic glass that enabled Peregrinus to read peoples thoughts when the flea placed it in his eye. In this way, the naive man could tell when people were trying to deceive him.
An important factor in the evolution of Peregrinus’ adventure was his meeting with George Pepusch. Peregrinus was arrested and taken to the prison where Pepusch was held. When Peregrinus told Pepusch of his experiences with Dörtje, Pepusch grieved over the faithlessness of his beloved.
Peregrinus became a sort of rival for the love Dörtje. On one occasion, he was about to succumb to her blandishments, and Master Flea thought that he was doomed. However, at that critical point, George Pepusch rushed in and carried Dörtje out of the house.
On another occasion, Pepusch approached Peregrinus with two pistols. He gave one pistol to Peregrinus and insisted that they fight a duel. He shot the hat of the reluctant Peregrinus and told him to take his shot. Peregrinus shot in the air. Pepusch later shot himself; but since the pistols were made of wood, he did not die.
Peregrinus was unwilling to break his promise to the flea. Moreover, he did not want to hurt George Pepusch, so he to decided to renounce Dörtje for the sake of his friend. Dörtje continued to entice Peregrinus with her blandishments, but Peregrinus remained true to his promises to George and to Master Flea.
Peregrinus eventually met Röschen Lämmerhirt, the daughter of the bookbinder whom he had befriended at Christmastime. She was a sincere girl, and Peregrinus loved her dearly. After this, the blandishments of Dörtje were no longer tempting to him.
As far as Dörtje was concerned, many people wanted her. Leeuwenhoek looked upon her as a source of money. Pepusch loved her. Swammerdam seemed to have a paternal interest in her. Thetel and the Leech-Prince had less noble desires. According to Master Flea, it was Peregrinus who would decide her fate.
At the advice of Master Flea, Peregrinus visited Leeuwenhoek. In the residence of the magician, the horoscope of Peregrinus lay open to view, and Peregrinus requested an explanation. Leeuwenhoek did not like to discuss the matter. He unwillingly revealed that Peregrinus unknowingly possessed a carbuncle, a talisman that gave him a wondrous power.
Later, in a scene which in typical Hoffmann fashion hovers ambiguously between imagination and reality, King Sekakis sat on a splendid throne in Oriental attire. It turned out that King Sekakis, the father of Princess Gamaheh, was Peregrinus himself. When the king flung back his royal mantle, the carbuncle in his breast sent forth brilliant rays. In consequence, Thetel disintegrated into innumerable tiny pieces and was driven away by the wind. The Leech-Prince shrank and vanished into the earth. Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam suffered severely until they were taken up like little puppets by old Aline, dressed like the queen of Golconda.
With Zeherit at her side, Princess Gamaheh knelt before her father’s throne. King Sekakis assured them that henceforth they would enjoy the blessedness of heaven.
At these words, the two lovers became radiant with joy, and Master Flea, with renewed love for Princess Gamaheh, leaped upon her neck. At the same time, Röschen rested on Peregrine’s breast, radiant with unfeigned love.
After the conclusion of this wondrous scene, there was a double wedding. Peregrinus married Röschen and George Pepusch married Dörtje. However, by the next morning, the second couple had disappeared. In the garden, a thistle was found with a dead tulip curled around it. It was evident that Princess Gamaheh had died.
Master Flea took leave of Peregrinus and his wife. He had to return to his people, but he promised that he would always be their devoted friend.
Hoffmann treats us to many exotic scenes that I have not presented in these notes. For example, Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam, who were often at odds with one another, engaged in a strange battle on two different occasions. Each would take a telescope and aim it at his opponent. Then he would cast a fierce glance through the telescope, thereby wounding his adversary grievously.
Critics have criticized Hoffmann for a lack of consistency in this tale. I suspect that he purposely tried to mystify his readers. Instead of calling the story illogical, I would say that it transcends logic.
Since I do not have access to the German original, I consulted an English version of Project Gutenberg, which is currently presented online by Arkive.