by Friedrich de laMotte Fouqué

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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 his output is considered trivial.

Undine was La Motte-Fouqué’s only work that was acclaimed immediately by leading contemporary authors. Goethe called it “most enchanting,” Heinrich Heine called it a “wonderfully lovely poem,” and Sir Walter Scott called it “captivating,” because “the suffering of the heroine is real, even if it is only the suffering of a fantastic being.”

Undine’s positive reception and influence have extended into other art forms. La Motte-Fouqué’s fairy tale continues to be the source of inspiration for a surprising number of works: operas by composers E. T. A. Hoffmann (Undine, 1816), Albert Lortzing (Undine, 1845), Antonin Dvorák (Rusalka, 1911), and Wolfgang Fortner (Undine, 1966); a play by Jean Giraudoux (Ondine, 1939); and a ballet by Hans Werner Henze (Ondine, 1958).

One of the main reasons for the sympathetic reading of Undine may lie in the close correspondence between the wishes of the water-spirits and the dictates of Christian morality. Both are opposed to adultery, and both see Bertalda as a threat to the happiness of Undine’s marriage. Kühleborn warns Undine about Bertalda and actively seeks to frighten her away. Father Heilmann, who reappears at the end of the story, cautions Huldbrand in the strongest terms against marrying Bertalda, for there is every indication that his wife Undine is still alive. Thus the elemental spirits and the man of God work toward the same end, until the law of the water-spirits requires Huldbrand’s death. That penalty is magically commuted by Undine’s loving embrace.

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Critical Evaluation