Ludwig Tieck was one of the leading figures of the Romantic movement according to the introduction, but his work covers a range of styles turning to realism at the end of his career. He was also a translator of Cervantes' and Shakespeare's works. Eckbert the Fair appeared in 1797 and is one of his best-known works. I read it is one of the central works of German Romanticism. I chose the collection of fairy tales for the German Literature month with an eye towards reading fairy tales in general not out of a specific interest in German Romanticism, but now I feel like I should be trying to learn more about this era since the collection was put together with both things in mind. I feel like I'm coming at this book at an odd angle, if that makes sense.
This is a story within a story--my favorite kind of storyelling. But in this story fairy tale and reality converge. Even though Bertha, the narrator, cautions the reader not to see this as a fairy tale, it felt like one to me. Eckbert the Fair is Bertha's husband. The two live in happy solitude deep in the Harz Mountains. The only sadness in their lives is the fact that God did not see fit to grant them with children, but as you'll see if you read the story that may actually have been a good thing.
Eckbert and Bertha rarely receive visitors, but Philip Walther is quite like-minded and often drops by when he's close by the castle. One misty autumn evening Eckbert encourages Bertha to tell Philip the tale of her youth, which is "most odd". Bertha was born in a small village, the daughter of a poor shepherd. The family had so little money they never knew where their next meal was coming from. Worse, Bertha's parents called her a stupid and incapable child. She could master neither sewing nor spinning and was useless in helping on the farm. She dreamed of someday being rich and a help to her family.
Fantasies encroach on reality, but she was bitterly unhappy in her situation. So one day she left. She was only a child of about eight. She walked and walked, was terrified and hungry. Then one day she came across an old woman dressed almost all in black. She asked for help and was given food and was told to follow the woman. She was quite lucky as it turned out, as the woman gave her a warm place to sleep and food enough and set her to the task of spinning which Bertha now took to easily. So the two began to live together quite companionably.
She was quite happy with the old woman who would often go away and would leave to her care a dog and a magical bird. The bird not only sang pleasant songs but laid eggs that contained pearls and gems. After about four years Bertha once again became restless. Although she had the necessities she needed she wondered what the greater world outside was like. When the old woman was away on one of her journeys, Bertha decided to leave. She took the bird, and a few of the gems, but she left the dog locked inside the cottage. Once again she journeys without a set destination but finds herself back where she started--her family's village. Now she has the wealth she dreamed of, thanks to the magical bird, but she soon finds out her parents have both died.
But it's not all despair as she eventually meets Eckbert. She feels guilty about having stolen the bird and abandoned the old woman, so she kills the animal thinking she will lead a happy normal life and put her past firmly behind her. When she has recounted her story to Philip Walther, he's able to offer the name of the dog, which she had forgotten. And now she is plunged into fear for having told her story. What does Philip know and can he reveal her secret? Paranoia causes Eckbert to do the unspeakable. Both have spiraled into a sort of madness over past misdeeds. Their once-happy lives are now filled with guilt over their actions.
It's interesting how the story of Bertha's past reaches out into the present tripping her up, but isn't that always the case with morality tales. The editor gives a further explanation that events in the tale (and I've not given away the twists as I don't want to ruin anyone else's pleasure in the reading) are symbols for "self-imposed isolation from society." In the case of Bertha the mundane even in her idyllic situation with the old woman turned into dissatisfaction and a longing for something more in life. Probably not a bad thing in and of itself, but the way she went about it meant her immoral actions would come back to haunt her. The editor sums the story up thus:
"The treatment of the failings of humanity criticizes individual and collective alike--the Romantic self is found wanting in a depraved world crying out for revitalization".
This was a well-told tale, and one I enjoyed reading. I'm curious to know how it was received. Reading it reminded me of The Black Spider by Swiss author Jeremias Gotthelf that impressed me so much earlier this year.
Next week: Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.