The following story, “Lohengrin and Elsa,” is from the upcoming book Myths and Legends of Western Nations (1,400 words).
The young Duchess Elsa of Brabant went into the woods, and becoming separated from her attendants, sat down to rest under a wide-branched linden tree.
Elsa was deeply troubled, for many lords and princes were asking for her hand in marriage. More than any other was the powerful Count Friedrich von Telramund, her former guardian, who since the death of her father had ruled over the land with a strong hand. Her father the duke, while on his deathbed, had promised Count Telramund that he could take Elsa for his wife, should she be willing, and Count Telramund continually reminded her of this. But Elsa felt shame at the mere thought of such a union, for Count Telramund was a hardened warrior, hated as much for his cruelty as he was feared for his strength. To make matters worse, he was now at the court of King Henry of Saxony, threatening Elsa.
Under the shade of the linden tree, Elsa thought of all this and pitied her loneliness, with no brother or friend at her side to help. The sweet singing of birds momentarily comforted her, and she fell into a gentle sleep. In her dream a young knight stepped out of the depths of the forest, holding up a small silver bell.
He spoke in a friendly manner, saying: “If you should ever need my help, just ring this bell.”
Elsa tried to take the bell, but she could neither rise nor reach it with her outstretched hand. Then she awoke.
While thinking over the dream Elsa noticed a falcon circling overhead. It came closer before finally settling on her shoulder. Around the falcon’s neck hung a bell, exactly like the one from her dream. She loosened it, and as she did so the bird rose and flew away, but she was able to untie it in time. She held the little bell in her hand, and felt her soul become fresh with hope and peace.
When Elsa returned to the castle she found a message waiting, summoning her appear before King Henry in Cologne on the Rhine. Filled with confidence under the protection of a higher power, she did not hesitate to go. She put on a gorgeous outfit, decorated with many followers, and set out.
King Henry was a man who loved justice and exercised it freely, but his kingdom was in constant danger from wild Huns making inroads, and for this reason he wished to do whatever he could to win the favor of the Count Telramund. When Elsa arrived and the king saw her, in all her beauty and innocence, he grew uncertain. The plaintiff brought forward three men who testified that the duchess had entered into a secret union with one of her vassals. Two of these men were shown to be dishonest, but the testimony of the other seemed valid, though this was still not enough to condemn her.
Count Telramund seized his sword, crying out that God Himself was the only judge, and that a duel should decide the matter. So a duel was arranged to take place three days later.
The day of the duel came, and Elsa cast her eyes around at the noblemen, but none grasped their sword in defense of her innocence. Fear of the mighty Count Telramund filled them all. Remembering the little bell, Elsa drew it from her pocket and rang it. The clear tones broke the stillness and grew louder and louder until they reached the distant mountains.
“My champion will appear to contest you,” she said, to which Count Telramund let forth such a mocking laugh that made the hearts of all grow even more fearful.
The king sat on his high throne and watched the majestic river sending heavy currents through the valley. Princes and brave knights were gathered, and before them stood Count Telramund, clad in armor, at his side the accused Elsa, adorned with every grace Nature bestowed.
Three times Count Telramund challenged someone to come forward as a champion for the accused girl, but no one stirred. Then there arose from the Rhine the sound of sweet music. Something silvery gleamed in the distance, and as it came near it became clear that it was a swan with silver feathers. With a silver chain the swan was pulling a small ship, in which lay sleeping a knight clad in bright armor.
When the ship landed, the knight awoke, rose, and blew a golden horn three times. This was the signal that he would take up the challenge, and quickly he strode onto the grounds of combat.
“Your name and descent?” cried the herald.
“My name is Lohengrin,” answered the stranger, “my origin royal, and no more is necessary say.”
“Hear,” the king said, “nobility is written on your brow.”
Trumpets signaled for the fight to begin. Count Telramund’s strokes fell thick as hail, but suddenly the strange knight rose and with one strike and split the Count’s helmet through to his head.
“God has decided,” cried the king. “His judgment is right, but you, noble knight, will help us in the campaign against the barbarian hordes and be the leader of the detachment which the fair duchess will send from Brabant.”
Lohengrin consented, and amid cries of delight from the assembled people, rode over to Elsa, who greeted him as her deliverer.
Lohengrin escorted Elsa back to Brabant, and on the way love was awakened in their hearts, each knowing they were destined for the other. In the castle of Antwerp they were pledged, and a few weeks later the marriage took place. As the couple were leaving the cathedral, Lohengrin said to Elsa:
“One thing I must ask of you—that you never inquire about my origin, for in the hour you ask this question, I must part from you.”
Shortly after the ceremony the call to arms came from King Henry, and Elsa accompanied her husband and his troops to Cologne, where the counts of the kingdom had assembled. There were many questions concerning Lohengrin, and when none were able to discern his origin, some jealously claimed that he was the son of a heathen magician, and gained his victories through the power of black arts.
Elsa, who had overheard rumors of these charges, was deeply grieved, for she knew the noble heart of her husband. He had relieved her fears for his safety, assuring her that he was under the protection of powers higher than human. But her mind could not let go of the evil rumors, and forgetting the warning her husband had given on the day of their marriage, dropped to her knees and asked him of origin and birth.
“Dear wife,” he said in great distress, “I will tell you and the king and all the assembled princes what up to this time I have kept secret. But you must know that the time of our parting is now at hand.”
The hero led his trembling wife before the king and his nobles who were arranged on the banks of the Rhine.
“I am the son of Parsifal,” he said, “Parsifal, the keeper of the Holy Grail. Gladly would I have helped you, O King, in your fight against the barbarians, but a fate calls me elsewhere. You will be victorious, and under your descendants Germany will become a powerful nation.”
When he finished speaking there was a long silence, and then, as upon his arrival, there rose the sound of music—not joyful this time, but solemn—like a chant at the grave of the dead. It came nearer and again the swan and the boat appeared.
“Farewell, sweet one,” Lohengrin cried, folding his wife in his arms. “Too dearly did I hold you and your pleasant land of earth, but now a greater duty calls me.”
Weeping, Elsa clung to him, but the swan song sounded louder, almost as a warning. He tore himself free from her and stepped into the boat. Was it the ship of death and destruction, or the ship that carried the blessed to the sacred place of the Grail? None knew.
Elsa, sad and lonely again, did not live long after their separation. Her hope was that she would be reunited with her dear husband, but she parted willingly with her life, as other children of earth have after losing that which they held most precious.