In Ludwig II, You Higuri develops the formula she will eventually perfect with her later series, Cantarella — both are set in key moments in European history when “great men” attempt to create new nation states at great costs, and both works feature a moving interpretations of a real and troubled ruler whose one tie to sanity is his relationship with a pure and devoted servant.
While Cantarella charts Cesare Borgia’s dark rise to power, Ludwig II is a sympathetic portrait of the King of Bavaria’s attempt to maintain both his sanity and his nation’s sovereignty in the face of German unification and Bismark’s unchecked militarism. Ludwig is a pitable and absurd figure — he is known as the “mad king” and seems to live in daydreams he concocts out fairy tales and Wagner’s operas. Often he seems to have relinquished his hold on reality and pretends to be a character in the opera and has others act out these fantasies with him. The idea that he could figure out what to eat for lunch, much less rule a nation seems laughable.
However, although Ludwig frequently retreats to his fantasy world, he can suddenly resurface and cunningly outwit malicious people from various walks of life who are plotting against him. When needed Ludwig can summon the clarity of a brilliant strategist. He uses his reputation as a weak madmen to manipulate Bismark and other neighboring rulers. He is also incredibly troubled by his dark visions of the terrible future that lies ahead for Germany and at times even foresee the terrible legacy of growing German militarism (i.e. the Third Reich).
Outside of his fantasy life, Ludwig has two sources of unwavering support and love in his life. His cousin, Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria, and a young and beautiful servant, Richard Hornig. While Ludwig despises the touch of women (which means he can never bring himself to marry), importantly Elizabeth is not really a woman to him but more like his soul-mate, his mirror. In contrast, Hornig is a beautiful object that Ludwig posses (and whom he “possesses” forcefully in their first encounter), but he also certainly loves Hornig as much as his unstable personality allows.
While this clearly is a boys’ love story, Ludwig and Hornig’s love is backdrop to an broadly, but effectively, rendered period in European history. Anarchists are after the lives of European royalty and military conflicts from all sides seem to threaten the relatively isolated Bavaria and the peace of Ludwig’s kingdom. Each plot against Ludwig causes both great physical and mental suffering for Hornig (who constantly tries to protect his master and despairs when it is Ludwig who ends up protecting him), and it is clear that Ludwig suffers alongside Hornig, increasing his already heavy psychological burden as the ruler of a small kingdom that may just be reaching extinction with the rise of the modern nation state.
Ludwig II is meticulously researched and Higuri delights in the arts, manners and costumes of mid-19th century central Europe. Higuri’s art work is quite lovely although not as polished and decadent as her mature style evidenced in Cantarella. As a whole, the 300 page work is fast-paced and incredibly engrossing, and I found Hornig and Ludwig’s devotion to each other quite touching in the face of the insurmountable political and cultural obstacles they experience. I look forward to the concluding volume in spite of the fact it is clear from the first page of this volume that Higuri is writing a tragedy.
Review copy provided by DMP.
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