Neuschwanstein is, needless to say, one of the most photogenic castles in the world; and that’s because looking pretty was its primary purpose. While it takes on a medieval appearance, with structures imitating different styles from various periods, its purpose couldn’t be further from a medieval castle: defence.
Ludwig dreamed to be a hero from the ancient world; powerful and noble, a king of divine right, just like le Roi-Soleil Louis XIV of France. In reality, however, he was almost completely stripped of power. The discouraged, introverted king eventually turned away from his government duties and retreated into his fantasy world, with Schloss Neuschwanstein being the backdrop of his reverie.
Wagner and the Swan King
Today Richard Wagner’s operas (or what he dubbed “music dramas”, although he later rejected this term) are frequently performed worldwide, and arguably he had King Ludwig II to thank.
Wagner was already an established composer before the young king came to power. But because of his involvement in politics, he had been in exile for over a decade and financial problems were a constant worry. In 1864, Ludwig, who had been the musician’s number one fan since he first saw Lohengrin at the age of 15, became King of Bavaria and decided to bring him to Munich, settled his debts and paid him a generous annual stipend, so he could continue writing music.
Wagner’s operas frequently feature legendary heroes – who Ludwig aspired to be – and the Swan Knight from Lohengrin was one of the major inspirations for Neuschwanstein. In the opera, Lohengrin was the son of King Parsifal and Knight of the Holy Grail. He was sent to Brabant to protect and marry the Duchess Elsa, who’d been wrongly accused of murdering her brother, but she must never ask his name. Sadly, like Semele doubted Zeus so had Elsa questioned her husband’s origin. After the Swan Knight had revealed his true identity, he must leave her and return to his own kingdom.
Throughout the castle you can find plenty of motifs from this story, as well as from Tannhäuser and Parsifal. Scenes from Wagner’s other operas, such as Tristan und Isolde, also find their way into the castle’s murals. Worthy of mention is the small grotto made from cardboard, located in the Palas near the study, is based on the Venusberg Grotto from Tannhäuser.
A Never-Ending Dream
Originally Ludwig had wanted to complete his beloved castle within three years, but delay was inevitable as he kept getting new ideas and demanding changes to the plans. Though picturesque, the location isn’t the easiest to build such a grand construction to begin with. Ludwig’s architects had had to tackle numerous obstacles over the course of 17 years, and the king wanted everything to be built exactly like how he had imagined, so much so that he had moved into the gatehouse so he could watch the palace of his dreams growing into the sky.
Aside from the delay, it isn’t surprising that this humongous project also went over budget – majorly – to the point that it’d ultimately caused the king’s downfall. Neuschwanstein was by no means Ludwig’s only project; he’d commissioned multiple palaces: Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee Palace, and the Falkenstein Castle (which was never realized) just to name a few. All of these not only left him broke and in debt, but also made many question his sanity.
When he tried to dismiss his cabinet because they refused to continue supporting his “mad” projects – even though he had paid for everything out of his own pocket and borrowed from his family rather than using state funds – the ministers took action first.
In June 1866, a report by four psychiatrists commissioned by the ministers declared that the monarch had paranoia and was therefore unfit to rule. The doctors had based their diagnosis merely on accounts and rumors by Ludwig’s servants; none of them had personally examined the king and only Dr Bernhard von Gudden had met Ludwig – 12 years prior. On June 12, Ludwig was taken away from Neuschwanstein to Shloss Berg at Lake Starnberg; he never returned to his castle again.
The next day, he invited Dr Gudden for a walk along the shore of the lake, but that was the last anyone ever saw of them. Their bodies were later found in the water. Officially the government had announced that Ludwig had committed suicide by drowning, but the autopsy showed there was no water in his lung. Some say he was shot, while some believe he had had a heart attack. To this day, many questions still surround his death.
The construction of Neuschwanstein was immediately halted as soon as Ludwig was gone, so many parts of the castle were left unfinished, including the castle garden and a keep that was supposed to stand in the upper courtyard. Ludwig’s dream castle has, by and large, remained but a dream.
Although Ludwig was accused of dissipating the royal family’s fortune, a simplified version of his fantasy Schloss was completed in 1892 and the castle was open to the public just six weeks after his funeral. Since then, the castle has paid for itself many times over.
In January this year I visited Neuschwanstein again, this time with Dr. F. We’d arrived around noon but there were already so many people that the guided tours of the day were sold out. We still went for a stroll around the castle, though. Walking among hundreds of tourists from all over the world, who had come to this remote location just to admire his “mad” creation, it occurred to me that even though Ludwig II of Bavaria was not the king he had aspired to be, he has become the hero of his own story, albeit a tragic one – just like Tannhäuser. In a way, the Fairy Tale King’s dream has been realized, and has lived on.