How does the most beautiful castle in Europe connect all our ideas about myth and magic?
If you are an American writer of fantasy fiction or an American reader, you may have wondered why fantasy fiction focuses so often on a theoretical medieval Europe.
And you might also have wondered whether the medieval Europe of fantasy tales is really like it’s shown in the stories… or is it false? To be fair, it seems that the Disneyfication of our collective folk memory hasn’t helped much to disentangle truth from fiction. For example, we know that at least half of Disney’s most beloved films have been set in a speculative fantasy Europe (this includes recent films) Brave is set in Scotland, Frozen is set in Norway / Sweden, Maleficent is set in England, of course the much-loved Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are both set in Germany, Beauty and the Beast is set in France, The Little Mermaid (it should have been set in Denmark) is set in Switzerland, Peter Pan is set in England, etc. Even one of the most iconic motifs of the Walt Disney Universe, Cinderella’s Castle, is based on an existing royal castle… and I contend that it’s this castle — the most beautiful castle in Europe that unifies all our ideas about fairy-tales: But I warn you that you may not like what I’m about to say, especially if you consider yourself to be a rationalist: it would be a mistake to assume that the Europe of fantasy writers and the world of Disney film-makers is imaginary or counterfactual. It’s not. Fantasy Europe is real!
Wonderfully (perhaps hauntingly) and always fascinatingly… the Europe I live in is not just a fabulous micro-world of magical stories and narratives… it is not simply a place that is historically rich and “Disneyish” to behold… it’s a real fairyland! You do not believe me? I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I live in an absolute monarchy and only a couple of miles from where a real-life queen sits in an ancient stone tower, inside a thousand-year-old castle. She keeps a Golden Ship near my place, she uses occasionally uses it to row down the Thames near my hometown. She travels down a river, incidentally, named after a water god of such antiquity nobody can remember its origins. Her home, which is a castle / palace sits atop a mighty mound that provides supernatural energy to her and her family… and is one of several castles she uses. And if she takes a coach ride (using a coach from her fleet of carriages and horses) through the local town of Eton, she will see schoolboys dressed in tailcoats that attend a school that looks more like Hogwarts than any school you’ve ever imagined. And this was where our prime minister Boris was educated! This is now, 2020. As I write this. This is real-life Europe.
We Europeans coexist with history in a way that establishes a special fusional relationship between fact and fable: between the mythical world and the “real and current world”. To understand this, try to guess how many castles there are in Britain. Go ahead, I dare you. We know the Queen lives in one (and she owns others, scattered around the islands) but how many of us Brits pass castles on our way to school, to the shops, or to the office? How many castles are in Britain? No one knows for sure — that’s how many! Historians quarrel over it (there are too many to count) but they settle on a figure of about 1,500. The principality of Wales has the highest number of castles per square mile in the world, over 500, in such a small country, making it the epicenter of castles in Europe. Although Germany has the most castles of any country in the world, France, Spain and Great Britain are close behind.
As for splendor, you probably can’t beat the Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark, as for impressive and ancient, Windsor Castle still stands out, what about H.M. Tower of London for darkness? And for romance you won’t get much better than Eilean Donan in the Western Highlands of Scotland. But today I would like to introduce you to the most beautiful castle in Europe – Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, Germany.
Not only is Neuschwanstein so architecturally magnificent that it inspired Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, it also meets my conjecture that we Europeans live alongside our history in a way that creates a peculiar interplay between the allegorical & mythological and our current prosaic “real world”.
The castle of Neuschwanstein was built recently. The noble castle was commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria as a haven created in honor of the German “Ring” composer Richard Wagner, who lived between 1813 and 1883. It was built at the end of the nineteenth century. That may sound like a long time ago to you, but to put it in perspective, as a teenager I had an aunt who was born in 1870… so she was present when this place was still being put together. It was constructed basically “yesterday” in terms of castle building. If you go to the tall citadel now you will see its Norman-Romanesque features with sky-scraping arches, proud towers, and exalted pinnacles, all built at enormously surreal eagle-soaring heights and titanic dimensions. But, to be honest, it’s not finished yet!
But the thing is, this place is not just a Disneyland castle, it also cuts across the gaps between history, modernity, and mythology. This place blurs the boundaries of what is “real” and what is “magical” and what is halfway between! This is the wonder of the castle.
Sadly, although it was a glorious tribute to Richard Wagner, the “Ring” composer never visited Neuschwanstein. And much of the castle remains unfinished (it looks finished on the outside, I admit, but it’s half-built inside). If Wagner had ever visited, he would have seen a performance hall where his operas would be sung. He might also have visited the famous Venus Grotto, a cave of artificial stalactites located on the third floor, which was inspired by the legend of Tannhauser, a mythical knight who supposedly found Venusberg, which is the legendary underground home of the Goddess Venus, in other words, Tannhauser visited the otherworld of classical legend.
Upon retiring to the castle grotto, visitors can still move into this liminal darkness to experience for themselves the concept of travelling from one dimension to another. And this would be especially sensational if there is singing from the concert hall situated above the grotto. So, this castle connects fable & legend with modern life. And, if you wanted to prove the link further, the connections between history, prehistory and legend, what about the fact that looted artworks, stolen by the Nazis during WWII, were stored here? Hitler planned to open an art gallery in the castle after the war was won. And inside the castle the Nazis stored-away several rare, magical and powerful symbols. After the Allied victory, U.S. troops discovered 21,000 stolen items within the castle, including altar pieces from churches, private jewelry taken from prominent Jewish families, and vast amounts of furniture. There were so many artifacts, they still haven’t all been catalogued.
And this is not the only castle that has been located here. Schwanstein castle was here long before the place we see now. But that edifice was demolished to make way for the Disneyland towers. And that older castle sat upon the remains of an earlier one, and that upon the stones of an even older one, and so forth. This area was settled in Roman times and the Romans probably put their own fortress on top of an existing prehistoric earthwork. The area later became a favorite summer resort for prince-bishops.
This astonishing place links Saint Magnus of Füssen with water nymph-maidens of the Rhine, the Viking Valkyries and the dragon slayer Sigurd with the Roman goddess “Venus” — and all this was created in the mind (some say the mad mind) of a fantastical fairy-tale King known as the Duke of Franconia and Bavaria, Ludwig II, the Swan King, who was a direct descendant of a German-Bavarian dynasty that ruled over Holland, Germany, Sweden, Romania, Bohemia, Hungary, Denmark, Norway, Greece, and the entire Holy Roman Empire and gave rise to the Royal House of Windsor, thus the current British royal family who still rule over Britain and the Commonwealth.
It’s all connected. And we go full circle. King Ludwig’s fantasy castle links all these things. Neuschwanstein has associations with magical treasures, precious holy relics, sorcerers swords, the loot of the Nazis, the Royal families of Europe and the oldest of Norse beliefs. And it is built upon the sacred mounds left by prehistoric civilizations. You can visit it one day. It’s the most beautiful castle in Europe.
See the 2014 film The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, to learn more about Nazi looting.
Words: @neilmach 2020 ©
Comments? Tweet me @neilmach