Undine and the fear of God

Jeffro and John C. Wright have both written about the Appendix N generational gap. I’ve been chronicling my own slow personal breach of said divide. But in the same respective posts that Jeffro and JC muse about the gap, they also explore another noteworthy literary trend – that of the traditional Christian influence upon fantasy and the modern move to a more post-Christian viewpoint.

That is, the occult, the weird, the fantastical – they were traditionally handled from a Christian, God-fearing vantage. Jeffro and Wright both make points that in Appendix N, Lewis and Tolkien stand out but were not “outliers.” Both writers crafted epic series informed by their Christian faith. The Middle-earth and Narnia books (among their other works) were heavily and obviously Christian. Contrast this with the excellent but markedly non-Christian work of other Appendix N residents like Vance, Lovecraft, or Howard. Says JC Wright:

“Poul Anderson, Lord Dunsany and C.L. Moore are not Christian apologists as C.S. Lewis was. Far from it.

But they wrote of elves using the assumptions of the Matter of Britain, which are, of course, part and parcel of the Christian worldview. In older tales, there is a spooky, haunting quality of elves, that slight breath of hell that hangs over them, which can be seen even in such innocent offerings as Disney’s DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE.

The elves of Tolkien have nothing of this quality. They have the dignity and stature of Medieval depictions of the Perilous Realm, and nothing of the cuteness and delicacy the Victorians with their butterfly winged fairies sought.

They might as well be two different species, so different are they from each other. But even these butterfly winged fairies, Mustardseed and Moth, Puck and Cobweb of Shakespeare, have that air of nocturnal power that quakes at churchbells, that hint of something infernal and forbidden and above all elfin which Poul Anderson, Lord Dunsany and C.L. Moore also capture.

So their elves are different from Tolkien elves, and therefore from Gygax elves, who, after all, are as psychologically and physically as similar to homo sapiens is Neanderthal.

No D&D game in which I, at least, have played, ever mentioned my elf magic-user character, Jaffar the Whiny, needing to tithe a changeling, a human baby kidnapped from the Sons of Adam and raised among my kind and being groomed for the Tithe to Hell once every ten years, nor could clerics repel the elf kindred with a crucifix or holy water.

Of course, the de-elfification of the elves in Gygax is inevitable and not to be condemned: the whole point of D&D back in the old days was that you could play anything.

It was for this reason that the generic decatholicized medieval background of D&D was brought into being, complete with clerics and ‘holy symbols’ who were somehow polytheists, with paladins with no Charlemagne fighting no Paynim.”

It’s the “fear of God” tone and feel of earlier, Christian-influenced fiction that I’ve been thinking on and half-seeking lately. I find it fascinating that Tolkien in particular chose to break with this tradition in certain regards; specifically with his archetypal portrayal of elves. Wright describes Tolkien elves for the most part as “prelapsian men” – humanity before it was corrupted by sin. This is the flavor of fantasy that many contemporary fantasy readers have grown up with. Magic and the strange are sometimes foreboding and evil, but just as often gray and ambiguous, or good and misunderstood.

There was a time, however, when even within what we would call “fantasy” today, the supernatural was to be avoided when when possible and faced with exceeding caution and stalwart faith when unavoidable. I’ve recently encountered such a tale in Undine (another story I am slowly working my way through), which is included in the Tales Before Narnia collection.

The introduction, written by C. M. Yonge, makes note of the fact that Undine‘s author, La Motte Fouque, was “earnestly Christian” and saw Christ even in his dealings with Norse mythology. This spiritual romance was reflected in his works. It may also be worth noting that none other than George MacDonald pointed to Undine as the most beautiful, quintessential example of a fairytale.

To this point, my only exposure to the name and character “Undine” was through video games. Undine appears as a water spirit in the Mana and Tales series, in particular, but apparently this classic tale has influenced and inspired many different fields and media throughout the succeeding decades and generations.

undinemana.jpg

From early on in the story, the older “God-fearing” treatment of the supernatural is on full display. The old fisherman frequently crosses himself and vocalizes hymns and prayers to ward off the devilry present in the nearby forest.

At one point, the heroic knight is relating his ordeals traveling through the enchanted woods to the old man and woman and their adopted, fairy-like daughter Undine. His tale comes to an encounter with a sinister beast in a tree:

“[…]I saw something black among the boughs of a lofty oak. My first thought was, ‘It is a bear!’ and I grasped my weapon. The object then accosted me from above in a human voice, but in a tone most harsh and hideous: ‘If I, overhead here, do not gnaw off these dry branches, Sir Noodle, what shall we have to roast you with when midnight comes?’ And with that it grinned, and made such a rattling with the branches that my courser became mad with affright, and rushed furiously forward with me before I had time to see distinctly what sort of a devil’s beast it was.’
‘You must not speak so,’ said the old fisherman, crossing himself. His wife did the same, without saying a word, and Undine, while her eye sparkled with delight, looked at the knight and said, ‘The best of the story is, however, that as yet they have not roasted you! Go on, now, you beautiful knight.'”

There is something hellish, a sort of creeping feeling about the creature the knight encountered, that the old man be fearful even in his home. There is also something disconcerting about Undine’s frequently apparent comfort and happiness at hearing and speaking of such things.

And yet there is something goodly about her, as well. Whereas piousness and the invocation of God’s name or signs are anathema to the unnatural or supernatural, Undine is not repelled. Perhaps this is due to the Christian upbringing provided by her foster parents? This is on display when an old priest unexpectedly happens upon the group’s lodging. There is a pounding at the door, and the old fisherman quakes in fear. As the knight goes for his sword, his elder exclaims:

“‘If it be what I fear it is, no weapon of yours can protect us.’
Undine in the meanwhile went to the door, and cried with the firm voice of fearless displeasure: ‘Spirits of the earth! if mischief be your aim, Kuhleborn shall teach you better manners.’
The terror of the rest was increased by this wild speech; they looked fearfully upon the girl, and Huldbrand was just recovering presence of mind enough to ask what she meant, when a voice reached them from without:
‘I am no spirit of the earth, though a spirit still in its earthly body. You that are within the cottage there, if you fear God and would afford me assistance, open your door to me.’
By the time these words were spoken, Undine had already opened it; and the lamp throwing a strong light upon the stormy night, they perceived an aged priest without, who stepped back in terror, when his eye fell on the unexpected sight of a little damsel of such exquisite beauty. Well might he think there must be magic in the wind and witchcraft at work, when a form of such surpassing loveliness appeared at the door of so humble a dwelling. So he lifted up his voice in prayer:
‘Let all good spirits praise the Lord God!’
‘I am no spectre,’ said Undine, with a smile. ‘Do I look so very frightful? And you see that I do not shrink from holy words. I too have knowledge of God, and understand the duty of praising Him; every one, to be sure, has his own way of doing this, for so He has created us. Come in, father; you will find none but worthy people here.'”

And so we see Undine to be at ease with both the sinister spirits of the wood and the Lord God. I look forward to finishing the story over the course of my next few train rides and unraveling the mystery of the fairy girl. If it be of interest to you, the story can be read online for free.

-Bushi

bushi

 

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14 thoughts on “Undine and the fear of God

    1. Thanks. I’ll definitely be checking out the Broken Sword, and I want to read at least a couple other of Anderson’s books when I’m able to get to them. If you have any thoughts without too many spoilers, would love to read them in blog post form. ;)

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      1. If I might make a recommendation regarding Poul Andersen’s work, try reading these books in this order:

        1. Operation Chaos – a collection of short stories that lie at the root of Urban Fantasy, starring a bob-tailed werewolf, his white witch wife and her familiar, a huge black cat with opposable thumbs. These stories were published between 1956 and 1969.

        2. Three Hearts and Three Lions – Jeffro Johnson has mentioned this one and its influence on D&D. It is about Ogier the Dane (Holger Danske) and was published in the early 60s, before the last story in Operation Chaos was published.

        3. A Midsummer’s Tempest – a fantasy set in a version of Earth where Shakespeare was a historian, not a playwright, so all of his plays actually happened. Andersen uses a nifty device to tie the previous two books together in it: a magical tavern untethered from time and space, that can only be found by those touched by magic.

        All three of them are great reads. If you have a taste for myth as opposed to fiction, I would also suggest reading Poul Andersen’s translation of Hrolf Kraki’s Saga. This is a collection of legends that some people refer to as the Norse King Arthur.

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      2. Pardon me, that’s Anderson. One of my favorite authors and I misspelled his bloody name. Time to go to bed.

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  1. I think when I rework HALLS with Schuyler, I’ll give clerics the ability to turn elves and maybe give elves the ability to choose their daily spells, rather than have them selected at random, if they pay the blood teind.

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      1. Also I’m thinking this would be a good remedy to the (imagine common occurrence) of thinking “Ah, one of the players is rolling a cleric/paladin. I guess I’ll sprinkle in some undead, then.

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  2. Hope Mirrlee’s Lud in the Mist is a really good evocation of the tension between Faerie and the mundane world… it really captures the peril of proximity to Elfland rather well.

    I’m going to echo the praise for Poul Anderson’s ‘The Broken Sword’. It’s a quick read and it’s so much better than any modern ‘fantasy doorstop’ multi-volume trash. This quick, throwaway bit in the context of a season of elfish raiding the gives me goosebumps:

    Their hardest fight was on a desert shore with a troop of exiled gods, grown thin and shrunken and mad in their loneliness but still wielding fearsome powers. Three elf ships were burned after the fight, there being none left to man them, but Imric was the victor.

    Again, this is just a throwaway passage in a longer sequence, but it is fantastic. It’s not even a major plot point in Anderson’s novel, but it would be the subject of a ten-book bloatfest if a current author wrote it.

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    1. Fairy fruit, eh? An interesting plot summary there; looks worth checking out.

      And GBLC, I think you’ve articulated one of the major contributing factors of my recent jadedness with modern SFF. Though it’s not a trait unique to contemporary stuff, there is so much bloat out there. There’s something extremely satisfying about reading a story that’s no longer than it needs to be. Perhaps that’s one reason why I liked Asimov’s Foundation books so much. I really felt like he had a good economy of words going on in addition to excellent story, at least in the earlier ones.

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