DnD Tourism: the inevitable Neuschwanstein post
I don’t have much time these days, so I’m going to keep the analysis short here. Tl:dr – you should go visit Neuschwanstein, even if you don’t run a classically pseudo-medieval game, even if the whole volkish Wagnero-Tolkieny fantasy thing brings you out in hives, and especially if you think you’ve been inoculated against sentimentalism by a surfeit of Disney princesses. Because it’s all those things but it’s also so very good.
All the following photos are stolen off the internet: feel free to send takedown orders.
So you know the basic story already: Mad king Ludwig II of Bavaria decides ruling is too hard/boring and his real passion is building fairytale castles. He’s best mates with Wagner and he does his best to turn those turgid operas into fluffy stone confections until his mysterious death at the bottom of a lake supplies the obvious final tragic chord. 50 years later Walt Disney gets excited about the pointy turrets, digs up the last surviving artists who worked on them, and makes the first feature-length cartoon all about Fairycastleland, eventually leading to Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland, CA, which sears Ludwig’s vision into the imagination of little girls for the rest of the 20th century and probably beyond.
So far so serviceable, if you want to mine the second most obvious source in all of fantasy. But this story spins off in several curious directions and the devil (and his salvation) is in the details. If you want to get conspiratorial, you could ask who murdered Ludwig and why, 16 years after Bavaria’s inclusion in Bismarck’s empire made his throne into a historical footnote. You could also wonder how it was that Ludwig’s brother and obvious successor Otto came to be “unfit for rule” after serving adequately in the Prussian army during the short and decisive Franco-Prussian War (or what he was doing in that army, for that matter). The official tour says Otto suffered from PTSD or something, and notes in passing that Ludwig, too, was mad. Except these days we think he probably wasn’t. Ludwig’s building fetish threatened to bankrupt the family, but when he died there was still enough money for his uncle Luitpold to keep up the residence at neighbouring Hohenschwangau and even to have novelties like a telephone and elevator put in.
Less famous, but cozier and handy for the shops.
Work stopped on the castle the day the king died, so only the 4th floor and above were finished. That was enough to make it into an attraction, however, and it was handed over to the new German state and opened to the public just 6 weeks after Ludwig
drowned was bludgeoned to death following his arrest. Which is pretty quick moving, from a building site riddled with rebellious, gossiping servants to a state museum.
Then there’s the curious relationship between Ludwig’s creations and the 2nd and 3rd Reichs. In 1866, Prussia had expanded (via military threat, trickery and horse-trading) through most of the vaguely German-speaking territories that weren’t already nailed down in the Austrian Empire. When Ludwig acceded in 1868 Bavaria’s days were clearly numbered, as the largest independent state waiting to be seized by Prussia’s new, aggressive Kaiser from the sphere of influence of Austria, the “sick man of Europe.” Whether Bavaria was forced to join Prussia or ingeniously navigated an impossible situation depends on who you ask: legend has it that Ludwig sold his crown in 1870 in return for the royal treasure of Hannover. So Bismarck’s “tide of history” that swept Ludwig himself aside also made his castle-confections possible. As physical expressions of Wagner’s operas (and flotsam from the Second Reich), the castles were later grabbed up into Hitler’s “Mythology of the German Spirit,” but their frothy, light-hearted brand of mordlust didn’t fit squarely into the Chancellor’s drill routines: in 1937 they slipped out again from under the Nazi curse dressed up as Germanic Lore for American Kids, and hooked into the already vibrant American Castle Craze, incidentally helping Disney to fund anti-Nazi propaganda films (while Walt himself… had a more troubled relationship with the politics of oppression).
Right now, though, I’m most tempted to consider Ludwig’s ghost as one of the great secret architects of the 20th century: a progenitor who used film before it was even invented to propagate his memes around the world.
Walking around Neuschwanstein you can play spot the Disney movie and get a sense for just how direct the castle’s influence was on Walt’s greatest hits. And once you do, you start to wonder why Disney never made a Lohengrin or Tristan and Isolde. Take this painting in the Hall of the Singers, for instance:
Looking at his actual home at Hohenschwangau, it’s remarkable how the colour palette, motifs and composition of a bunch of 1840s German painters would inform 1940s American background artists and children’s book illustrators:
It’s even tempting (though facile) to see unmarried fantasist Ludwig as the prototype for all Walt’s lonely girls in a hilltop castle, waiting for their princes to come. But Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were just the first moves in ghost-Ludwig’s grand strategy to build Fairytale America (in Calyferne, no less), which may be the sneakiest bit of Capitalist appropriation ever: demythologizing mythology. Roaring like a mouse from beyond the grave. Convincing people that he’s safely dead, then re-emerging as… well, a patron saint of kayfabe – of theatre-as-life.
Because theatricality is all over Ludwig’s plans. Consider, for instance, his “throne room” (above, finished apart from the throne), which is really much less like a throne room than it is like a chapel, in which Ludwig himself would play the role of saint statue – on a pedestal under Christ Pantocrator and – most of all – in a narrative sequence of kings who were also saints.
(Valencia Cathedral, Spain, for comparison)
Or his tomb-like bed, crowned with wooden copies of a dozen mausoleum towers (modern toilet hidden behind the paneling). Or the bed he actually slept in, in Hohenschwangau, under a painted night sky in which the stars and moon could be lit up, by means of lamps hidden in a crawlspace above. Or if that’s not clear enough, the fact that in order to get from his bedroom to his reading room, he would have had to walk through a stage-set grotto, built for a performance of Parsifal:
Dracula not included.
Neuschwanstein’s primary architect, Christian Jank, was a theatre designer. His painted designs for the castle look like theatrical backdrops – and that’s what the castles themselves were supposed to be: physical intrusions into our reality of the world that Wagner brought to brief (although still bum-numbing), flickering life on the stage.
Which is why they’re so perfectly suited to being realized, all over again, as fantasies. Because like movie music or a well-written novel, they guide you in your reception. There is one classic exterior photo of Neuschwanstein that every tourist takes:
They take it from the Marienburg bridge, because it offers the one vantage point from which you can see the whole castle. Because the bridge was placed just so, as a viewing platform for the masterpiece; the optimal point for reproducing the castle’s image the way Jank wanted you to remember it. In most of the rooms there’s an obvious place you’re supposed to stand, where all the sightlines converge – and it’s not the king’s seat, but the point where the visitor first enters. The point where you would, naturally, have your Kodak moment. The walks up to the castles are through carefully manicured “wild” forests, complete with Alan Lee tangled roots and craggy shettiya-type rocks, which ground the whole thing and also prepare you for entering the self-consciously otherworldly castle precincts. In short, the whole thing is a masterclass in presenting an experience to the visitor. It only looks, superficially, like a castle. In fact it’s a thesis, a story-book, covered in painted illustrations and punctuated by spiral staircases and high lookout windows.
…and in that spirit, it really doesn’t matter that it’s unfinished. Or that its younger brother, Castle Falkenstein, miscarried before it could get a foot onto the earth.
That just means Falkenstein’s ready to hold whatever story you want to pour into it.