I had no idea when I started reading Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué that it's one of the more famous German fairy tales and was quite popular in the nineteenth century. It was published in 1811. Apparently it was one often found on children's bookshelves and you can even read a child's illustrated version of it on Project Gutenberg. Keep in mind, however, it is a retelling. The version found in Romantic Fairy Tales, which I read, can also be found on Project Gutenberg though the translations vary slightly.
The story is quite ethereal and very much in the vein of what I expect when thinking of a traditional fairy tale. It's the story of a water spirit or nymph who wishes for a soul, which can only be granted when she falls in love and that love is reciprocated. There are strings attached of course, and any missteps will have repercussions, so yes, this is a sad story, too. I have never read Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid (though I generally know what the story is about), but I read that the stories are similar. As a gage for its popularity, references to Undine appeared in works by Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Yonge. It was adapted to the opera by E.T.A. Hoffmann and later Tchaikovsky. And it has inspired art works, ballets, and even films. I had no idea.
"This powerful tale owes its inspiration to a number of sources including Fouqué's own private love life. Literary influences are clearly the medieval ballad and the world of medieval legend. Huldbrand is the archetypal benevolent knight and the world he inhabits typifies the idealized Germanic Middle Ages so central to the Romantic understanding of Germanic culture."
Going back further, there are elements of the folk tale Melusine and a text by Paracelsus in Fouqué's story. The editor, in his introduction, calls Undine the ultimate Kunstmärchen. At this point I had to go back to the general introduction and reread. It's an excellent and detailed introduction which covers a lot of ground (too much for me to try and sum up I'm afraid), but there are a few interesting tidbits to pass on here. I'm even more interested as the German Romantic period in Germany was from 1795 to 1820, and Fanny Burney's Camilla was written in 1796. Perhaps Camilla was a little too early, but I wonder if it was a transitional work into English Romanticism? Something to think about when I start reading Burney perhaps, but I like learning how books fit together.
As for German Romanticism, it grew out of the Enlightenment (or rather was a response to it). These works focus on the darker side (Nachtseite) of human existence. If the Enlightenment felt "sterile" since it was all about reason and order, Romantic works depended on Nature and the Organic. I suppose everything must have went all wobbly or blurred. Writers threw in elements of the supernatural and there was an interest in folk culture and all things Medieval.
The other interesting bit is that what I've been reading are considered literary fairy tales, or Kunstmärchen, as opposed to simple Volksmärchen, folk tales told by ordinary people orally--though the two are closely related. The literary fairy tale is more ambiguous and complex (which I've noticed in my reading) with psychological depth, and there might not be a nice clean solution or happy ending to the stories. The four fairy tales in this collection are meant to follow the development from beginning to end. Next week is Clemens Brentano's The Tale of Honest Casper and Fair Annie.