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.
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