Undine

by Friedrich de laMotte Fouqué

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Critical Evaluation

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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 of the Danube as it descends from the heavily forested mountains to the agricultural plain and to the great city of Vienna. This is the journey that Huldbrand, Undine, and Bertalda eventually undertake, which is beset by trouble and brings the fatal moment when Huldbrand’s fit of temper allows the waters to reclaim their own. In another kind of story, this banishment of the wild past might have been a merciful release allowing Huldbrand and Bertalda to get on with their lives, safe in the ideological fortress of civilization, but in a Kunstmärchen the severance is fatal.

Huldbrand is the story’s primary representative of civilized values—values the Romantics were more than happy to link to the chivalric code allegedly observed by the legendary knights who secured the empire of Christendom and brought Europe out of the Dark Ages. In first abandoning Bertalda in favor of the less-demanding Undine, Huldbrand yields to seduction, but not as straightforward a seduction as that featured in many folkloristic versions of the motif. Because Undine is a changeling who was already traded for Bertalda in infancy, Huldbrand is in a sense falling in love with Bertalda as she ought to have been: poor, humble, and innocent. Unfortunately, although her marriage to Huldbrand makes Undine fully human—which means that she forsakes the values of her own kind for his—what Huldbrand ends up with is a convincing fake rather than the real thing.

When Bertalda tries to make her own journey...

(This entire section contains 963 words.)

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through the Black Valley to recover her allotted place in the scheme of things, Kühleborn, the supreme spirit of the waters, puts obstacles in her way. Huldbrand and Undine come to her aid and give her the opportunity to continue pursuing her claim. While they live in secure isolation in his castle, Huldbrand prefers Undine to Bertalda and decides in her favor in the matter of sealing the well. Once they are on the Danube, however, the balance of power changes. It is inevitable that Huldbrand must pay the price for his confusion. Having betrayed the innocently deceptive Undine, he cannot thereafter forge a lasting union with the chastened and enlightened Bertalda. The soul that Undine acquired by virtue of their union was his, and the ghost of Undine reemerges from the well whose spring nourishes the soil of his estates to claim his life in forfeit.

On the most obvious level, Undine offers an allegory of the relationship between nature and humankind, in which nature can never quite be subjugated to the authority of human use because it always retains the final sanction of death. As a wholehearted Romantic, la Motte-Fouqué is entirely sympathetic to Undine; it is tragic that Huldbrand is unable to be faithful to her and thus unable to secure their harmonious union. Even a wholehearted Romantic has to concede, however, that the forces of nature that produce Undine, and to whom she remains inextricably linked in spite of her temporary domestication, are not nearly as sweet as she seems to be. The story acknowledges that there is a fundamental contest between nature and humankind, one that humankind cannot ever win; the spirits that harass Huldbrand at the beginning of the story cannot prevail by storm and stress because he is a brave young knight, but they have other ways of forcing his capitulation. His bravery cannot withstand subtle seduction, his chivalric values cannot shelter him forever against attacks of bad temper, and—perhaps most important of all, for all its understatement in the text—he cannot remain forever young. In the end, nature wins because the processes of aging are irresistible.

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