Sinful Sunday: On the edge

What’s important is almost never what happens in the centre. It’s on the edges.

Where creamy skin becomes pink. Where pleasure comes with a clap and a pang. 

And beauty escapes the rule of symmetry, and loses the balance. 

And still, and yet, that asymmetry creates the best harmony.


Sinful Sunday: Emotion and tranquillity

Wordsworth once said that poetry is emotion reflected on, during tranquillity. So this is poetry: Everything was movement and heat, barely controlled and pleasurable chaos, just minutes before. 

Now, there’s a long moment of peace. She is still, and her mind is still. Her body is warm, and her mind is cool. No thoughts, just body-memories.


Sinful Sunday: Elsa and the Swan 2

God! That swan wants a cigarette, doesn’t he? 

Anyway, we were telling the story of Elsa of Brabant, in February of the year 932. 


I mentioned that the King of Frankreich, Henry the Fowler, was in Brabant to persuade their cavalry to support him in the Battle of Merseburg: Frankreich (defending), versus the Magyars. That’s how we know when the story is set. The battle was in March 932, and it’d take an army, even with horses, about three weeks to get from Brabant to Merseburg.   

Elsa was accused of her brother’s murder, but was proclaimed innocent after a stranger arrived and won her case, in a trial by combat. He then offered to marry Elsa, and, starstruck, she accepted. 

Now read on.

Elsa’s story

The trouble is, this man that she’s called here, or created, insists that she not ask his name, or where he comes from. So she’s in love, and so is he, but he’s carrying on like a married man on Fetlife. 

Eventually, on their wedding night, Elsa can’t stand it any more. He tries to stop her, but she directly asks him who he is, and who are his forebears.

He is distraught. Once he is asked that, he’s not allowed to stay. He’s a bit like a creature from Faerie, immensely strong and powerful, but if you so much as nick their finger – or make any puncture – they collapse.

Elsa hears the call of the Swan that drew his boat. It’s coming to take her lover, her husband, away.

At the river, the knightly stranger explains that he is a knight of the Holy Grail, which is in the mountains of northern Spain. His name is Lohengrin, and he is the son of Parzifal, the ruler of the Grail kingdom.

Lohengrin is distraught as well. If she’d managed to hold on for a year, he’d have been able not only to stay but to tell her who he is. And she would have got her brother back.

Maybe I can do one thing, he says. He kneels down by the river and prays. The Swan transforms, losing its swan form, and turning back into her missing brother Gottfried!

He had been turned into a swan by the wife of Telramund, the knight who’d accused Elsa of murdering her brother. He was rescued by the Grail: if he spend a year serving the Grail, he’d have been able to return, in human form. But Lohengrin has used the last of his earthly powers to bring Gottfried back early. 

He, Lohengrin, was going to lead the cavalry into battle, but he can no longer do that. But, he says, Gottfried can.

But even though Elsa got her brother back, the Grail is forcing Lohengrin to return. He can’t stay. He steps into his boat, which speeds off, even without a swan to pull it. 

Elsa watches her lover, rescuer and husband disappear, and she cries out in agony. Then she faints, or dies, of her grief

What’s this story about?

In an odd way, it’s about adultery, or at least it exists because of adultery. Elsa and Gottfried’s family are real, and in 100 years or so Gottfried’s descendent, another Gottfried, would lead Christian forces in the First Crusade, and took back Jerusalem. 

But about this time there was an embarrassing break in the family line. They explained it by coming up with this story about swans. 

So Lohengrin, a figure out of myth, steps briefly into the real, historical world. And Gottfried, a figure out of history, steps briefly into the world of myth. 

Each, as they must, ultimately returns to the world, or realm of reality, that they came from. 

It’s also, in a way, about the weakness of the supernatural. It can seem strong and powerful, but it always shrivels and disappears if you look at it too closely. 

Fucking swans

That’s the end of the swan series. There’s much more to say (sexual customs involving humans fucking swans up the cloaca, for example) and many more stories, but all good series have to come to a


Sinful Sunday: Lohengrin, Elsa and the Swan

Probably the most famous swan-human transformation of all is set out at the end of Wulfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzifal. The most famous version of the story is Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. Wagner is good at using his sources accurately, while condensing the number of incidents and characters to the minimum he can get away with for dramatic purposes, so we’ll use his version, mostly. 

Wagner tells the story from the woman’s point of view. Lohengrin arrives in silver armour (Wagner’s version is the origin of the phrase “knight in shining armour”) comes to “save” Elsa, but does he really exist, or is he a sort of psychic projection of Elsa’s? Anyway, here’s Elsa’s story. 

What’s the time?

It’s odd when magical tales have specific dates and places, but this story happens in February in the year 932. Many knights have collected in Brabant, because Henry the Fowler, king of Frankreich, wants to assemble a multi-national force to fight the Magyars, who invaded Europe with a lot of fire and pillage, rape and killing. Now they collect annual tribute from their conquered lands, and from their neighbours who don’t want to be invaded.

Henry comes to Brabant, in what is now Belgium, because there are a lot of mounted knights there, and he hopes to use their cavalry in the coming battle with the Magyars. That’s the background.

What’s Elsa up to?

Elsa is the daughter of the leading noble in Brabant. A month earlier, she was out in the forest with her younger brother Gottfried. Something weird happens and she drops asleep. When she wakes up her brother has disappeared. 

A knight, Telramund, backed by his wife Ortrud, accuses her of murdering her brother, to secure the throne of Brabant for herself. 

The king decides to hold a trial by combat, to test the truth of this accusation. Obviously Elsa can’t go up against the biggest and best swordsman in Brabant herself, so she has to appoint a champion to fight for her. 

Unfortunately, all the other knights know that Telramund is the most fearsome fighter in Brabant, and challenging him, even on Elsa’s behalf, is a suicide mission. 

So Elsa goes into a trance. She imagines a knight coming to save her, a knight from a far-away land, clad in silver armour. 

And then: amazement! (to everyone else: not to her) the very knight she describes turns up! 

He comes by river, standing, his silver armour blinding in the sun, resting on his sword, in a small boat pulled by a swan. 

He arrives and thanks the swan extremely politely. He comes ashore, and immediately agrees to fight Telramund, who he defeats quickly and easily, but spares his life. Then he offers his hand in marriage to Elsa. 

Elsa is a lonely girl. No one local was prepared to fight for her. She accepts. 

So Elsa is found innocent in the trial, and the wedding is announced.

Happy Ending! 

Well, not quite. But we’ll have the rest of the story next week.

An observation about fear

I mentioned that it’s not clear whether the knight exists, or whether he’s a sort of psychic projection created by Elsa. 

It’s interesting that Elsa isn’t afraid while she’s being accused of murder, and it seems almost impossible for her to find a champion. If she didn’t find a champion, she’d be found guilty of murder and possibly witchcraft, and she’d die a very horrible death. That doesn’t scare her. But once her champion is there, she seems to be very afraid.

But we’ll continue this story next week! No peeking! 


In the photo, the swan comes to an abrupt halt on the river Scheidt. (Which runs through Brabant.) And knocks over my champion, who is clad in … nothing. But she shines, she shines. 

Sinful Sunday: Swans rule!

Swan/human, caught in mid-transformation

In Greek myth Cyncnus, King of the Ligurians, was in love with Phaeton. Phaeton was the annoying young man who asked his father, the sun-god Helios (but it’s Apollo in some versions), for proof that he was his father’s spon and that his father loved him.

So Helios agreed to give his son anything he asked. Phaeton asked to drive the chariot iof the sun. Helios warned him that he wasn’t strong enough to control the team of wild horses that lead the sun through the sky. But Phaeton insisted, and Helios could not go back on his promise. 

Of course Helios was right. Phaeton lost control of the horses, and the sun followed the chariot so close to earth that it burned crops, birds, animals and people. Eventually Zeus had to put an end to the disaster by knocking the chariot out of the sky with a thunderbolt. Phaeton was immediately killed.

But his lover, Cyncnus, was inconsolable. He sat by the lake near his palace, day after day, staring into the water, thinking of the young man he’d loved and lost.

Eventually Apollo took pity on Cyncnus and turned him into a swan. Not an intelligent, speaking swan like the children of Lir, but one who had forgotten all human concerns and loves, and who was aware of no future and no past, and lived only in the moment.