Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué
November is German Literature Month apparently – see the hosting site :
so I thought I might read (re-read as it happens) one of my favourite classical German works.
Despite the rather French-sounding name, Fouqué was German and wrote his 1810/11 novella in that language.
English readers are probably more used to the ‘fairy tales’ of Hans Christian Andersen and if looking for a parallel to Fouqué one is likely to find it in Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The theme of Undine is similar and from the same corner of folk memory – some might even argue, from the same dark corner as the vampire: – the search by a mythical or supernatural being for a soul.
Undine is a charming, bitter-sweet love story, and though perhaps its ending might be considered satisfying in one sense, it is not a tale of the traditionally ‘happily-ever-after’ kind.
The old fisherman and his wife have lost their infant daughter to the waters of the lake where he makes his living. This lake is truly beautiful, but on its fringes lies an enchanted forest where all sorts of mischievous beings play tricks on human beings foolish enough to cross it.
‘Was er in manchem stürmigen Nàchten von den Geheimnissen des Forstes getraümte hatte, zuckte ihm nun auf einmal durch den Sinn, vor allem das Bild eines riesenmässig langen, schneeweissen Mannes …’
[What he had dreamed during many a stormy night of the forest’s secrets now flashed through his mind, above all the image of a gigantic man all in white …]
One evening, many years later, the fisherman is sitting by the lakeside mending his nets when out of the forest comes the knight Huldbrand, to whom he offers hospitality. Their cosy fireside chat is interrupted by the playful, self-willed Undine who, the fisherman explains is his eighteen-year-old adopted daughter. Huldbrand immediately falls in love with the beautiful girl and she with him.
The fisherman’s cottage is now cut off from the mainland by a violent storm and for the time being the four live together, Huldbrand and Undine as a betrothed couple. One evening an old priest who has been cast into the lake from a boat arrives at the door and he agrees to marry the young pair. The morning after the wedding night Undine seems changed. She is less wild, less playful. She tells Huldbrand her origins, that she is actually a water spirit, daughter of a mighty prince of the Mediterranean who has sent her to the upper world to acquire a soul by marrying a mortal.
‘ “Darum haben wir auch keine Seelen; das Element bewegt uns, gehorcht uns oft, solange wir leben, zerstaübt uns immer, sobald wir sterben, und wir sind lustig, ohne uns irgend zu grämen …” ‘
[‘And so we have no souls; we are moved by the elements, indeed they obey us as long as we live, but scatter us like dust when we die; and without anything to vex us we are happy …’]
The storm waters having receded, courtesy of Undine’s uncle, the river spirit Kühleborn, the young married couple travel to the nearest city, where Hulbrand finds Bertalda, the foster daughter of a duke and duchess, the girl who sent him on his quest through the dark forest in the first place. Despite being upset at his marriage, Bertalda befriends Undine.
But all does not go well. The malicious Kühleborn reveals to Undine that Bertalda is the true daughter of the old fisher couple and that he has arranged the switch when they were children. Bertalda is not at all pleased to discover her secret. She rages at the world and becomes very jealous of Undine. Huldbrand too begins to be fearful of his lovely wife and turns more and more to Bertalda. But Undine continues to love them both. To prevent Kühleborn coming into Huldbrand’s castle, she tells workmen to seal the fountain in the courtyard with a huge stone. She warns him however that he must never cause her to weep over water else her elemental relatives will regain power over her. Worse, should they ever have cause to send her back to him it will mean his death. Huldbrand disregards the warning and when the three are in a boat on the Danube, he rebukes Undine and she vanishes into the river.
‘ “Ach, holder Freund, ach, lebe wohl! Sie sollen dir nichts tun, nur bleibe treu, dass ich dir abwehren kann …” ‘
[‘Farewell, dearest friend, farewell! (The elements) will not hurt you, only stay true so that I can protect you from them …’]
With Undine gone, Huldbrand, heedless of all the warnings that his wife still lives, arranges to marry Bertalda. On their wedding night, Bertalda has the stone removed from the fountain, which allows Undine into the castle. She appears to Huldbrand in his bedchamber and kills him with a kiss.
‘ “Sie haben den Brunnen aufgemacht” sagte sie leise, “und nun bin ich hier, und nun muss du sterben.” ‘
[‘They have opened up the fountain,’ she said softly. ‘I am here now and it is time for you to die.’]
Fouqué, rather like – and maybe anticipating – Hans Andersen, invokes nature both in its raw beauty and, to quote Tennyson, ‘red in tooth and claw’. In spite of its underlying Christian ideas and morality, Undine is at once a romance and a supernatural thriller. In places, it borders on the gothic and were it not for its rather quaint language – both in the original and in translation – it might well fit into the modern horror genre. The manner of Huldbrand’s end tingles the spine on subsequent as well as on first readings. This reader for one has little sympathy with Bertalda and can’t help feeling the hero knight comes off better than he deserved.
‘… sie küsste ihn mit ein himmlischen Kusse, aber sie liess ihn nicht mehr los, sie drückte ihn inniger an sich und weinte, als wolle sie ihre Seele fortweinen.’
[… she kissed him with a heavenly kiss, and did not release him but held him even closer to her and wept as if she would weep her soul away.]
(The Undine statue pictured above is in the city of Baden in Germany.)