Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué was one of the lesser writers of German Romanticism. Like many Romantics, he sought inspiration in works from earlier times. He named as his main source for Undine a work by German physician and chemist Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, 1493-1541): Liber de nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandribus et de caeteris spiritibus, which documents the folk belief in the magic spirits of the four elements. Undine explains this system to Huldbrand after their marriage: There are salamanders in the fire, gnomes in the earth, wood-folk in the air, and water-spirits in the lakes, streams, and rivulets.

The plot also derives from an earlier source. It is a reworking of the medieval saga of the knight of Stauffenberg. La Motte-Fouqué’s liberal borrowing from folktale was quite in keeping with the literary inclinations of his time, from which arose the famous collections of folk fairy tales (1812 and 1815) by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as well as numerous literary fairy tales by Ludwig Tieck, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Clemens Brentano, La Motte-Fouqué, Adelbert von Chamisso, and E. T. A. Hoffmann.

Undine generally is regarded as La Motte-Fouqué’s best work, although his novel The Magic Ring (1812) was one of the most widely read books of his time. La Motte-Fouqué wrote a vast number of works, including prose, poetry, and drama, but most of...

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