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Cover of the edition illustrated by Katharine Cameron

Title: Undine
Author: Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué
Format: Novella
Pages: 65 (in the compilation book Tales Before Narnia by Douglas A. Anderson)
Published: Original German: 1811. English translation by F.E. Burnett: 1885.
Reason for Beginning: George MacDonald called it the most beautiful of all fairy tales he knew (and he knew a thing or two about great fairy tales, having written some himself). C.S. Lewis wrote of its “homely beauty” and haunting Northernness.
Reason for Finishing: It intrigued and continually surprised me all to the end.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A young knight falls in love with an undine, a water spirit, and marries her, with little understanding of what she is, of what she needs, and of the supernatural forces that protect her from any threat (real or perceived). Magical intrigue and drama ensues.
Story Re-readability: Strong. Though the language is certainly antique to us in 2010, the 1885 translation is not difficult. The story has many layers and works a subtle kind of magic, which I’m sure I will want to experience again and think on.
Author Re-readability: Strong, I think, although using a certain translation will have a great effect on that.  I don’t know what else Fouqué has written, but a man who can write a story such as this is likely to write other things of note.
Recommendation: For anyone interested in fairy tales, folk legend, fantasy, and anything recommended by C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald. A habit of reading thoughtfully is helpful, as might be a spirit that appreciates the poetic melancholy that accompanies many old fairy tales.
Note: The story is in the public domain and can be found in full online through many sources, including Google Books.

Key Thoughts

I read Undine with no knowledge of its plot, and I believe that is the best way to approach it.  There are a number of different “stages” to the plot, where the scene and atmosphere changes.  For awhile you may think the whole novella will focus on just four or five characters, with the plot seeming to be tight and focused in that direction.  Then a new character or two will be introduced, the action will be moved to a different setting, a year may pass, and everything changes unexpectedly.  When this first happened, I was worried.  The carefully-constructed aura of other-worldliness and foreboding that had developed around the haunted forest – the setting for the first nine chapters – seemed to dissipate at first.  I thought the story was beginning to wander.  I was wrong.  It develops quite organically, actually.  While the story always feels “classic,” drawing as it does from the archetypes that always seem to surround mermaids, selkies, and their like in folk tales and legends, it always managed to surprise and intrigue me.  When the end comes, in all its tragic glory, it feels at once appropriate and part of a long European tradition.

Likewise, the characters.  While they too come from familiar archetypes (the eager, well-meaning young knight, the alluring but wild fairy-girl, her fearsome kindred, the good and beautiful princess, etc.), it’s surprising how much psychological depth they acquire by the end.  I was frustrated when the knight began making foolish decisions, because he so clearly knows better but, being human, often makes costly mistakes.  Yet I was touched when Undine revealed her growing maturity.  In fact, that is likely the real strength of the story, in retrospect: the character of Undine herself.  Fouqué seems to have had a very clear idea of her growth.  I don’t want to give much away, but I was pleased by the way she changed.  It has to do with what I discuss next.

See, in the old fairy legends I’ve read, especially the Irish stories, the magic folk are to be feared for their power, their wildness, their greater knowledge of the universe, and often, their central “otherness” that makes them ultimately incomprehensible to mortals.  I could be wrong, but it seemed unusual (and therefore exciting) to see Undine begin as this sort of creature, but, through the events of the story, become not just more human, but more like a wise human.  Whereas at the story’s beginning the knight is the main protagonist and she the cause of his happiness and troubles, by the end we might say their positions have reversed.  She has become the protagonist almost without us noticing, and he, poor fool, has become the cause not just of her happiness, but of her trouble too.

It is hard to discuss the story without spoiling important parts, but I shall quickly mention how Fouqué mixes pagan and Christian elements.  This is part of what attracted Lewis and MacDonald to the story so much, and it fascinates me as well.  Since the time of Saint Augustine, Christian writers have been wary of pagan mythology and have not always known what to do with it.  Lewis and MacDonald argued, and I believe Fouqué would agree, that even in the supernatural tales of pagan religions, there can be found shadows and imprints of the Christian God, and of the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.  In Fouqué’s story, the pagan water-spirit Undine is transformed and completed by her interaction with Christianity.  The humans who live in a “Christian” world but have largely taken faith for granted find themselves strikingly ill-prepared to deal with the trials that beset them.  Additionally, the Church has two representatives: one, whom we see only briefly, is a monk who is terrified and rendered useless by his interactions with pagan magic, while the other, a sage traveling priest, reacts with Christian love and a desire to understand.  I think the former represents an immature or illusory faith that is not truly based in the sovereignty of Christ, and that the latter is intended to represent the Christian for whom a sovereign, loving God is a very personal reality.

Such is my take, at least, and the one that seems very in line with what Lewis and MacDonald seem to have read into it.  It is a truly fascinating fairy story, alternately haunting and romantic, exciting and grave.  And like all the best fairy stories, there is a wealth of activity beneath its surface.

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