Undine (novella)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Undine[1] is a novel by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué concerning Undine, a water spirit who marries a Knight named Huldebrand in order to gain a human soul. It is an early German romance, which has been translated into English and other languages. During the nineteenth century the book was very popular and was, according to The Times in 1843, "a book which, of all others, if you ask for it at a foreign library, you are sure to find engaged". The story, which has resemblances to The Little Mermaid by Andersen, is descended from Melusine, the French folk-tale of a water-sprite who marries a knight on condition that he shall never see her on Saturdays, when she resumes her mermaid shape. It was also inspired by a text of Paracelsus.

An unabridged English edition of the story published in 1909 was illustrated by Arthur Rackham. George Macdonald thought Undine "the most beautiful" of all fairy stories, and the referencs to it in such works as Charlotte Yonge's The Daisy Chain and Louisa Alcott's Little Women show that it was one of the best loved of all books for many 19th-century children.

The first adaptation of Undine was E.T.A. Hoffmann's opera in 1814. It was a collaboration between E.T.A. Hoffman, who composed the score, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué who adapted his own work into a libretto. The opera proved highly successful and in his review of Hoffmann's opera, Carl Maria von Weber admired it as the kind of composition which the German desires - 'an art work complete in itself, in which partial contributions of the related and collaborating arts blend together, disappear, and, in disappearing, somehow form a new world'

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Comments by Lovecraft

From H. P. Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature:

Most artistic of all the Continental weird tales is the German classic Undine (1811), by Friedrich Heinrich Karl, Baron de la Motte Fouqué. In this story of a water-spirit who married a mortal and gained a human soul there is a delicate fineness of craftsmanship which makes it notable in any department of literature, and an easy naturalness which places it close to the genuine folk-myth. It is, in fact, derived from a tale told by the Renaissance physician and alchemist Paracelsus in his Treatise on Elemental Sprites.
Undine, daughter of a powerful water-prince, was exchanged by her father as a small child for a fisherman's daughter, in order that she might acquire a soul by wedding a human being. Meeting the noble youth Huldbrand at the cottage of her foster-father by the sea at the edge of a haunted wood, she soon marries him, and accompanies him to his ancestral castle of Ringstetten. Huldbrand, however, eventually wearies of his wife's supernatural affiliations, and especially of the appearances of her uncle, the malicious woodland waterfall-spirit Kühleborn; a weariness increased by his growing affection for Bertalda, who turns out to be the fisherman's child for whom Undine was exchanged. At length, on a voyage down the Danube, he is provoked by some innocent act of his devoted wife to utter the angry words which consign her back to her supernatural element; from which she can, by the laws of her species, return only once--to kill him, whether she will or no, if ever he prove unfaithful to her memory. Later, when Huldbrand is about to be married to Bertalda, Undine returns for her sad duty, and bears his life away in tears. When he is buried among his fathers in the village churchyard a veiled, snow-white female figure appears among the mourners, but after the prayer is seen no more. In her place is seen a little silver spring, which murmurs its way almost completely around the new grave, and empties into a neighbouring lake. The villagers shew it to this day, and say that Undine, and her Huldbrand are thus united in death. Many passages and atmospheric touches in this tale reveal Fouqué as an accomplished artist in the field of the macabre; especially the descriptions of the haunted wood with its gigantic snow-white man and various unnamed terrors, which occur early in the narrative.


     

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