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