The myth Richard Wagner set to music in the opera Lohengrin is a marvelous portrait of romantic chivalry. The mystery of the enduring power of this story may be explained by analyzing it as a dramatic theodicy. A philosophical theodicy poses an answer to the problem of evil in a world supposedly controlled by a God who is good. How atrocities can be permitted under the sun by a benevolent and omnipotent God is a question that does not completely relent under logical analysis. Dramatic renderings of the issue have had wider appeal and greater staying power. One of the oldest examples of dramatic theodicy is the story of Job in the Bible. Job suffers even in his innocence, and his complaint reaches the court of heaven where God permits the ordeal to continue, apparently to negate Satan’s taunt that Job is faithful only because God rewards him for his virtue. Making Job into an object lesson does little to relieve him, but, eventually, there is a thunderous conclusion in the firmament, more in resonance with operatic crescendo than philosophical abstraction.
Elsa, the heroine in Wagner’s Lohengrin, is accused of fratricide and trysting with an illicit lover by her antagonists, Telramund and his sorceress wife Ortrud. These two conspire in a plot as nefarious as that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Their intent is to usurp headship of the Duchy of Brabant, which rightfully belongs to Elsa’s brother, Gottfried, heir to Brabant’s Christian dynasty. Gottfried, now strangely absent, is presumed dead, and Ortrud is progressively corrupting her husband by her false testimony that Elsa has murdered him. The collapse of Telramund’s nobility under the influence of his wife is a significant subplot of the opera.
When King Heinrich arrives to investigate the strife attending succession of the Duchy of Brabant, Telramund has bought Ortrud’s lies wholesale and takes up her false witness against Elsa. Elsa is called upon to defend herself, but she only replies by relating a dream of a knight who has promised to defend her cause. A herald calls repeatedly for a defender for Elsa’s cause, but none appears. Elsa prays that the chivalric knight of her vision will now come to her aid. At last, transcendence breaks into the world of human injustice. In the romantic illumination of Wagner’s music the knight Lohengrin appears on the River Scheldt in mythic splendor in boat drawn by a swan.
Lohengrin betroths himself to Elsa and answers her prayers for aid on the condition that she will never ask his name or lineage. He announces that he will prove her innocence in mortal combat. King Heinrich prays that justice will be established in the ordeal. Lohengrin and Telramund draw their swords. The contest that follows is brief and decisive. The virtuous knight subdues Telramund. With blade poised above Telramund’s heart, Lohengrin says he will spare the accuser’s life. He exhorts him to spend his borrowed time in repentance for the evil he has perpetrated against Elsa.
The first act of Lohengrin has established the basic premises of a theodicy. Elsa’s innocent suffering poses a dilemma of the sort that, left unresolved, casts doubt on God’s goodness. The premise that God is powerful is assumed. A transcendent being unable to overcome the actions of human malefactors would not be God. Even in absence of Elsa’s prayers, God must act in her defense, or there must be a satisfactory explanation, should God permit the injustice to continue. Theology in a Calvinistic vein that sustains the inscrutable sovereignty of God against human comprehension does not play well on the stage. Sending the defender of Elsa’s virtue shows God’s benevolent intentions, but resolution of the problem in Act I would not provide sufficient time for Wagner’s music to elaborate.
Ortrud and Telramund plot in the night to reverse Elsa’s good fortune. When the opportunity arises, Ortrud attempts to dissuade Elsa from trust in the heroic virtue of her betrothed: if Lohengrin comes anonymously and inexplicably from a place that must remain a mystery, will he not someday depart as abruptly, leaving bereft both Elsa and the Duchey of Brabant of which he now has been proclaimed guardian? Magical in her own right, Ortrud calls upon her spirits to deceive Elsa and overthrow her defender. She invokes the ancient Gods, Wotan and Freia, of the Norse pantheon.
Telramund listens to her oaths of vengeance and her invocations in service of the betrayal of trust she is building with Elsa. Telramund now understands that he was deceived by Ortrud’s lies about Elsa. He laments the loss of his virtue and recalls his valor in defense of land and people who gave him honor, now lost. Yet in full cognizance of the deception that, with Ortrude, his actions sustain, he enlists four nobles to strive with him against his new rival.
To compound the pathos of Elsa’s innocence, she tries to befriend Ortrude, even as Elsa is being undone by Ortrude’s insinuations. She pities Ortrude’s destitution, assuming that her husband invented the accusations from which Elsa was miraculously delivered. She invites Ortrude to join with her in the wedding procession at the cathedral and makes Ortrude her maid of honor. In return, as Elsa’s bridal procession is entering the cathedral, Ortrude and Telramund block the procession and demand to know the name and origin of the groom. Lohengrin’s enigmatic reply is that he is bound to no one, save Elsa, for an answer. Since she, in good faith on her agreement, refuses to ask the forbidden question, King Heinrich and the people of Brabant conclude that the wedding is legitimate and that it shall proceed.
It is clear in the story from which the composer began that Elsa’s faith is the critical factor in her relation to the figure of her redemption. She has every reason to trust the man who confounded the lies of her accusers and saved her from death or exile. As long as she doesn’t waver on her agreement, the romance continues. Ortrude and Telramund are now again in disgrace. The bride and groom retire to their nuptial bed. All is well until Elsa’s trust gives way to the suspicions planted in her by Ortrude. She begins to probe his anonymity. He first evades her queries then reminds her of her vow. She persists, and her inquisitiveness becomes more intent on having an answer. At the critical moment, when she finally insists on knowing her husband’s name and lineage, Telramund and his cohorts storm the house. Telramund’s sword is of no avail even in ambush, and Lohengrin slays him. Instead of the sensual evocation of a Wagnerian climax, this thrust disgorges Telrumund’s entrails on the bridal bed. A determined foe has been slain, but Elsa’s question has dislodged the balance that secures her place of safety in the universe of this drama. Her husband sadly tells her that he will publicly give answers to her questions.
In the morning, the assembled people of Brabant learn the name and status of their guardian. His song begins as the strings evoke the transcendent realm of his origin. “In far off land, to mortal feet forbidden, there is a castle, Monsalvat by name.” In the ethos of medieval chivalry Monsalvat is the sanctuary of the Holy Grail, the sacred challis Jesus shared with his disciples when he instituted the Eucharistic memorial of his death. The Holy Grail appears from the world of Celtic myth in Welsh legendary tales of The Mabinogion. Sir Thomas Malory continued the tradition in English literature with his tales of King Arthur’s Round Table. On the European continent the grail legend had a life of its own. An unfinished 12th-century poem by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes, describes the discovery of the grail by Parsifal. Wagner’s interpretation of the Grail motif comes from an epic by the 13th century German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach. In Spain Cervantes began writing a parody of chivalric ideals in Don Quixote only to find himself captivated by chivalry in the end.
So, in the first utterances of his song, Elsa’s defender and the acclaimed guardian of Brabant identifies his nobility as transcendent in origin. He is a knight of the Holy Grail. His strength comes from participation in a divine order that shares the mystery of the blood of Christ in the castle Monsalvat. “A gleaming temple therein is hidden, so rich as nothing on earth could frame/ Therein a cup most holy powers possessing/ Is guarded as a gift of heaven’s love/ To be to sinless men a boon and blessing/ It was brought to us by angels from above/ And every year a dove descends from Heaven/ The mystic might within it to resolve/ It’s called the Grail/ And purest faith it lendeth to all the knights who in its service strive/ He whom the Grail to be its servant chooses/ It arms with holy supernatural might/ Opposed to him deceit its magic loses/ The powers of darkness he can put to flight/ Though in distant lands the Grail may send him, the cause of injured virtue to defend/ Holy might will attend him, while unknown to all he can remain/ The art that in the Grail is hidden/ Its light no mortal eye can gaze upon/ From every doubt its knight must be protected/ If recognized, he must at once be gone/ Thus compelled, now I reveal my sacred story/ The Grail’s servant to you I hither came/ My father Parsifal reigns in his glory/ His knight I am/ And Lohengrin my name.”
The crescendo in the brass and trumpet flourish that attends this revelation leaves no doubt of Wagner’s intent. He understood this story very well and the effect it would have on his audience. King Heinrich sheds a tear, and Elsa laments paradise lost. Aware that his hope of love in this world is also lost, Lohengrin grieves with Elsa that her sincere remorse is vain. The people of Brabant are bereft of their guardian. Against King Heinrich’s entreaty Lohengrin explains that should he, in disobedience, seek to remain, his power would be gone and his cause would fail. He reassures Heinrich with a premonition: the Eastern horde will not prevail against German lands.
To everyone’s dismay, the swan returns on the River Scheldt. In Lohengrin’s greeting another mystery begins to unravel. If Lohnegrin had been able to remain one year in Brabant, Elsa’s brother Gottfried would have been released from the servitude to which he is bound by Ortrud’s magic. Lohengrin gives Elsa his sword and horn and a ring, which, should Gottfried ever return, will give him strength in battle, succor in danger, and remind him of the one who took up their cause. With this, it is time to say, “Lebwohl”. In the tradition of Knights errant, and rangers in American Westerns, Lohengrin must depart to find service elsewhere and to others.
As Lohengrin heads up the riverbank to the boat, Ortrud explicates the mystery of Gottfried’s fate. She verifies, by the gold chain around the swan’s throat, observable to all, that this swan is Gottfried transformed. The true heir to the throne of Brabant is now engaged hence. This, she says, is vengeance from the gods of the Norse pantheon on the apostasy of a Christian dynasty of Brabant. But the Grail has one final consolation. Lohengrin kneels in silent prayer, and the white dove of Monsalvat hovers over the boat. Lohengrin perceives it with gratitude and springs up to unfasten the chain from the swan’s throat. The swan sinks into the water, and Lohengrin lifts to the bank a youth in gleaming silver garments. Ortrud collapses with a shriek, and Lohengrin steps onto the boat. The dove seizes the gold chain and draws it off Gottfried’s neck while Elsa gazes on him with rapture. He makes obeisance to King Heinrich. The men of the community kneel in homage to Gottfried. He hastens to Elsa’s arms, and she, in joy, turns hastily toward the shore, but Lohengrin is gone.
Wagner didn’t invent this story, but it is his rendition that endures in the modern world. The opera is one of the standards of any company with the resources to mount a production. Singers still aspire to the vocal challenges it presents. The familiar motifs of an inspired quest in defense of the powerless continue in modified form in cinematic drama, and, of course, every film score uses techniques Wagner invented or adapted for his purposes. In the productions of Lohengrin being mounted, however, many directors try to mute the clear demarcation between good and evil evident in the work. In an unsigned essay in a subscribers booklet circulated prior to Seattle Opera’s 2004 production, the author calls Ortrud a “rationalist”. Ortrud is clearly the force for evil in the drama, yet this writer asks, under the heading Wagner’s Moral Complexities, “How do we know Ortrud is so wicked? Her questions about Lohengrin are perfectly sensible. And if her tactics seem ruthless, remember that Ortrud truly believes that the throne is rightfully hers, that it was usurped from her family by Elsa’s. And why do we believe Lohengrin is so wonderful? The trial-by-combat scene in which he defeats Telramund, although sanctioned by King Henry’s medieval government, was as barbaric and foreign to Wagner’s audience as Ortrud’s black magic. By putting this scene onstage, Wagner was asking: Does might make right?”
This analysis is missing a salient theme in medieval literature. At the heart of the Grail legend and the chivalric code is the idea of might for right. If Ortrud is fighting for what she thinks is rightfully hers, she has no moral compunction about destroying the innocent in her ambition. In this vein one might also say of Lady Macbeth that she is fighting for what she thinks is rightfully hers. The opera Lohengrin is not morally complex. Though the composer certainly was morally compromised, he found truths in his art that were probably beyond him.
The essayist, still anonymous, unlike Lohengrin, says “Wagner’s Lohengrin uses this popular pattern, and this old story, to talk about a central issue of the day: the crisis of faith in nineteenth-century Europe. During Wagner’s lifetime, the rise of science, technology, and industry were shaking to its foundations people’s faith in the church, long the mainstay of European society. Wagner shows us how Elsa’s pure faith in Lohengrin’s virtue evaporates when she listens seriously to the intelligent questions of Ortrud, who is competing with Lohengrin for power over the community. Ever the rationalist, Ortrud demands proof, and Lohengrin’s powerful mystique, penetrated by her piercing light of logical inquiry, turns out to be airy nothing.”
Ortrud the rationalist! This is akin to calling her invocations of the Norse deities Logical Positivism—absurd. Elsa’s fragile faith is an important element of the story, but in this drama, at least, the church isn’t in crisis. The crisis is, indeed, correctly identified as within the human soul. It is a crisis of finding the spiritual resources to continue living in an unjust world, not a crisis of the church. In the world of this opera injustice is perpetrated by Ortrud and Telramund as he becomes complicit in Ortrud’s lies. You couldn’t find a less ambiguous case of false witness in the book of Leviticus.
Nietzsche admired Wagner, and for a while they were fellow travelers, but analysis of this medieval plot will be better served by leaving the Nietzschean will to power and its moral ambiguity aside. The profound and truly human question in this story is why the innocent suffer while God remains inaccessible? The answer, in a bald-faced abstraction of the sort that is not consoling in absence of myth like that of Lohengrin, is that supernatural assistance, transparent and clearly evident to all observers, would irrevocably compromise human freedom.
Despite the weight of postmodern ideology and the theory of evolution, there are moral truths, and there is some help to be found in transcendental categories. Suffering, when it has meaning, ceases to be unbearable suffering. This is a reasonable literary explanation for Lohengrin’s extraction of the promise that Elsa never ask his name or lineage. If he were to remain in Brabant after everybody knows that his strength is divinely ordained, his authority would be unquestionable, and human actions could never, for long, diverge from virtue as established by the community. The Christian Dynasty of Brabant would be eschatological.
In this sense the story says the same thing as the Genesis account of the fall, and Elsa’s part resembles that of Eve under the influence of the serpent. A clearer case for archetypes in the collective unconscious could scarcely be found. Thankfully, Wagner is better dramatist than Carl Jung. Whether Wagner accepted the tale, as truth, is certainly questionable; the substance of the issue involved isn’t. Listen to the music with suspension of judgment, and draw your own conclusions. In contemporary productions, you might have to close your eyes to what they put on the stage. (audio-10)
audio-10: Wagner; Lohengrin; excerpted from Deutsche Grammophon recording 2530 176; Kubelik.