Theosophy – October 1896



In an age when the dread shadows of Doubt and Despair o'erspread the race and the golden flame of Hope is but a glimmering spark in the hearts of men, the drama of Lohengrin stands forth as at once a pathetic and inspiring lesson. As a writer has beautifully expressed it in a few words: "The good angel of the human soul is its ideal; if it is called upon it will come, but if the imprudent Psyche doubts it and its divine message, immediately the angel veils its face and disappears."

The legendary matter out of which Wagner has created his drama is a fascinating study but would need an article by itself to touch even upon its main features. Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan, is one of the Brotherhood of Knights or Initiates who guard the mystic Cup of the Holy Grail, and ever and anon go forth into the world to protect right and virtue and overcome the powers of evil. This, in the Age of Chivalry, was the symbol of that Brotherhood of Sages who, as Theosophy teaches us, watch over Humanity and send forth their messengers from time to time to keep alive in men the consciousness of their innate divinity. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita: "I incarnate from age to age for the preservation of the just, the destruction of the wicked, and the establishment of righteousness."

The Cup was the sacred receptacle of the Wisdom of the Ages which is to be found within each one of us, and which is represented by the magic cauldron of the Druids, the Eucharistic cup of the Christ, and many a more ancient symbol. The mysterious castle of Monsalvat wherein stood the shining Temple of the Grail, is located by the great Minnesinger Wolfram von Eschenbach in the mountains in the North of Spain.

The action of the drama is preceded by an instrumental Prelude constructed entirely from the marvellously pathetic and beautiful theme of the Holy Grail, a theme to which the chords of our innermost being vibrate in instant sympathy, making us feel that here indeed is a master mind that knows the secrets of the soul. "An Initiate of Monsalvat," Wagner tells us, "is praying in a high valley on his mountain." To his inner vision appears a celestial band, bearing the Cup of the Holy Grail, and on his bowed head he receives from it "the baptism of fire which consecrates him as Knight. The fiery cloud at once extinguishes its flame" and retires, leaving behind it "the perfume of its aura . . . . It has confided to a pure soul the Holy Vessel, source of that Love which had disappeared from earth."

The first scene discloses the plain of the Scheldt in Brabant, where King Henry the "Fowler" is rallying his forces against the threatening enemy. He sits under the tree of judgment to hear a heavy charge brought against Elsa of Brabant by Count Telramund, who accuses her of murdering her little brother. This brother, Gottfried (lit. "Peace of God"), is heir to the throne, and he represents Hope in the heart of Elsa who is the Psyche or Human Soul. "Elsa has been in the dark forest with her brother, and at nightfall she comes back without him." Groping in the darkness of Matter she has lost Hope for a time, and the lower forces at once begin to attack her. Telramund, a brave soldier, to whom honor is dear, represents material Force or Impulse. Elsa had refused an alliance with him and he had therefore married Ortrud the sorceress (the Animal Soul) who now uses him as her tool to bring about Elsa's downfall.

Called upon to answer the charge Elsa, the virgin soul, enters in white raiment and tells of the vision which has appeared to her. "Shining with light, his sword radiant with a thousand fires, a Knight" had come from the heights of heaven to defend her. On him and no other would she now call to champion her cause. The trumpeters sound the challenge, and presently a boat drawn by a swan is seen advancing over the waters, and in it stands a noble Knight in silver armor. He is the "Warrior" of whom we read in Light on the Path, the incarnate Son of Mind, of whom Elsa-Psyche is the silver Ray or reflection thrown downward to gain experience in the world of Matter.

Alighting and bidding farewell to the swan (the sacred bird, or Hope under another form) he declares Elsa's innocence and tells her he will fight for her if she will place absolute faith in him and never ask his name or race. The tones in which he asks this vow of Elsa form a theme of deepest import, which is heard afterwards whenever Elsa is in danger from Ortrud's machinations. It may be called the Warning motif. Receiving Elsa's promise, the unknown champion declares his love for her, and shows at once his power and mercy by defeating Telramund and sparing his life.

Night has fallen when the second act opens with the lurid and snake-like motif of Ortrud followed by the solemn Warning motif twice repeated. She and Telramund are engaged in a violent altercation on the steps of the church, while at the back are the lights of the Palace, where rejoicings are going on at the forthcoming union of Elsa and the Knight. Presently Elsa appears on the balcony of the Kemenate and murmurs to the night of her new-found happiness. Now is Ortrud's opportunity: dismissing Telramund, she employs strategy and beginning by exciting Elsa pity for herself and her husband she finally induces her to descend and speak with her below. Once there she instills into Elsa's mind the evil suggestion that, as magic brought her Defender, so also might it take him away. Here is Elsa's test. Perfect faith is wholly unselfish, but Ortrud's words put fear into her heart; she has not the strength to cast out this seed of Doubt, and while she declares her unshaken faith in her champion she permits her enemy to follow her into the Kemenate.

The next day when the procession is on its way to the church, Ortrud suddenly comes from the rear and bars Elsa's way, claiming the right to precede her. The evil power has been encouraged and, standing on the steps of the church, represents to the very letter the "Dweller on the Threshold." But the King and the Knight now enter, and as the latter advances to lead Elsa into the church the evil shadow is compelled to give way. Yet she makes a second attempt through Telramund, who rushes forward and loudly charges the Knight with gaining his victory by sorcery. But the King and the People of Brabant (who represent the fluctuating emotions) are with the Defender, and the ceremony takes place.

The third Act opens with a joyful musical prelude which merges into the well-known strains of the Bridal Chorus, as the newly-married pair are ushered into the bridal chamber. It is impossible to describe the psychological subtlety of this remarkable scene in detail: suffice it to say that the seed of doubt planted by Ortrud now comes to fruition, and, in the very theme of the Ortrud motif she presses the fatal question the while the Warning motif strives in vain to tell her of her danger. As she utters it Telramund rushes in with assistants to murder the knight, but is at once stricken dead by his sword. Sadly he orders Elsa's maidens to remove her, and on the following day before King and People he reveals his name and race in a song of wondrous beauty and deep significance.

He tells of the Sanctuary of Monsalvat and its Brotherhood of Knights; how on their missions the power of the Grail is with them, but if their names are revealed they must lose it or return to the Temple. And then he concludes with these words:

"I will speak because I am ordered. The Grail sent me and I have followed its law. My father Parsifal wears its crown, and Lohengrin its Knight am I."

Then, turning to Elsa, he tells her that if she had trusted him for one short year his name would have been revealed to her and he could have remained to rule over her people. Now he must depart, but in case the Grail permits her brother (Hope) to return, he gives her for him his conquering sword, his horn to call him in time of need, and his ring as a symbol of their essential unity. As he moves towards the boat Ortrud appears and announces with triumph that Gottfried cannot return him as she has changed him by her sorceries into a swan: but Lohengrin concentrates himself by a powerful effort of will, the swan sinks and the missing heir of Brabant appears in its place. The Holy Dove, symbol of the Divine Spirit, floats down and, taking up the golden chain attached to the boat, bears Lohengrin away, while Elsa sinks lifeless in the arms of her brother. Thus, while Elsa has failed to keep up to the level of her original aspiration, she has gained a valuable experience, and Hope, restored to her by the Warrior and armed with his talismans, is not likely to be taken from her in a future incarnation by the lower powers. The link is not broken, she has not really lost her champion, for "when once he has entered thee and become thy Warrior he will never utterly desert thee, and at the day of the great peace he will become one with thee."


1. I am largely indebted to Mme. de Neufville, President of the Taliesin Lodge, Amsterdam, for this epitome of the drama. — B. C. (return to text)