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Sources and Meaning
of the Story of 'Lohengrin'
An Opera by Richard Wagner


The story of Lohengrin is as old as the thirteenth century. Wagner says it is "no mere outcome of Christian meditation, but one of man’s earliest poetic ideals." Just as the composer traced the myth of the "Flying Dutchman" to the Hellenic Odyssey, and found in Ulysses the prototype of Tannhäuser, "so do we," he said, "already meet in the Grecian mythos the outlines of the myth of Lohengrin." Zeus and Semele, Eros, and Psyche, Elsa and Lohengrin -- all, Wagner insists, stand for the same old story, the necessity of love. The woman for whom the Flying Dutchman yearned, from out the ocean of his misery; the woman who, star-like, showed to Tannhäuser the way that led from the hot passion of the Venusberg to Heaven; the woman who drew Lohengrin from sunny heights to the depths of earth’s warm breast -- woman, woman: all yearned for woman, for the human heart.



Lohengrin's Arrival in Brabant.
Source: Illustrierte Literaturgeschichte, by Otto von Leixner (Leipzig 1880).


Wagner goes a long way back for the origin of the story. We need not follow him. It is sufficient to say that the legend of Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, exists in many forms, and can be traced to several sources. The old Celtic legend of King Arthur and his knights and the story of the Holy Grail are mixed up with the purely German myth of the knight who arrives in a boat drawn by a swan. It is important, however, to know something of the tradition of the Grail. The Holy Grail, symbol of the supra-sensual, is the vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the last drops of Christ’s blood upon the cross. According to the tradition followed by Wagner, it is in the keeping of Parsifal, the lord of the sacred palace of Montsalvat, whose son Lohengrin is. Lohengrin is one of the earthly champions of the Grail, and the tradition has thus a prominent place in Wagner’s drama. One may put it something like this: The Holy Grail is the fountain of divine love. Its knights (Lohengrin and the rest) are sent to shed some of that love on earth by redressing wrongs and fostering righteousness. But they may dwell only where there is purity of heart and perfect faith in their power. Elsa, at first innocent and trustful, begins to harbour suspicious of Lohengrin, and therefore loses him. It is the familiar idea of salvation through faith. As soon as we begin to distrust, we are undone.





I have described the ending of "Lohengrin" as sad. But it seems also inevitable. The good angel of the human soul, says a modern writer, in effect, is its ideal. If it is called upon, it will come. But if the imprudent Psyche (in this case Elsa) doubts it and its divine message, immediately the angel veils its face and disappears. In the tragedy of Lohengrin’s character and situation Wagner saw, with clearest sureness, the type of the only absolute tragedy; in fine, of the tragic element of modern life: a tragedy, too, of just as great significant for the present age as was the "Antigone" -- though in another relation -- for the life of the Hellenic State. Lohengrin, he says, "sought a woman who should trust in him, who should not ask how he was hight or whence he came, but love him as he was, and because he was whate’er she deemed him. He sought the woman who would not call for explanation or defence, but who should love him with an unconditioned love. Therefore must he cloak his higher nature, for only in the non-revealing of this higher essence could there lie the surety that he was not adored because of it alone, or humbly worshipped as a being past all understanding-whereas his longing was not for worship nor for adoration, but for the only things sufficient to redeem him from his loneliness, to still his deep desire for Love, for being loved, for being understood through love."

"Lohengrin" has not the human interest of "Tannhäuser," but the psychological treatment of its characters is far more subtle. Liszt emphasises the "grandiose scale" on which it is conceived, and grandiose it unquestionably is. It represents a drama the most complete, the most skilled, of the highest literary finish. The masterly originality of its style, the beauty of its versification, the ingenious arrangement of its plot, its eloquent passion: there it stands a work of its kind, unique, unapproachable.





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