Germany’s most famous castle isn’t a real castle. It’s an elaborate ‘work of fan fiction.’
Even if you haven’t heard of Neuschwanstein Castle, there’s a good chance you’ve at least seen pictures of it. Set atop a tree-covered rock ledge in the Bavarian Alps, the picturesque castle looks like it was conjured straight out of a fairy tale. In fact, it served as inspiration for Disney Imagineers as they designed “Sleeping Beauty’s Castle” in Disneyland, and it’s regularly named the top castle to visit in Germany.
There are estimated to be around 25,000 castles in Germany, but Neuschwanstein is unique among them. Most notably, it’s not a real castle and never was. While it bears the look and feel of a well-preserved medieval castle, it was actually built in the 19th century, and rather than serving as a fortress, it served as the fantasy castle of an eccentric king obsessed with Richard Wagner’s operas and medieval mythology.
Ludwig II came to the Bavarian throne in 1864 at age 18 with no experience in government or politics. Two years later, Prussia conquered Austria and Bavaria, and Ludwig’s powerful status as king was greatly diminished. Not that he was particularly interested in governance anyway; he was more drawn to the romantic idea of having his own kingdom.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “The king worshiped the theatre and the opera, and henceforth concerned himself almost exclusively with his artistic endeavors, developing an extravagant mania for building in the Bavarian mountains that he loved.” He essentially spent much of his reign constructing an elaborate fantasy world in which he could be the king he imagined himself to be.
Hence the idea for Neuschwanstein Castle, which Ludwig wished to be built “in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles.” The foundation for the structure was laid in 1869, but it took until 1892 for the 65,000 sq. ft. “castle” to be completed. Ludwig himself would only ever see it as an incomplete building site, as he drowned himself in a lake in 1886, a few days after being declared insane. (Though his death was officially ruled suicide by drowning, some sources point to some mystery surrounding his death, as the psychiatrist who diagnosed him also drowned at the same time.)
The tragedy of Ludwig’s final years stands in sharp contrast to the extravagant beauty of the castle he created, which The Cultural Tutor referred to as “the world’s biggest work of fan fiction.”
— The Cultural Tutor (@The Cultural Tutor)
The Throne Room serves as a symbol of how Ludwig saw kingship. The grand hall was built in the style of a Byzantine church, pointing to how Ludwig saw kings as being intermediaries between God and the world.
Where fan fiction comes in is in how much of the castle is an artistic shrine to Wagner’s operas. In many rooms, the walls are covered in paintings depicting the German legends as told in Wagner’s works, such as his 1845 “Tannhäuser” opera and his 1859 “Tristan and Isolde.”
In Neuschwanstein’s early stages, Ludwig wrote to Wagner describing his vision for the castle, telling the composer he looked forward to moving in and having Wagner come visit:
“There will be several cosy, habitable guest rooms with a splendid view of the noble Säuling, the mountains of Tyrol and far across the plain; you know the revered guest I would like to accommodate there; the location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world.”
Ultimately, Ludwig and Wagner’s friendship would be complicated by money, differing artistic visions and Ludwig’s clear romantic feelings for Wagner, but if it weren’t for Ludwig’s support, Wagner would likely never have risen to the fame he ultimately enjoyed.
The “mad king” may have had some issues ranging from quirky to concerning, but he can fairly be credited with the making of Richard Wagner, as well as creating an architectural masterpiece that millions of people from around the globe travel to enjoy.
Check out the gorgeous Neuschwanstein Castle from all angles here:
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