Following the horrors of World War Two, I was in need of lighter fare. What better than a fairytale, one so popular that, according to The Times in 1843 “if you ask for it at a foreign library, you are sure to find it engaged.”
Undine is a tale of a water-sprite who marries a mortal to gain a soul. But this is no fairytale in which they “live happily ever after”. There’s the vexed question of Bertalda her love-rival and her somewhat feckless husband, the Knight Huldbrand. A few puzzles too regarding the role of Undine’s water-uncle, Kühleborn, a friend turned foe for no reason that I can understand. But let me not apply the critiques of a C21st reader to a fairytale. I wanted entertainment, I got it.
For those looking for deeper meanings, Klaus Günzel in his almanac of German Romantic writers suggests that Undine is a moving story of a water-sprite searching for connection, love and mortality, forced to recognise the incompatibility of the natural and the human worlds.
I choose the Wildfire Press edition because of the illustrations by Arthur Rackham. These are, however, not the colour plates, but simply black/white drawing outlines. Poorly defined at that, so much of Rackham’s detail is lost. A real disappointment. I would advise you to buy a more expensive copy if you want to appreciate Rackham’s work. I did enjoy W L Courtney’s adaptation from 1911 – I don’t say translation, because I think there are a fair few flourishes added . It is written in a rather pleasing olde English style that really suits the ethereal nature of the story.