Repulsed by affairs of the state and obsessed with the beauty of the arts, young King Ludwig II of Bavaria would much rather attend the opera than discuss his country’s vulnerability to power-hungry Prussia. As his ministers struggle to turn his focus to politics, Ludwig seeks the company of kindred spirits, particularly attractive young men whom he also desires as sexual partners.
With his greatest love apparently unrequited (that for notoriously decadent composer Richard Wagner, who uses Ludwig’s patronage to conceal his affair with a married woman) and his effusive relationship with Prince Paul of Thurn and Taxis nearing its end, Ludwig becomes infatuated with his new stable boy, an attractive young blond named Richard Hornig, whom he soon appoints as his personal manservant. Despite numerous obstacles, including a criminal plot hatched by Hornig’s brother and Ludwig’s brief engagement to his devoted cousin, Sophie, their mutual love grows, threatened only by political enemies and Ludwig’s increasingly frequent hallucinations.
As a matter of historical fact, King Ludwig II’s tragic and unexplained death can hardly be treated as a spoiler, a point wisely taken by mangaka You Higuri, who uses the event to open the series while also introducing Ludwig’s cousin Elizabeth (Empress of Austria), with whom he shared an exceptionally close relationship. Elizabeth, whose restless spirit earned her the name “The Wandering Queen,” begins as narrator and is portrayed throughout the story as the only person capable of truly understanding her cousin, doomed (as he is) to a fretful life as penance for the sin of dreaming. Higuri also makes good use of Ludwig’s well-known obsession with Wagner and his controversial legacy as “The Mad King,” by giving him recurring visions of a beautiful male “Valkyrie” (mythical Norse maidens who act as angels of death, portrayed extensively in Wagner’s opera Die Walküre) who draws him slowly into darkness and away from Hornig.
Though early on, Higuri tosses in a half-hearted reference to Ludwig’s lifelong struggle with religion and sexuality (as documented in his diaries), Ludwig’s imaginary Valkyrie is given most of the dirty work when it comes to tearing him away from his One True Love, Hornig, as well as the task of explaining his death. That Higuri’s story is highly fictionalized is not only obvious but intentional, yet it is its historical foundation that gives it much of its resonance, so much so that it’s tempting to wish she had gone just a bit further.
Higuri has set up a very attractive tragedy—its beautiful lovers doomed by circumstance, position, and mental instability. This premise, as stated, is perfectly primed for romantic fantasy and certainly a staple of the genre. What’s a bit sad is that the demands of boys’ love must take precedence over the opportunity to illustrate Ludwig’s true tragedy—one better told by historians and biographers. Much more heartbreaking than a tale of star-crossed lovers is that of a sensitive and artistically inclined young man, shackled by position and ruined by wealth, tortured by the impossibility of reconciling his deeply ingrained religious beliefs with the reality of his own sexuality, and doomed to lose lover after lover to disenchantment or, worse, matrimony.
Not only does Higuri romanticize Ludwig’s famously mysterious end, she also carefully leaves out his pain over Hornig’s real-life marriage, which took place years before. Though the true tale, of course, fails to provide the stuff of romantic fantasy, it reveals far more poignant truths about life as a gay monarch in the nineteenth century.
Even the New York Times, in their 1886 obituary, described Ludwig as a man born “too soon or too late”—a reclusive lover of the arts burdened with the weight of deep feeling, and ill-suited to an environment of politics and war. That Ludwig’s loneliness is palpable, even in the coldest historical accounts, is painfully revealing and unfortunately far removed from the world of boys’ love manga, as is his eventual decline into obesity. Given Ludwig’s aesthetic tastes, it is likely that Higuri’s ending for him—young, beautiful, and adored even in his final moments—would better satisfy his sensibilities than the one he came to himself.
One aspect of Ludwig’s personality that Higuri captures quite well is his devotion to his own fantasies—bestowing lavish gifts on those who pleased him and pouring his personal fortune into the construction of a series of elaborate castles—something that caused strife amongst his ministers but inspired considerable loyalty in the Bavarian people. It is Ludwig’s increasing retreat into fantasy that Higuri uses to justify his romantic and beautiful demise, something Ludwig himself would no doubt have appreciated.
Historical inaccuracies aside, Higuri’s tale is undeniably engaging and honestly romantic, despite her tendency to sentimentalize some disturbingly imbalanced bedroom dynamics which, granted, may not be far removed from class-based sexual politics of the day. The series’ detailed artwork and lush, period setting provide a feast for the eyes as well, with special attention given to the emotional tone of each scene. Ludwig’s inner world is especially well established, both visually and otherwise, and Higuri’s ability to portray him equally well in ecstasy as in despair gives him the range necessary to rise above the melodrama as a genuinely poignant character.
With just enough fact behind the fiction, Ludwig II manages to be more than a stylish costume piece, and if it inspires yearning for a deeper look at history, this can hardly be a bad thing. Succinct yet satisfying in two double-sized volumes, this series provides enough substance to please even casual fans of the genre.
Review copies provided by the publisher. Review originally published at PopCultureShock.