Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Undine and Other Stories

Undine at the start (Rackam, obvs.)
Undine and Other Stories, by La Motte - Fouqué

Well, his whole name was Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte, Baron Fouqué, but that was too difficult, so even my book only says "La Motte Fouqué" on the title page and never elaborates.  He lived from 1777 - 1843 and was a German Romantic to the core; my little Oxford World Classics book (from 1932) says we "may now recognize in Fouqué the latest and the most uncompromising of the Romanticists, the man who accepted most unflinchingly the principles of that school, and who carried them out most thoroughly."  It also calls him "somewhat stupid" and goes on to note that his output "was positively prodigious, and most of it, so far as modern readers are concerned, might very well have been left undone."  Poor Fouqué!  The introduction does allow him several stories to keep for posterity, and these four make up the majority of them.

It must be admitted that these stories are...odd.  Undine was not what I expected at all and neither was Sintram (those being the two that I had heard of at all).  They are a little on the overwrought side and I would like to propose them for a Reading Rambo Readalong.  I'm not at all saying they're bad, but you should know that indeed they are very much in the Romantic vein.

Undine at the end
Undine is, I think, the most famous story.  A knight travels through a dangerous forest, and on the other side he takes shelter at a fisherman's hut.  His foster-daughter is Undine, a lovely girl of 18 who acts very childishly; she is always playing tricks and changing moods.  The knight, Huldbrand, is stranded at the hut when the river floods, and so he and Undine fall in love and are married by a traveling priest.  Undine promptly turns into the ideal woman, and explains that she is a water-spirit and had no soul until she got married.  Her uncle, Kühleborn, is the spirit of the river and will make mischief if he can; and if Huldbrand is inconstant to Undine, he will take her back home to the water.

Huldbrand is a less than ideal husband, and once he's got Undine, he starts thinking maybe he should have married Bertalda instead.  Bertalda ends up coming to live with them as a friend, but that goes about as well as you might expect, and eventually Undine is snatched back down to her watery home.


Sintram and His Companions -- I know I've heard mention of Sintram somewhere, possibly in an E. Nesbit novel,* but I never expected what I got.  Sintram is a Norwegian knight with a dual nature; he yearns to be pure and spiritual, but also wild and vicious.  He careens between the two poles of his being, and the great temptation of his life is his infatuation with his guest Gabrielle, the wife of the perfect knight Folko.  He is constantly tempted (by the devil!) to somehow abduct Gabrielle and make her a Helen to his Paris.  It takes Sintram his entire life to conquer the darker corners of his soul.  In a postscript at the end of the story, Fouqué explains that he based it all on the Dürer engraving "Knight, Death, and the Devil."

Dürer's engraving
 Sintram does, however, contain the floweriest description of skiing I've ever read.  Here is Sintram warning Folko about the difficulties of skiing (which Folko turns out to be expert at):

‘Look, noble Sir’ — said Sintram the next morning upon Folko’s desire to go out with him — ‘our snow-shoes, which we call skier, wing our course indeed, so that it goes down hill fleet as the wind, and up hill more rapidly than any one is able to follow us, and upon the plain no horse can catch us, but it is only the experienced master whom they serve to his weal. It is as if the spirit of a cobold were confined in them, fearfully destructive to the stranger that has not learnt to use them from his childhood upwards.’

Two short little stories round out this volume.  In Aslauga's Knight, a Danish knight (from my own Fyn!) with a folklore hobby falls in love with the long-dead, legendary Aslauga and decides to serve her in knightly fashion.  At the next tournament, he is sometimes tempted by the great beauty of the princess, but every time Aslauga appears to chastise him.  Besides, the princess is obviously destined for the shy young (and bookish!) Edwald. 

The Two Captains may be the zaniest of these four pretty zany stories.  Two soldiers, a Spaniard and a German, start as friends but become deadly enemies.  After a battle with the Ottomans, they both pursue the beautiful enchantress Zelinda out to the Sahara desert (which is surprisingly thickly inhabited).  Will either of them win her?  Will their friendship survive?

The Sahara is not only full of people to meet at random.  There are animals too:
Several times night had followed day and day night when Heimbert one evening, as the dark came on, was standing quite alone in the endless desert, unable to see a single fixed object around him....Sometimes he heard some one’s footstep or the rustle of spreading cloaks go past him; then he drew himself up in haste and alarm but only saw what he had seen often enough in those days, the wild beasts of the wilderness, wandering through the desert in joyous freedom. Now they were ugly camels, then long-necked awkward giraffes, and then again a long-legged ostrich, sailing along hastily with uneasy wings.
 So, Fouqué didn't know a whole lot about the Sahara, but after all it was about 1820.  Anyway, I had so much fun reading these tales -- they are simply drenched in Romanticism, and although we've nearly forgotten them today, I think they're well worth reading for anybody interested in 19th century literature and/or Romanticism.  They became part of any Victorian's basic reading background.


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*A quick bit of research reveals that both Undine and Sintram were hugely popular in English and made it into the canon of popular children's tales, with several retellings published in the late 19th century.  The Bastable children play Sintram at one point, which must be where I picked it up.

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