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The Swan Knight

A Medieval Legend

Retold by Aaron Shepard
From Wagner’s Lohengrin

Published as a mini-novel by Skyhook Press, 2014

For more treats and resources, visit Aaron Shepard at www.aaronshep.com.

Copyright © 2002, 2014, 2017 by Aaron Shepard. May not be published or posted without permission.

PREVIEW: In a boat pulled by a swan, a knight arrives to rescue and marry a duke's daughter—but only if she promises never to ask his name.

GENRE: Opera, legends
CULTURE: German (medieval)
THEME: Trust vs. doubt
AGES: 10 and up
LENGTH: 4100 words

All special features are at www.aaronshep.com/extras.


How to Say the Names

1 ~ The Trial

2 ~ The Plot

3 ~ The Challenge

4 ~ The Betrayal

5 ~ The Return

About the Story

How to Say the Names

Lohengrin ~ LO‑hen‑grin

Brabant ~ bra‑BONT

Friesland ~ FREEZ‑lund

Parsifal ~ PAR‑sif‑ul

All special features are at www.aaronshep.com/extras.

Book cover: The Swan KnightThe lights dim, and a weighty silence falls upon the audience. From all over Europe and America, these fifteen hundred men and women have come to spend many days in this small German town and many hours in this theater. Some are merely curious. Some are there because it’s the fashion. But many have come out of devotion to the musical dramas of a composer they revere, almost worship—a composer who himself designed and built the theater they sit in. To them, this theater is a temple, and their journey a pilgrimage.

For a full minute or more, they wait solemnly in the dark, barely daring to move, their attention resting on the curtained stage below. Then the first musical notes float up and surround them—high, soft, sustained notes of strings and woodwinds—from an orchestra entirely hidden from view.

The composer’s devotees know what vision this shimmering music is meant to impart: the descent from Heaven of the Holy Grail, the drinking cup of Christ at the Last Supper. In their minds, they watch it draw nearer to earth, as the music grows louder and deeper and louder still, at last bursting out in horns, tympani, and cymbals. Then the Grail ascends once more, the music gradually softening until strings and woodwinds lead out as gently as they led in.

And now the curtains part, and the audience knows it will soon meet the knight who serves that Grail . . .

The Trial

“My loyal subjects of Brabant, I thank you for your welcome. Once more the barbarians from the east threaten our German Empire. Once more we must defend our land. And so I summon you to join our army.”

On a riverbank outside the walled city of Antwerp, King Henry stood beneath the great oak known as the Tree of Justice. Beside him were the Saxon nobles of his escort, while before him were nobles and other men he had come to enlist from Brabant.

The king sat down in the heavy wooden chair beneath the oak. “But I am distressed to hear of the discord among you. Count Frederick of Telramund, I know you to be a man of the highest honor. Tell me the source of the trouble.”

Frederick stepped forward. “Thank you, King Henry, for hearing this case. Before the Duke of Brabant passed away, he placed in my care his two children, Elsa and Godfrey. One day they went into the woods together, but only Elsa returned. She claimed they had become lost from one another.

“Our searches failed to find the boy, and I suspected wrongdoing. When I pressed Elsa for the truth, she grew pale and trembled, clearly showing her guilt. Then and there, I gave up all thought of marrying her as offered by her father. I instead married Ortrude, princess of Friesland, whom you see here.

“Now I accuse Elsa of a great crime: the murder of her brother. I also claim right to rule Brabant, as next in line after her. King Henry, pass judgment!”

“A fearful charge!” said the king. He hung his shield solemnly on the oak. “Here shall my shield remain until justice is served. Let all your swords be unsheathed until judgment is passed.”

The men of Brabant laid their swords on the ground, while the men of Saxony stood theirs upright by thrusting them into the earth.

The king’s herald called, “Elsa of Brabant, come forth!”

Slowly forward stepped Elsa, dressed all in white, her ladies-in-waiting trailing behind. The men murmured to each other how lovely and innocent she looked—how unlike anyone who could commit such a crime! At last she stood silent before the king, seeming hardly to notice where she was.

“Elsa of Brabant, what do you say to the charges against you?”

She gazed sadly into the distance. “My poor brother.”

Murmurs arose again at this strange behavior. “Speak, Elsa,” urged the king. “What have you to tell us?”

Still gazing ahead, Elsa said, “In my loneliness and despair, I raised a prayer to God that filled the heavens. Then in a dream I saw approach a glorious knight, clad in shining armor, leaning on a sword, with a golden horn at his side. This knight it is who will be my champion and prove my innocence.”

“Frederick,” said the king, “are you certain you wish to accuse this girl?”

“Her dreaminess can’t fool me,” said Frederick. “I have a witness to her crime. But my word alone should be enough, and I’m ready to defend it with my sword.”

“Then God alone must decide,” said the king, “in trial by combat. To the just he will give the victory. Elsa, who will fight for you?”

“The knight from my dream,” said Elsa. “As his reward, he shall take all my father’s lands—and myself as wife, if he’ll have me.”

At the king’s command, the herald called, “Let him who will fight for Elsa of Brabant come forth!” But no one stepped forward.

Elsa told the king, “He must yet be far away and not have heard. Please call again.”

The king assented, and the herald called again. “Let him who will fight for Elsa of Brabant come forth!” But still there was no response.

Elsa knelt in prayer. “Lord, tell my knight I need him now! Show him to me, just as he appeared before.”

Then shouts went up from men by the river’s edge.


“A swan!”

“It’s pulling a knight in a boat!”

Coming to shore was a knight in gleaming silver armor, leaning on a sword, with a golden horn hanging at his side. He stood in a small boat, pulled with a golden chain by a white swan. The boat reached the bank, and the knight stepped out.

“Farewell, dear swan. Return now over the waters, and bring joy when you come again.”

He gazed after the swan as it started upriver, then he turned to the king. “Greetings, King Henry!”

“Stranger,” said the king, “am I right to believe you are sent by God?”

“I am sent to stand up for one who is accused. Elsa of Brabant, do you accept me as your champion?”

“You are my knight and my savior!” she said joyfully.

“And if I succeed, will you take me as husband as well?”

“All that I have and all that I am is yours.”

“Elsa,” said the knight solemnly, “if I’m to stay here with you always, you must promise one thing: Never shall you ask from where I’ve come, or my lineage, or my name.”

“Never shall I ask, my lord.”

“Elsa, do you understand fully what I say? Never shall you ask from where I’ve come, or my lineage, or my name!”

“As surely as you protect me now, I will honor your command.”

“Elsa, I love you,” said the knight, embracing her. He led her to the king, then stepped out among the gathered men.

“I declare Elsa of Brabant free of guilt. God will show the falseness of this charge.”

Friends of Frederick whispered to him urgently, begging him to give up the fight. But Frederick declared, “Better dead than a coward. Stranger, your threats don’t frighten me, for I have spoken only truth. Let God be the judge.”

“King Henry,” said the knight, “order the fight to begin!”

At the king’s command, six nobles stood in a wide circle and thrust their spears into the ground. The herald declared, “Let no one enter this ring and disturb the battle. You who fight, honor the ordeal. Seek not to win by deceit or by magic. Place your faith in God’s strength before your own.”

The king rose and prayed, “Lord God, all our wisdom is but folly. Show us who is innocent here, and who is guilty. Grant victory to the just, and defeat to the wicked.”

The king’s trumpeters sounded the call to battle. King Henry struck his shield once with his sword, and the two combatants entered the ring. At the second stroke, they raised their shields and drew their swords. At the third stroke, they attacked.

Within moments, the knight had knocked Frederick to the ground and placed the point of his sword at Frederick’s throat.

“I grant you your life,” said the knight. “Now go and repent what you have done.”

The men rejoiced at the wondrous victory, and Elsa threw herself into the knight’s arms. The shield was removed from the tree, the spears were pulled from the ground, and all swords were returned to their scabbards.

Then the knight and Elsa were lifted up on shields and carried off, while Frederick and Ortrude were left behind in disgrace.

The Plot

Much later, in the dark courtyard of Antwerp Castle, light and merry music poured from the banquet hall windows in the men’s quarters. On the chapel steps, Frederick and Ortrude sat brooding in clothes that matched the night.

“What spell is it that binds me to you still?” said Frederick, rising up. “Through you I’ve lost all honor. Through you I’ve become an outcast!”

“Husband, why do you no longer trust me?”

“Why?” said Frederick. “Did you not swear to me you saw Elsa drown her brother in the lake? Did you not lure me into marriage with prophecies that your family would once more rule Brabant? And did God not punish me for listening to your lies?”

“I told no lie,” said Ortrude. “Not by God were you defeated, but by the sorcery of this knight! Husband, come sit by me.”

Frederick stared at her fearfully. “Do you seek to bewitch me again?”

“What if I told you,” said Ortrude, “that all his power would be lost if only he were made to give his name?”

Frederick moved closer. “That would explain his command to Elsa!”

“It is only Elsa who can make him reveal it,” said Ortrude. “So first we must make her suspicious of him, then charge the knight with using sorcery to win the trial. If that doesn’t work, there’s another way: A man made strong by magic will lose that strength if the least part of his body is cut away—even the tip of a finger. If you manage that, he’ll be completely in your power.”

“Can this be true?” said Frederick. “And to think I believed my defeat came from God! But, woman, if you’re lying now, Heaven help you.”

“Calm yourself, dear husband, and learn from me the sweet delight of vengeance. But look! There is Elsa on the balcony! Go quickly now and leave her to me, while you deal with the knight.”

On the balcony of the women’s quarters stood Elsa, enjoying the cool night breezes and dreaming happily of her champion. The courtyard lay dark and still, the revelers having retired. From below, she heard a mournful voice.


“Who is that?” she called back in surprise.

“Do you not even recognize the one you have condemned to misery?”

“Ortrude, is that you? But what are you saying? Can you think that I caused your misfortune?”

“My husband must have been mad to accuse you,” said Ortrude. “Now he is filled with remorse. But what should that matter to you? Your life is filled with happiness, while ours can bring only grief.”

“Don’t say so, Ortrude! I would betray the goodness shown me by God if I did not share it with you. Stay there, and I will let you in.”

Elsa hurried inside. In the courtyard, Ortrude cried out to the darkness. “Gods of old, bless my deceit! Gods of power, make good my revenge!”

The women’s door opened, and Ortrude threw herself at Elsa’s feet.

“Ortrude, must I see you so humbled? Please stand up. I forgive you any suffering you have caused me, and ask the same of you. You shall come to my wedding tomorrow in splendid dress—and once I’m married, I’ll ask my husband to have Frederick pardoned.”

“I am forever grateful,” said Ortrude. “Never can I repay you fully—but perhaps my powers of prophecy can at least save you some misfortune.”

“What do you mean?” said Elsa.

“I fear you place too much faith in a man who appears by magic and conceals his origin. What will stop him from leaving as he came?”

“Poor woman,” said Elsa. “Can you not believe in a love with no doubts or regrets? But now come inside.”

The Challenge

Early next morning, summoned by trumpeters, the men of Brabant gathered in the castle courtyard. Soon the king’s herald appeared.

“Hear the words of King Henry: Count Frederick of Telramund is banished for falsehood in the trial by combat. The knight sent by God is given this land to rule as Protector of Brabant. The Protector bids you join in his wedding feast today, then return tomorrow to follow him in service to the king’s army.”

The news was met with joy and excitement. Then the door of the women’s quarters opened and the ladies’ wedding procession emerged. In her magnificent attire, Elsa was hailed as she made her way to the chapel.

But just as Elsa reached the steps, Ortrude rushed from behind and blocked her path. “For a single hour I forgot my worth, but no longer will I meekly follow. I am your better, Elsa, so now give way to me!”

“Ortrude, what’s come over you? Was I taken in by sheer pretense? How can you set yourself before me, when your husband was condemned by God?”

Ortrude said, “Before my husband was judged wrongly, he was honored and revered throughout this land. But who here knows your knight? You yourself don’t even know his name! Secret it must be, to shield his magic power. You know that must be true, or else you’d ask it of him!”

Just then the procession from the men’s quarters began—but when the knight saw the disturbance, he hurried forward, King Henry close behind.

“Unholy woman, why are you near her?” the knight said to Ortrude. “Away with you! Here you can never win.”

Tenderly he took his weeping bride in his arms. “Elsa, did she try to poison your heart? Come into the chapel, and let me change those tears to tears of joy.”

But as they climbed the chapel steps, they were blocked once more, this time by Frederick. “Stop, you deceiver!”

The king demanded, “Why is this man here? He has been banished!”

“King Henry, all of you, listen to me!” cried Frederick. “I have been done a great injustice. This knight corrupted the sacred trial by use of magic. He succeeded only because we failed to ask a vital question. But he won’t escape it now! Stranger, who are you, and where have you come from?”

The knight said, “I need not answer one who is steeped in evil.”

“If he will not answer me,” said Frederick, “then let King Henry ask him. Surely he cannot refuse the king.”

“Not even the king would I answer,” said the knight. “He is well able to judge me by my deeds. No, there is one only I could not refuse.” He turned to Elsa with a smile—but it vanished when he found her staring into the distance, trembling.

“Friend,” said the king, “you need not listen to this man’s charges. You have our complete faith.”

As the men of Brabant pressed around the knight to pledge support, Frederick slipped close to Elsa and spoke softly. “There is a way to reveal his secret and keep him by you forever. I need cut off only the smallest part of him, just the tip of his finger. I will be close tonight. Call and it will be quickly done.”

“Never!” she said.

“Elsa!” cried the knight. “What is that man doing there? Away from her, both of you wicked ones! Never let me see you near her again!” He turned solemnly to his bride. “Elsa, in your hands lies the fate of all our happiness.”

“My deliverer,” said Elsa shakily, “above all doubts my love shall stand.”

The knight smiled, took her hand, and led her up to the chapel.

The Betrayal

Late that evening, when ceremony and celebration were done, Elsa and the knight were led to their bridal chamber.

“At last,” said the knight, embracing his bride, then drawing her to the couch by the open window. “We are alone for the first time since we met. Elsa, are you happy?”

“How much more than happy! I am filled with a heavenly joy.”

“As am I,” said the knight. “How noble is our love! We could sense each other even before we met.”

“I saw you in a dream!” said Elsa. “Then when you stood before me, I wanted nothing more than to be yours. What word can describe the depth of my love? None can there be—except perhaps your own name.”

“Elsa,” said the knight uneasily.

“How sweet my name when you say it!” said Elsa. “Will I never know the sweetness that comes from saying yours? Not even in the most private hours of our love?”

“Elsa, consider the fragrant perfumes from the garden outside this window. I give myself to them in delight without knowing fully what they are. Even so I gave myself to you. From but a single sight, I was certain of your innocence and pledged myself to defend you.”

“Yes,” said Elsa, “and if only I could find a way to serve you too, a way to help you bear a burden. Perhaps shame or suffering would befall you if your secret were known. But I could keep that secret with you, and nothing would tear it from me. Let me prove my worth by sharing it!”

The knight stood and stepped away. “Elsa, you will more than prove your worth if you keep your promise not to ask! Dearest one, let me be only happy in your love. It is my one repayment for what I’ve given up. For I come not from grief and misery as you may think, but from light and grace—from the noblest life a man may live!”

“What are you saying?” cried Elsa, rising in despair. “If that is what you’ve left behind, how long before you wish to return? Am I to merely count the days until you leave? How can I think that my poor love could satisfy you?”

“Elsa, your love will ever hold me, unless it’s spoiled by doubts.”

“Do I hear something?” said Elsa, staring into the distance. “It is the swan! You have called it to take you back!”

“I beg you, Elsa, stop this madness!”

“Nothing can ease my mind,” she said, “nothing can stop my doubts—nothing but knowing what you hide. So hear and answer me now: Where have you come from? What is your lineage? And what is your name?”

“Elsa! What have you done?”

At that moment, behind the knight, Frederick and four of his men stepped silently into the room, swords drawn. “Save yourself!” cried Elsa. She picked up the knight’s scabbard from where it lay on the couch and held it out to him. With one swift motion, he drew his sword, whirled around, and slew Frederick.

The others dropped their swords and fell to their knees. Elsa sank to the floor.

“Now,” said the knight, “all our joy is gone.”

He instructed the men to carry Frederick’s body to King Henry. Then he called for ladies-in-waiting to ready his wife. “Before the king,” he said, “her questions shall be answered.”

The Return

Just after dawn, on the riverbank outside the city, King Henry again stood beneath the great oak with his Saxon nobles. Arrayed before him were the men of Brabant, dressed in battle gear and ready to follow their new Protector into the king’s army.

“It does my heart good to see you all,” said the king. “With valiant fighters such as you, we shall surely drive back the invaders.”

Just then, four men brought up a covered bier and placed it before the king. To his shocked questioning, they replied only that all would be revealed by the new Protector.

Elsa too then arrived with her ladies-in-waiting. “You look so sorrowful,” said the king. “Is it because your husband leaves with me?” But Elsa was silent.

At last came the knight himself, dressed as on his first arrival.

“Friend,” said the king, “you see here the men you called to war, ready for victory under your command.”

“King Henry,” said the knight, “I cannot lead them into battle.”

“What’s this?” said the king in distress.

“I come today,” said the knight, “not as leader but as plaintiff.” He uncovered Frederick’s body, to the stunned murmurs of all assembled. “First I ask you to judge this man, who attacked me in the night. Please say whether I was right to take his life.”

“Without question!” said the king.

“And now I charge another,” said the knight. “My wife has betrayed me, by asking what she promised not to ask.”

“Elsa!” cried the king.

The knight said, “I could refuse to answer both enemies and friends, but not my wife. So before you all, I give now the answers to her questions.”

The knight gazed into the distance. “In a far land you will never see, there lies a castle, and in that castle stands a temple filled with light. Within that temple is the holiest of relics—the Grail, used at his last supper by our Lord. Brought to earth by angels, its holy power each year is renewed by a dove come down from Heaven.

“The guardians of the Grail are a brotherhood of the purest knights. When the Grail calls a knight to this service, it arms him with a power no evil can defeat. This power he keeps even if he is sent abroad to defend virtue. But so subtle is the blessing that it flees the presence of unholy men if ever the knight’s identity is revealed.

“Now learn what you have wished to know: I come here from the Grail. My father, Parsifal, wears its crown. And I, its knight, am Lohengrin.”

Murmurs of amazement rose from all around. The knight turned to Elsa.

“My dearest wife, all my holy power I wanted only to devote to you. Why did you force from me my secret? But now the harm is done, and I must go.”

“Husband, don’t leave! Be merciful as God is merciful. Accept my repentance, or punish me yourself, I beg you.”

“There is but one punishment for your deed,” said the knight, “a punishment we both must suffer: I must return to the Grail.”

“Stay with us!” enjoined the king. “Your men need you in the fight.”

“I have no choice,” said the knight. “If I disobey the Grail and stay, even my own human strength will be taken from me.”

Once more he turned to Elsa. “If I could have remained even for one year, the power of the Grail would have brought back to you your brother, who is still alive. But if he somehow does return, give him this horn, this sword, and this ring.”

Just then, shouts went up from men by the river’s edge.


“The swan!”

“It comes again!”

“No!” cried Elsa.

“So the Grail sends for me,” said the knight. “Farewell, my sweet wife.”

But at that moment, out from the crowd stepped Ortrude. “That’s right, proud knight, go home! Leave me to tell your foolish bride who that swan really is. I know him by the golden chain I placed around his neck when I enchanted him. Elsa, it is your own brother, Godfrey.”

Cries of horror rose from the crowd. “Yes, Elsa, and by driving off your knight, you have sealed your brother’s fate. Now you shall ever know the vengeance of the old gods I still worship.”

The knight had reached the river’s edge, and now he knelt in prayer. As all eyes watched, a white dove fluttered down and hovered over the boat. Seeing it, the knight leaped up and took the chain from around the swan’s neck. And there in place of the swan, clad in silver armor, stood Elsa’s brother.

“Behold your new leader,” said the knight. “Here is Godfrey, Duke of Brabant.”

Ortrude collapsed with a shriek. As the men of Brabant knelt in homage to their young duke, Godfrey bowed to the king, then rushed to embrace his amazed sister. For a brief moment, her face lit in joy—then she looked again toward the river.

“My husband!” she cried.

There he stood in the little boat, head bowed, leaning on his shield, as the white dove pulled him upriver—back to the land of the Grail.

About the Story

This is a retelling of one of the most popular operas of the great nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner. Lohengrin was first performed in 1850, though Wagner himself never saw a full performance until 1861. (Shortly after composing it, he was forced to flee Germany for his part in a failed political uprising.)

Wagner’s opera is itself a retelling of popular medieval legends of the “Swan Knight.” Deriving from oral tradition, the legend appeared in written versions starting in the early thirteenth century. It is found in such German works as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, Konrad von Würzburg’s The Swan Knight, and the anonymous epic Lohengrin. It is found also in works from France, Italy, Spain, and Iceland.

Legends, though fictional, generally enlist real persons, places, and/or events to add credence. The historical setting for Wagner’s version is more than usually specific: 933 A.D., in the city of Antwerp, in the duchy of Brabant—a land now divided between Belgium and the Netherlands. Wagner’s king is Henry I, commonly called “Henry the Fowler”—a king well known to history for uniting the German lands to successfully fight off barbarian tribes from the east.

Also represented in the opera is the time’s lingering conflict between the newly dominant religion of Christianity and the surviving worship of the old Germanic gods—gods that Wagner himself featured in his later and most famous work, the four‑opera series The Ring of the Nibelung.

The “trial by combat” that figures in this legend is one type of “ordeal”—a way to judge guilt or innocence by invoking divine or supernatural intervention. The use of ordeals was common in the Europe of the early Middle Ages, as it has been in many times and places around the world. The idea was that God would reveal judgment by protecting the one who was innocent. Fortunately for Elsa, it actually worked in her case.

In my retelling, dialogue is paraphrased rather than translated, and names are anglicized for easier pronunciation. The most helpful translations consulted were by Chris Wood, and by Amanda Holden with Stewart Spencer. My thanks to the Los Angeles Opera for a memorable first taste of Lohengrin in live performance.

For an audio recording of the opera, I recommend Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, from London Records, 1990; and for a video recording, Claudio Abbado conducting the Vienna State Opera, from Kultur International, 1991. A good, fun intro to Wagner and his operas is Wagner Without Fear, by William Berger, Vintage, New York, 1998. For those with musical training, there’s also Wagner, by Barry Millington, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, 1992 (revised edition).

To introduce my retelling, I’ve portrayed the beginning of a performance of the opera at the Bayreuth Festival in summer 1894, the season it first appeared there. The festival’s innovative and influential theater was designed and built by Wagner himself as a much more congenial home for his works than could be found among other opera houses of his day. I felt it appropriate, then, to feature it in setting the tone, even though Lohengrin did not reach that stage until forty‑four years after the opera’s premiere and eleven after Wagner’s death.

For an in‑depth study of the Bayreuth Festival and its theater, see Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival, by Frederic Spotts, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1994. Fascinating writings by early festival goers—including George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain—can be found in Bayreuth: The Early Years, edited by Robert Hartford, Cambridge University Press, 1980. Info on the festival and theater today is at www.bayreuther-festspiele.de.

Book cover: The Swan Knight
Get the book!

The Swan Knight
A Medieval Legend
Retold from Wagner’s Lohengrin

By Aaron Shepard

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