Desktop versionMobile version
OpenEdition Books

Telling Tales

David Blamires

8. Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué: Undine and Sintram

Full text

1It often comes as a surprise to modern students of German Romanticism to find out that the author who made the greatest impact on English-speaking readers was Friedrich Heinrich Karl, Baron de la Motte Fouqué. Apart from Undine very little of his massive literary output has survived as popular reading. Even by the end of his own lifetime he ceased to be taken very seriously, despite his earlier connexions with Chamisso, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Eichendorff. Fouqué came from a French family that had settled in Germany after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Born himself in 1777 in Brandenburg, he early espoused the life of a soldier, but had to retire in 1813 because of ill-health after being wounded in the battles of Lützen and Bautzen. He married twice, the first time unhappily. His second wife, Caroline, was also a popular novelist in her day. Fouqué died in literary obscurity on his estate at Nennhausen, near Rathenow, in 1843.

2Fouqué was part of the Romantic trend that enthusiastically embraced medieval literature and culture, identifying with the values of chivalry and romance. He was passionate in his devotion to Norse poetry and sagas and in 1808-10 wrote a dramatic trilogy, Der Held des Nordens (The Hero of the North), about Sigurd the Dragon-slayer that stands at the beginning of the nineteenth-century fascination with the figure of Siegfried, a fascination that reached its climax with Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. 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.

3Fouqué was not a writer of works for children, and the earliest English translations of Undine and Sintram were clearly aimed at an adult readership that wanted to acquaint itself with the latest products of German Romanticism. Several of his other stories and romances were also translated – Minstrel Love (1821), The Magic Ring (1825), Aslauga’s Knight (1827), The Two Captains (1843) and Thiodolf, the Icelander (1845) – but none were as enthusiastically taken up as Undine and Sintram. What is interesting here is the way in which the nature of the readership of these two works changed and how, by the end of the nineteenth century, they were clearly considered to be children’s books.

4Undine 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.

5Fouqué’s romance became deservedly famous. With extraordinary skill, never saying too much, Fouqué explores the predicament of the knight Huldbrand, torn between the passionate love of the elemental Undine and the calmer, more predictable affection of the completely human Bertalda. The antitheses of earth and water, courtly castle and rural simplicity, Christian values and dark malevolence overlap in disturbing ways. Huldbrand is first of all impressed by Bertalda when he sees her at a tournament, but his attraction quickly diminishes, and it is as a joke that he requests one of her gloves. Bertalda then demands that he should undertake a dangerous expedition into the forest before he can be rewarded, and thus is set in motion the fateful course of Huldbrand’s life. His dangerous encounter with the shape-shifting Kühleborn, Undine’s guardian uncle, gives way to an idyll with Undine and the fisher couple who are her supposed parents on their island apart from the rest of the world. Here, through marriage at the hands of the priest symbolically named Heilmann, the water-sprite Undine gains a soul. Kühleborn remains a threatening presence around Undine’s new life after the couple leave the island and go first to the ducal palace and then to Ringstetten, Huldbrand’s own castle, together with Bertalda. Meanwhile, Undine reveals that Bertalda is the real daughter of the fisher couple who have been entrusted with Undine in her place. Tensions quickly invade the relationships between Huldbrand, Bertalda and Undine. The latter’s supernatural origins and associations become a focus of suspicion and recrimination. The fluidity of emotions correlates with the danger that running water – whether well or river – represents to the couple’s marriage. Finally, in a quarrel between the three on the River Danube, Kühleborn seizes Undine and takes her back to the realm of water from which she came. After Huldbrand has recovered from the shock, his plans to marry Bertalda are resisted by both her father, the old fisherman, and Father Heilmann. However, despite disturbing dreams Huldbrand determines to go ahead. Bertalda has the well in the castle courtyard reopened in order to get water to wash away the freckles that betray her lowly origins, but Undine reappears out of it and embraces Huldbrand with the kiss of death.

6This bald summary cannot do justice to Fouqué’s achievement in Undine. Neither the language nor the narrative technique is particularly complex, but the blend of apparently detached narration with occasional authorial comment, the skilful mingling of concrete observation and symbolic insinuation, exercise a potent charm on the reader. The German reader will note the symbolism and associations of the names, which get lost in English. Undine derives from the Latin unda, ’wave’, while the first syllable in Huldbrand signifies ’grace, favour’ and the whole name is modelled on the pattern of Hildebrand, the name of the hero in the earliest surviving German heroic poem. Kühleborn means ’cool fountain’, while Heil in Heilmann relates to ’healing’ or ’salvation’. The location of the story in the south-west of Germany near the source of the Danube removes it as far as possible from Fouqué’s native heath, but the name of Huldbrand’s castle, Ringstetten, seems to allude to ’la Motte’ in Fouqué’s own family name. Bertalda, fittingly enough, is the only ordinary name in the story. Fouqué’s literary inspiration was a slender work on sylphs and other strange creatures by the sixteenth-century scholar Paracelsus, but from it he created an extraordinary romance of divided loyalties, of love and death. As it was accessible on a number of levels, it is not surprising that it was so successful in the nineteenth century.

7Among the many early English editions of Undine those published by James Burns are significant in that he published several other German authors who wrote for children or whose works were taken over by children. Burns’s The Seasons of 1843, which included both Undine and Sintram along with Aslauga’s Knight and The Two Captains, used, without acknowledgement, the translation made by the American Thomas Tracy and included illustrations by an unknown artist. However, in 1845 he published another edition using a new, but still anonymous translation and eleven new illustrations by John Tenniel, who later achieved lasting fame as the classic illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books. These illustrations for Undine were his first commission for a full book. Burns’s books were later reissued by Edward Lumley in the 1850s and 1860s, so they had a longer life than many of the other editions of both Undine and Sintram. Their duodecimo format and use of engravings must have made them attractive to youthful as well as adult readers.

8The 1850s saw the production of four more stage versions of Undine. These were pantomimes by Edward Blanchard (Marylebone Theatre, London, December 1852), J. Courtney (Adelphi Theatre, Liverpool, December 1852), J. B. Buckstone (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, February 1858) and an unknown writer (again at the Theatre Royal, December 1858). Clearly, the story of Undine provided very congenial material for pantomime entertainment – a beautiful heroine, an intrepid hero, a supernatural villain, and the opportunity for a variety of theatrical effects including the obligatory transformation scene – though the original tragic ending could not be allowed to stand. More burlesques and extravaganzas followed in 1873 (Halifax), 1883 (Margate and Great Yarmouth).

9Although there were several new editions and translations of Undine in the latter part of the nineteenth century, their paucity or complete lack of illustration marked them as designed for adult readers. But the Burns/ Lumley editions and the stage versions surely helped to prepare the way for the explosion of lavishly illustrated editions at the end of the century and for the new focus on the young as the key readership. The sumptuous edition illustrated in full colour by Julius Höppner (London: Griffith, Farran, Okeden & Welsh; New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1885) was clearly aimed at the upper end of the art-loving market, while that illustrated in black and white by Heywood Sumner (London: Chapman & Hall, 1888) envisaged a less affluent, but still an adult readership.

10The first edition to appeal directly to a younger readership is a combined edition of Sintram and his Companions and Undine with an introduction by Charlotte M. Yonge (London: W. Gardner, Darton & Co., 1896). This edition was reissued several times in Britain and America up to 1930. The translation is an adaptation of Tracy, and it is accompanied by five full-page monochrome reproductions of paintings by Gordon Browne (1858-1932) together with a number of line-drawings. Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901), the celebrated author of The Heir of Redcliffe and many other books and stories for children, focusses in her introduction on the topic of folk-beliefs about water-spirits. She has less sympathy with Undine than with Sintram – the moral concerns of the devout children’s writer break in here – when she goes on to say:

But Undine’s freakish playfulness and mischief as an elemental being, and her sweet patience when her soul is won, are quite original, and indeed we cannot help sharing, or at least understanding, Huldbrand’s beginning to shrink from this unearthly creature to something of his own flesh and blood. He is altogether unworthy, and though in this tale there is far less of spiritual meaning than in Sintram, we cannot but see that Fouqué’s thought was that the grosser human nature is unable to appreciate what is absolutely pure and unearthly.

11It is worth remembering that Yonge was well over seventy when she wrote this.

12In the same year of 1896 the firm of Lawrence and Bullen produced a new edition of Undine with dark, brooding illustrations by W. E. F. Britten obviously designed for an adult readership. The translation was by Sir Edmund Gosse, and it was reissued in 1897, but with new illustrations by Florence M. Rudland, who trained at the Birmingham School of Art under Arthur J. Gaskin. They are entirely different in character from Britten’s, decorative rather than atmospheric. Yet another edition and translation was published in 1897, this time by Macmillan. Its chief merit lies in the more than sixty illustrations by Rosie M. M. Pitman and the generous layout of the book. These are very much in the art nouveau style with an emphasis on sinuous line and decoration, and they express in their delight in nudity or semi-nudity an eroticism that is little in evidence at an earlier period. These editions of the 1890s reflect an astonishing preoccupation with Fouqué, but the peak of achievement was yet to come.

13In 1909 an adaptation of Undine by W. L. Courtney was published in London by Heinemann and in New York by Doubleday, Page and Co. It contained fifteen full-page illustrations after watercolours by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), then at the peak of his career as an illustrator of much sought-after gift books. In the same year Constable published his superb illustrations to the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Rackham’s fifteen pictures for Undine range from the extreme delicacy and sensitive colour of ’A beautiful little girl clad in rich garments stood there on the threshold smiling’to the sombre terror of ’Bertalda in the Black Valley’. The grotesques that Rackham is often remembered for are here restrained, though they make stronger appearances in the black and white head-pieces to several chapters. The impact of the artist’s visits to Germany and Switzerland can be seen in the depiction of medieval buildings and mountain scenery, and the picture of Undine on horseback with Kühleborn and Heilmann at her side is compositionally related to Dürer’s engraving The Knight, Death and the Devil, of which Rackham had a reproduction on his dining room wall. The language of the translation is full of deliberate poetic archaisms such as one finds in William Morris’s verse and saga translations, but Rackham’s illustrations are modern, subtle in their colours and moods and wonderfully expressive of Edwardian elegance. It is hardly surprising that when Dame Barbara Cartland was asked to write a newspaper article about the six most romantic novels she had ever read she opened the list with Undine. As a child she had, she declared, read fairy stories ’until I believed that I saw Fairies amongst the breath-taking pink-and-white blossoms of the plum trees in Pershore where we lived’. However, at the age of twelve (that is in 1913) she was given Undine with the Rackham illustrations. It ’bridged the gulf between the Fairy Stories and the love I expected in real life’.

14During the 1890s and the Edwardian era we can see a considerable number of versions of Undine presented in forms likely to appeal to both adults and adolescent girls. W. L. Courtney, who provided the text for Rackham, had himself adapted Fouqué’s story for the stage in what he subtitled ’a dream play’. The prose dialogue was interspersed with songs in verse. The play was staged twice – once in 1903 in Liverpool, the second time in 1906 at the Criterion in London. It keeps to the broad outline of Fouqué’s tale, but strengthens the Christian elements. In the period with which we are concerned it is the last of the many adaptations of Undine for the English stage. These dramatic spectacles, studding nearly a century from 1821 to the early 1900s, must have entertained adults and children alike.

15During the Edwardian period, however, we find a number of retellings of the story specifically designed for children. These are no longer translations or adaptations, but new narratives targeted at the lower age-range. One of the earliest was written by Mary Macgregor and included in the popular ’Told to the Children’ series published by T. C. and E. C. Jack in London and E. P. Dutton in New York in 1907. This series provided children’s versions of many classics. Undine has delightful colour illustrations by Katherine Cameron (1874-1965). Understandably, given their young readership, they soften and sentimentalize the impact of the original story, avoiding the terrors and the pains, but within these limits they are pretty designs, showing a resemblance to the watercolours of F. Cayley Robinson.

16The Story of Undine published by Nelson in 1908 presents a different re-telling, omitting Fouqué’s final chapter about Huldbrand’s burial. The seven colour plates by E. F. Skinner are in a more adult mode, but with little personal style, competent rather than accomplished. A further children’s version, again called The Story of Undine, edited by Mary Macleod, was published in 1912 by Wells Gardner and Co. Like the earlier book the same firm had published with Charlotte M. Yonge’s introduction, this was illustrated by Gordon Browne.

17If these three books with colour plates were not enough to demonstrate the amazing appeal of Undine in this brief period leading up to the First World War, we can add two further versions in a different mode. The first is a version by Gladys Davidson, published in 1908 and described as ’told simply for the lower standards’. It is little more than a booklet designed for school use. The other version, entitled The Story of Undine. The Sprite Maiden, was published by the indefatigable W. T. Stead in his widely read, pink paperback series Books for the Bairns. It was no. 163 and was issued in September 1909. Like most of the books in this series, it was copiously illustrated with fluent line-drawings by Brinsley Le Fanu (1854-1920), which provided a strong pictorial stimulus for reading a highly condensed form of the tale. Although full translations of Undine continued to be published during this period, showing that Fouqué had not lost his appeal to adult readers, it is fascinating to see how intensively the story was now marketed for children. This was, of course, happening with many works at this period, particularly with medieval tales and historical romances, but also with other classic works of fiction. Undine’s medieval setting and supernatural figures made it a prime target for publishers of children’s books. Some brave attempts have been made later in the twentieth century to recoup Fouqué’s original story for an adult English readership, but they have enjoyed a very limited success. The Edwardian period seems to have been the last in which figures like Undine could be taken seriously. With the increasing emphasis on social realism that came through the Great War, Neoromanticism slowly ebbed away.

18Let us now turn to Sintram and his Companions. The German original, Sintram und seine Gefährten, was the last of the four stories that Fouqué published in Die Jahreszeiten, appearing in 1814. As Undine represented spring, so Sintram was winter. The whole story shivers with ice, snow, frost and bitter winds. Set in Drontheim and the surrounding mountains in the late Middle Ages, it is a product of Fouqué’s deep preoccupation with Norse literature, culture and mythology. While Undine has as its central figure a girl, though seen through the eyes of the young knight Huldbrand, Sintram focusses on a boy as he grows up to become a knight. When the story opens, Sintram is twelve years old and irrupts into the company of the Northern knights assembled around a massive round stone table, crying that he is being pursued by Death and another person. The whole story reflects the tensions that Sintram is caught in between the cruel paganism of his father Biörn and the ascetic Christianity of his mother Verena, who has entered a monastery. Sintram is at odds with his father, but rarely sees his mother. His closest relationship is with an old retainer, Rolf. Sintram is often a prey to evil or disturbing forces that take strange shapes. One of these is a mysterious pilgrim figure, carrying rattling bones of dead men attached to his clothes. The other is a sinister, ugly dwarf called Kleinmeister (Little Master), who appears in various repellent guises – once like a bear with a crooked horn on his head, another time as a little man wearing a golden-horned helmet – and who can vanish at will.

19Sintram’s fate has been brought about through his father’s swearing, one Christmas time, on the pagan image of a boar that he will kill every German merchant who comes into his power. Soon afterwards two Germans, an old man and his son, arrive looking for shelter, and Biörn orders them to be killed. Verena asks for mercy for them, but Biörn, because of his vow, calls on Death and the devil to help him. Miraculously, the two Germans escape. Biörn receives the name of ’Gluth-Auge’ (Fiery Eye) for his stance, while Verena takes the veil. Later Fouqué introduces into the narrative two characters from his novel Der Zauberring (The Magic Ring), written in 1811, the Norman lord Folko von Montfaucon and his wife Gabriele. Kleinmeister attempts to enmesh Sintram in a seductive love-relationship with Gabriele, modelling the situation on that of Paris, Menelaus and Helen of Troy. Sintram is sorely tempted, but manages to resist – how could it be otherwise in this struggle between Christian and pagan?

20Fouqué links his fictitious narrative with elements of medieval Norse legend through staging a battle on Niflung’s Heath and thus invoking the spirit of the Eddas and the German Nibelungenlied. The story also uses the bear as its most important symbol of pagan might. Biörn’s very name means ’bear’, Kleinmeister adopts the appearance of a bear in one of his disguises, and it is on a bear-hunt that Folko falls down a precipice while attempting to get a bear’s head and claws, booty that Sintram succeeds in gaining for him. Eventually, at another Christmas celebration, Folko smashes Biörn’s golden boar’s head and gains his submission. Years later Sintram forces Kleinmeister to flee and demonstrates the superior power of Christian faith. The strange figure of Death disappears, and on his deathbed Biörn is reconciled with Sintram. When Sintram is reunited with his mother, she tells him that his vocation is to be a knight, not a monk. The story ends with Sintram being entrusted with the education of the young son of Folko and Gabriele von Montfaucon, whose name, in fitting symbolism, is Engeltram, thus uniting the Germanic element tram with the Christian Engel, ’angel’.

21Fouqué’s inspiration for this story was the engraving of The Knight, Death and the Devil by Dürer, already mentioned in connexion with Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to Undine. Most of the details of this complex engraving are worked into Fouqué’s story. The dog appears under the name of Skovmaerke in the final chapters, while the castle perched on the top of a distant mountain must have suggested the Stone Fortress on the Rocks of the Moon, to which Sintram retreats in ascetic isolation. The lizard and the skull, the curious object impaled on the knight’s lance, the menacing figure behind his horse and the deathlike man on the horse’s other side are all incorporated in this strange narrative that sets father against son, paganism against Christianity. This is very much a story for the male adolescent. The role of women is restricted to the remote, virtuous mother, Verena, and the beautiful Gabriele, sexually attractive, but unavailable to the Christian knight that Sintram aspires to be, because she is married. It is the typical situation of courtly love in that the knight’s emotions are educated through sublimation and renunciation. The sentiments were appropriate enough for the Romantic era and for the Victorian and Edwardian ages too.

22The pattern of translation for an adult readership, followed later by adaptation for younger readers, that we have noted for Undine can also been seen with Sintram, but there is not quite the same flood of editions. The first translation was made by Julius C. Hare (1795-1855) and published in 1820. Hare went on to become one of the most knowledgeable men in the field of German literature, theology and philosophy and was known already in 1825 as possessing a great collection of modern German books. His library, with its extraordinary range of German Romantic writers, is now held in Trinity College, Cambridge. His translation of Sintram was used later in an edition illustrated by Heywood Sumner (London: Seeley & Co., 1883). As we might expect, James Burns published Sintram in an anonymous translation in the same format as Undine, both separately in 1842 and 1848 and as part of The Seasons in 1843. The edition of 1848 presents a different text from the other two, though it is clearly based on the earlier version. It also adds sixteen illustrations by H. C. Selous to the reproduction of Dürer’s The Knight, Death and the Devil that is included in most of the English editions of Sintram. These pick out some of the key episodes of the story and provide a further attraction for younger readers. This edition was reissued by Edward Lumley after Burns had turned away from his earlier publications to devote himself to Catholicism. Another interesting item from this period of the mid nineteenth century is a German-language edition of Sintram und seine Gefährten published in London by D. Nutt, Dulau und Comp. und P. Rolandi in 1855 and printed by J. Wertheimer und Comp. in Finsbury Circus. The British Library catalogue indicates a further German edition for 1862. This is a text without illustrations and was perhaps aimed at the growing number of Britons now learning German. David Nutt, who died in 1863, was a publisher and foreign bookseller and was for a time in partnership with Nicholas Trübner, who was probably the conduit for such German books.

15. Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, Sintram and his Companions. Illustration by H. C. Selous (n.d.), p. 1.

23The change in target readership for Sintram seems to have taken place concurrently with that for Undine. The edition illustrated by Heywood Sumner and published in 1883 probably set the trend, but the combined edition of Sintram and his Companions and Undine with Charlotte M. Yonge’s introduction (1896), which we have already noted, makes the youthful readership clear. This was almost certainly the edition that the Bastable children in E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) would have read and that Nesbit expected her readers to know about. The Bastable children are playing in the park when Alice whispers, ’I see the white witch bear yonder among the trees! Let’s track it and slay it in its lair’. Noël then pretends to be the bear, Oswald takes on the role of Count Folko of Mont Faucon, Dora wants to be Gabrielle, ’the only one of us who likes doing girl’s parts’, as Oswald, the ostensible narrator, explains rather dismissively. Alice herself is Sintram, while the eight-year-old H. O. has to be the Little Master. Dicky is the Pilgrim with the bones. Fouqué’s story obviously allowed ample scope for imaginative play, even if there wasn’t a really good part for a girl.

24Over the period from 1896 to the outbreak of the Great War new versions of Sintram abounded. Dent reissued the Burns/Lumley translation in 1900 together with Aslauga’s Knight, but with new illustrations by Charles Robinson (1870-1937). Robinson had achieved great success with his black and white illustrations to Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1895), but the art nouveau arabesques and leafy borders that he uses for Sintram do not fit well together with the sinister scenes that they enclose. In the same year Fremantle and Co. published a new translation by A. M. Richards with illustrations by Anna Richards. There are head- and tail-pieces to each chapter as well as seven full-page black and white illustrations. These are more atmospheric than Robinson’s drawings, but at times an over-use of black creates a rather confusing image. That this was an edition designed for children is made clear by the advertisements for other children’s books at the end of the volume.

25Whether the translation made by A. C Farquharson, illustrated by Edmund J. Sullivan (1869-1933) and published by Methuen and Co. in 1908 was designed for children is doubtful. Although it is not a gift-book of the Rackham type, the larger format and attention to typography and layout mark the book as more ambitious. Moreover, the twenty full-page pen-and-ink drawings by Sullivan are calculatedly modelled on the style and mood of the engraving by Dürer that was Fouqué’s point of departure, and their size gives them an impact denied to Robinson and Richards. However, this was almost certainly the last time that Sintram was presented for adult readership.

26A plain-text version with a brief introduction was issued for school reading in Blackie’s English School Texts in 1905. This goes back to Burns’s first translation, anonymous, unacknowledged and probably out of copyright. The story is left to speak for itself, but the edition is hardly one that children would have bought for themselves or that their parents would have bought. Much more agreeable is the version published in 1911 by Wells Gardner, Darton and Co. This was based on the same publishers’ earlier edition, in which Sintram was combined with Undine and furnished with an introduction by Charlotte M. Yonge. The text was edited and shortened by Mary Macleod, but the most pleasing feature of the book was that the cover and three of the full-page plates were reproduced in colour from Gordon Browne’s original painted illustrations. Only a small number of Browne’s drawings and monochrome plates for the earlier book are utilized, but they add considerably to the attractiveness of the book.

27This was the last form in which Sintram was presented before the First World War. There had been a drama based on the story written by Helen Leslie in 1901, and another school version, edited by Gordon S. Maxwell, was published by Brodie Books in 1928. Julius Hare’s translation was reprinted in ’The World’s Classics’ collection of Fouqué’s four most popular tales, entitled Undine and Other Stories (Oxford University Press, 1932), but this seems to have marked the demise of Sintram in English. In this book Sintram returns to its first English form, the first translation and one intended for adults. Its time as a children’s book only covers the period from, say, 1883 to 1911, though children may well have read the mid-century editions published by Burns and Lumley. In the wake of the First World War Sintram must have seemed completely out of date. The fearful hero’s struggles against symbolic enemies and supernatural powers were an anachronism for children, boys in particular, whose experience included, whether directly or indirectly, the traumas and adventures of modern warfare.

List of illustrations

Caption 15. Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, Sintram and his Companions. Illustration by H. C. Selous (n.d.), p. 1.
File image/, 1,0M