The widely distributed group of sagas that have been woven around the mythical Knight of the Swan (the old French Chevalier au cigne) can be traced back to very ancient Celtic traditions. The following is the story of Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan, as transmitted by the medieval German epic and briefly retold by the Grimm brothers under the title “Lohengrin in Brabant.”
The Duke of Brabant and Limburg died, without leaving other heirs than a young daughter, Elsa. On his deathbed, he recommended her to one of his retainers, Friedrich von Telramund. Friedrich, the intrepid warrior, became emboldened to demand the young duchess’ hand in marriage as well as her lands under the false claim that she had promised to marry him. Of course, Elsa refused to do so. Not taking no for an answer, Friedrich then used his connections to complain to Emperor Henry the Fowler (876 – 936). The Emperor decreed that Elsa must defend herself against Friedrich through some proxy hero, in a so-called divine judgment, in which God would accord the victory to the innocent and defeat to the guilty. As no knight was willing to act for her, the young duchess prayed ardently to God to save her.
As Elsa prayed, the sound of the bell was heard far away in distant Montsalvatsch, in the Council of the Grail, showing that there was someone in urgent need of help. The Grail therefore decided to send Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, as a rescuer. Just as Lohengrin was about to place his foot in the stirrup, a swan came floating down the water drawing a skiff behind him. As soon as Lohengrin set eyes on the swan, he exclaimed, “Take the steed back to the manger; I shall follow this bird wherever he may lead me.” Lohengrin did not take any food with him in the skiff. After they had been afloat five days, the swan dipped his bill in the water, caught a fish, ate one half of it, and gave the other half to Lohengrin to eat.
Meanwhile, Elsa had summoned her chieftains and retainers to a meeting in Antwerp. Precisely on the day of the assembly, a swan was sighted swimming upstream drawing a skiff behind him, in which Lohengrin lay asleep on his shield. The swan came to land at the shore and Lohengrin was joyfully welcomed. Right after he landed, the swan swam away again. Lohengrin heard of the wrong which had been done to the duchess and consented to become her champion.
Elsa then summoned all her subjects and relatives. A place was prepared in Mainz for Lohengrin and Friedrich to fight in the emperor’s presence. The hero of the Grail defeated Friedrich, who confessed having lied to the duchess and was executed. Elsa and Lohengrin became lovers and, within time, marry. However, Lohergin secretly insisted upon Elsa avoiding all questions about his ancestry, or he had come from, otherwise he would have to leave her instantaneously and she would never see him again.
For a time, the couple lived in peace and happiness. Lohengrin was a wise and mighty ruler of his land. He also served his emperor well in his expeditions. However, one day when he was throwing the javelin, Lohengrin knocked the Duke of Cleve from his horse, so that the latter broke an arm. The Duchess of Cleve spoke out amongst the women angrily, “Lohengrin may be brave enough, but what a pity that he is not noble as no one knows whence he has come floating to this land.” These words pierced Elsa’s heart. At night, Elsa wept. Her husband asked her, “What is the matter, Elsa?” She answered, “The Duchess of Cleve has caused me sore pain.” Lohengrin could guess what happened, but he was silent and did not ask any more questions. On the second night, the same thing happened again. On the third night, Elsa could no longer control herself, and she asked, “Lord, do not chide me! I wish to know, for our children’s sake, where you were born, for my heart tells me that you are of high rank.” When the sun rose, Lohengrin made a public declaration about where he had come from, that Parsifal was his father and God had sent him from the Grail. He then asked for his children, kissed them and told them to take good care of his horn and sword which he would leave behind. To his wife, he left a little ring which his mother had given him. Then his friend the swan came. Lohengrin crossed the water, back to the service of the Grail. Elsa sank down in a faint.She wept and mourned the rest of her life for her beloved husband who never came back to her. Remembering Lohengrin’s service to the empire, the empress resolved to keep his son (also named Lohengrin) for his father’s sake, and to bring him up as her own child.
The fate of the younger Lohengrin was similar to his father. The infant Lohengrin floated in a vessel upon the sea and was carried ashore by a swan. After his father left, the empress adopted him as her son. He grew up to become a hero. Having married a noble maiden of the land, he forbade her to ask about his origin. When the command was broken, the younger Lohengrin also revealed his miraculous descent and divine mission, after which the swan carried him back in his skiff to the Grail.
The characteristic features of the Lohengrin saga–the disappearance of the divine hero in the same mysterious fashion in which he has arrived; the transference of mythical motifs from the life of the older hero to a younger one bearing the same name are likewise embodied in the Anglo-Lombard saga of Sceaf, who reappears in the Prelude to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, the oldest Teutonic epic. Here, he is called Scyld the Scefung (“son of Sceaf”). The older legend says that he received his name because as a very young boy he was cast ashore, as a stranger, asleep in a boat on a sheaf of grain (Anglo-Saxon: sceaf) . The waves of the sea carried him to the coast of the country he was destined to defend. The inhabitants welcomed his arrival as a miracle, raised him, and later on made him their king, considering him a divine emissary. His story also repeated itself in his son, also called Scyld. His body was exposed, as he had ordered before his death, surrounded by kingly splendor, upon a ship without a crew, which is sent out into the sea. Thus he vanished in the same mysterious manner in which his father arrived ashore, this trait being accounted for, in analogy with the Lohengrin saga, by the mythical identity of father and son.