Undine is a watery fairytale from Germany that has quite a bit in common with the Little Mermaid. The most famous version is by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.
The story has a mysterious and supernatural feel, and is slightly spooky. The ending (be warned) is a little sad. There is also an undercurrent of jealousy and rivalry. All in all, it is a rich story.
Read Beautifully by Natasha.
Text by Bertie.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.
Classic illustrations by Arthur Rackham.
Hello, this is Natasha, and I am here with a fairy tale from Germany that is both beautiful, but also rather spooky. It’s about a water nymph who becomes human. The story has quite a lot in common with The Little Mermaid. Bertie says that one of the reasons he likes this tale, is that each of the leading characters each has a little story of his or her own, so listen out for those.
There are many beings that we humans seldom see. For instance; there are salamanders who dance in the flames of the fire. Goblins hide away in the woods. Deep in the caves of the earth live the gnomes, and beneath the waves of the waters sprites and nymphs swim among the fish and the weeds.
Many hundreds of years ago, a fisherman lived between two supernatural worlds. His little cottage sat between a wood that was thick, tangled and haunted, and a lake that was the home to the water nymphs. By and large, the humans and the magical beings pretended not to notice each other.
Visitors to that part of the world were rare, and so when one evening when the fisherman saw the silhouette of a knight on horseback, he called to his wife to get ready to receive an guest. She prepared a tray with little glasses of spirit and a bowl of berries from the wood.
The fisherman called out, “Greetings Sir Knight, pay us the honour of a visit to our humble cottage.”
The knight was glad to find a roof where he might find food and shelter and he rode towards the fisherman’s home. By the time he reached it, the sky was already growing quite dark. The fisherman invited him to come inside. The knight sat in an armchair and put his leg up on a stool, for he had strained it. They could see that he was quite young, and good looking, if somewhat tired from his journey. He told them that his name was Sir Huldbrand, and that he had a castle that stood on the banks of the River Danube. While they were speaking, they heard a strange watery sound splashing against the window pain. The old man knotted his brow and looked troubled.
“Is it raining?” Huldbrand asked.
“No,” said the old man, as he got up and went to the door. He opened it and called out, “Undine, will you never stop playing these foolish tricks? We have a visitor.”
A few moments later, a girl’s voice said something like, “Don’t be so serious, father.” Huldbrand turned his head and saw a young woman of about eighteen years old stepping into the cottage. He had not expected to find anyone like her here. She was fair and very beautiful.
“And who’s this?” She said with a shrug and a little point at the knight. Her manner was quite insolent, but not without charm.
“Show more respect for our guest,” chided the fisherman’s wife, who was presumably also the girl’s mother.
“Does he talk?” Asked Undine, ignoring her parents discomfort.
“Forgive me,” said the knight. “I hurt my leg when I fell from my horse in the forest, and I am a little slow.” He clambered to his feet and gave a little bow to the girl.
She smiled ironically and said, “A proper knight, I see. And does he have a castle?”
“Undine, don’t be so rude!” Said her father.
Suddenly her eyes flashed with temper. “Well be like that then,” she said, and turning promptly around she headed back through the door into the night. They could hear her running down the path.
“Fiery!” Said the knight, almost approvingly. It was hard to tell if he was more astonished, or amused by her strange behaviour.
“She has always been one like that, ever since the day we found her,” said the mother.
“Found her?” Asked Huldbrand. “So she is not your daughter?”
“Not ours,” said the fisherman. “It is a strange story. Around fifteen years ago, I was returning from the market and making my way through the woods. As I was nearing home, I saw my wife running towards me. I knew something was up, because she never ventures into the woods normally.
“She’s gone, she’s gone,” she was crying. I knew right away that she could only mean our darling child, our little daughter. In fact, that very day she had just turned three years old, and I had a present for her in my sack. She had wondered out of the cottage, and all that was left of her was a blue cap floating on the water of the lake. She must have drowned. Perhaps a nymph pulled her under and took her for a sister in her watery kingdom.”
“We slept little that night, but in the morning we found, in the cot where our daughter normally slept, a little girl – but she was not ours. She was fair where our daughter was dark. She was Undine whom you have just seen, albeit briefly. Her hair and her clothes were wet. We assumed she had fallen in the lake. Of course we accepted the child as a gift from god. Although she has always been naughty, wilful, and strong-headed, we have always loved her like the daughter we lost.”
The knight was clearly fascinated by the tale. “Indeed what a strange story,” he said. “I hope she shall return because I would like to see more of this mysterious and beautiful creature.”
Just then, the wind howled through the trees, and rain began to beat down on the roof of the cottage.
“A storm!” Exclaimed the knight. “We cannot let her stay out in such terrible weather,” and pulling his cloak over his head, he too went through the door of the cottage, and disappeared into the darkness.
The knight hobbled on his strained leg as fast as he could manage. He followed the path towards the haunted wood, as something told him that she had headed that way. He soon found that a stream was now gushing across the path. He was about to step into the torrent, when voice called out, “Do not step into the stream, it is full of mischief.” He looked up the hill, and could just make out that Undine was sitting on a little island in the middle of the stream. She was sheltered from the storm by the branches of a giant oak tree. The knight scrambled up the hill, and held out his hand to help her jump across onto the bank. “We must return home, your gentle and kind step parents are worried about you,” he said, spreading his cloak above their heads to protect them from the rain.
“I will do as you say,” she replied, “if you promise to tell me the story of your journey through the haunted wood.”
“I shall indeed,” said the knight, “It’s a strange story, though perhaps not by your standards, now hurry.” And they rushed as fast as they could, back to the cottage.
Later, as they dried out before the fire, the knight told Undine and her parents the strange story of how he came through the woods.
“A week ago, in the city on the other side of the woods, there was a holiday and a tournament. I took part in the jousting. Amongst the onlookers I saw a face that I liked. She was a maiden; dark, and beautiful.
I rode up and asked her for her favour. She told me, “This sport is for boys. If you wish to win my favour, you must ride through the woods to the lake on the other side, and report back to me with news of whatever or whoever you find there.”
I knew, of course, that the woods were supposed to be haunted, but I do not fear spectres or magical creatures. The next day I set out on my quest, and indeed I found a nest of goblins living in the trunk of a great tree. They were far more afraid of me than I was of their ugly green faces and pointed ears. I rode on. But then, towards night, I felt a chill on my back. I looked around and saw strange white figure running towards me. My horse took fright and reared. I tried to reign him in, but I fell from my saddle. That was how I hurt my leg. The strange figure had vanished. I felt unwell, and quite chilled to the bones, but I managed to gather my horse and ride on. Eventually I came out of the other side and saw the calm blue waters of the lake. That was when I knew I was near the end of my quest. I heard your kind voice offering me hospitality, and here I am. Do you find my story strange?”
“No,” said the girl. “The white man was Kühleborn. He is a demon of the lake and the forest, and he was up to his usual tricks. I am glad you were not hurt more badly when you fell from your horse.”
Now the time for stories was over, and they all found places to sleep in corners of the cottage. In the morning the storm was still raging, and the stream had grown more fierce. It was not safe to cross, and they were cut off from the way back to the city. For the next few days, the weather did not improve. Huldbrand and Undine spent much time together. She was less wilful now, and did no more than tease her knight gently. Her step parents could see that he was very taken with her.
When eventually the weather was good enough to go out, they ventured for a walk into the edge of the woods. When they returned, the knight asked the fisherman permission to marry his step daughter, which of course he granted.
That evening, there was a knock at the door. The fisherman opened and saw that standing before him was a priest. His robes were wet. He explained that he had stumbled into the stream while crossing it. “Father, come in and sit before the fire,” said the fisherman, kindly.
“We have work for you to do this very evening,” declared Undine. “For you can repay my step father’s hospitality by marrying me to my beloved knight!”
Undine insisted, as always, on having her way. She had a further surprise, for she revealed that in her little box of possessions she somehow had two gold rings that were ideal for the ceremony. That evening, when the priest was sufficiently dried out, they kneeled before him, exchanged their vows, and were married.
That might sound like classic fairy tale ending, but the story has some way to go yet. About a week later, Sir Huldbrand set out for his castle, taking his new wife and her step parents with him. The priest accompanied them too, for the evil things of the forest respected him, and would do the little party no harm, so long as the priest was with them. Occasionally they caught glimpses of the strange man in white, who seemed to be flittering from tree to tree, but Undine said in a low voice to her husband, “Do not be afraid. That is Lord Kühleborn, and he is my uncle. He is pleased that I am married to you for this was his plan all along.”
“There are so many strange things about you,” said the knight, “that I cannot possibly hope to understand them all.”
They walked through the forest without any untoward incidents, and on the other side hired to carriage to take his family to the castle in comfort.
The knight installed his beautiful young wife and her family in his castle. For a while, their happiness was perfect. But before long, in the long dark passages of the old castle, spectres began to appear. The servants were terrified, and even Sir Huldbrand found that strange, eerie sounds disturbed his sleep.
One morning Undine ordered some men to take a large stone and cover over the fountain in the courtyard. Huldbrand had loved the fountain since boyhood. Its water danced and played in the sunlight.
He asked his wife why she had ordered it to be stopped up, and she replied, “It will prevent my uncle, Lord Kühleborn, from disturbing us.” And from that moment on, haunting of the castle ceased.
A few weeks later, the knight received a small gift. It was a green lady’s glove, and to it was pinned a message:
“Is it worthy of a knight to forget his promise to a maiden?” It was signed with the name, Bertilda.
When he read the note, Sir Huldbrand recalled the reason that he had made the journey to through the forest to the lake. He had been given the other glove of the pair by the maiden, Bertilda, and had promised to report to her with whatever he found in the lake by the forest. What could he do? A knight must keep his troth. He sent word inviting her and her parents to the castle. As it so happened, they arrived on the day of Undine’s 19th birthday. Sir Huldbrand received them with Undine at his side and said, “My Lady, you sent me on a quest to the lake beyond the woods, and asked me to show you what I found there – And here she is, my wife.”
He was not so naive as to think that Bertilda would be pleased by this news, but she smiled graciously.
Her father said, “Although I call myself the father of Bertilda and think of her as my own daughter, in fact, many years ago I found her abandoned in those very same woods. She was wet and cold and could not say where she lived. I took her home and feared that she might die of a fever, but as you see, things turned out well. Although we cannot know her true birthday, we have always celebrated it on this very day, which is the anniversary of my finding her.”
That evening they held a double celebration, with feasting, and music and dancing. But Sir Huldbrand noticed that the wife of the fisherman was staring at Bertilda. One time when the orchestra stopped playing, she flung her arms around Bertilda and said out loud so that all could hear, “My child!”
Bertilda pushed her away and said, “She’s lying, it’s not true!”
But the woman insisted, “I feel it. She is my child”
“How dare you say such lies,” called back Bertilda. “You accuse me of being the daughter of a wretched fisherman! You are a demoness!”
“She has grown wicked,” said the fisherman’s wife, “but still I know she is mine.”
“And I feel it too,” said her husband.
By now the argument was quite heated. The whole court was watching the quarrel unfold. Undine stepped forward to embrace Bertilda, “It’s true. You are my sister,” she said, “not by birth, but because we shared the same parents who cared for us.”
Later that night, Sir Huldbrand sat alone with his wife. He said, “Now it is time for you to tell me your story.”
She explained that her uncle, Lord Kühleborn, had taken the little girl, Bertilda, away from her true parents, the fisherman and her wife. In her place, she had given them his niece, Undine. She had been born as a water nymph. Water ran in her veins, and she could change shape at will. It was her nature to be mischievous and play tricks. And yet, it had always always been her dream to know what it felt like to have a human heart. Now that he had married her, that dream had become true. She had flesh and blood and feelings. So long as his love remained true, she would remain a mortal and live by his side.
Even in the morning, the stubborn Bertilda would not accept the kindly fisherman and his wife as her true parents. They were so broken hearted, that they left the castle and returned to their cottage. Her own foster parents were angry with her, and she quarrelled with them too. Yet she remained friends with Undine, and lingered on in the castle. Sir Huldbrand, Undine, and Bertilda would often go around together, walking arm-in-arm, and the trio were almost inseparable. Then one day, as they walked along the banks of the River Danube, Bertilda said “Oh, how I wish that one day I could see Vienna!”
“Yes, wouldn’t that be just splendid?” Agreed Undine. How could the noble Sir Huldbrand refuse the entreaties of two such beautiful ladies? He ordered for arrangement to be made, and a boat was prepared so that they could sale along the Danube to Vienna.
At first the pleasure cruise went smoothly, but then Undine’s Uncle, Lord Kühleborn, could not help but get up to his old tricks. He sent large waves to rock the boat from side to side, and made everyone on board feel sick. At night, he howled like the wind and kept them awake. Even Sir Huldbrand, was feeling quite terrible. Bertilda, who was practically green with motion sickness, complained to him, “If you had married me, a true woman, you would not have all these problems. Even if my parents truly are that wretched old couple, at least I do not have demons for relatives.”
Hulbrand, who as not at all himself, staggered up onto the deck where he found Undine staring at the choppy waves. Her face was white and her blond hair was blowing in the wind. He chided her and asked, “Can’t you do anything to stop your uncle?”
Undine said simply, “I can but try.” She went to stand in the prow of the boat and called out, “My Own Uncle, Lord Kühleborn, can you not accept that I am human now? You must leave me and my husband in peace!” Her voice had a magical, ethereal quality.
When he heard his niece, Lord Kühleborn rose his ghostly white head out of the waters before the ship. The sailors screamed as he picked up the prow and sent them all slipping and sliding across the deck, and to the back of the boat. At that moment, as he two was scrambling to get a hold of a rope or a mast, Huldbrand called, “Oh, why did I not marry Bertilda when I had the chance?”
These words went straight to Undine’s heart and shattered it. Her face was almost transparent. Her body took on a semi-liquid form, half woman – half water, and she slipped over the side of the boat and into the swirling River Danube.
Huldbrand clasped the rail and called after her, “Undine, forgive me, I did not mean what I said,” but it was too late – she was gone. The river was calm once again.
Huldbrand and Bertilda returned to the castle, and some time later they were married. One morning, Bertilda ordered the great stone to be removed from the fountain. Once again the waters played as cheerily as in Huldbrand’s boyhood. But that night, a watery apparition slid out of the well, and ran up the stairs of the castle. It flowed under the door of the room where Huldbrand slept beside his wife. The drops of water reformed themselves in the shape of a beautiful young woman. She placed her lips on the cheek of the knight as he slept, and she kissed him. In that moment, he was dead.
And that was the story of Undine. Bertie wrote this adaptation for Storynory loosely following the novella by Friedrich De La Motte Fouqué, which was written in 1811. It seems that the story was a big influence on Hans Christian Andersen when he wrote the very beautiful Little Mermaid, which you can hear in three parts on Storynory. I do hope that you enjoyed this watery tale and did not find it too sad. It is very beautiful.