In the culture of European chivalry, the swan is the king of water birds, as the eagle is the king of all birds. The swan was said to be the only bird the eagle thought it worthwhile to fight. In medieval times swans were a delicacy. They were kept in a swannery, and when they were brought to the table for feasts it was customary to swear oaths on them.
Lohengrin – The Swan Knight
The story of Lohengrin, the Swan Knight, is very ancient. The legend is related about many places and noble families in Germany. The hero of the legend has been variously named as Lohengrin, Loherangrin, Elias Grail, Gererard Swan, Gerhard, Helias, and Salvius Brabo, while the heroine has been both Else of Brabant and Beatrice of Clèves, a princess of Hohenschwangau.
The legend has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Longobard legend of Sceaf. An Anglo-Saxon version says: “A ship once arrived on the coast of Scandia without rudder or sail. In it lay a boy asleep upon his arms. The natives took and educated him, calling him Scild, the son of Sceaf (the skiff). In course of time he became their king.”
The English epic poem Beowulf adds that Scild reigned long, and when he saw that he was about to die, he bade his men lay him, fully armed, in a boat, and commit him to the sea. Some legends say the boat that bore him away was drawn by swans.
Lohengrin, the Swan Knight, was an early figure in the Grail Legend. He was son of Perceval. Perceval most often is said to have been son of King Pellinore and his wife Eglise, who was sister of King Pelles. Because King Pelles was the father of Elaine, who married Sir Lancelot, Elaine and Perceval were first cousins, and their sons Galahad and Lohengrin were second cousins. Note, however, that Wolfram von Eschbach’s “Parzival,” says Perceval was son of Gahmuret and Herzeylde, the sister of the Fisher King. The Fisher King was Anfortas, son of Frimutel, son of Titurel.
There were once many versions of his story, but they have been reduced to two — one handed down as part of the Arthurian cycle, and one created anew by the composer Richard Wagner. The common elements of the original story told how he happened on weapons as a youth despite the efforts of his mother and sisters, how he became a knight despite his foolishness, how he nearly became King of Hjalma, how he chanced to kill a swan, and how he found the Holy Grail.
The Arthurian Lohengrin
Lohengrin was born in Hjalma, the third son of a small nobleman who, with his two elder sons, died in a local war. Lohengrin was raised by his mother and sisters in the company of women alone. They wanted to keep him away from weapons and fighting so he would not be slain like his father and brothers. Nevertheless, he was the son of a knight and could not be deterred. After many adventures, he became a knight and found the Holy Grail.
Succeeding his uncle, he became King of the Grail Castle, called Montsalvache (Mount of Salvation). By the blessing of the Holy Grail, he has been alive for over 1,000 years and is a man of great personal power. He seldom leaves the castle, but lives there with other Knights of the Grail, spending most of his time in solitude. He is chaste, save when duty requires him to be otherwise. His mission is to go out into the world and do good deeds. However, if anyone asks his name and origin, his power fades and he must return to the Grail Castle.
He is said to have founded the Order of the Knights of the Swan, which he leads and whose rule he established. He is not only the Knight of the Swan, but also the Knight of the Law. Montsalvache is the famed Law Keep. Although a perfect and gentle knight, he is said to be capable of acts of unspeakable violence in apparent cold blood.
Some hint that he is fanatic like the knights he trains, and that the blessing of the Holy Grail has touched him with madness. Others suggest that he is a subtle schemer, seeking personal power under the pretense of the Law of the Grail.
Another Version of the Arthurian Lohengrin
In the dark ages, there lived in the castle of Schwanstein (now Hohenschwangau) a princess of the purest and noblest character, mistress of the castle and the valley. One day she stood upon the parapet of the Schloss and looked far into the valley. Her eye rested upon the Swan Lake. There she saw a snow-white swan, gracefully sailing over the waters, and drawing after it a golden boat in which a handsome knight lay asleep.
When the knight awoke and stepped on shore, he greeted the princess in such friendly wise that she immediately conceived great confidence in him, and asked him to protect her against her enemies, especially against her wicked uncle, who had accused her before the Emperor of unbecoming conduct, and on this ground had claimed her wealth. The Emperor commanded that the uncle should do battle with any champion the young lady could procure. The day of the tournament arrived, and the Swan knight appeared in the arena to uphold the cause of the lady, and slew the avaricious uncle on the spot. In great thankfulness the princess chose the knight to be her lord, and he accepted the honor on one condition, namely, that she should never seek to find out who he was or whence he came, otherwise their bliss would at once come to an end. But curiosity was ever the weak point of the daughters of Eve. Irresistibly inquisitive to know something about her knight, she asked him about his descent. Immediately on hearing these words he became silent and moody, and without more ado hurried to the lake. The swan was in waiting with the golden boat; the knight stepped into the fragile shell, and while the princess stood wringing her hands in agony on the turret, her mysterious lord was swept over the sad waters, out of sight forever.
Yet Another Version of the Arthurian Lohengrin
One chronicler says: “Otto, Emperor of Germany, held court at Neumagen, there to decide between Clarrissa, Duchess of Bouillon, and the Count of Frankfort, who claimed her duchy. It was decided that their right should be established by single combat, provided some doughty warrior would do battle for the lady. But none would meddle with the affair. In answer to her prayer, however, the Swan Knight appeared. Lords and ladies were scattered along the banks of the Meuse. The knight is Helias, who overcomes the Count of Frankfort, and becomes the Duke of Bouillon.”
In the reign of the Emperor Heinrich, the duchy of Brabant was torn by civil war. The Emperor called on the Count of Telramund to explain the strife. The Count revealed that the heir to the duchy, Gottfried, had disappeared. The Count then accused Gottfried’s ward Elsa of murdering him.
The Emperor summoned Elsa to defend herself. She declared her innocence and told the Emperor that she had dreamt about a knight in shining armor who would come to champion her cause. The Emperor’s heralds called for her champion, but none appeared. At the second call, still no champion appeared. At the third call, Elsa’s prayers are answered. A knight appeared in the mist, in a boat drawn by a swan. The mysterious knight pledged himself to Elsa on the condition that she never ask his name. Elsa agreed. The knight defeated the Count, and spared the Count’s life. Elsa’s innocence was thus established, and she married the knight.
Elsa and her knight were happy together and raised two sons. But, the Count’s wife planted doubts in Elsa’s mind about the swan knight. One day, Elsa asked the knight for his true identity. The knight confessed that he is Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, the Grail Knight. Because Elsa has broken her promise, Lohengrin was forced to leave her and return to the Grail Castle. However, he left his ring, his sword, and his horn as heirlooms for his descendants. When the swan and boat returned to take him back, the swan turned into Gottfried, the true heir of the duchy. And, as Lohengrin departed, Elsa fell dead, calling out for him.
Background of the Opera
Wagner’s opera Lohengrin was the work which first made the young and enthusiastic King of Bavaria a warm and devoted admirer of the so-called Music of the Future. Of this remarkable friendship Wagner himself wrote: “In the year of the first performance of Tannhäuser, a Queen bore me the good genius of my life, who raised me from the direct necessity to the highest joy. When but fifteen years of age, he witnessed a performance of Lohengrin, and since then he has belonged to me. He calls me his teacher, the dearest for him on earth. He was sent to me from Heaven. Through him I am, and understand myself.”
That young poet-minded king would stand on the balcony of his favorite residence, the mountain castle Hohenschwangau, and gaze at the clear moonlit lake below him while a courtier sang the Swan Song; and it is the same Hohenschwangau that is one of the legendary homes of the Swan Knight — an alpine paradise, and almost as inaccessible as the fabled Monsalvat.
The swan is the legendary bird of the Schwangau, and flocks of them may be seen sailing in all the pride of their beauty and dignity of the deep blue lake that lies at the foot of the hill on which Hohenschwangau is perched. The beautiful birds undoubtedly gave the name to the valley and the castle; and in course of time the swan-legend was transplanted from the Scheldt to Bavaria.
The first performance of Lohengrin was given under the direction of Franz Liszt at Weimar on 28 August 1850, the anniversary of Goethe’s death.
The white swan was the badge of the Counts of Clèves, who claimed descent from the Knight of the Swan, and who founded an Order of the Swan. When Anne of Clèves went to England a play was given in her honor in which the appearance of a knight drawn in a boat by a swan caused great astonishment. The White Swan is a common sign for English public houses, originally adopted as a compliment to Anne of Clèves. Lord Berners wrote a novel in the 16th century called “The Knight of the Swan.”
The German word Kleve means “cliff.” The location is not a cliff as someone from the western US would use the word, but the castle, Die Schwanenburg, sits upon a somewhat higher ground than the surrounding area. The town of Kleve is farther from the Rhine than it was in the Middle Ages, before the river changed its course.
The name Schwanenburg dates from the 19th century, having previously been called by its Dutch name, het Slot van Cleef (Castle of Cleves). Its smaller tower has been known as Schwanenturm since the Middle Ages. There is a cast swan atop the castle’s tower. According to local legend, the story of Lohengrin took place at this castle. Wagner places the story in Brabant. The noble families of Clèves and Brabant were joined by marriage, so perhaps the true location is moot. At Kleve, there is a comic sculpture in town of a swan pulling Lohengrin by the britches. Swans and the Swan Knight appear occasionally in the names of local businesses, and naturally, there are real swans in the Spoy Kanal.
The swan badge was one of the famous badges in medieval England. badge seems to have originated with Henry of Essex, a 12th century nobleman who used the badge as a pun on the name of his grandfather Sweyn of Essex. In 1210 Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, inherited the badge from Henry’s descendants. In 1227 the Mandevilles became extinct, and the badge was inherited by Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford. The badge continued in the Bohun family until the heiress, Alianore de Bohun, brought it to the family of her husband, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of King Edward III. Their daughter Anne, Countess of Buckingham inherited the badge and brought it to her husband Edmund Stafford, Earl of Stafford. The badge continued in the family of the Stafford Dukes of Buckingham until they became extinct in 1521.
The Bohuns might have claimed descent from Helyas, the legendary Knight of the Swan. Helyas was a son of King Oryant, who had seven children, each born with a silver chain round its neck. The children were all turned into white swans, with the exception of Helyas, who became the Knight of the Swan.