Aloka/The Mythical elements in Friedrich de la Motte Fouque’s Undine and Temsula Ao’s Laburnum for My Head and Stories


Department of English

Lovely Professional University



 From the past to the present, Myth has perked in and out of our earthly life. The presence of mythic elements has added benevolence to our existence. These elements affect us unconsciously and eventually end up romanticizing our imagination which in some ways links to literature. The mythical elements in literature are perhaps the finest way of realizing our profound history and belief. It suggests a transcendental secret. The glamour of mythical elements inclined in modern format stories beckoned us to go to vestige and unearth the unadorned wisdom of our culture. With this vitality, the examination of mythical elements in Fouque’s Undine and Ao’s Laburnum For My Head acts as a myriad of history to the corresponding culture. It will thus add to the significance of mythical elements in literature and its study.

Keywords: Myth, Elemental, Culture, Tradition, Narratives, Folklore.


Myths are told and retold. It breaks as told, again and again. Researchers clarify that the mythology of a society is made through the oral renderings of its people.

The Oxford dictionary, 8th edition describes ‘myth’ as a story from ancient times, especially one that was told to explain natural events or to describe the early history of people. [Oxford Dictionary, 1012 ] It is an allegory for a riddle past human observation. It is that offers hugeness to our presence. We cannot deny that it helps man to comprehend the world and his spot in it. To current mediators, myth is typical, not exacting truth. Consequently, Anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his work The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973 says:

We live (or ought to live) the way we do because the world is the way it is. And because the world is the way it is, living as we do (or ought to do) is uniquely satisfying and fulfilling.(1)

This unfathomable imagination of man still baffles the world as to how it guide through profound internal issues, inward secrets, internal limits of entries sprung beyond religion, reasoning and science. It was before art, dialect and writing. We cannot deny however acknowledge that it is our establishment of presence. Myth and mythic images are the rudimentary particles of creative energy and innovativeness. The cultural historian Jacques Barzun has said, “What links myth with Literature are the imaginations.”                                 (David K. Abraham, 1)

There is no better approach to comprehend a society, history, and character and brain science profoundly than to know and admire its mythos, its stories, and its fantasies. With this significance, the study attempts to highlight the importance of mythology and its elements in literature. As a conceptual theory, this paper will enhance the prospect of myth and the works of mythical elements from a tale to fiction in a modern format such as the works of Friedrich de la Motte Fouque’s Undine and Temsula Ao’s Laburnum for My Head and Stories. The examination focused on the explanation and prediction such as formal hypothesis and also in working as it explores cultural responses in the corresponding myth. The exploration will add to the study of mythical elements in literature in comparison to different shared cultures with special references to Indian-Asian mythology and Western mythology that shares the trait with the sirens of Greeks, Roman and other corresponding mythology.

One such lucid vision that beckons myth in our midst is the use of mythical elements in literature today. We accept that myth is our foundation of being. It is the elementary particle of imagination and creativity having its mode of necessity and its own mode of reality. It is thus, a necessary stage in the self-revelation of the absolute. In a modern usage, or format a myth is intertwined in a fictional story with its elements so as to give mythical consequences. These mythical elements sustain many cultures of the world and hence keep on lurking into the creation of mankind.

Mythical elements in a story can be found in characters, supernatural helpers, settings, objects, plots and sub-plots that find their way into folktale and fiction, traversing a broad range of cultural and historical settings. And in some way convince a reader to acknowledge “self-evident facts”. (David Griffin, 78 ) Mythical characters have references to corresponding myth and cultural-historical references that actually present a global concept and moral .The character emerges as an epitome in an adapted story. In traditional literature ,whether mythic or romantic, Supernatural helpers tend to manifest supernatural or otherworld traits; while they sometimes seem to personify the natural world, perhaps they imply sweetness or benevolence of earthly life; sometimes they suggest transcendental or a temporal realities, perhaps invoking the ideal world, or perhaps the illusoriness of worldly suffering.

As the first reference, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a German author and dramatist known essentially as the creator of the prevalent fable Undine (1811).He was a relative of French nobles, an avid pursuer of English and Scandinavian writing, Greek and Norse myths, and a military officer. He turned into a genuine essayist after he met researcher and faultfinder, August Wilhelm Schlegel. In his compositions, Fouqué communicated chivalrous standards of valor intended to excite a feeling of German convention and national character in his peers amid the Napoleonic time. His thoughts, in view of the perspective of semantic advancement initially brought about by the scholar J.G. Fichte, focused on the impact of the primary language in forming the psyche.

A note by Sonia Saporiti’s book Myth as symbol: A Psychoanalytic study in contemporary German Literature, mentions that when Fouque wrote the fairy tale Undine (1811) there already existed a diffused literary tradition that made the elementary spirits and the legends linked to them its own novelistic material. However, on the other hand, though neither the topic of the tale i.e. the union of a supernatural being with a human being nor its protagonist an elementary spirit are pure invention of the author, Undine is not just a simple reworking of an ancient and clearly defined material. In the novella Undine, a water spirit marries a knight named Hulderbrand in order to gain a soul. It is an only German romance, which has been translated into English and other languages. Undine, the source of which, according to Fouqué himself is to be found in a work of Paracelsus, a Swiss German Renaissance physician ,botanist, alchemist, astrologer, and general occulist who founded Toxicology and describes the four Elemental  on supernatural beings, remains one of the best creation of  far less of spiritual meaning that we cannot but see that Fouque’s thought was that the grosser human nature is unable to appreciate what is absolutely pure and unearthly.

In Undine, Fouque attempts to retell the figure of European folklore that actually depicted as a woman called Melusine-a femine spirit of waters in sacred springs and rivers. Melusine is a serpent or fish from the waist down and sometimes illustrated with wings, two tails, or both. In literary versions, Melusine tales are well compiled by Fouque. Here, the novella Undine presents a mythic of water and earth elements in reference to Undine and forest spirits such as dwarfs. Undine as an elemental being associated with water, was first named in the alchemical literature, particularly Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (Gallagher, 3860). Later writers developed the Undine into a water nymph in its own right, and it continues to live in modern literature and art through adaptations as Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid’’.

Undine is almost invariably depicted as being female and is usually found in forest pools and waterfalls. The group contains many species, including nereides, limoniades, naiads and mermaids. Although resembling humans in form they lack a human soul, so as to achieve immortality they must acquire one by marrying a human. Such a union is not without risk of the man, because if he is unfaithful he is fated to die. In the work by Philip Ball Paracelsus and the world of Renaissance Magic and Science, he believed each of the four classical elements- earths, water, air and fire are inhabited by different categories of elemental spirits, luminal creatures that share our world: gnomes, undines, sylphs and salamanders respectively. These elementals are the invisible, spiritual counterparts of visible Nature.

Apart from the legendary figure Undine, the other mythical elements that took their ways in the novella are characteristic of mythic places, objects, supernatural helpers etc. The depiction of the sacred lake where the mythical creature actually emerges and return to connotes to the mythical notion of the novella. Also there is a forest of extraordinary wildness, which, owing to its sunless gloom and almost impassable recesses, as well as to fear of the strange creatures and visionary illusions to be encountered in it, most people avoided entering unless in cases of extreme necessity. Another cue to the mythic is the figure of a man of gigantic stature and snow-white appearance, who kept nodding his head in a portentous manner. The transformation of the wide nodding figure to what in reality was a small brook, long which ran foaming from the forest, and discharges itself into a lake. All this depiction in the novella gives a mythical cue and enhances the plot of the story diffusing a moral even to this day from the folklore of Europe. Relating the above references of the corresponding myths on Fouque’s compose Undine, it is therefore defined that the presence of mythical elements in the novella has taken it to another level. The novella has its offshoots from various corresponding myth that not only relates the historical but also cultural aspects. This gamut of imagination of the author has invite the encyclopedia of mythical and presented a universal resonance. The mythic working in the crafted story has linked one culture to another but in a one concept of legendary figure that is Undine. Another being the forest spirits like dwarfs.

Hence, the mythical elements in Friedrich de la Motte Fouque’s novella Undine gives significance to mentioned elements that include almost all the primal elements majorly Water elements and Earth elements. This effect in the story enables it to link with the various culminating myths that talks or relates the same elements as water spirits and earth spirits. This mythic being is described in occult and alchemical works around the time of the European Renaissance and particularly elaborated in the 16th century works of Paracelsus. In contemporary times, these elements can be said as nature-based religions. But it goes back to before the beginning of religion. No wonder, there was a time when most people freely believed in elementals, until religion convinced them they don’t exist but mythic after all  have its own mode of reality.

Another writer of mythical significance in her work is a senior Naga litteteur, Dr. Temsula Ao who has an entry in “folklore of Nagaland in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of world folklore and folk life 2006.”

She is a poet, short story writer and influential ethnographer. She received the honorary Padma Shri Award in 2007. She is the recipient of Governor’s Gold Medal 2009 from the Government of Meghalaya. The book of short collection stories Laburnum for My Head Stories published by Penguins on November, 2009 won her the Sahitya Academy Award, India’s Academy of Literature in 2013.

The study of Dr.Temsula Ao’s heart-rending collection Laburnum for My Head carries along mythical elements intertwined in culture, religion and social myth. Her literature deeply focuses on the intensity of human understanding and subtly lingers with her mythical influence. This mythical theme of her beckons the present human condition. Ao has a voice of the North-eastern and she has lend her writings on the present scenario of North-eastern people especially Nagaland where she originated from. As a land of myths, Legends and folktales Ao writes that the people of the hills so called home is greatly influence by their Myth and which originally the natives believed in their customs before conversion to Christianity. Though she presents the contemporary issue of North-Eastern states especially a troubled region like Nagaland which is under conflict of internal and external government and in the case of insurgency, in the same string she attaches the mythical influence in a story with her characters and plots in order to give a mythical consequences usually in which she presents the notion in her mythical elements of the stories. These mythical elements immensely influence the characters of the study and their lives in it have connoted the psychoanalysis and cultural studies of the characters in the collection. Such Mythical elements are present in characters, objects, rituals, settings, supernatural phenomenon, plots and sub-plots, deaths and spirits. These elements are present in natural and supernatural force. Here, the effects of five main primal elements viz, either air, fire, water and earth can be seen so beautifully intertwined in the myths and customs of the natives. Speaking mythically, the cultural milieu of Nagaland has influenced such a writing where fiction meets mythic and reality that is based on deep understanding of human body and soul. This mythic fiction underline the reality of the lives of natives especially the common humans of the hills who survived the  world war that disturbed the solitude muse of the land. And the literature crafts out those voices of the ancients from the history of the rock that of race, the spirits of the woods and nature, relationship of man and animals and the aftermath of the war where people still dream of the dreamland that once sang on their hills. Ao has beautifully crafted her stories inclined in the mythical elements that perk in and out her stories.

The first story Laburnum for My Head begins with a mythical cue. “Every may, something extraordinary happens in the new cemetery of the sleepy little town.” (Ao, 1)

This picturesque detail simply presents the supernatural force in the story. When Lentina, a woman protagonist with a peculiar obsession of Laburnum blossoms is led to the extraordinary occurrence in the sleepy little town cemetery, It sets ‘make-beliefs’ into the mind of the dwellers of the sleepy little town that every May something supernatural happens on account of her death. The setting connotes to the mythical elements in a way it deliver us a sense of loss. So, thus the Indian Laburnum has a myth beneath its root. “The way the laburnum flowers hung their heads earthward appealed to her because she attributed humility to the gesture’’ (Ao, 2).In the Ramayan,Flora of the Indian epic mentions that dreaming of Laburnum tree in bloom predicts that the person will overcome the adverse influence around him/her by vigorous application of intelligent effort. The flower means forsaken, pensive beauty. This effect is shown on Lentina’s peculiar obsession and can be depicted as her to the blossom. Another  mythical elements lies on the mysterious death of the protagonist Lentina after her achievement of yellow wonders. The author leaves no such explanation to the death of the character other than a set of old age but in between Temsula Ao has indeed relates to the contentment of the departed soul from the obsession of earthly wonders. Lentina thus slumbers away in an unquiet earth with her sounding obsession.

From the second story Death of a Hunter, Imchanok, a famous hunter could get rid of any menace till he encounter with the ghost of his prey. A strange phenomenon starts to unfold in his life as he began to hallucinate and consequently kills his own mental piece. There are mythical representatives as seen in the haunted forest where the hunters haunt his prey and the appearance of the wild boar gave way to this sense. There was full of awe and wonder at the mystery surrounding the killing of the beast. The wild Boar with its swift feet and sharp tusks is a surprisingly shy animal, and generally tries to avoid humans. However, it can be a formidable beast if cornered, and has come to symbolize courage and ferocity in many cultures. Once native to Britain, these wild ancestors of the pig were hunted to extinction, probably the 13th century. In the Naga culture, warriors head gears bears the sharp and strong tusks of a wild boar in order to symbolize power and mighty. The myth of boar hunts prevails in Celtic and Arthurian literature where the tusks of a wild boar are hunted to cut the hair (The Druid Animal Oracle. Fireside). Such indication of the mythical creatures is also indented by the author in Death of a Hunter where Imchanok encounter with the mythical creature and kills the hunter inside him.

“Imchanok stood on the very spot from where he had fired the fatal shot and did a strange thing. He tore out a tuft of his hair and blew it towards the haunted forest, and without a backward glance retraced his steps towards the village.” (Ao ,39).

This action or strange ritual indicates the practice or sharing some or all of the hair on the scalp as a sign of religious devotion or humanity. As referred in International Journal of Tricology by Kaliaperumal Karthikeyan, This practice is known as Tonsure. It shows support or sympathy, or to designate mournin. This Tonsuring is practiced by Eastern Orthodox Church, Buddhist, Islam and Hindu. It refers to a mystic of any religion as a symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem. Here in the story, Imchanok offers a tuft of his hair as a prayer for forgiveness to his prey. The mythical elements focused here are the spirits of the woods and the animals. The strange degradation of the famous hunter itself resolves to a mystery occurrence in a story. In this way Ao commence the death of a brave hunter in a mythical consequence by bringing mythical elements that of wild Boar, spirits of the woods, strange rituals that all assumes the influence of the characters in unnatural belief so as to present the mythic sense of the fiction. Imchanok indeed buries his image, mental being and his skills in the wound of the earth and surrender himself to the unnatural force of his belief.

The last collection Flight relates about a caterpillar who finds wings. This caterpillar can be related to the very humanity of the trouble land where Ao hopes to see a bright future for the sufferings, identity loses and displacement of the natives in the present scenario of the hills called home. Here, the mythical influences are laid on the description of the Dragon where Johnny, a young lad transports the caterpillar to another world and the end the Dragon gets its wings and flies away leaving behind Johnny’s dying universe. Dragon is the metaphor. It symbolizes major spiritual significance in various religions and cultures around the world. In many Asian cultures dragons were, and in some cultures still are, revered as representative of the primal forces of nature, religion and the universe. They are associated with wisdom-often said to be wiser than humans-and longevity. They are commonly said to possess some form of magic or other supernatural power, and are often associated with wells, rain, and rivers. In some cultures, they are also said to be capable of human speech. In some traditions dragons are said to have taught humans to talk. Narratives about dragons often involve them being killed by a hero. The theme survives into medieval legends and folklore, with dragon slayers such as Beowulf, Sigurd, Tristan, Margaret the Virgin. In the bible, the Archetype is alluded to in the descendants of Adam crushing the head of the serpent, and in Christian mythology, this was interpreted as corresponding to Christ as the Adam crushing the devil. Here in the prevailing story, Ao has depicted the power and strength through the transformation of caterpillar into Dragon. This focus on the common human capacity and their hope in order to change the world. The common people in Temsula Ao can well relate to the caterpillar where it will later turn to dragon gaining strength and power. This reference of mythical creatures in the stories by Ao has crafted out a well formed allusion of mythic influence and presents the vital place of mythical elements in the contemporary cultures that actually teaches moral values.

These stories are crafted in cultural and social myth to embrace a gamut of emotions. From Mythical to the modern Laburnum For My Head stories depict a deep understanding of the human condition. The depiction of caterpillar as Dragon  sums  the mind  to whimsicality . There is a representation of things that are not normally encountered in everyday life. These encounters are present in Temsula Ao’s collection of eight stories. It brings about mythical elements in form of nature, creature, deaths and strange occurrence. It attempts to advance understanding of the way people or the society relate to the various entitles of the universe around them, inside or outside of their body. There is not a subject of interrogation but just a belief that sustains the plot of the story and consequently surrounding to the mythical consequences.                                                                              

Hence, From the Mythical to the Modern ,the present examination of  Laburnum For My Head and Undine bring alive the deep notion of the universe through elemental and beyond scientific discernment .In doing so, it speaks movingly of a gamut of emotions ,traditional wisdom, identity and human tendency of imagination and self-evidant facts. The closure reading of the literature of Dr.Temsula Ao and Friedrich de la Motte Fouque appeals a vitality of myths in literature and widen the scope for its terms and notion. So, with the analysis of Temsula Ao’s Laburnum for My Head and Friedrich de la Motte Fouque’s Undine, It is conceived that Mythical is of or existing myth, relating to or having the nature of a myth. The mythical elements intertwine in a story thus creating a lure that is eternal, nourishing something deep within us. In some new way, we see the richness of beauty and significance in ordinary life. Mythical illuminates us to unravel meaning of life beyond scientific notion. It is there, thus lies the significance to the perceiver to hope and turn inwards and towards nature to find some answers. Mythical actually talk about the matters of the soul which is missing in the modern world now. It diverts people’s mind from the talk of sex, money and politics and lead into a spiritual journey. In fact, myth gives enlightenment to the soul and heart. Myth perhaps received philosophical justification as an essential element in the philosophy of religion.

Whether one trusts these myths or not, in really they show us to regard and nurture the mighty nature of human decrement and gives us services to Mystery by opening the world to a measurement of puzzle in the event that you lose  mythology as riddle underlies all structure, Cosmological as in secret as shown through all things so universe turns into a sacred picture, constantly tended to the transcendant secret , Sociological  accepting and keeping up a certain general public – Values, moral laws, laws of life in the public arena that has assumed control of society , Pedagogical as to how to carry on with a human life under any circumstances.

                                                                            Works Cited

Primary Texts

  • Ao, Temsula. Laburnum For My Head Stories. Penguin Books India, November 2009, Pp107 ISBN 13: 9-8-0-14-306620-0
  • Fouqué, Friedrich de la Motte. Undine. Hippocrene Books, September 1,1990, Pp224 ISBN-13: 978-0946626571

Secondary Texts

  • Abram, M.H and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. “Myth and Mythology” A Glossary of Literary terms. 10th edition 2010 Wadsworth
  • Ben-Amos, Dan.2006.”Folktale” Folklore: Critical Concept in Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Alan
  • Dundes, Alan. Sacred Narrative, Readings in the Theory of Myth. University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, 1984, Pp1 ISBN 0-520-05192-0
  • Lincoln, Bruce. Theorizing Myth-Narrative, Ideology and Scholarship, University of Chicago Press, 17th April 2000, ISBN- 100226402022
  • Saporiti, Sonia. Myth as Symbol: A Psychoanalytic Study in Contemporary German Literature, Cambridge Scholar Publishing, April 2013 ISBN 1443845310
  • A.J: Naga Folktale, Muse India Archives,2009.Issue24
  • ”The Criterion: An International Journal in English (March,2012).
  • Vickery, John B. Myth and Literature: Contemporary theory and practice.

Web Sources

  • Notes from Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth – PBS Interview with Bill Moyers <>
  • Yalin, Feng. The Femine Perspective and Intertextuality in Ingeborg Bachman’s Undine <>
  • <;
  • <jstor:ComparativeLiteratureStudies,vol.9,No.3(Sep1972),pp291(TheLittleMermaidandtheArtist’sQuestforaSoul)byBarbaraF.Fass>

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