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The Magic Ring
Baron de la Motte Fouqué, Robert Pearse Gillies, translator, Amy H. Sturgis, editor
Valancourt Books, 358 pp.

Baron de la Motte Fouqué
Friedrich Heinrich Karl, Baron de la Motte Fouqué (February 12, 1777–January 23, 1843), was a German writer of the Romantic movement. He was born at Brandenburg, in a family of long and distinguished military service, and of French-Normand ancestry. Leaving university he participated in the Rhine campaign of 1794, but the rest of his life was mainly devoted literary pursuits, mainly dealing with Norse mythology and mediæval chivalry. He was introduced to August Wilhelm von Schlegel, who published Fouqué's first book, Dramatische Spiele (Dramatic Plays) under the pseudonym 'Pellegrin' (1804). His Der Held des Nordens (The Hero of the North), published as by Baron de la Motte, was the first modern German retelling of the national epic the Nibelungenlied, drew considerable attention to him, and was a seminal influence on later versions of the story, such as Friedrich Hebbel's Nibelungen and Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. His peak of productivity and popularity occurred between 1810 and 1815,with the now classic Undine (1811), Der Zauberring (1813; The Magic Ring), Sintram und seine Gefhährten (1815; Sintram and his Companions) and Die Fahrten Thiodolfs des Isländers (1815; The Travels of Thiodolf the Icelander). After 1820, when the flower of Romanticism had faded, he continued to churn out more of the same material, earning him the title of "Don Quixote of Romanticism." His dwindling popularity left him almost destitute and only a pension granted him by king Frederick William IV of Prussia, allowed him to spend his later years in comfort. He died in Berlin. Fouqué's Ausgewählte Werke, edited by himself, appeared in 12 vols. (1841) and a 6 vol. collection of his works in English was published as Fouqué's Works (1845-46).
Robert Pearse Gillies (translator)
Robert Pearse Gillies (1788-1858) was a Scottish Romantic writer, friend of Sir Walter Scott, translator of German literature (German Stories : selected from the works of Hoffmann, De La Motte Fouque, Pichler, Kruse, and others, 1826), and a key figure in the development of Blackwood's Magazine and founder (1827) and first editor of Foreign Quarterly Review. His works include Tales of a Voyager to the Arctic Ocean (1826), and Memoirs of a literary veteran, including sketches and anecdotes of the most distinguished literary characters from 1794 to 1849. (1851).
Amy H. Sturgis (editor)
Amy H. Sturgis earned her Ph.D. in Intellectual History from Vanderbilt University. Her areas of specialty are Native American studies and science fiction/fantasy studies. As Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Belmont University, she offers courses such as "Native American Identity in the U.S. Context," "The Trail of Tears," "J.R.R. Tolkien in History, Political Thought, and Literature," "Harry Potter and His Predecessors," and "The History of the Future: 150 Years through Science Fiction." She also teaches summer seminars regularly for the Institute for Humane Studies at Princeton University and Bryn Mawr College. Sturgis is the author of four books. In the field of science fiction/fantasy studies, Sturgis has presented research to the International Conference on Medievalism, the Media Studies Working Group, and the Mythopoeic Society. She speaks regularly in the scholarly programming track of genre conventions across the United States and Canada. Her articles have appeared in periodicals Mythlore, Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest, CSL, and Parma Nole.

Sturgis' Home Page

Publisher's website
Biography (de la Motte Fouqué): 1, 2 (in German)

E-TEXTS: Illustrators of Undine
Author site,in German, links to German e-texts
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

The Magic Ring The Magic Ring (Der Zauberring), eruditely and seamlessly mixing elements of Arthurian and later chivalric romances (e.g. Amadis of Gaul), legends of Crusade times — in which time the tale is set, Norse/Germanic myths, Gothic trappings, and Christian-chivalric ethics, is a clear precursor to William Morris' mediaeval romances, George Macdonald's spiritual fantasies, and to Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung (1). Macdonald's fantasies and particularly his works on literary theory, along with and Morris' early fantasy works are known to have been an influence on Tolkien, and some more extreme views argue that Tolkien's distaste for Wagner and what his work represented led him to write The Lord of the Rings as an cultural antidote to Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung.

While all this may be true, it is a disservice to dismiss The Magic Ring as merely "one of the inspirations for Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings" — as appears on the back of this edition, the first complete English language reissue of The Magic Ring in 130 years. As Douglas Anderson (The Annotated Hobbit) discussed with me by e-mail: "I think [the supposed Tolkienian links] are tenuous and probably non-existent. Tolkien (in letters and in "On Fairy-stories") is completely (and oddly) silent about the German Romantics — though you'd think he must have read some. There's simply no discernable evidence at all to support any kind of "influence" and the "resemblances" are probably mere coincidence." Indeed, while editrix Amy H. Sturgis discusses this 'chain of influence' in her introduction and extended appendix materials regarding de la Motte Fouqué's literary influencers and influencees, she states (by e-mail): "My purpose is not to suggest direct causality. Both authors, however, were responsible for distinct iterations of ideas that have enjoyed a long, varied, and fascinating history — ideas that are still very much in the public consciousness today."

Having surveyed the diverse opinions regarding The Magic Ring's place in fantasy literature, it might be à propos to tell a bit about the story, a general outline only, for the plot has innumerable twists and turns. The young squire Otto of Trautwangen, accompanied by his cousin Bertha, witness a battle of two knights over a magic ring. When the lovely Gabrielle's defender loses and she must turn over the ring, Otto impulsively promises to win it back for her. Knighted by his elderly father, Sir Hugh, a retired knight with a rather chequered past, he leaves behind Bertha, his not-quite-betrothed, eventually winning fame, the ring and Gabrielle to be his wife... but fate has other plans. When, at the wedding-eve's feast he mistakenly drinks a potion intended for another, he disgraces himself, and leaves in dishonour to fight the pagans on the Finnish border. The action shifts back and forth between Otto, his doppelganger, a pair of sorceresses — one unrepentantly pagan, one Christian, of sorts, various interrelated knights and maidens, nefarious kidnappers, and, amongst others, a mysterious man who appears to be able to draw great power from the ring. Things come to a head when all the characters converge on the castle of Trautwangen, where secrets are revealed and violent supernatural revenge threatens.

While the book is entitled The Magic Ring, besides a few brief mentions at the beginning of the book when knights are battling to decide its ownership, the ring and its magical powers of illusion are not explicitly outlined until nearly 70 percent of the way through, its full powers being only presented at the very conclusion. Overall, the bulk of the complex story reads very much like William Morris' mediaeval fantasies, albeit with a better pace, less of the slanting sunlight through the bedewed forest depictions, and far fewer archaisms (besides a few conversational 'thine' and 'thou'). Regarding this, Sturgis mentions that Robert Pearse Gillies' 1825 translation-adaptation, while perhaps less literally accurate than the later Victorian translation of The Magic Ring, is much more readable and attuned to English expectations. While Sturgis finds plot parallels to Arthurian legendry, the narrative's shifts back and forth between characters, the chivalric relationships between the sexes, and the use of sorcery and the supernatural, seem much more akin to the later (16th century) chivalric romances, such as Amadis of Gaul, derided in Cervantes' Don Quixote. In the context of when de la Motte Fouqué wrote these elements can be termed Romantic and Gothic.

While an inherent part of such literature, the at times overtly Christian-chivalric ethic was, by today's standards, a bit much: Christian knights virtually never knowingly do evil, Richard the Lion Hearted (a documented sexual predator and pedophile) is portrayed as a paragon of virtue and justice, Moors spontaneously convert to Christianity in the presence of the Pope, sorcery is defeated by the stainless maiden Bertha, pagans are portrayed as debased superstitious barbarians... I almost wished that the druidess Gerda had stuck to her guns and after giving up her supernatural powers, had held to her refusal to accept Christianity. In a number of ways she and Theobaldo, the ring wielder, are the most interesting characters, even if they eventually succumb to the prevailing ethic. The other potentially interesting character was that of Otto's father Sir Hugh, but his character is not developed, and in the end his past indiscretions are quickly forgiven. However, this is, along with the shifting story line, a limitation inherent to the genre.

Where de la Motte Fouqué excels is in melding a number of disparate themes into a cohesive story, without having his obviously extensive knowledge of such matters come off as didactic or pedantic. When he wants to he can also develop an excellent atmosphere of supernatural horror — no less than Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft pointed this out —, which is particularly the case in the episodes occurring in the dense woods of the Finnish borderlands. If some of the coincidences which tie everything together at the end and the good knights' miraculous ability to survive even the most crushing defeat are somewhat eye-popping by today's standards, they were common fare in chivalric romances.

Besides any literary importance accorded to it by academics or putative links to modern fantasy themes (who does not hesitate to read a book when told it is an influential "classic"), the The Magic Ring remains a very readable and entertaining novel, with numerous twists and turns, mysteries and secrets revealed, drawing and ably combining several rich myth-traditions. This, not its antecedents or offspring, is why it deserves a reading after over a century in obscurity.

Copyright © 2006 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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