Friday, 16 August 2013

Preview: Neuschwanstein Castle

Hereditary rule: it's not for everyone. Take Ludwig II of Bavaria, for example. He lived between 1845 and 1886, and was king from the age of 18. He wasn't very good at it. In a different world, one without the expectations of a nation but the freedom to express himself, Ludwig would probably have been happy as a camp theatre set-designer, lip-synching to Cher songs in his spare time, but in the straitjacketed world of a 19th Century German monarch this wasn't possible. Instead, Ludwig II built wildly expensive, flamboyant, impractical castles. Neuschwanstein was his greatest.

The name may look like a handful, but Neuschwanstein Castle breaks down quite easily: "Neu" is "new", "schwan" is "swan", and "stein" is "stone" or "rock". So, New Swan Rock Castle, which is a perfectly sensible name. It was new, it's on a rock, it's a castle, and... there are swans? Almost. The swan element takes a little more explanation, and offers something of the superhero origin story for Ludwig II aka The Swan King. Ludwig had somewhat of a lifelong fascination with swans, stemming from his childhood. In 1832, Ludwig II's father, King Maximilian II, bought up the ruins of the ancient Schwanstein Castle and entirely rebuilt it in a neo-Gothic style, calling it Hohenschwangau, or the "high region of the swan". Symbolising purity, swans were in the coat of arms of the noble knights who had lived in the old medieval castle. It became a summer residence for the Bavarian royalty, and Ludwig grew up surrounded by swan images; a nearby lake had the real thing. They quickly became his favourite creature.

Their appeal, I would guess, was visual. Elegant birds of a regal bearing, they would have seemed perfect to the young prince, who from a young age is noted with being obsessed with beauty. It is recorded that he despised ugliness so much that if an ugly servant walked in he would turn to face the wall. His father therefore gave him only especially ugly servants to try and snap him out of this, but it just made Ludwig worse, so in the end Ludwig was surrounded only by attractive servants.The obsession with both beauty and swans never faded. At the age of 12, he became fascinated by Wagner's opera "Lohengrin" and its medieval fairytale character of the Swan Knight, a knight who appears in a swan-pulled boat to rescue a damsel (that's how they rolled back then). This tied in both the beauty of the swan and the romantic notion of medieval knightly chivalry. The stage was truly set for Ludwig to become, as he was known, the Swan King, or less flatteringly, the Mad King of Bavaria.

An immature 18 years old, he became king in 1864 upon the premature death of his father. He was peculiarly unprepared for the role. This wasn't wholly his fault - though his childhood had been strict, it had been without any practical guidance as to what a king should do or be. Ludwig therefore concocted a notion in his head of a kind of fantasy ideal of kingship, imbuing it with an exaggerated sense of power and majesty. He believed the world should conform to this. It didn't. The 19th Century was well past the time of absolute monarchy - Ludwig was little more than a figurehead. Parliament made the decisions, and Ludwig had the ill luck that his reign coincided with the dominant Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck, one of the major European figures of the late 19th Century, and the man who effectively unified Germany (formally done in the Palace of Versailles, as it happens). Kindly speaking, Ludwig was out of step with his own time, more suited to a fantasy medieval world of chivalry and noble honour. Plainly speaking, he was an idiot, entirely unsuited to anything in the political world except for getting pushed around.

Hence, Ludwig II chose to retreat into fantasy.

Neuschwanstein Castle is the grand testimony to the vivid fantasy world Ludwig II created. Hopelessly impractical for the 19th Century, it is entirely fanciful, a vision of the perfect medieval castle, perched dramatically on a hilltop. It is a romantic theatre set turned real, a Wagner opera turned into stone. The whole complex is 130 metres long, and the main tower is a little over 79 metres high, and packed into this space is a medley of turrets, winding stairways, and sumptuous decor. There's even a grotto with artificial stalactites. The interior was never complete, but features grand, rich paintings depicting epic poems and knights' legends. The swan motif, central to the castle, can be found almost everywhere. But Ludwig didn't want his medieval fantasy to be too realistic - he equipped it with central heating, running water, flush toilets, telephone lines, and a battery-powered bell to get the servants - all state-of-the-art at the time. A hi-tech medieval castle. Curiously, the dining room is comparatively small compared to the grandeur of other rooms - Ludwig II ate alone and had no feasts. He even had a food lift installed in the corridor so he didn't have to speak to or even see his servants. Even the pretty ones.

Work began around 1868, and was never fully finished. It was massive engineering feat involving steam-operated cranes and vehicles to just get the materials up the steep cliffs, to a point over 1000 metres above sea level. For almost 20 years, the surrounding district made a living from building Ludwig's fantasy castle - arguably, they still make a living from it today, with over a million visitors being drawn to the area every year.

But it was not cheap and became a never-finished lifetime project for Ludwig. It wasn't even his only building project - he also started Linderhof in 1874 and Herrenchiemsee in 1878, and even had another even more preposterous castle planned. None of this helped the bank balance - by 1885 Ludwig was in debt by almost 14 million marks, which equates to something in the region of £100 million today. This might have been excused if the castles were built for public receptions or for the glory of Bavaria, but the opposite was the case. Ludwig's fantasy castles were built for his own private world, to escape his own era and live in an imaginary past. And people started talking.

Ludwig's behaviour had become increasingly erratic and reclusive as the years had gone by. His servants had a list of rules to abide by in his presence - they were not to look at him, they weren't to cough, sneeze, or speak in a Bavarian accent. His punishment for this was execution! These orders were always quietly ignored, of course. He sent his servants away on ridiculous expeditions to acquire loans, and once even ordered them to rob a bank - again, quietly ignored. There are reports of him hallucinating, hearing imaginary sounds, and suffering a series of headaches and toothaches. It is strongly suspected that Ludwig was a repressed homosexual - something he hated himself for and regarded, in the manner of the day, as a sickness. Accounts of his secret diary, now lost, suggest that he built up infatuations towards men, and possibly even had physical affairs, to which he would always feel an intense sense of guilt afterwards. Clearly, he couldn't be himself, and the repression and guilt, together with an inability to cope in the real world and what would seem to be genuine mental illness led to Ludwig becoming, well, completely loopy.

It all came to a head on June 10th 1886. His erratic behaviour and free-spending had become too much for the political authorities, and officials came to Neuschwanstein to tell him the game was up - he was to come with them for treatment, for his own good they said. He didn't let them in. But they returned in greater numbers the next day and Ludwig could resist no more. He was taken to the nearby Castle of Berg. Two days later, in mysterious circumstances, both he and his doctor were found drowned in the lake, in what was possibly a failed attempt to escape or a suicide, but with enough ambiguity to fuel a few conspiracy theories. Age 40 Ludwig II was dead.

In total, Ludwig only ever spent 172 days in Neuschwanstein Castle, in his latter years when he'd almost entirely disappeared into reclusive madness. It virtually never existed as a functional castle - just a few weeks after Ludwig's death it was opened to the public, and has remained a weird kind of museum ever since. Right up until the 1960s, it was regarded as kitsch, but time can do many things and the older monuments become, the more gravitas they acquire. Thus, the ludicrous, over-the-top fantasy castle, that is claimed to be the inspiration for Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle, has shaken off its tag of being the garish gimmick of a madman, and is now celebrated for its blend of architectural styles and fantastical setting. It's a myth turned real, a castle straight from the pages of fiction put into physical form. And all thanks to the Swan King's total abandon of all that was sensible.

I'm not entirely sure when I'll be visiting Neuschwanstein Castle - maybe late summer next year is a fair guess. Regardless, when I do, I'll give a full account of it and its history, as well as my own impressions then.


  1. I have a soft spot for old Ludwig, perhaps because I played his role in a (rather bizarre, fittingly) school play when I was about eleven or twelve. But more precisely because I can understand his nostalgia.

    I'm the kind of person who likes steam engines, factories made out of brick, and ships that have a hull that's painted black. I hasten to add that I'm not a deluded dreamer and I realise that those times are past, but I then again am not an eccentric regional king with a lot of money. He had the power and money (to a certain degree, as you point out) to live in his make-believe world.

    As you write in your article, he seemed to yearn for a time when things appeared to be a lot simpler and traditional (to him, being a king of course) than the industrial age and geo-political upheaval that was going on around him. I feel quite sorry for him in way.

    1. If I was a regional king with a lot of money, I reckon I'd get big into building massive, somewhat non-essential, constructions. Really, unless you're a titan of the world stage who changes history, there's no better and easier legacy - would we otherwise have heard of Ludwig II. So in that sense, I quite sympathise with him.

      Also - you played Ludwig in a school play? I think France must do different school plays than we do in Scotland. I played the owner of Puss'n'Boots.

    2. Yes, it was some kind of odd play that referenced modern pop culture and we didn't have to learn any lines, the teacher just pointed at whoever's line it was and read it out to them, and whoever it was would just repeat it. School plays in France are few and far between actually. I think it's the only one I ever did.

      Having said that it made it the first time I'd ever heard of Ludwig II and it did (vaguely) follow the story of his life so I suppose it counts as a bizarre history lesson!

  2. Neuschwanstein is the most beautiful castle in the world


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