King Ludwig II, the Swan King and Patron of Aesthetes


"The Arrival of Lowengrin", Carl Schweninger the Younger (1854 - 1903), Austrian

"I wish to remain an eternal engima to myself and others." - Ludwig II of Bavaria


Fairy tale castles amid Bavarian forests, German mythology, swans and Wagner's operas - those are the words, ideas, concepts that are associated with the tragic and sometimes described as mad, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. A reluctant ruler and avid dreamer, his legacy turned out to be nothing else but his endless, enormous dreams. Today, we shall explore his life, what archetypes stand behind him and the message, the meaning that is revealed to all of us, through those like him.

Biographical Moments

Ludwing II of Bavaria, Fyodor Pavolv

Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm was born on 25th of August 1845. He ruled his kingdom, Bavaria, for 22 years - getting his throne at only 18 years old in 1864, and ending it, with his death, in 1886. Young, artistic, dreamy, sensitive and idealistic, he had to act against his artistic visions from the very beginning. It was only two years that he ruled when Prussia decided to attack Austria and Bavaria. The war was an easy victory for the Prussian forces, forcing Bavaria to sign mutual defense treaty with Prussia. But, that was not the only war that he had to fight. Another war came in 1870, the war between Prussia and France, in which Bavaria sided with Prussia. The victory, was once again Prussian and Bavaria, although with some autonomy, became part of the German Empire.


Many wars prevented the young King from bringing his artistic visions to fruition. As the time passed, Ludwig was getting more and more distant from the state affairs. He almost completely withdrew from his duties in favour of his artistic projects. It is often, mistakenly thought that it was state funds he used to see his fantasies materialise, it was his royal revenues and borrowed money that he used for those. His ministers repeatedly tried to restrain him, but he was not to give up his fairy tale. His extravagant interests were used against him to declare him a madman, an accusation that has been questioned by historians. His death was and still is a great mystery. One June afternoon, while in a mental hospital, Dr. Gudden accompanied Ludwig for a walk in the grounds of the Berg Castle. After dinner, Ludwig wanted to take another walk, through the parkland and Lake Starnberg. Some accounts suggest that the walk was actually the doctor's suggestion. The doctor insisted they go alone and that no servants or aides follow them. They were last seen at six thirty in the evening and the return was expected at eight. Neither of them came back at the expected time. The searches lasted for two hours until finally, at around ten and thirty, they found bodies of the both men. The King's watch stopped at six and fifty-five. Officially rule a suicide, there are other claims regarding his death. Official autopsy indicated no blood in his lungs, and he was not considered suicidal at the time. Actually, Dr. Gudden had positive remarks about his mental health. Doctor's body showed evidence of blows to the head and neck and signs of strangulation. There is a speculation that his enemies attempted to kill him during his attempt of escape from the Berg.

The Archetype of the Reluctant King

It may be that life imitates art or that art imitates life, but both in the fiction we read and watch and in historical accounts we learn of, from time to time there appears the reluctant king. The reluctant king may appear in various forms. Sometimes, he feels, that his soul is not that of a king but of an ordinary man, an everyman, a farmer who just wants his warm and secure hearth, a healthy maiden and children. His ministers usually either do not trust him or see him a man uninterested in state affairs, and therefore, a wonderful marionette for that one particularly ambitious minister. Sometimes, he is a hedonist, a man sick of responsibilities, courtly orders, protocols and duties. He lives lavishly, spending his time in taverns or organising extravagant parties at his place. He spends excessively, and sometimes, he is feared, as he can be very unkind towards those who stand between him and his pleasures. And there is the one with lavish fantasies and ideals, an artist and a dreamer, who is usually not very excited about politics, but once in power, sees chance for his visions to come true, only to be disillusioned with the fact that others around him do not care or understand. He withdraws to pursue his love of poetry and fine art, leaving those around him in state of great anxiety. The common characteristic of all of them though, is that they do not fall under the ideal King archetype who is protective, generous, devoted, benevolent, a king who ensures material abundance to his people and is a good father to his children and a loyal husband to his queen. The reluctant King is often a son of a more kingly father, perhaps the one who has brought about prosperity to his people, sometimes he is the one who manages to help his people during a crisis. The son who is to become a reluctant king is not rarely the one who inherits the state in a relatively good conditions and sometimes, he is also very young and inexperienced. Since young age he was told that he is to be a king, taught in skills necessary for one - and very often, under this pressure, he becomes alienated not only from his parents, but the role of the King itself. One may wonder, why is then that we enjoy reading and seeing stories about such kings? What is it that draws us to stories akin to "Emperor's New Clothes, stories of mad kings and queens? Why is Ludwig II, probably, Bavaria's most well-known and most beloved monarch? Perhaps, a part of us enjoys seeing that powerful, often semi-mythological beings such are monarchs, are humans of flesh and bone, susceptible to all ills that come with that. It is also very probable, that we, reflecting our own moral battles, love to see how power corrupts, and not only that - power is experienced as a burden, an undesired burden. And finally, a Romantic may say that behind the splendour and the great legacy, centuries long dynasties or kingdoms stands a great fragility, and that fragility is personified in the king who does not want to be a king. Our fairy tales are full of kings and queens, princes and princesses, knights and maidens, because monarchies and dynasties are fragile and that is perhaps the most fairy tale characteristic of them. A reluctant king, a mad king, any abuse of the king archetype, the one who pushes the first domino before they all collapse is a living evidence of that. It is an evidence of the fact that very few of our constructions resist the tooth of time.

Fairytale King, Swan King and Patron of Aesthetes

"Ludwig II on a Night-Time Sleigh Ride", Karl Wenig (1830 - 1908), Russian

Ludwig earned two other names, besides the ones given to him at his birth - one of them is a "Swan King" and the other is der Märchenkönig, which translates to "The Fairy Tale King". The king was only fifteen when he first saw "Lohengrin", Wagner's opera inspired by the medieval German romance. It embodied the notable Knight of the Swan legend - a mysterious knight who comes in a swan-drawn boat to rescue a damsel. "Lohengrin" never left Ludwig's heart, him continuing his love of swans and keeping swan figures and paintings in his castles. Very often, the King was painted himself as a Knight of the Swan. Wagner's operas inspired the fantasy loving Ludwig. Ludwig is often considered the saviour of Wagner's career, welcoming him to his Court and giving him an opportunity to perform before audience in Munich. Even though nobody could come close to Wagner, Ludwig introduced Mozart, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Schiller, Corneille and many others to the Bavarian audience. Sharing the Romantic vision that the art had power of salvation, he was deeply convinced in its transcendental powers. The name "Fairy Tale King" is hardly a mystery. His fairytale castles, built for no other purpose than to live a fairy tale, his pursuit of fairy tales and desire to make world, a fairy tale brought him that name. He was not someone who only enjoyed the fairy tales as a pasttime, he lived his fairy tale and he brought the fairy tale to the world. As a believer in transcendent power of beauty and arts, Ludwig has become patron of aesthetes and dreamers everywhere. His great vision of beauty and art was not a vision of beauty which is nothing but eye pleasantry. His vision of beauty tells a story of humans, of gods, of possibility, of that which is available, and we do not think it is. It is a story in which white castles on a mountain hill are ours and Swan knights are us. His castles which stand tall and inspire an awe to anyone who places an eye on them, stand as a reminder that Ludwig and those like him do not come to this world as rulers, but as those who point a finger towards a meaning, the transcendent, the beautiful and the good. They allow us to join them, for a moment, in their fairy tale. His dream in the end, did come true - years and years after his death, his castles inspired the modern fairy tales world of Disney and his life and death, remained an enigma just like he wished.

"Alas, he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely, that I fear that his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the gods." - Richard Wagner

Links: "Not So Happily Ever After: The Life of King Ludwig II", Susan Barnett Braun "Ludwig II of Bavaria: The Man and the Mystery", Katerina von Burg "Ludwig II" (2012) Ludwig (1973

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