Thursday, February 17, 2011
The Alchemy of Love
“An opera about an archetypal myth presented as a medieval fairy tale,” so describes William Berger the opera Lohengrin in his book Wagner without Fear. I would prefer to say that both the opera and the German saga are most like a medieval romance. The story does not really fulfill the criteria of a fairy tale, as defined by Grimm, and that is why it is included in the German Saga collection (and not in the Grimm fairy tale collection).
Lohengrin is a hero knight with all the attributes found in medieval romance: his birth and origin are shrouded in mystery, his identity unknown, his actions have a redemptive quality, supernatural elements are employed to heighten plot development, and so on. Unlike German fairy tales, this story has a psychological dimension that leaps to the fore. These characters are imbued with real emotion and inner life. And yet there is still a certain amount of fairy tale quirkiness. When Lohengrin must depart from his true love, Elsam, he presents her with a gift. It is a little finger, the very same that his mother had given him. No other explanation is provided and the reader is certainly not expecting a little finger as parting memento. Fairy tale meaning is often found in the minutiae. So how is the reader to understand this? In keeping with the religious undertones of the story, I can only imagine that the gift was a relic, or, within a pagan context, it might have been an amulet-bone or charm imparting protection to the owner.
Jakob Grimm surmises that there were probably many early Frankish, Friesen and Saxon tales circulating in Germany about the swan knight. The details are mostly the same: a strange slumbering hero arrives in a boat pulled by a swan. This often occurs in a moment when the country (or later, a maiden) is in dire distress. This otherworldly hero is divine, functioning both as a god and as a god-given-gift to mankind. In his role as warrior, he acts as the military leader of a nation. In his role as god, there are certain mysteries and taboos surrounding his earthly intercessions that mortals can’t fully appreciate. In the earliest versions his real value for the community lay in his martial skills. But it was probably in the Middle Ages when the story mutated into a love story, examining the nature of love, how one falls in love, its transitory qualities and its destruction by doubt and despair.
In the opening scene of the saga, the fog separates and a knight emerges. The person he encounters is laden with anguish and overcome with Angst. In this story vulnerability or an altered state are prerequisites for experiencing true love. But once recognized, love has the miraculous power of transformation. Revelation comes like a bolt from the blue but is fleeting. While the intensity of love is short-lived, its memory can either sustain or destroy. In Lohengrin , the characters are profoundly altered by their encounter with the hero/god.
The Opera is now playing in Chicago at the Lyric Opera. Go see it if you can!
Also a very good read, especially if you have avoided opera up to now: Wagner without Fear by William Berger, Vintage Books/Random House
Monday, February 14, 2011
Happy Valentine’s Day! In keeping with the theme of love and courtship, this week FairyTaleChannel is highlighting the romance of the Swan Knight Lohengrin. There are endless ways to interpret this story, but pictures are often worth a thousand words. Click on the link below to hear the Prelude to Lohengrin, conducted by Otto Klemperer and view many beautiful Pre-Raphaelite illustrations with the same theme. It sets a wistful but romantic tone for Valentine’s Day, which I hope you enjoy!
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Image from the Bodleian Library, French ca. 1487
Grimm’s Saga No. 542: Lohengrin at Brabant
The Duke of Brabant and Limburg died without leaving any heir except for his young daughter Els or Elsam. On his death bed he commended the girl to one of his courtiers, Friedrich von Telramund. Friedrich, who was otherwise a valorous man and had slain a dragon at Stockholm, Sweden, became overly-boisterous and wooed the young duchess under false pretenses. He declared that she had promised herself to him in marriage. Because she honorably denied this, Friedrich complained to the German Kaiser Henry the Fowler, who spoke the verdict: she would have to engage a hero to defend her honor in mortal combat. When no one could be found, the duchesses fervently called on God to save her. Far away where the grail was kept at Mount Salvatsch, the toll of bells was heard signaling that someone was in dire need. The grail immediately commanded that the son of Parsifal, Lohengrin, would be sent out. When he was just about to place his foot in the stirrup, a swan came floating on the river pulling a ship behind. Lohengrin had barely set his eyes upon it when he called out: ”Bring my steed to manger brimming with clover. I will go out with this bird and follow wherever he leads me.” In complete trust of God, he did not take along any sustenance on the ship. After five days of traveling over the sea, the swan dipped its bill into the water and caught a small fish. He ate half and gave the other half to Lohengrin.
While this was transpiring, Elsam called her dukes and courtiers to a council in Antwerp. On the very day of the meeting, a swan could be seen swimming up the Schelde River pulling a little ship. In it lay Lohengrin, who lay prostrate sleeping on his shield. The swan soon landed on the strand and the young duke was received in joy. The people carried helmet, shield and sword from the ship and then the swan turned around immediately and swam away. Lohengrin now listened to the injustice the young duchess had been forced to bear. He undertook the mission gladly and would become Elsam’s defender. When Elsam heard all this, she called all her relatives and subjects, who readied themselves in large numbers. Even King Gotthart, her grandfather on her mother’s side, came from England through Gundemar, called by the Abbot of Clarbrunn. The procession made its way until meeting and congregating in Mainz. Kaiser Heinrich who was residing in Frankfurt, arrived in Mainz, and in this city his throne was erected, where Lohengrin and Friedrich were to wage battle. The Grail Hero was triumphant; Friedrich relented and confessed he had lied to the duchess. He was executed by hammer and axe. Elsam now became Lohengrin’s prize and they loved each other dearly. But he secretly stipulated that her mouth should avoid all questions about his origin; otherwise he would leave her in that very moment.
For a time the married couple lived in undisturbed bliss and Lohengrin ruled the country wisely and mightily. He also served the Kaiser on his crusades against the Huns and heathens. But it happened that while engaging in spear throwing with the Duke of Kleve, the spear pierced the Duke’s arm and shattered it. The Duchess of Kleve now complained jealously to her ladies in waiting “Lohengrin may be bold, and he appears to have adopted the Christian faith; but it’s a shame that his fame is small; because no one knows which land he swam up from!” These words penetrated the heart of the Duchess of Brabant, she blushed and then became pale. At night in bed when her husband held her in his arms, she cried. He said “Dear, what ails you?” She replied “The Kleve Duchess has forced me to these sighs of despair.” But Lohengrin was silent and did not inquire further. The second night she cried once more; he noticed and quieted her again. Only on the third night, Elsam could no longer hold her tongue and said: “My liege, do not scorn me! I would like to know your origin, from whom you were born; my heart says you are of noble birth.” As dawn was breaking, Lohengrin declared openly from where he came. Parsifal was his father and God had sent him from the Grail. He had his two children brought before him, kissed them and commanded that they guard well his horn and sword. To his wife he left the little finger that his mother had once given him. Now his friend the swan hastened toward him pulling the ship. The young duke boarded and sailed against the current and returned to the grail. Elsam sank to the floor unconscious. Her teeth were clenched so tightly they had to be opened with a wedge and water poured inside. The Kaiser and his kingdom accepted the orphan children. One was named Johan and the other Lohengrin. But the widow cried and complained her lifelong about her dear husband, who never returned.
Friday, February 11, 2011
The current events in Egypt make it seem only natural to turn to a fairy tale from that region of the world. Here is one from ancient Egypt, The Doomed Prince; it is a story that has fascinated listeners for over 3,000 years and influenced authors both ancient and modern. The theme is Becoming What You Are, a concern that has preoccupied many a fairy tale character and one that is no less intriguing today.
Read the brief introduction below and then the full text of the Doomed Prince by clicking on the links.
In the fairy tale The Doomed Prince we meet a prince whose fate it is to die at a young age. As he grows, he longs to become independent but those closest to him are seized by a fearful sort of love, one that understandably desires to preserve his life as long as possible. But the prince is fascinated with the world and embraces life by acquiring a dog as faithful companion and then embarking on adventures. Finally he rebukes his father’s protectiveness and in complete acceptance of his doom he asserts “Because I am destined to have a sad fate, I should be allowed to act according to my own wishes. God will in the end do what He desires.” And so we watch him pass through the various stages of his life, his body grows older but he never really reaches full maturity. In the narrative he is usually referred to as a youth and his wife is always a girl.
It is perhaps not astonishing that such a doomed person would seek a rapid ascent in life and winning a flying competition is an apt metaphor for this yearning. The image of a throng of flying children being led by a boy who will never grow up is particularly poignant and a theme we find again in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. This story also shares the motif of the crocodile, representing an ever-present and looming fate that casts long shadows. Whether or not Barrie was inspired in any way by this fairy tale when he wrote Peter Pan is unknown (to me). Based on the dates the source text became known to the public (Papyrus Harris 500) it is entirely possible.
At the end of the tale we see the prince bravely meeting his destiny. From the sad circumstances of his existence, he has created a meaningful life. He has acquired certain virtues including courage and loyalty, he has forged loving relationships, he lives life without fear and has the freedom to make choices. He has followed the maxim of the Greek poet Pindar who wrote “Become what you are” (and love your fate). Embrace what is unique to you and live life to its fullest.
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Thursday, February 10, 2011
A Fairy Tale Courtship
Reading the Fairy Tale Sweetheart Roland
True Love Enkindled
Even the title of the fairy tale, Sweetheart Roland, suggests a romantic love story. But the themes of courtship and marriage are often grim and violent events in fairy tales and this story does not disappoint. Before Roland the Sweetheart is even introduced, a mother mistakenly chops off the head of her only child and we see a girl lying in a pool of blood, all because of apron-envy. This story suggests that on the road to marital bliss, one must always remember the primary obstacles to happiness; in the opening scenes of this tale, jealousy is the hurdle. Survival (let alone happiness) depends on overcoming this destructive, obsessive, and deadly force. But the primary theme of this story, I think, is not human survival, but the survival and endurance of love. This tale describes the vicissitudes and trials encountered when pledging one’s self to a sweetheart.
Besides encountering surprising amounts of blood and gore in the opening sentences, one of the first oddities in the narrative is that the precise hands of the stepmother are described when she chops off the head of her daughter. She holds the axe in her right hand while groping with her left. This level of detail in oral narrative is striking. Why not just say she held the axe in her hands, or she simply chopped? This type of right hand versus left hand distinction is also encountered in Rapunzel, when the powerful sorceress cuts off the girl’s hair. Rapunzel is a similar story describing the hazards of negotiating a successful marriage, but at its heart this story focuses on the violation of marriage taboos. It would be interesting to track down this right-hand versus left-hand motif in other stories to determine if it really alludes to some obscure marriage rite or only pops up when a taboo is broken (or when it pops up at all).
But back to Sweetheart Roland. Most of the courtship or wooing in this tale takes place when the two protagonists are on the run. They undergo a process of transformation, assuming forms that are interdependent yet mutually advantageous for surviving the wrath of a treacherous world (here: an evil stepmother). In both instances Roland functions as the protector, in his guise as the sea and in his role as the fiddle player. The maiden is the quick-thinker, nimbly designing and adapting the forms of escape. Marriage requires a versatile skill set, including adaptability, quick thinking, persistence and constancy. This last virtue is poignantly alluded to when the maid assumes the shape of a granite field stone, waiting patiently for her lover to return. Love is a rocky road, as this fairy tale underscores. Even abandonment must be endured with good cheer and patience. Forget the seventies adage “love means never having to say sorry”. In this fairy tale “love means always loving”. It weathers hardship like a stone, it prevails over disappointments. It survives, somehow.
Contrast these ideas about love and partnership with modern notions, for example, the relationship at the center of the hit movie “No Strings Attached”. It’s hard to imagine that the heroine in the movie has found the type of love that would keep on loving, over vast amounts of time or even geological time as alluded to in the fairy tale . For a a very funny review of the movie read the New Yorker article by David Denby http://www.newyorker.com/arts/reviews/film/no_strings_attached_reitman
But go see the movie and then remember Sweetheart Roland.
Which story do you prefer?
To read the fairy tale Sweetheart Roland:
Film versions of endless love:
To read the fairy tale Sweetheart Roland:
Film versions of endless love:
No Strings Attached
Modern Versions of Courtship, Love and Marriage
Modern Versions of Courtship, Love and Marriage
Sunday, February 6, 2011
The Mysterious Power of Music
Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 56: Sweetheart Roland
There once lived a woman who was really a witch and she had two daughters. One was ugly and bad and the woman loved this daughter because it was her real daughter. The other girl was beautiful and good. This one she hated because she has her stepdaughter. At the time, the stepdaughter had a beautiful apron, which the other girl sorely wanted. She became envious and said to her mother that she desired it above all else and had to have the apron. “Quiet, my child,” replied the old woman, “you shall indeed have it. Your stepsister deserved to die a long time ago. Tonight, when she sleeps, I will come and chop off her head. Make sure that you lie on the far side of the bed and push her to the front.” Now it would have been over for the poor girl if she hadn’t been standing in the corner and heard everything. When it came time for bed, the first daughter had to get into bed first; but when she had fallen asleep the stepsister pushed the girl forward and took the place near the wall. At night the old woman came creeping into the room holding an axe in her right hand. With her left hand she felt the bed to see if anyone was lying in front. Then she seized the axe with both hands, and struck and chopped her own child’s head off.
When the woman had gone, the girl got up and went to her sweetheart, who was named Roland, and knocked on his door. When he came out she said to him “Listen, Sweetheart Roland. We must flee quickly. My stepmother wanted to strike me dead, but she killed her own child instead. When dawn breaks and she sees what she has down, all will be lost.”
“But I advise you to first take her magic wand away, otherwise we will not be able to save ourselves when she pursues us.” The girl fetched the magic wand and then took the severed head and scattered little droplets of blood, one on the earth in front of the bed, one in the kitchen and one on the stairs. Then she hastened away with her dear one.
In the morning when the old witch got up, she called to her daughter and wanted to give her the apron. But the girl did not come. Then she called out “Where are you?” “Here on the stairs, I am sweeping,” replied one of the blood droplets. The old woman went out and did not see anyone on the stairs and called out again “Where are you?” “Here in the kitchen, I am warming myself,” called the second droplet of blood. She went into the kitchen but did not find anyone. Then she called out again “Where are you?” “Oh, here in bed, I am sleeping,” the third blood droplet cried. She went into the chamber and to the bed. What did she see? Her own child lay there swimming in blood, the one whose head she had chopped off.
The witch fell into a frenzied rage and leaped to the window. She could peer out far into the world where she saw her stepdaughter with her Sweetheart Roland hastening away. “That won’t help you,” she called after them. “Even if you are far away from me, you shall not escape.” The witch put on her magic mile boots, in which she could travel an hour’s distance in one step. It did not take long before she had caught up to them both. When the girl saw the old woman rushing toward her, she took the magic wand and transformed Dear Roland into a sea and she herself into a duck, which swam in the middle of the sea. The witch stood on shore and threw bread crumbs and tried as she would to lure the duck ashore. But the duck would not be lured and the old woman had to return home in the evening defeated.
The girl and her Sweetheart Roland then took on their human forms and hastened away . They fled the entire night until dawn broke. Then the girl changed into a beautiful flower in the middle of a thorn hedge but her Sweetheart Roland she changed into a fiddle player. It wasn’t long until the witch caught up to them and said to the fiddle player “Dear fiddler, may I break off this beautiful flower?” “Oh yes,” he replied “I will play while you do it.” In her haste the witch now crept through the hedgerow and wanted to break the flower because she knew who the flower really was. The fiddler began to play and whether she wanted to or not, the woman began dancing, she had to dance because it was a magic dance. The faster he played, the more violent the old woman was forced to jump. The thorns tore at her clothing and pierced her skin until bloodied and wounded, she fell to the ground dead.
Now the two were redeemed. Roland spoke “I will go to my father and prepare our wedding.” “I will stay here and wait for you,” the girl replied. “So that no one recognizes me, I shall turn myself into a red field stone.” Now Roland went out and the girl stood in the middle of the field as red stone and waited for her sweetheart. But when Roland returned home, he fell into the trap of another and he soon forgot the girl. The poor girl stood a long time, but when he did not return, she became sad and turned herself into a flower and thought that soon someone would come and trample her.
But it happened that a shepherd was watching his flock in the field and saw the flower. Because it was so beautiful, he broke off the stem, took it home and placed it in a box. From that time on wonderful things happened in the shepherd’s house. When he got up in the morning, all the work was already done; the rooms were swept, tables and benches cleaned, fire and stove were warm and water already carried. At noon when he returned home, the table was set and a good meal was presented. He could not understand how it happened because he never saw anyone in his house and no one could have hidden in such a small cabin. The good care was of course welcomed but finally he became unsettled by it. He went to a wise woman to seek council. The wise woman said “Magic must be behind it; tomorrow morning early, hold a watch and see if anything stirs in the chamber. When you see anything move, regardless of what it is, throw a white cloth over it, the magic will be over.” The shepherd did what she said and the next morning when day broke, he saw how the box opened and a flower emerged. Quickly he jumped toward it and threw a white cloth over it. The magic was now undone and a beautiful girl stood before him. She admitted that she had been the flower and had kept his household for him. She told him about her fate and because he liked her he asked whether she wanted to marry him. But she replied “No,” because she wanted her Sweetheart Roland, even though he had abandoned her. But she promised not to leave and would continue to keep house for him.
Now the time came that Roland’s wedding was to be held. According to ancient custom it was announced that all the young maids should gather at his house and sing to honor the wedding couple. When the faithful girl heard it, she was very sad and thought her heart would break in two. She didn’t want to go but the others came and took her with them. When the other girls turn came to sing, she stepped back, until only she was left. She could do nothing but had to sing. When she began her song and it reached Roland’s ears, he jumped up and cried “That voice I know. That is the rightful bride. I do not desire any other.” Everything that he had forgotten suddenly returned and filled his heart with joy. Now the true maid celebrated the wedding with her Dearest Roland. Her suffering was over and her joy now began.
To read more about the poignant tale of true love:
And to read more fairy tales:
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Overcoming Inner Demons
Fairy Tale Resolutions for the New Year!
January is the month of fresh starts and working on New Year’s resolutions. The January postings on this website feature fables by Aesop and Lafontaine in addition to a fairy tale by Grimm. They offer a springboard for reflection and self-improvement. These stories highlight human faults of various kinds, including perceived physical and spiritual defects. While reflecting a strong moral impulse, they are not too heavy-handed or moralizing. Change is practical, even ethical, they seem to say. Have you acted upon your own New Year’s resolutions this month? These tales might help:
A New Year’s Resolution based on this tale is easy to formulate but it might be more difficult to put into practice: To have more compassion toward others, and to develop a stronger feeling of responsibility for community and environment.
Possible New Year’s Resolution: To avoid self-defeating behavior in all its sinister forms, especially no more chewing on iron files!
It’s easy to agree with the sentiments of this fable: A small act of kindness is often received with enormous gratitude. However, we often perceive ourselves as the mouse in this tale, but our actions are more like the bumbling lion.
New Year’s Resolution: Don’t be a bumbling lion. Be kind to mice.
Lafontaine might actually have been making fun of noblemen at court with spindly legs, who thought a good calf was a reflection of virility. New Year’s Resolution: Be good humored and don’t take yourself too seriously. The expression on the stag’s face speaks volumes. (Click on picture to enlarge.)