Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Swan King - Christopher McIntosh

The Swan King: Ludwig II of BavariaThe Swan King is a biography of Ludwig II of Bavaria, the king responsible for the building of fabulous castles such as Neuschwanstein, which supposedly served as the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland in California.  Ludwig was a fascinating character, living more in his mind than in the real world, with an obsession for mythology and the music of Wagner.  He didn't spend much time in his capital of Munich, instead spending most of his time on the throne traveling between the various castles and palaces of Bavaria and sponsoring Wagner in the arts.  He went mad towards the end of his life and eventually died under what seem to be mysterious circumstances, leading to the question of whether he committed suicide or whether he was murdered.

Overall, I really liked this book.  I felt the pacing was pretty good, although it did get bogged down in the politics of Germany and Europe in general at a few times.  This is hard to avoid in biographies of rulers, though, because so much of their lives does depend on what's happening on the larger world stage.  Unfortunately, one of the most interesting documents that MacInstosh could have used, Ludwig's "secret diary," was destroyed during World War II, but he still has lots of letters and such to draw on as documentary evidence.

That said...this book was somewhat lacking in citations, which makes me a little uneasy.  Some things, like how Ludwig ordered a bunch of servants to go rob the Rothschild bank in order to finance his castles, seem like they really should have had a citation, ,and yet they don't.  The book has 204 pages of biographical content, and about 12 pages of citations at the back, most of which are "Ibid."  There's also a lot of "projecting," where McIntosh kind of puts words into Ludwig's mouth via the phrase "must have," which really put me off.  As in, "Ludwig must have felt..." "Ludwig must have thought..." and so on.  How can you make those claims?  There are very rarely quotes or citations surrounding them, and it puts me off somewhat as someone who spent the past four years of her life getting a history degree and citing everything.  Also, note that this book is published by a company called "I. B. Taurus and Comopany," not by one of the notable academic presses such as Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, etc. which makes it a bit less reputable in my eyes.  Granted, some very academic books can come out of less-known presses, but I'm not entirely sure this was one of them.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable read, but I also would have found it a more trustworthy read if it had been better sourced and cited.

2.5 to 3 stars out of 5.

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