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Myths and Legends

Undine (1811)

Cover of Undine, Told to the Children by Mary Macgregor, illustrated by Katharine Cameron (London: T. C. & E. C. Jack)

     Undine or Ondine is a dark fairy tale novella, written by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, that was published in German in 1811. The novella was such a big success, that it was eventually translated into other languages.

     The story begins with Knight Huldbrand is in the woods and comes across a cabin. He’s welcomed by the fisherman and his wife and is treated as a guest in their home. Knight Hulbrand meets their vivacious eighteen-year old foster daughter, Undine. Then the fisherman tells Knight Hulbrand the story of how his daughter had drowned and that very same day, Undine had appeared on their doorstep. And how the fisherman and his wife, had raised Undine as their own. 

     Undine is intrigued why Hulbrand was in the woods, so he tells her how he was smitten with the Duke’s foster daughter, Bertalda. While Bertalda and Hulbrand flirted, she gives him her glove and dares him to explore the dark forest. Hulbrand agrees and ventures into the forest, where he encounters dark spirits and creatures, and eventually finds himself at the Fisherman’s cottage. 

Illustration of Undine by Arthur Rackham (1909)

Everyone is stranded inside the house, after a violent storm and flood occurs. During this chaotic time, Hulbrand and Undine fall in love. Undine has a very precocious personality and at times, appears to have control over the weather. A priest named Father Heilmann is thrown overboard and finds himself at the fisherman’s house. Soon after, Hulbrand asks the priest to marry him and Undine immediately. Father Heilmann agrees to marry the young couple.

The day after the wedding, and Undine’s demeanor is different than it was before. She’s softer, kind, and gentle. Undine explains to her new husband, Hulbrand, that elemental beings exist and that she is in fact, a water spirit. She then goes on to explain that water spirits do not have souls, and can only obtain a soul by marrying a human. Undine further explains, that her parent’s sent her to go live among humans, in the hopes that she can gain a soul that way and that her marriage to Hulbrand has fulfilled that promise. Undine fears that Hulbrand will abandon her, once he learns the truth about her, but instead, he promises to never leave her. 

The flood begins to recede, so Hulbrand and Undine decide to depart to Hulbrand’s home. During their journey, they come across Kuhleborn, a shape-shifting water spirit and Undine’s uncle. Undine becomes frightened and begs her uncle to leave them alone, so they can proceed on their journey. Hulbrand attempts to attack Kuhleborn, but Kuhleborn vanishes into the waterfall. 

Illustration of Undine by Arthur Rackham (1909)

When Hulbrand arrives home, he’s greeted with a warm welcome and so is Undine. Bertalda is deeply upset to discover that Hulbrand is married to another woman and decides to become friends with Undine. One day, Kuhleborn comes to visit Undine and tells her that Bertalda real parents are her foster parents, the fisherman and his wife. Bertalda is the child, that they had believed to have drowned, but had not. Bertalda is devastated and humiliated to learn that her real family is poor and that she isn’t of noble descent. She publicly humiliates Undine, by calling her a witch. Undine’s theory is proven correct by Bertalda birthmarks. 

After learning of Bertalda’s horrible behavior towards Undine, both her foster parents and her biological parents disown her, leaving her destitute and desperate. Bertalda goes to Undine and begs for forgiveness. Undine accepts her apology and allows her to be remain a guest at her home, where sparks fly once more between Bertalda and Hulbrand, leading to tensions and drama amongst Undine, Bertalda, and Hulbrand. 

It doesn’t take long, for Undine to order the servants to seal the fountain in the castle’s courtyard. Bertalda is upset by this order, since she uses the fountain to gaze at her reflection and complains to Hulbrand. Hulbrand demands that Undine gives him an explanation as to why she’s closing off the fountain. Undine explains that she’s protecting the family from Kuhleborn and warns Hulbrand that he should never anger her near water or her family will take her away from him. Hulbrand reluctantly agrees to follow Undine’s commands. 

Angered and humiliated by Undine, Bertalda runs away and Hulbrand chases after her. Kuhleborn shape shifts and plays tricks on them. He is almost successful in drowning them, until Undine swoops in to the save the day, by calming the water and carries them home. 

The three of them live in peace for awhile with no drama or near death experiences. They decide to take a vacation along the Danube to Vienna, where Kuhleborn torments them continuously out at river with storms, waves, and treacherous apparitions. The servants begin to suspect that there is something magical about Undine, since she’s able to stop the attacks. Hulbrand becomes resentful and scared of Undine. When a water spirit steals Bertalda gold necklace, Undine goes into the water and gives Bertalda a necklace made of coral to replace the one she’s lost. Hulbrand is disgusted with the gift and tosses it into the sea, believing that Undine is colluding with evil spirits and that she is sorceress. Undine knew that Hulbrand would never love her as a water spirit, so she disappears into the river and warns him to remain faithful to her. 

Hulbrand grieves the loss of losing Undine, and is comforted by Bertalda, who he decides to marry. Hulbrand goes to Father Heilmann and asks him to marry him and Bertalda. Meanwhile, Father Heilmann is receiving messages from Undine and begs Hulbrand not to take another wife. Hulbrand begins to have dreams of Undine and Kuhleborn under the sea, as they discuss Hulbrand taking another wife and that Undine will him if he does. Undine tells Kuhleborn that she has sealed that fountain of the castle, so she cannot reenter the home. Kuhleborn reassures her, that if Hulbrand ever decides to unseal the fountain or leave the castle, he will be doomed. 

Undine by John William Waterhouse (1872)

Hulbrand ignores the warnings in his dreams and decides to marry Bertalda anyways. On the day of the wedding, Bertalda demands that the fountain be reopened again for her own pleasure. The servants do as they are told and unseal the fountain, only to find a weeping Undine rise up from it. Undine enters the castle and kisses Hulbrand. He dies in Undine’s arms. Undine attends his funeral and transforms into a stream, encircling his grave, so she is with him for all eternity.  

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