Book Review: Christopher McIntosh’s The Swan King

The Wagner-obsessed King Ludwig II of Bavaria built a make-believe universe at Neuschwanstein, his majestic castle near Füssen

King Ludwig | Photo: Bayern Tourismus

King Ludwig never got the chance to live in Neuschwanstein | Photo: Bayern Tourismus

King Ludwig

King Ludwig II | Photo: Bayern Tourismus

The Fairy-Tale Life of Mad King Ludwig

The Swan King is Christopher McIntosh’s revised biography of the eccentric Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-86), dubbed by poet Paul Verlaine as “the only true king of his century”. Acceding to the throne in 1864 at the age of 18, he made a brief, conscientious effort to learn the business of ruling, but, like the poet, Ludwig’s sense of duty swiftly faded before the allure of his private dreamworld.

Central to this ascent, or descent, was Ludwig’s relationship with the composer Richard Wagner. You don’t need to be a Wagner lover (or loather) to find The Swan King especially interesting in this respect. The descriptions of the various operas and the circumstances surrounding their composition and production, in which Ludwig was often keenly involved, are all very nicely handled, with the megalomaniac Wagner appearing on a more human scale than usual.

Wagner was notorious for his financial (and other) abuses of friends and admirers, but though Ludwig was dazzled by him and certainly very generous, the composer doesn’t seem to have taken unwarranted advantage. The intense and florid relationship between the two “egocentric, arrogant and temperamental” individuals in fact included a strongly protective aspect on the elder man’s side: comparing him to the grail-seeking Arthurian knight, hero of his own eponymous opera, Wagner called Ludwig Parsifal, “my son in the Holy Spirit”.


The Knight of the Swan

The composer understood, however, that the Holy Grail that Ludwig sought had perilously little to do with his everyday responsibilities as Bavaria’s king. “He is, alas,” wrote Wagner, “so beautiful, spiritual, soulful and splendid that I fear his life must run away like a fleeting, heavenly dream in this common world.” Dazed by the power of the operas and his own ecstatic mysticism, Ludwig would float about a lake in a cockle-shaped boat, lost in the role of Lohengrin, “Knight of the Swan”. Inside, dressed as Louis XIV, whom he believed to be an earlier incarnation of himself, he would conduct hour-long conversations over dinner with imaginary persons from the Sun King’s court. His lucid hours, meanwhile, were increasingly absorbed in the planning and building of Neuschwanstein and the other fantastical castles that were to garner him the epithet of Der Märchenkönig (the Fairy-Tale King).


King Ludwig never got the chance to live in Neuschwanstein | Photo: Bayern Tourismus

Ludwig’s reign coincided with a crucial era for the German states on their difficult path to unification. He backed the losing side in the tide-turning Austro-Prussian war of 1866, leaving his Kingdom of Bavaria with reparations of 30 million Gulden owed to victorious Prussia.

It seems that Ludwig may have recouped part of this sum personally, for use in his own vast architectural projects, by supporting the creation of Bismarck’s new German Empire in 1871. McIntosh tells us that Bismarck and Ludwig conducted “a lively and wide-ranging correspondence,” evincing “an apparently warm friendship,” so it is disappointing that no extract from that correspondence is included here. How fascinating it would have been to see something of the relationship between these two extraordinary figures of 19th-century German history, on the surface so dissimilar, yet each highly intelligent, eccentric and visionary, with the one approaching genius and the other insanity.

In his quest for loans and gifts of money for his architectural folies de grandeur, Ludwig sent emissaries to the King of Sweden, the Duke of Westminster, the Emperor of Austria, the Sultan of Turkey, a Brazilian potentate and one “infinitely rich man” in Persia. When no funds materialised, apparently because his emissaries merely pretended to carry them out, regarding the missions as absurd, Ludwig sent “a group of trusted servants” to Frankfurt to rob the Rothschild bank. They duly went, spent a few days hanging around, then returned to Munich to report that “a last-minute hitch” had scuttled the plan.

Still crazy after all these years

McIntosh describes this royal bank heist as “a desperate measure”, but in fact it seems nothing short of crazy. A prominent contemporary physician, Bernhard von Gudden, did indeed conclude that the King suffered from a form of paranoia then known as “primary madness,” although the author insists that “grave doubts” remain about the reliability of this diagnosis.

He is similarly cautious about Ludwig’s homosexuality, despite the King’s passionate relationships with his cousin Prince Paul von Thurn and Taxis, his equerry Richard Hornig, and the actor Josef Kainz, not to mention a series of servants and lackeys, who, in the words of one contemporary, “naturally caused unending gossip.” The King’s own frantic journal, writes McIntosh, “not only reveals an acute sense of carnal guilt; it also betrays the writer’s mental deterioration.”

Given all this, the questions posed at the end of the biography are probably redundant. “Was [Ludwig] really mad?” asks the author. “Was he a homosexual?” I’d say the jury’s in.

There have been one or two editorial oversights in the updating from the 1982 version: Riga is a Latvian city, once part of the Russian Empire and later part of the Soviet Union, but never “in Russia.” And although it may have been so in 1982, Thuringia is not an area “that is now part of the German Democratic Republic”.

The Swan KingBut these are quibbles. If Ludwig was mad, he wasn’t dull. The Swan King will make an ideal Christmas gift for readable-history enthusiasts. And there are still the castles to visit.

The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria
by Christopher McIntosh
I.B. Tauris, 2012, revised.
pp. 352   

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