For Anglophone readers, Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) is surely among the least familiar German Romantic authors. Yet his story ‘Rune Mountain’ – somewhere between short story, fairy tale, supernatural horror, and allegory – is one of the most beguiling works of early Romantic fiction.
Tieck had been a key figure in the Romantic circle that emerged in the late 1790s in the university town of Jena, near Weimar. The Jena Romantics included some of the most famous figures of early nineteenth-century German philosophy and literature, such as the brothers August Wilhelm and Karl Friedrich Schlegel, F. W. J. Schelling, and Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known by his pen name Novalis). Tieck (along with his daughter Dorothea, the diplomat-cum-translator Wolf Graf Baudissin, and A. W. Schlegel) would later produce a German edition of Shakespeare that remains both popular and well-regarded as a literary classic in its own right. In 1802, just as Romanticism was becoming a significant force in German letters, he wrote ‘Rune Mountain,’ which appeared in print two years later.
We tend to associate Romanticism with autumnal storms and bleak winter nights. It is surprising, then, that ‘Rune Mountain’ begins in the bright heat of summer. The narrative opens somewhere in the summer months with a young hunter named Christian filled with melancholy and resting in an isolated valley. He contemplates the world around him and his estrangement from his home village. And yet when Christian is approached by a stranger, his first impulse is to flee. Instead, however, they end up walking together through the night and he tells the stranger of his early life, his frustrations with the mundane world of his childhood, and his departure for a new, more exciting life in the woods.
As they reach the stranger’s home, Christian is directed towards the enigmatic mountain of the title, a source of both dread and fascination. Christian sets out alone. The rest of the story is difficult to describe without giving too much away, but it is a delight of strange and unsettling fiction. Inexplicable apparitions, mysterious woods, ominous arrivals, and incurable obsessions abound. That the most important action takes place in summer – albeit several different summers – only adds to the story’s dreamlike terror.
Doubt and anxiety drive a story that is psychologically rich and deeply disconcerting. Exquisite descriptions of uncertainty and longing take on a peculiar salience in 2021. It is also remarkably moving. ‘Rune Mountain’ is, in my view, one of the finest examples of European short fiction. Perfectly suited for those long, melancholy summer days when the sun seems just a little too bright, and the trees just a little too alluring.
Picked by Morgan Golf-French. Morgan is a lecturer in eighteenth-century European history at the University of Oxford. He enjoys creepy stories and occasionally tweets from @zeno_thankyou.
First published in German as ‘Der Runenberg’, 1804. First published in English translated by Thomas Carlyle, in German Romance,1827. Also translated by Thomas R. Browning in German Literary Fairytales, 1997. Wortsman’s translation is in Tales of the German Imagination, Penguin Classics, 2012)