Of all Wagner's operas, it is Lohengrin that poses the greatest difficulty for many, in that its plot revolves around a dubious proposition. Elsa, accused of murdering her brother, has a dreamlike vision of a knight in shining armor who will save her. The Swan Knight, Lohengrin, duly appears and offers to fight Elsa's accuser and to wed her, provided that she refrain from inquiring about his identity or origins. Her failure to keep her side of the bargain meets with general opprobrium, and she loses the man of her dreams.
The difficulty of the proposition, especially to modern sensibilities, is that Lohengrin's stipulation seems unreasonable, while Elsa's failure to repress her female curiosity is regarded by many as unacceptable misogyny on Wagner's part. But is that really the case? I would like to suggest that Elsa, far from being the weak link whose behavior causes her own downfall and that of Lohengrin and the Brabantines he was about to lead into battle, is actually a progressive, enlightened force, and that the failure is not so much hers as Lohengrin's. By seeing the opera and its plot in a wider context, we can perhaps acquire a deeper understanding of the issues at stake.
First, the forbidden question itself. Questions and riddles are commonplace in opera, and even more so in fairy tale, which often provides the material for opera plots. A famous example is the series of three questions posed by Turandot to Prince Calaf. The fairy tale on which Puccini's librettists based their story was by Carlo Gozzi, who was also responsible for the story used by Wagner in his early opera Die Feen. The latter story is interesting, in that it revolves around a forbidden question, but here it is a man, Prince Arindal, who fails the test: goaded beyond endurance, he finally begs to know the identity and origin of his beloved Ada (who is actually half-fairy, half-mortal), only to find that he has lost her.
The Riddle Scene in Siegfried, where the Wanderer and Mime probe the boundaries of each other's knowledge, is a dramatic enactment of an age-old trope, and questions and riddles play an important role in the legend of the Grail too. In Wolfram von Eschenbach's version, as set by Wagner, the "pure fool," Parsifal, is castigated for failing to ask what ails Amfortas. The question-and-answer motif is satirized in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the exchange between the Bridgekeeper and Launcelot. The Bridgekeeper's three questions—"What is your name?" "What is your quest?" "What is your favourite color?"—are easily answered by Launcelot, whereupon the Bridgekeeper varies his questions to the next contender: "What is your name?" "What is your quest?" "What is the capital of Assyria?"
Fairy tales such as those collected by the Brothers Grimm are full of the question-and-answer motif. In Rumpelstiltskin, for example, the Queen has to guess the name of the dwarf who helps her to spin gold out of straw. On one level, the purpose of such questions is to advance the story and add suspense. Sometimes, though, there is a deeper symbolic significance: the naming of people is often a major step on the road to self-recognition and enlightenment (consider the pivotal importance of the moments when Sieglinde names Siegmund in Die Walküre or when Kundry calls Parsifal by his name, previously forgotten). Sometimes, too, the question posed represents a taboo that needs to be broken. And there seems to be an element of this in Lohengrin: perhaps the question the knight doesn't want to be asked should be asked. This would make Elsa more of a heroine than a busybody.
What, then, does the forbidden question represent in this particular story? The injunction that Elsa may not inquire after Lohengrin's name or origins suggests at best insecurity, at worst that he has something to hide. This, of course, is precisely the tack taken by Ortrud, who persuades Elsa that her savior's powers are malevolent. But just how trusting should a bride be? In these days of prenuptial agreements, with all possible areas of conflict staked out, it seems naïve to us to expect anyone to sign up for a contract in which the spaces for "name" and "place of birth" have to be left blank.
The idea that one partner should suppress all rational queries when confronted with the individuality of the other only really begins to make sense in the context of how Wagner himself saw these characters. In his roughly contemporaneous essay "A Communication to My Friends," he describes Elsa as "the Unconscious, the involuntary, in which Lohengrin's conscious, voluntary being yearns to be redeemed." Elsa's state, in communion with nature, untainted by the world of industry and "civilization" all around, was clearly the more desirable to Wagner. He came to feel, after the work was written, ever more drawn to the character of Elsa, whose uncompromising, total love was to come into such tragic conflict with the social world, the world of "manhood's egoism," as he called it.
In the same essay, Wagner suggested that Lohengrin wishes to be loved for his own sake, as a pure human being—not worshiped for his divine qualities. "That is why he had to conceal his higher nature," continues Wagner, just as, in classical myth, Zeus concealed his divinity from Semele: "The god loves a mortal woman and, for the sake of this love, approaches her in human shape; but the lover learns that she does not know her beloved in his true estate and, urged by love's own ardor, demands that her husband reveal himself to her in the full physical form of his being. Zeus knows that she can never grasp him, that his true aspect must destroy her; he suffers at this knowledge, suffers beneath the constraint of having to kill his lover in order to meet her demand; and so he condemns her to death as the fatal splendor of his godlike presence destroys his beloved Semele." Lohengrin, too, wanted to be human, not a god. But "there clings to him the tell-tale halo of his heightened nature": hence Elsa's doubts and the ensuing tragedy.
It is often assumed that the struggle at the center of Lohengrin is that between enlightened Christianity (represented by Lohengrin) and benighted paganism (represented by the sorceress Ortrud). This is not the case, however. In "A Communication to My Friends," Wagner is at pains to make clear that the Lohengrin myth inspired him not because of its "leanings towards Christian supernaturalism," but because it penetrated to the core of human longings. The 1840s was the decade in which Young Hegelians such as David Friedrich Strauss and Bruno Bauer issued challenges to the tenets of conventional religion, and in which the humanist ethics of Ludwig Feuerbach had enormous influence on German intellectuals of the day. Even though Wagner appears not to have read Feuerbach for himself until the end of the decade, there seems little doubt that he was influenced by some of the ideas prevalent in the radical circles of cities such as Dresden. The figure of Lohengrin evidently appealed to Wagner not primarily as some kind of divine protector or savior, but as a "metaphysical phenomenon" whose contact with human nature could end only in tragedy; the Christian trappings of the legend, as in Parsifal, were of essentially symbolic value to him.
If Lohengrin's desire to relinquish divinity in favor of humanity seems, at first, a curious one, the explanation is to be found in the humanism of the Young Hegelians, most convincingly expressed by Feuerbach in his epoch-making The Essence of Christianity of 1841. For Feuerbach, Man—or as we would now say "men and women"—represents the crowning achievement of God's creation. No longer was humanity to bend to the submissive yoke of religion and the established Church. Rather, Feuerbach identified religion as the projection of human wishes and fears: we invent God or gods as a comfort in time of need.
The supersedure of the gods by humans was to become a central theme of the Ring cycle too: Wotan learns voluntarily to relinquish his divine authority in favor of the new order represented by Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Lohengrin's desire to be human may thus be seen as a bid for the free, emancipated humanity aspired to in the Ring. He seeks, as Wagner puts it, the woman who would trust in him and love him as he is, without asking for explanations. She must love him with an unconditional love. He cloaks his "higher nature" in order to ensure that he is being loved for what he is, rather than being "humbly worshiped as a being past all understanding." But the disguise is only partial—the "tell-tale halo" gives him away-and he has to return to the lonely sphere from whence he came.
Wagner protested that he could not understand how, in view of all this, Lohengrin could have been apprehended by some people as a cold, forbidding figure, more liable to arouse antipathy than sympathy. He might well have expressed frustration at the reception subsequently accorded Elsa too. That she could be regarded as at worst a nag and at best a weak-minded woman who cannot contain her curiosity, would have appalled Wagner. Mistaken as it would be to label him a "feminist"—the difference in gender relations between nineteenth-century Germany and twenty-first-century America renders any such equation misleading—it is evident that Wagner's attitude toward women was, for the period, a progressive one. In a letter to his friend Theodor Uhlig of March 26, 1850, for example, he said of Julie Ritter's daughter, Emilie: "This girl is far ahead of you,—and in what way?—by birth, because she is a woman. She was born a human being,—you, and all other men, are nowadays born as philistines and only slowly and effortfully do we poor creatures succeed in becoming human. Women have remained entirely what they were at birth and alone are capable of educating us; were it not for them, we men would be hopelessly lost in no time at all."
In the Ring, it is Freia's golden apples that constantly rejuvenate the gods, and Brünnhilde whose feminine wisdom ultimately restores sanity and hope to a strife-ridden world. In the same way, Elsa was regarded by Wagner—at least in "A Communication to My Friends"—in a wholly positive and praiseworthy light. The essay was written four or five years after the main work on the opera, after Wagner's discovery of Feuerbach, and after the experience of the 1848/49 revolution-all of which may have colored his view to some extent. Yet the stance adopted by Wagner that the inner meaning of his work was only slowly revealed to him has a certain conviction.
It was through Elsa, Wagner claimed, that he first "learned to understand the purely human element of love." For the sake of unalloyed, unconditional love, she is driven to ask the question that cannot be avoided. She "awakes from the thrill of worship into the full reality of love," and loves him with the unquestioning commitment that Wagner believed was as necessary from men as from women. Elsa, "this glorious woman," made Wagner "a revolutionary at a stroke," he claimed. Her asking of the question, the necessary question, is not therefore a whim to be scorned, but a heroic act. It is Lohengrin, ensnared and compromised as he is, whose demands initiate the tragedy.
Barry Millington is a Wagner scholar and the author of Wagner, editor of The Wagner Compendium, and co-editor of Selected Letters of Richard Wagner.