Mad King Ludwig, Walt Disney and the Wild River of Inspiration

They called him “Mad King Ludwig.” Certainly, he did nothing to protest the accuracy of this cruel nickname. By the time he had reached his mid-30’s, the young king had descended into a world of fantasty, full of costumed midnight carriage rides, fairytale castles, and elaborate banquets with the ghosts of Marie Antoinette, Louis XIV, and Madame de Pompadour. Not wanting these seemingly solo parties interrupted, King Ludwig even designed a special banquet table that could be lowered through the floor for kitchen staff to refill between courses below.

But was King Ludwig really mad? Or just done?

Real World Problems

At this point, the young king had already lost his full status when Bavaria merged into the new German Empire. He’d become a mere “vassal” for his Prussian uncle. He was alone and afflicted with a nature contrary to his deeply held Catholic faith.

As a boy, Ludwig had fallen head over heels in love with the famed composer Richard Wagner. It all started when he attended Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, a story of love, knights of the holy grail, and a child-duke who was transformed into a swan. Shortly after his father’s death and 18-year-old Ludwig’s ascension to the throne, he committed to finding his idol.

This was easier said than done, as Wagner was in hiding from his creditors at the time. When Ludwig’s chief counselor finally tracked Wagner down, he gave him a note from Ludwig in which Wagner said, “The youthful monarch confessed his great partiality for my work and announced his firm resolve to keep me near him as his friend, so that might escape any malignant stroke of fate.”

When Wagner finally met Ludwig face to face he wrote, “Today I was brought to him. He is unfortunately so beautiful and wise, soulful and lordly, that I fear his life must fade away like a divine dream in this base world … You cannot imagine the magic of his regard: if he remains alive it will be a great miracle!”

Ludwig paid the composer’s debts, gave him a residence and provided a yearly stipend to ensure his work, including “Tristan and Isolde,” could continue. The two spent a great deal of time together, until Wagner was forced out of Munich over political fallout from his rather raucous lifestyle and political opinions.

Fortunately for Wagner, Ludwig’s patronage continued, supplying the composer with a great deal of funds. Unfortunately, Ludwig’s feelings for the composer were not matched. At one point after Wagner’s departure, Ludwig wrote, “I tell you, I cannot bear to live apart from him much longer. I suffer terribly … this is no passing, youthful infatuation.” The young prince even planned to abdicate his throne to join Wagner, but Wagner, who was not gay (but occasionally played up the possibility to continue the bankroll) dissuaded him. He was already with his muse and mistress Cosima (who was married to Wagner’s conductor), a fact which Ludwig was likely kept ignorant of in order to continue the gravy train of patronage.  

Ludwig was engaged for a short time to his cousin Duchess Sophie Charlotte, who was also a fan of Wagner’s music. But ultimately, Ludwig couldn’t go through with it. After repeatedly delaying the wedding, he finally called it off altogether.

Neuschwanstein Castle

Emotionally and physically alone, faced by political pressure and diminishing power, Ludwig retreated into fantasy. In 1868, he commissioned the building of Neuschwanstein Castle, perhaps the most fantastical of his many projects. The late 1800’s were already well past the days of castles and knights, when even kings and queens were falling by the wayside, but Ludwig longed for the romanticism of a simpler time – an era when he could have been a true king surrounded by his court, festivities, jousting, and feasts, when perhaps things wouldn’t have been so hard.

Ludwig didn’t commission an architect to design Neuschwanstein. He hired creative scene painter Christian Jank, whose drawings were later translated into technical plans by Archicect Eduard Riedel. The resulting masterpiece is a work of fancy and majesty.

After hiking 10 minutes up a windy country road through the woods, Neuschwanstein materializes perched on a rocky precipice, overlooking the vast gorge and plains below. It’s a spectacular vision, complete with shining white stone, massive wooden doors and fanciful turrets.

To enter the castle is to step into Ludwig’s fantasy.

We weren’t supposed to be there. No one was. According to Ludwig’s wishes, no one should ever enter Neuschwanstein. After going there, I think I know why.

Inside Neuschwanstein Castle

Every interior inch of Neuschwanstein castle is covered with intricately hand painted murals and designs. Each room is more awe-inspiring than the last; from the two-story throne room to the exquisite ballroom, the study to the parlor. Even the servants’ quarters were fanciful, with their arched doorways and hand carved beds (straight out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

The palace reads like a book. Every wall is covered to an inch with elaborate murals depicting legends like Parsifal, the Tannhauser saga, and Lohengrin (many the inspiration behind Richard Wagner’s operas). Neuschwanstein isn’t just a castle, it’s King Ludwig’s homage to Richard Wagner and his life’s work. Despite everything, Ludwig loved and funded Wagner to the end.

For me, Ludwig’s bedroom is the most amazing part of all. Adorned in dark wood and brilliant blue silk, the room is covered in murals, carvings, and even ceramic figures of Tristan and Isolde, star crossed lovers. In a small enclave sits Ludwig’s private chapel with only an alter and a prayer stool. I wonder how many hours he spent there, begging god to release him from his plight.

Next to Ludwig’s bed is a door. When you walk through the door, it’s as if you’ve fallen out of place and time. You find yourself not in a castle, but in a small stone grotto bathed in reddish purple light (electricity being a modern innovation of Ludwig’s time). You can practically see the imaginary water dancing along the cave walls. This place was Ludwig’s tribute to the Horselberg from the Tannhauser saga by Ludwig’s beloved Richard Wagner.

The cave opens to a glass door and you are again transported into another world, emerging from the dim cavern into a light and airy cliffside hideaway. The room seems to float, a glass atrium perched high on the side of Neuschwanstein Castle, full of lush greenery, a small table and chair. Here, Ludwig would sit, think, read and write, as he gazed out over the forest below.

I think I know why Ludwig didn’t want anyone to enter Neuschwanstein. It was his most personal creation, a diary, open page by page on each and every wall.

No Happily Ever After

Ludwig only lived in Neuschwanstein Castle for about six months, on and off, and it was here that his debts and political neglect caught up with him. On June 12, 1886, Ludwig was arrested in his bed chamber. Unbeknownst to him, he had been certified insane and deemed “unfit to govern.” He was stripped of his regency and put under house arrest in Berg Palace, Upper Bavaria.

The next day, King Ludwig’s body was found floating in a nearby lake, next to the psychiatrist Dr. von Gudden, who had participated in his certification of insanity.

No one knows what happened that night. The official report determined the cause of death to be suicide by drowning and some believe Dr. von Gudden perished attempting to save Ludwig’s life. But the subsequent autopsy found no water in Ludwig’s lungs and the water in which the two men were found was only waist deep. Maybe Ludwig’s creditors sought revenge? Perhaps his political opponents feared that the charges wouldn’t stick and that he would again rise to power? Or maybe he murdered von Gudden for declaring him insane, and then suffered a heart attack from the strain and cold temperatures?

We’ll probably never know, but while Ludwig’s life was short, the creations he left behind were spectacular. And fortunately for us, despite his wishes, the state opened Neuschwanstein to the public shortly after his death.

You would think that would be the end of Ludwig’s story, but here’s the thing: creativity is contagious.

The Wild River of Inspiration

In the mid-1900’s, an American film producer visited Neuschwanstein where he found inspiration for his next great work: the centerpiece of his new California theme park. He would call it “Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.”

Walt Disney took this inspiration and channeled it into his company, movies, theme parks, and other creative pursuits, which have massively impacted American and global culture today. When we visited Disney World several years ago, we saw their spectacular nightly fountain show dedicated to Disney’s many culture-shaping works and creative genius. Moving images flashed across the spray of water, projecting scenes from Pinocchio to Fantasia to Cinderella and Peter Pan. As Captain Hook appeared, the theme music switched and a real pirate ship emerged from the mist, crewed by none other than Captain Jack Sparrow himself. On and on it went, a parade of beloved, iconic characters and scenes building to a crescendo finale. At the end, as the explosion of color and imagery turned to mist, the mouse himself appeared atop the rocky projection above. With his characteristic giggle, he said, “Now, that’s some imagination.”

You guys, I cried.

Creativity is divine. For many faiths around the world and throughout time, artistic inspiration is inexorably intertwined with God. Here in Italy, every church is a testament not only to faith but to the divine power of creativity. The Baha’i faith teaches that “art is worship.”

To create, and to witness creation, is to commune with God.

There is a divine river of inspiration running through us all. But sometimes, just sometimes, you can see a particularly wide and wild torrent, passing through lives marked by creative inspiration.

Ludwig was part of that stream. So was Wagner and all the creators of the legends that so inspired him. So was Disney and all the many, many others he inspired and collaborated with along the way (including Salvador Dali- can you believe it?!). Even now, the river rages on in everyone inspired by any of their individual or collective work.

Wow. How wonderful is imagination?

Mad King Ludwig

So was Ludwig mad? I don’t think so, not really.

In J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” there’s a scene which speaks to this:

Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Fantasy, that creative instinct, that urge to reach up into the stars and grasp transcendence, is the best part of humanity. It’s our divine birthright.

Ludwig may have fallen too deeply into that otherworldly realm, but it doesn’t mean he was insane. He just wasn’t here. But what he left behind offers a portal for us to follow, into the weird and wide and wonderful expanses of his imagination, over the deep and yawning maw of his despair, though the wide and expansive halls of his personal paradise, even if only for a day. Walking through the corridors of his mind, you can feel the drum of that divine spark.

And, wow, that’s some imagination.

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