November 27, 2013

A Special Vintage Edition: 'Undine,' Illustrated by Arthur Rackham, By Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

Editor's note: Wow! Christina has provided us with a visual feast to rival Thanksgiving. This is some serious, classic eye candy and great information as well.
For a fairy tale vintage sleuth, a great-grandmother’s library is a wonderful treasure trove. One of the greatest treasures from mine is a copy of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

By Arthur Rackham

Those with even a passing interest in the art of fairy tales will be familiar with Rackham’s work. He was a preeminent illustrator of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. The invention of color-separated printing in the early years of the twentieth century allowed Rackham’s stunning polychromic images to be produced in books. Rackham teamed up with publishers to illustrate so-called “gift editions” of popular stories that included Rip van Winkle, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Shakespeare’s plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, and, of course, Undine.

Although quite popular in the nineteenth century, Undine is not part of our familiar fairy tale repertoire today. The much more familiar story of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen belongs to the same family of tales as Undine. Both of these stories, as well as many others that focus on sea creatures who are half human or who can transform into humans (selkies, for instance), trace their roots back, at the very least, to the late-fourteenth century medieval romance Melusine. In this story, Melusine, while exiled in Avalon, is cursed to take the form of a fish or a serpent (depending on the version) from the waist down. A knight comes across her in her human form in the forests of France and proposes marriage. She agrees on the condition that he never see her on Saturday nights, during which time she reverts to her half-animal form. The knight breaks his promise, and when he denounces her as a serpent in front of his court, she flees never to return. (Various English translations of this French tale are available online.)

Friedrich de la Motte Fouque’s variation on the Melusine story type is rather long for a “typical” fairy tale as we usually imagine them. It reads much like a novella. Still, Undine holds a proud—if not always acknowledged—place in the history of fairy tale literature. It certainly inspired George MacDonald, author of fairy tale favorites such as The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, and The Light Princess. In his essay “The Fantastic Imagination,” MacDonald writes, “Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine: that is a fairytale . . . of all fairy tales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.”

Published in German in 1811 and in English in 1818, Undine tells the story of a water nymph without a soul, who marries a human knight named Huldbrand in order to gain one. Huldbrand later falls in love with another woman, and in her sadness Undine returns to the water. When the knight marries the other woman, Undine comes again to land and kills the knight with a kiss as recompense for his betrayal.
By Arthur Rackham

Charlotte M. Yonge, in her foreword to Undine found on Project Gutenberg, writes, “Undine's freakish playfulness and mischief as an elemental being, and her sweet patience when her soul is won, are quite original, and indeed we cannot help sharing, or at least understanding, Huldbrand's beginning to shrink from the unearthly creature to something of his own flesh and blood. He is altogether unworthy, and [. . .] we cannot but see that Fouque's thought was that the grosser human nature is unable to appreciate what is absolutely pure and unearthly.”

By Arthur Rackham

The edition of Undine illustrated by Rackham is bound in dark green leather and gilt-embossed. The illustrations are covered with translucent pages stamped with the illustrations’ titles. Original Rackham monochromatic ink drawings grace the headings of each chapter. Only 250 copies were made for distribution in the United States, and Rackham signed each one. (My great-grandmother’s is number 130.) It was printed in New York by Doubleday Page & Co. and translated by W.L. Courtney. A small notation made in pencil at the top of one of the front pages of my great-grandmother’s copy states that the book cost $35.

Tell me about your fairy tale book treasures!

Christina Ruth Johnson
Christina Ruth Johnson recently received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day.
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  1. Wow, what a gorgeous treasure. I have a family book too, which isn't as impressive but holds great sentimental value: a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales which was a Christmas present to my dad in...I think 1958. I truly love that book <3 And now I HAVE to read Undine! Thanks for another wonderful post :)

  2. I'm so envious! I love Arthur Rackham and am really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this--hope I can.

  3. Great column with incredible illustrations.