Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

Undine is a fairy tale by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a German writer, and was first published in 1811. It seems that de la Motte has fallen out of fashion: my edition was published by Cassell's National Library (1886-88), cheap classics essentially, and there is another edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1909), so one can deduce in the late 19th, early 20th Century it was popular, yet now I struggled to get much information on de la Motte and his other works. If Undine is anything to go by, this is a travesty! Undine is a fantastic work. 

Reading it, one can see the influence of Undine on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen (1837). We meet Undine when a knight, Sir Huldbrand of Ringstetten is wandering a forest inhabited by unearthly spirits. He finds a cottage in which lives a fisherman, his wife, and their adopted daughter, the wild, beautiful, and rebellious Undine. The knight falls in love with her, and, when they marry, she reveals that she is a descendent of a water spirit:
“You must know, my own love, that there are beings in the elements which bear the strongest resemblance to the human race, and which, at the same time, but seldom become visible to you. The wonderful salamanders sparkle and sport amid the flames; deep in the earth the meagre and malicious gnomes pursue their revels; the forest-spirits belong to the air, and wander in the woods; while in the seas, rivers, and streams live the widespread race of water-spirits. These last, beneath resounding domes of crystal, through which the sky can shine with its sun and stars, inhabit a region of light and beauty; lofty coral-trees glow with blue and crimson fruits in their gardens; they walk over the pure sand of the sea, among exquisitely variegated shells, and amid whatever of beauty the old world possessed, such as the present is no more worthy to enjoy—creations which the floods covered with their secret veils of silver; and now these noble monuments sparkle below, stately and solemn, and bedewed by the water, which loves them, and calls forth from their crevices delicate moss-flowers and enwreathing tufts of sedge.
“Now the nation that dwell there are very fair and lovely to behold, for the most part more beautiful than human beings. Many a fisherman has been so fortunate as to catch a view of a delicate maiden of the waters, while she was floating and singing upon the deep. He would then spread far the fame of her beauty; and to such wonderful females men are wont to give the name of Undines. But what need of saying more?—You, my dear husband, now actually behold an Undine before you.”
She goes on to tell him that, now she is married, she at last possesses a soul. Their marriage however is ill-fated; Huldbrand returns, taking Undine with him, to the city where he is re-joined with a woman called Bertalda and soon regrets not marrying her when he had the chance.

It is very much like The Little Mermaid, as I say. Magical, beautiful prose; very other-worldly, and with a deep melancholy seen in Andersen's works. I gather Undine was part of a set of four stories: Undine was a spring tale, then The Two Captains for summer (I'm looking forward to reading this soon), Aslauga's Knight for autumn, and Sintram for winter. I know nothing more about these so I'll have to do a little digging.

Until then, here are Arthur Rackham's wonderful illustrations for Undine (1909):


Comments

  1. Wonderful story. I haven't read anything else by him, either, as much as I have enjoyed so much other work from his time - Tieck and Hoffmann and so on.

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    1. I haven't read Tieck but Hoffman sort of rings a bell... Ah, I looked up Hoffman - The Nutcracker and the Mouse King! I must read that!

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  2. Yeah, the story seems to have fallen completely out of favor! I've read *mentions* of Undine a zillion times in old stories, but I never knew who wrote it or where to find a copy. (Obvs I could have looked it up, but of course I never thought of that!) So thanks for the information, because this is going on my TBR.

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    1. No problem :) I have it because I got that huge pile of Cassell's National Library books a few months ago and it was amongst those. Also has the Two Captains, which I want to read now. I've never come across it before that, but I knew about it because of the Arthur Rackham illustrations :)

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  3. There's a Penguin Classics book, in print even, with the unhelpful title Romantic Fairy Tales that contains Undine alongside some of its contemporaries.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning that, going to try and get a copy. I see it has Hoffman and Tieck as well. Never heard of Brentano - another one to look up!

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  4. I had never heard of this author and I have read a lot of fairy tales in my life. I love the illustrations. Thank you for posting them, they are stunning.

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    1. I'd heard of the book but not the author - he seems to have fallen into obscurity sadly. And yes, the illustrations are amazing - Arthur Rackham is the best!

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