The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"Undine" (1811)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“Undine” was written by Friedrich Heinrich Karl, Baron de la Motte Fouqué and first appeared in Die Jahreszeiten (1811). Fouqué (1777-1843) was a German soldier and writer who produced a great deal of material, little of which is well-regarded today. Although Fouqué was prominent among the German Romantics, his fairy tales, such as “Undine,” are what he is known for today, even though he thought little of them at the time.

“Undine” is seen as a classic of German literature. It is the story of a knight, Huldbrand of Ringstetten, who, while traveling through a dark and spooky forest, comes upon a secluded spit of land next to a large lake. Living on the spit of land are an unnamed fisherman and his wife, who put Huldbrand up for the night. That night, while Huldbrand and the fisherman are talking, they are interrupted by the arrival of a beautiful young woman. She is Undine, the couple’s adopted daughter, and although she is mischievous to the point of being spiteful toward her adoptive parents, she is attracted to Huldbrand, and he is smitten with her. Huldbrand stays with the family for a while, long enough to hear their story and for them to hear his. He was a knight-errant who ventured into the forest to gain a favor from Bertalda, a noble lady who Huldbrand had flirted with during a tournament. Undine was found by the fisherman and his wife after their birth daughter disappeared into the lake; on the evening of their daughter’s disappearance, a strange young girl appeared on their doorstep. The fisherman and his wife raised her as their own. The love between Undine and Huldbrand continues to blossom, and soon they are married. The morning after their wedding Undine reveals to Huldbrand that she is a water sprite, the daughter of a Prince of the Mediterranean waters, and that the only way that one of the elementals of the Earth--the water spirit undines, the earth spirit kobolds, the air spirit wood folk, and the fire spirit salamanders--can gain a soul is by being united in intimate union with a human. Through her love for and marriage to Huldbrand Undine has achieved this.

Undine is happy to accompany Huldbrand back to the city. But on the way they encounter Undine’s malicious uncle Kühleborn, who dislikes humans generally and Huldbrand particularly and who threatens them both. Huldbrand chases him away by trying to slice his head off (which only makes Kühleborn turn into a torrent of water), and the pair continue on to the city. There things get complicated. Huldbrand and Undine meet Bertalda, and Undine and Bertalda (despite all the reasons against it) get along well and become dear friends. But Undine, who has discovered that Bertalda was found separated from her parents when young, tries to do Bertalda a favor and locate her real parents. At Bertalda’s birthday feast Undine announces that she knows who Bertalda’s real parents were: the fisherman and his wife. Bertalda reacts badly to this, but the fisherman and his wife are brought in and are able to prove her parentage. Huldbrand and Undine bring Bertalda and her parents to Huldbrand’s castle in Ringstetten, but while they are at the castle Huldbrand falls in love with Bertalda, and she with him, and Undine becomes miserable. All the workers in and around the castle love Undine and dislike Bertalda, and the fisherman much prefers Undine to Bertalda, but this does not stop Huldbrand. Undine is unhappy, but nonetheless orders that the fountain of the castle be stopped up, because through that fountain Uncle Kühleborn could appear, and he hates Bertalda and would harm both Huldbrand and Bertalda, which Undine, good person that she is, does not want to allow. She even warns Huldbrand that if he is ever angry with her on or near a piece of water, her relatives will gain power over her and bring her back to the bottom of the ocean, never to return.

But Huldbrand doesn’t pay enough attention to her, and while the trio are on a trip down the Danube Huldbrand unfairly loses his temper with Undine, and she is taken by the river. At first Bertalda and Undine are sad at and guilty over Undine’s departure, but soon enough Huldbrand decides to marry Bertalda. In a dream Huldbrand hears Undine and Kühleborn discussing him and stating that, if the fountain at Huldbrand’s castle is unstopped, he and Bertalda will be in danger. But Bertalda has the fountain uncovered, and then the watery figure of Undine walks through the castle, weeping, and kisses Huldbrand until he dies. Undine, veiled, appears at Huldbrand’s funeral.

“Undine” is one of the best of the kunstmärchen. Like the kunstmärchen of Ludwig Tieck (see: “The Elves”) and Wilhelm Hauff (see: The Caravan), “Undine” has a depth of characterization and even psychological insight, so that “Undine,” like the other kunstmärchen, reads like a cross between a traditional fairy tale and a novel. More than the other kunstmärchen, though, “Undine” combines an atmosphere of the supernatural with several ominous moments, especially the leitmotif of a frightening white face (which is later revealed to be Uncle Kühleborn’s) appearing in the forest and near the fisherman’s house. Fouqué’s pace is exactly right, slow enough to let the reader linger over certain frightening moments but fast enough through the sections which are not as important to the story. Huldbrand’s betrayal of Undine and his final fate is not predictable but rather inevitable in the way of the better fairy tales and legends. 

Fouqué was part of the Romantic trend that enthusiastically embraced medieval literature and culture, identifying with the values of chivalry and romance…the ethical and romantic ideals of the medieval knight, whether Norse or German, pervade both Undine and Sintram, the prose stories that Fouqué published in 1811 and 1814 respectively and that constitute his particular fame in the English-speaking world.1 

Undine was first translated into English in 1818 by George Soane, who also adapted it for the stage as early as 1821. With about a hundred different editions in English up to the present day, published in both Britain and the United States, it proved a runaway success. Fouqué’s work was translated many times. Some editions were illustrated, others appeared as a plain text. It was made accessible to a wide readership and stage public and was commented on by several men of letters and critics including Coleridge and Edgar Allan Poe. Some girls were even given the name of Undine.2 

Recommended Edition 

Print: Douglas Anderson, ed., Tales Before Narnia: The Roots of Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, 2008.



1 David Blamires, Telling Tales: The Impact of Germany on English Children’s Books, 1780-1918 (Cambridge: OpenBook Publishers, 2009), 122.

2 Blamires, Telling Tales, 122.