Monday, November 19, 2012

Undine, the Original Manic Pixie Dream Girl

I’m still on a Louisa May Alcott kick, and I’m also reading all of the books that she mentions. Last week I picked up Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, because it’s the book Jo wants for Christmas in Little Women. Actually Jo wants Undine and Sintram, two novellas by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque. I haven’t finished Sintram yet, but I enjoyed Undine.

(The first edition, published in 1811.)

I like this translation of Undine, with an introduction by Charlotte Yonge. (Another author on my reading list – Jo reads her book The Heir of Redclyffe while crying and eating apples.)

Undine is based on the kind of folktale which involves a man marrying a water spirit. I’ve read a lot of these stories, so I can tell you: never marry a water spirit. Don’t even date them. It almost never turns out well for the human. The problem is that water spirits are usually so beautiful that humans can’t resist them, and that’s the case with Undine.

(Another example of this folktale is the Greek story of Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis. Sure, their relationship starts in a cute way, with Peleus holding onto Thetis while she turns into snakes and lions and all kinds of crazy things, but it doesn't end well.)

Undine is the adopted child of an old fisherman and his wife. She shows up soaking wet on their doorstep one evening, claiming to come from a land of golden castles and crystal domes. When she grows up, she wins over the first man she meets with her beauty and her quirky, childlike charm. Undine is an early version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: she’s a free spirit who doesn’t follow social conventions, and she broadens the worldview of the guy who falls in love with her. That guy is a knight named Huldbrand who stops by the fisherman’s cottage. He becomes entranced with Undine from the first moment he sees her – when she surprises him by meeting his gaze without blushing.

(John William Waterhouse, "Undine," 1872.)

Undine is odd. Before Huldbrand meets her, he hears her splashing bucketfuls of water against the cottage wall, which she thinks is a hilarious joke. She enjoys making fun of her parents and running off into the forest for no reason. When Huldbrand says something she doesn’t like, she bites him. Undine’s parents think that she is refusing to grow up and “give over this frolicsome childishness of hers.” But in typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl fashion, Undine remains adorable, no matter what she does. 

(Illustration by Arthur Rackham from the 1909 edition of Undine.)

Undine’s behavior makes sense once she reveals that she isn’t human. She’s a water spirit who came to live on land. She explains to Huldbrand that each element of the world is inhabited by spirits:

“The wonderful salamanders sparkle and sport amid the flames; deep in the earth the meagre and malicious gnomes pursue their revels; the forest-spirits belong to the air, and wander in the woods; while in the seas, rivers, and streams live the widespread race of water-spirits. These last, beneath resounding domes of crystal, through which the sky can shine with its sun and stars, inhabit a region of light and beauty; lofty coral-trees glow with blue and crimson fruits in their gardens; they walk over the pure sand of the sea, among exquisitely variegated shells, and amid whatever of beauty the old world possessed …”

(Gorgeous Rackham illustration showing Undine in her element.)

So this is where I started to like Undine, after she makes her confession to Huldbrand. She reveals her true self to her husband – and he doesn’t believe her. He keeps telling himself that “his lovely wife was under the influence of one of her odd whims, and that she was only amusing herself and him with her extravagant inventions.” And this is where I started to dislike Huldbrand. Even in the moments when he believes Undine’s story, he’s still freaked out by the idea that his wife might be a water spirit. What did he expect? Her uncle is a brook!

(Huldbrand and Undine in a 1901 illustration by Harold Nelson.)

Undine’s mysterious uncle Kuhleborn is my favorite character in the book. Sometimes he appears as a brook, sometimes as a tall, pale man who can dissolve into a torrent of water. He’s an eerie figure who tends to show up suddenly peering into people’s windows. And he’s dangerous, especially to anyone who mistreats Undine. I can understand being scared of him, but I’m still disappointed in Huldbrand for being scared by Undine’s otherworldliness.

(As you can see from this Rackham illustration, Huldbrand has already met a goblin, so a water-spirit shouldn't be too much of a stretch for him.)

It's so wrong that Huldbrand loves Undine before he marries her, and then starts to be afraid of her once she has a soul. It turns out that elemental spirits don’t have souls, but they can get them by having sex (or, as Undine puts it, through “the most intimate union of love”). So Undine wakes up after her wedding night with a soul. I find that disturbing – a man has to give her a soul by sleeping with her? – but I’m glad that Undine doesn’t completely change after her ensoulment. She’s able to love, but she’s still an inhuman water spirit. After her marriage, she seems even stronger and more magical: she can carve a stone with her fingers and calm flood waters. One of the things I liked best about this book was watching Undine's transformation. She starts out as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she ends up as a powerful goddess.

And anything bad that happens to Huldbrand as a result of marrying a water spirit? He totally deserves it.


  1. I've read Charlotte Yonge, after first reading about The Heir of Redclyffe in Little Women (though I started with The Daisy Chain), and I can see her influence on Alcott. But I've never gone looking for Undine. Fascinating!

  2. Thanks! I haven't read The Daisy Chain yet either, but it's also on my list. I've heard that it also references Undine.

  3. I am curious about Charlotte Yonge too - I see the name referred to, but does anyone (apart from Lisa May, obviously!) read her - is she *readable*, I guess I mean?!