Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review - The Swan King (Ludwig II of Bavaria)

The Swan King (Ludwig II of Bavaria)
by Christopher McIntosh
1982 (but last updated in 2012)
307 pages 

'The Swan King is the biography of one of the most enigmatic figures of the nineteenth century, described by Verlaine as 'the only true king of his century'.  A man of wildly eccentric temperament and touched by a rare, imaginative genius, Ludwig II of Bavaria is remembered both for his patronage of Richard Wagner and for the fabulous palaces that he created as part of a dream-world to escape the responsibilities of state.  In the realization of his fantasies, he created a ferment of creativity among artists and craftsmen, while his neglect of Bavaria's political interests made powerful enemies among those critical of his self-indulgence and excesses.  At the age of 40, declared insane in a plot to depose him, Ludwig died in mysterious circumstances.  What truly happened on that fateful night has never been discovered.'

This is the third book I've now read about Ludwig.  While it is my least favorite of the three, it is still a very good book.  Author Christopher McIntosh was a Wagner fan first, then became interested in Ludwig through that connection.  The fact that McIntosh was a Wagner fan first shows in this book.  It seems to show Wagner in a much better light than all other accounts I've seen about the man.  And because there can be no story of Ludwig without Wagner, there is a lot of time spent on the whole subject in this book, as there always is.

This book relies heavily on referring to other books about Ludwig, and has tons of quotes and passages from diaries and memoirs and things from many different players involved in Ludwig's life.  I do like how the author seems to look at things almost as an investigator, mentioning something and then breaking it down slightly to see how accurate it might be.  Keep in mind, a lot of the information about Ludwig, especially in his later years, comes from those who held grudges against him and were glad to see him fall.

There are very few pictures in this book, which is a bummer.  Even among those few pics, only one or two are actually of Ludwig.

The translations are a little easier to follow in this one than in the other books I've read.  The others seem to have more literal translations, where this one seems to be phrase things in more easy to understand way of English speaking.  (Does that make sense?)

The author addresses different subjects in their own chapters, and not so much an overall chronological telling of Ludwig's life.  This is both good and bad, for me at least.  It's nice to have everything about, say, his building phase addressed all in one chunk, but it doesn't give you a clear picture of what else was really going on in his life at that time.  For instance, the chapter about his homosexuality is very interesting and has some emotional entries from Ludwig's own diaries included, but I kept wondering 'Ok, at what point was this entry made and what might have gotten him so worked up?'  I found myself browsing back through the book or Googling things to try and match up a timeline.

I liked that the author spent time showing Ludwig wasn't always 'crazy.'  There is plenty to show that he did try in the beginning, that he did take care of business, and that he was devoted to trying to save his beloved Bavaria.  The author presents Ludwig's decline in a way that you can follow, and you really feel for the guy as things get out of his control and the depression and isolation build.  While it does touch on his unpredictable temper, this book seems to show him as a slightly more mellow and thoughtful man.

While I like all that about this book there is just something that still felt to, I don't know, thin.  It didn't quite pack the punch of the other two books I've read.  Maybe because there is nothing really new presented here?  This is interesting because just yesterday someone asked me that.  At work we have contractors that come in and service our filler machines.  One that is often there is from Austria (although lives in the States now), and I've known him many years.  He happens to be at the plant this week and on one break yesterday he saw this book sitting by me on the table.

Johan - "Ah, the crazy king!"
Me - "Yep, you're boy."
Johan - "Heh, yeah . . .  [and proceeds to read the back cover]."
Me - *dreamily reveling in hearing that Austrian accent talk about Ludwig*
Johan - "Oh, Wagner?  Yes, the composer.  Hmm."
Me - *thinking 'Read the whole book to me.'*
Johan - "Did you know that Disney modeled their castle after this one?  *pointing to Neuschwanstein on the cover*"
Me - "Yes.  I've been there."
Johan - "You have?!  I have never been there myself."
Me - "Whaaat?!  It's, like, just down the block for you?!"
Johan - "I know.  I should go."
Me - "I'm obsessed with Ludwig right now.  This is the third book I've read about him."
Johan - "And have you learned anything new from one book to another?  Or is it just all the same stuff?"
Me - "It's all pretty much the same stuff.  The only thing that changes is what theory the author subscribes to about his death."
Johan - "It was poison."
Me - "Was it suicide, or was it murder to remove him?"
Johan - "Either way, it was poison."

Okay, well, obvious Johan from Austria isn't up on his Ludwig history but the conversation made me chuckle and does bring me to my next point.  In the author's preface of this updated version of the book, he states that he believes in the suicide theory.  In the actual part of the book that covers Ludwig's death, it is presented neutrally, going over facts and letting the reader decide which camp they fall into, the murder camp or the suicide camp.  Where do I fall?  I'm still not sure.  Before reading my first book about him, knowing very little coming into it, I thought I was a firm believer in the murder theory.  That first book opened my eyes and I jumped over to the suicide camp.  Since then, I lean more towards the suicide camp but I still have way too many questions and doubts.  The murder scenario seems more and more unlikely to me though.  They already had him in custody, declared insane and unfit to rule, already had his replacement, had carried out their plans.  Why murder him and get themselves into even more trouble?  I would like to think it was the lesser talked about escape theory, but again, there are still so many questions.  I guess we will never know.

That is, until the Wittelsbach family consents to having Ludwig's body examined by present day examiners with modern techniques.

All in all, a good book if you're interested in learning about King Ludwig II, but not the best out there.


  1. I love that conversation between you an Johan.

    I will definitely look into the first two books. It is very intriguing but almost a shame that there really isn't much info on him.

    1. There is a lot of info on him. It's just that the later years stuff has to be looked at a little more skeptically, or with a more open mind, considering the sources.

      I want to find more books but about him. I wonder if they'll be boring at this point though, just retelling of the same things I already know?