The Merry Month of May

The Merry Month of May
Favorite Fairy Tales of All Time

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Lorelei



Source: Ludwig Bechstein, German Saga Book, Leipzig 1853

The Lorelei (or Lurlei)

The Rhine River flows through a valley and pushes through jagged cliffs at its narrowest point near Kaub. At this lonesome place echoes reverberate off the black stone and mournful sounds ricochet upward. The river flows faster and the waves swell noisily here; then they hit the jagged rock and form a foaming eddy. The gorge is eerie and the current quick. A story is told about the beautiful water nymph of the Rhine, the dangerous Lurlei or Lorelei, who was been banished to these cliffs. She often appears to passing ships, combing her long golden hair, which shines radiantly like the bright harvest moon. She sings a sweet, beguiling song. Those who are lured to the rock, attempt to climb the cliff and fall to their death in the maelstrom of waves below. Upstream and downstream all folk speak of the Lorelei. She is most like an echo emanating from the cliff wall. Her song breaks like the waves and then repeats itself over and over. Many poets have described her charms but she remains illusive.

Lorelei is the Nymph of the Rhine. Whoever sees her and hears her song, loses his heart. High above on the highest peak of the cliff you can see a maiden in white, with flowing veil and hair, waving her arms in a beckoning gesture. But whenever someone approaches or climbs the cliff peaks, she retreats. She lures unsuspecting youth to the abrupt abyss with her supernatural beauty. The beholder only has eyes for the Lorelei and as he approaches, he believes he is standing on firm ground but takes one step forward and is dashed to the rocks below.

Some folk say that the devil himself once steered a ship down the Rhine and arrived between the Lorelei rocks. The passage seemed too narrow and he wanted to take the boat out farther, either toward the adjacent rock or break against it so that the boat would block the river and make it unnavigable. He turned his back on the Lorelei cliff and pushed himself toward the adjacent mountain. This cliff began to sway when the Lorelei started her song. The devil heard her singing and a strange feeling overcame him. He concentrated on his work but was only able to withstand the song with enormous effort. His greatest desire was to win the Lorelei as his own and kidnap her, but he had no power over her. He became so agitated that steam could be seen rising from his body. When Lorelei ended her song, he hastened away; he had already come to believe that he would have to stay forever banished at that rock. But as he slipped away, a miracle occurred. His entire shape including his forked tail left a black imprint on the cliff wall. Today, this image still marks his visit to the Lorelei. After this encounter, the devil took enormous care never to approach the siren song of the Rhine again. He was afraid of being seized by her power and being pulled into the eddy of chaos and enchantment, would cease to be able to perform his work. The Lorelei, however, still sings in the moonlight on quiet evenings. She is seen on the peak of the cliff and awaits her coming redemption. But those who love her, the beguiled, have all died out. Today the world has no time to climb her cliff or approach her in the moonlight. The wheels of the steamship turn, boats still pass by, but now without stopping. Through the swell of the waves you can no longer hear the voice of the nymph’s sweet song. 

Fairy Tale Factum
Ironically, the very steamships that the author bemoans created a new generation of Lorelei admirers in the 19th century. Flocks of tourists were now able to float down the the Rhine River leisurely and admire its charms. With Heine's poem in hand, The Lorelei, they passed jagged cliffs, picturesque villages and sleepy castles that dotted the Rhine Valley. From the comfort of a cruise ship, this new generation rediscovered national myth. Alexander Dumas, writing about the Germans love affair with the Rhine wrote of "the profound veneration" they held for the river. "The Rhine is might; it is independence, it is liberty; it has passions like a man or rather like a God. .. It is an object of fear or hope, a symbol of love or hate, the principle of life and death." Modernity, it turns out, did not kill myth but rather rekindled interest. (From: Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama, Vintage Books)

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