At the center of Disneyworld, the tall Cinderella Castle dazzles and enchants, as visitors make bee lines for it over the perfectly recreated „Main Street USA“ to see its staggering illusionist heights, fairy-tale turrets and recluse windows from up close.
A lifelike match of the cartoon castle of Disney’s 1950 Cinderella picture, the Walt Disney studio’s first big hit since its pre-war Snow White production (1937), the castle’s appearance and design go back a long way into Europe’s traditions and folklore.
The Disney cartoonists took inspiration for the Cinderella castle from a whole selection of European castles, including Versailles and Chambord, as they themselves were keen to acknowledge. Most recognizably of all, the forms and aura of the Bavarian Neuschwanstein castle emerge beneath the Disney building.
And perhaps this shouldn’t come as too great a surprise, seeing as the Neuschwanstein castle itself was deliberately planned and designed with German folklore in mind. At the orders of Bavaria’s Ludwig II, a recluse and perhaps insane king, construction began in 1869 and continued through 1892, ultimately remaining unfinished. As an immoderate Wagner-enthusiast and dubbed „The Dream King“, Ludwig II had set out to have a castle built that would pay homage to the German legends of Lohengrin, the Swan Knight – hence the castle’s name, which translates as „New Swan Stone“.
Who might this Swan Knight have been, one may ask. Wagner’s Lohengrin opera is the testimony most present to our minds today, but Wagner himself went back to the Arthurian epic Parzival, composed in the 13th century by the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, who, himself, derived the story from the medieval tale of the Swan Knight, a mysterious knight without a name who comes to the rescue of a damsel in a swan-drawn boat and remains anonymous throughout.
This tale existed not only in the German, but also medieval French folklore and is also recorded in the Dolopathos, a Latin version of the Seven Sages of Rome from the 12th century.
19th century man king Ludwig II’s profound love for traditional folklore and fairy tales was particularly pronounced and earned him a variety of names („Dream King“ being only one besides „Fairy-tale king“ and more), although on a broader scale this man’s mindset falls within the general framework of aristocratic attitudes during that epoch. For, during the time of rapid industrialization and the rise to money of many middle class entrepreneurs, members of the aristocracy were eager to remind themselves of their feudal roots and the beauty of age-old chivalrous traditions and lore. Thus the Neuschwanstein castle doesn’t stand alone in its romanesque, historicist yearning for a return to the past and its copious allusions to absolutism, the middle ages and its old sagas. King Ludwig II of Bavaria went down in history as a profoundly wagnerian king always wavering in his mind between dream and reality, truth and fancy.
And Cinderella? What better place for a magical tale like hers to end in a castle that no-one quite knows it if was real, or only a dream. The Disney animators fully embraced the spirit of imaginary wish fulfillment that aligns them with the mad fairy-tale king, who was actually real, and do so not only in terms of graphic design, but also in terms of sharing a piece of the fantasy that if you believe, dreams will come true.