“The Runenberg” by Ludwig Tieck

I tried starting out by giving a brief summary of the plot of “The Runenberg,” but found that doesn’t quite work. Or at least, it’s very difficult to do properly, because of how wiggly the story is when you get right down to it. But here goes:

Christian, raised in the lowlands to be a gardener, leaves his family for the wild mountains where he lives as a huntsman. One day he’s feeling lonely and afraid, and thinks he’s uprooted a mandrake. A stranger appears; they talk; Christian feels drawn to the peak of the Runenberg, where he sees a beautiful woman disrobe and give him a tablet of gemstones.

Next thing he knows, he’s at the bottom of the Runenberg, the tablet is gone, and he walks down to the lowlands to a new town, where he goes to church, finds a job, and eventually marries and has a family. His farm is fertile and prosperous, and one day a stranger comes and stays a while. The stranger leaves behind some gold, at which point Christian becomes troubled, and eventually leaves his family to go back into the mountains, into the mines. His family presumes him dead, but years later he appears to his wife and eldest daughter.

So, where’s the wiggliness? Extreme intellectual uncertainty is a feature of “The Runenberg,” as it is of many of the Kunstmärchen (that’s part of what makes them so awesome). One reading: Christian is wrong to leave his family, leave the organic world of gardening, and go into the harsh, lifeless, inorganic mountains. At the Runenberg he comes into contact with daemonic nature, which continues to haunt him for the rest of his happy family life. After abandoning his family, he descends completely into madness, wandering the mountains with an ugly old woman whom he believes to be the beautiful creature he met on that fateful night.

But. Tieck doesn’t give us real evidence that this is what really happens. Certainly it is what Christian’s wife Elisabeth, and his father, believe has happened. But equally certain, Christian disagrees—at the end of the story he believes he has found true happiness, and there are plenty of indications that his real communion with the divine happens in the wild mountains, not in the fertile town with its Christian church.

Christian himself seems to vacillate as to which of his “lives” is the real one: the farm-life or the mountain-life. He is a man trying hard to find the truth (or, struggling with madness). Attempts to write off the tablet as part of a dream don’t really work—Christian’s father sees it later, and calls it evil. But you would call evil the artifacts of another religion, wouldn’t you? When the beautiful woman gives the tablet to Christian, what does she say, but “Take this to remember me by!” Communion with nature indeed. Later, when the stranger leaves his gold with Christian—also assumed by his father to be a source of evil—Christian notably describes the gold as “blood-red.” W.J. Lillyman points out in “Ludwig Tieck’s ‘Der Runenberg': Dimensions of Reality”* that it is only after Christian has gotten both tablet and gold (body and blood) that his communion with the mountains is full and he abandons his family.

Also damning for the Christian-is-mad camp: after he leaves, his family loses all their money, their crops fail, their livestock falters, their debtors fail to pay them back. It is hard to see this as any sort of punishment on Christian for leaving them. Perhaps a punishment on his wife for remarrying when he was truly still alive? Or, as Lillyman puts it, a failure of the organic.

The problem with the intellectual uncertainty of these stories is that it’s very hard for a reader to accept them. I don’t mean accept them intellectually, but viscerally. Lillyman complains that so many critics have misunderstood “The Runenberg” by picking out one thread and ignoring the other, and it’s easy to do. We have a natural propensity in that direction. Even now, even though I can clearly see both sides—and I could when I was reading it, of course, it creates great tension, because things happen and you can’t understand why, they throw your interpretation on its head as it’s forming—I want to pick one, to remember the story one way. To get a “message” from the story, I suppose. It’s hard not to do that, but we must be strong.

*Lillyman, W.J. “Ludwig Tieck’s ‘Der Runenberg': Dimensions of Reality.” Monatshefte, Vol. 62, No. 3 (Fall, 1970), pp. 231-244.