I want to raise the question of whether or not the title character of Lohengrin in Wagner’s opera is really a hero?
We know that in Act 1 of Lohengrin, the ‘unknown knight’ appears to save Elsa when she is accused of murdering her younger brother the Duke Gottfried of Brabant. In the Trial by Combat that occurs, Lohengrin defeats Elsa’s accusor, Count Friedrich von Telramund.
We know that Lohengrin offers to defend Elsa, and to marry her, only if she never asks him who he is or where he came from. Naturally, Elsa is in no position to refuse any help that she can get – she is being accused of murder after all. So right away, one has to question the situation – why should this man be willing to take advantage of a woman like this?
During Act 3, Lohengrin sings the aria ‘In fernem Land’ where he tells the King, Elsa, the people of Brabant, and the audience of the Holy Grail, the ‘rules’ he follows when assisting others, and who he is. Specifically, Lohengrin sings:
“so hehrer Art doch ist des Grales Segen, enthüllt – muss er des Laien Auge fliehn; des Ritters drum sollt Zweifel ihr nicht hegen, erkennt ihr ihn, – dann muss er von euch ziehn.“
“For so wondrous is the blessing of the Grail that when it is revealed it shuns the eye of the uninitiated; thus no man should doubt the knight, for if he is recognised, he must leave you.“
Thus Lohengrin must leave once people know who he is. But the question must be asked, “How many times has Lohengrin helped a woman in distress only to be found out?” Simply put, Wagner does not tell us. We must determine this on our own. However, I have always wondered how often Lohengrin has came to a woman’s aid, married her, and then had to abandoned her?
We know Lohengrin marries Elsa. It takes place between the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3. While the marriage is assumed to end in an annulment, this to is never clearly indicated in the opera. Thus, Lohengrin abandons his wife Elsa.
Wagner does not answer this the issue of whether or not Lohengrin has performed a similar function on other occasions, and would unlikely have been able to specify this in the 19th Century and still be allowed to have the opera be accepted for performance, we do know that Wagner was willing to push the envelope with his operas. So one must wonder is he wasn’t really intending to allow Lohengrin to assist a woman, marry her, and then abandon her time and time again.
So, in conclusion Lohengrin could ultimately not be called a hero, but a manipulative person who takes advantage of women in need and then abandons them when they are asked an obviously straight forward and reasonable question (i.e. what his name is.) He will only help Elsa, an innocent person, if she promises to marry him but never ask him who he is. Then when we are told of his identity, we have to wonder if it isn’t possible for Lohengrin to have done the same with other women, only to abandon them because they asked a simple question.
While it is still possible for Lohengrin to be called a ‘hero’ as he was only doing his duty, we really do have to wonder. Or at least I do wonder if he really is a hero.
The translation used in this post is thanks to: http://www.rwagner.net/libretti/lohengrin/e-lohen-a3s3.html