“Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, read Undine: that is a fairytale.... and of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.” --George MacDonald (23)
Naturally, when I read this in George MacDonald's essay "The Fantastic Imagination," I knew that I would have to read this “most beautiful” of fairytales. "The Fantastic Imagination" is MacDonald's attempt to say a little bit about what a fairytale ought to be. Not what a fairytale is, for that task is too difficult; as MacDonald says: “I should as soon think of describing the abstract human face, or stating what must go to constitute a human being. A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face” (23).
Since a fairytale is so hard to describe, MacDonald directs his readers to the lengthy tale of Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouquee. I googled it and read its entire 55 pages at Project Gutenberg. If you plan to read it there you need not read any further here since what follows is just a short summary of some of the important highlights of the tale.
A wandering knight, bewildered by a fierce storm, stumbles upon a fisherman's cottage where he meets the young and beautiful Undine. The fisherman explains that his foster-daughter mysteriously appeared at his cottage years before when she was a toddler. The truth of the matter is that Undine is a water-nymph in human form seeking a soul. She learns that only by loving a mortal can she gain the soul that no water-spirit has. Needless to say, she comes to love the knight and they are soon married. “Through love Undine had won a soul, which is indeed the gift of God to every mortal” (25).
But this is not the end of the story. Undine's powerful uncle Kuhleborn does all he can to destroy her love and make her return to her watery home. In an eerie parallel to the Prince of the Power of the Air, Kuhleborn says of himself: “I am free as the wild birds of the air to go hither and thither as I will” (30). He laughs mockingly when Undine cries out that, “I no longer wish to have aught to do with you!” (30) Rather than going away, he plagues Undine and the knight Huldbrand more fiercely. On top of all their other trials the lady Bertalda begins to drive Undine and the knight apart. Finally, at the instigation of Kuhleborn, the knight breaks his promise to his wife and speaks harshly to Undine. At this, Undine must leave him and return to her ocean home. “There will I live, loving, sorrowing, for into the depths of the blue sea will I carry my new-won soul” (28).
The knight sees too late his error and only at his own death, when Undine's tears fall so heavily on his heart that it breaks, does he realizes that "he had never loved any one in all the wide world as he loved Undine" (53). The wild water-nymph who found a soul when she found love and who always tried to protect her knight in life, melted into a stream at his grave while it was said by the villagers that, “the little crystal stream, was none other than Undine, poor forsaken Undine, who thus surrounds and protects Huldbrand, her beloved” (55).
Friedrich de la Motte Fouquee. Undine. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=240839&pageno=1
George MacDonald. "The Fantastic Imagination." The Gifts of the Child Christ: Fairytales and Stories for the Childlike. ed. Glenn Edward Sadler. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1973.