Undine appeared in print the year before Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published the first volume of their classic collection of tales drawn from local oral traditions, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812, 1815; Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1823-1826). The German Romantic movement helped to create an intense interest in the past and the presumably obsolete beliefs preserved in folklore. Proponents of German nationalism, who supported the notion of a German nation, believed that the many small principalities and city-states shared a common German heritage that was reflected and embodied in the ideas and images in Teutonic folklore. While the Grimm brothers were preserving and repackaging authentic folklore, Romantic writers such as Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué set out to write Kunstmärchen, or “art folktales,” that would not merely capture but refine the essence of the Germanic soul.
In Undine, la Motte-Fouqué employs one of the most frequently repeated folkloristic motifs: that of the mortal man who marries a supernatural female but loses her when he breaks some significant condition imposed on the union. In his 1891 The Science of Fairy Tales, Edward Hartland calls such tales “swan-maiden” stories after one of the several examples of the motif collected by the Grimm brothers. Another famous version is the story of Melusine, whose husband was forbidden to look upon her naked body on certain days—a tale that was ironically reworked by the greatest of all German Romantics, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in “The New Melusine.” Later literary versions, written with Undine in mind, include Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Fisherman and His Soul.”
The supernatural world of Teutonic mythology is more closely connected with the world of nature than the French world of faerie, which was exported into Britain by the Norman conquest. Teutonic spirit inhabitants are “elementals” associated with the four elements of Classical belief: kobolds with the earth; sylphs with the air; salamanders with fire, and undines with water. In Austria, where la Motte-Fouqué’s story is set, undines were inevitably associated with the river Danube. The passage from past to future, from wilderness to civilization, is symbolically embodied in the course...
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