swans and swan-symbolism in Middle-earth


... there countless swans housed in a land of reeds

  • Introduction
  • The swans of today
  • The swans of Middle-earth in former days
  • The swans of Third Age Middle-earth
  • Swan symbolism in later Ages
  • Summary / conclusion
  • Introduction

    Swans are probably not the first birds you think of in relationship to Tolkien.

    Eagles, yes. Gwaihir, Thorondor, Landroval: names to inspire the heart with dreams of soaring strength, high above the chiselled peaks of Middle-earth.

    Thrushes, too, perhaps, remembering the beady-eyed individual from The Hobbit, chiselling snail shells upon the threshold of Erebor?

    Or maybe you recall Roäc, son of Carc, Chief of the Ravens of Erebor, who knew the speech of Men and aided Thorin's party in The Hobbit.

    But swans? What is there to say about them? There are those swan-boats, to be sure, but not much more, surely? Oh, but there is. Quite a lot more.

    This article, then, is written as an investigation into, and a celebration of, a bird somewhat overlooked in this modern age, as it was not by Tolkien, nor in the times he related to us. We will see that Tolkien distinguishes three species of swan in Middle-earth and investigate the strong swan symbolism exhibited in the lives of several of its peoples.

    But let us begin closer to home with a look at the birds that grace our own rivers, lakes and shores.

    Intro : Today : Former days :Third Age
    Later Ages : Summary

    The swans of today

    Swans (subfamily Cygninae) are the largest of the Anseriformes (waterfowl), an Order which also includes geese and ducks. Eight species of swan are identified. These can are of two types, considered in terms either of colour or geographical distribution.

    The white swans - the Mute, Bewick's, Whistling (or Tundra), Whooper and Trumpeter Swans - are limited to the northern and middle latitudes, whilst the South has the Black and Black-necked species. The eighth species, the odd, duck-looking Coscoroba Swan, is the one anomaly: an all-white, southern swan.

    Swans of the north

    Mute swan (5KB)

    Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)
    click thumnail for full size image

    To those of us in the British Isles, the Mute is the most common of the swan species: a familiar sight upon - or more often beside - park lakes across the country. The Mute is the swan of our common imagination. Ask someone to draw a swan and you will find the Mute's strongly curved neck, powerful head and semi-raised wings: the latter "busking" display is commoner and more pronounced in the male cobs than the female pens.

    Although the Trumpeter Swan is considered the larger of the two species, Mute cobs occasionally exceeding their American cousins. As with all the swan species, male and female Mutes are generally similar in size (males being some 20-30% heavier) and plumage.

    Aside from its characteristic jizz, the Mute can be distinguished from other swans by the bright orange bill (brighter during the breeding season) and rounded black basal knob to the beak (larger at this time).

    The Mute Swan is social, preferring inland lakes, rivers and pools with areas of open water and shallow margins. It is a more or less permanent resident throughout Britain and north-western Europe, with many local populations being virtually semi-tame (though watch out if you choose to disturb them during the breeding season - your intrusion is likely to be rewarded by a fierce bite to the leg or a blow from those powerful wings!)

    Although they do not call during flight, "Mute" swans are hardly that on the ground and issue a variety of grunts and hisses - as you will know if you have upset them!

    Mute Swans breed April to June: in common with other swan species, Mutes mate for life.

    Bewick swan (5KB)

    Bewick's Swan (Cygnus columbianus)
    click thumnail for full size image

    At around 6 kg the Bewick's is the smallest of the northern, white swans. These are winter visitors to Britain and northern coastal regions of Denmark, Germany and Holland. Come the warmer temperatures of late March and April, the Bewick's Swans return to their breeding grounds on the arctic tundra of western Russia - a migratory journey of around 4,000 km (2,500 miles). A separate population breeds in eastern Russia and over winters in Japan.

    Bewick's Swans prefer large open water and are generally found on lakes and marshland.

    Aside from its smaller size, the Bewick's can be distinguished from the otherwise similar Whooper by its bill coloration. In the Bewick's this extends for approximately one third of the bill and ends square or rounded.

    These bill-markings are as individual as finger prints and have been used to distinguish birds at wildfowl centres. The same birds have been seen returning year after year.

    Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus)

    The Whooper is superficially similar in appearance to the Bewick's but where the two are found together the Whooper can be readily distinguished by its larger size of around 7-12 kg (comparable to the Mute) compared to the Bewick's 5-7 kg.

    More specifically, the yellow splash on the Whooper's otherwise black beak extends much further than in the Bewick's, and ends in a sharp, frequently ragged, point.

    Like the Bewick, the Whooper is a winter visitor to Britain, having nested throughout the summer beside Iceland's lakes. Other populations breed in Scandinavia and throughout northern Russia, wintering respectively in western Europe, the Black and Caspian Seas, and Japan.

    Whistling (or Tundra) Swan (Cygnus columbianus)

    The Whistling or Tundra Swan is the North American variant of the European Bewick's Swan. With their black beaks and straight necks they might be confused with the Trumpeter were it not for their smaller size (around 6.7 kg) and small teardrop of yellow at the base of the bill by the eye.

    As their alternative name indicates, these swans breed on the arctic tundra of Canada and Alaska. Come winter they move south and are to be found along the seabord of the western (and to a lesser extent the eastern) United States. Some of the latter fly up to 6,000 km (around 3,700 miles); the longest known migration of any swan.

    Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)

    At around 11 kg, this American species is considered the largest of the swans, though as described above, it is challenged in this role by the weightier Mute cobs.

    In general appearance the Trumpeter most closely resembles the Tundra Swan, with the conical white head dominated by the large black beak. The beak is made visually larger by the black featherless area extending the its apparent size as far as the eye.

    Once populous throughout the Americas, the Trumpeter was hunted close to extinction, though numbers are recovering. Certain populations are sedentary, remaining within their specific locale throughout the year. Others retain the migratory impulse, journeying south in winter and returning to more northerly latitudes to breed.

    Swans of the south

    Coscoroba Swan (Coscoroba coscoroba)

    You would never imagine that the Coscoroba was a swan - but it is! Uniquely amongst the swans the Coscoroba lacks the wedge shaped patch of bare skin above the bill: the neck is also relatively short and the bill is "duck-ishly" broad. To cap it all, their legs and feet are pink-red (all the other swans have black legs and feet).

    These strange birds live throughout southern South America, from Brazil to the Falklands.

    Black-necked swan (5KB)

    Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melanocorypha)
    click thumnail for full size image

    This bird, which inhabits a range very similar to that of the Coscoroba, appears something like a hybrid of the Black and Mute species, with its white body and black head and neck. The Mute's basal bill-knob is also there but here it is red and swollen against a steel-blue bill.

    Black swan (5KB)

    Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)
    click thumnail for full size image

    The Australian Black is arguably the most attractive of all the swans, despite - or perhaps because of - its difference from the "classic", white species. Aside from its colour, the Black perhaps most closely resembles the Whooper, with its long neck held relatively erect. The beak of the Black Swan, though, is a uniform glossy red. It is also smaller than even the Bewick, at around 5.7 kg.

    Most strikingly, though - and unique - the eye of the Black Swan black within orange-red. It resembles more than anything else the eye of a bird of prey (all the other modern swan species have black eyes).

    Intro : Today : Former days :Third Age
    Later Ages : Summary

    The swans of Middle-earth in former days

    We turn now to the evidence of swans within the Middle-earth narratives. As far as I have been able to tell, there are no swan references at all in The Hobbit. Swans are mentioned in The Silmarillion and there are two distinct references in The Lord of the Rings.

    The Ossëan Swan

    The Silmarillion tells the tale of the Teleri Elves, who after dwelling long upon the island of Tol Eressëa were torn between love of the Sea that beat upon their shores and desire to see Valinor and join those Elves who had gone there before them.

    Therefore Ulmo, submitting to the will of the Valar, sent to them Ossë, their friend, and he though grieving taught them the craft of ship-building; and when their ships were built he brought them as his parting gift many strong- winged swans. Then the swans drew the white ships of the Teleri over the windless sea; and thus at last and latest they came to Aman and the shores of Eldamar.

    Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië

    What can we learn from this passage? Given their close association with the Maia it seems likely we should elevate the Ossëan Swan to that group of noble "super-creatures" which includes the Mearas, Fathers of Horses, and the Great Eagles of Manwë.

    We cannot, however, tell whether this - or any other - swan was common throughout Arda at this time. To me, the passage quoted above suggests that these Ossëan Swans at least were previously unknown to the Teleri, which would indicate that the birds did not favour the Lonely Isle of Tol Eressëa. They may have been found only in Aman.

    One thing we can deduce is their likely habitat. In the Valaquenta we are told that Ossë is "master of the seas that wash the shores of Middle-earth ... [he] loves the coasts and the isles." It is likely, then, that "his" swans favoured the coastal habitats (of Aman?), rather than, say, inland lakes and meres.

    Most crucially, we are told neither the colour of the Ossëan Swan, nor its size, though presumably it was large, in order to pull the ships of the Teleri (on the other hand, we are not told how many swans there were doing the pulling, nor how great the ships were ...)

    The Ossëan Swan makes no further explicit appearances in the texts, though all subsequent tales resonate with their images and their significance. From such resonances we can begin to build a picture of these noble birds.

    Swan-ships of the Teleri

    Almost the first thing the Teleri did upon their arrival in Aman was to build themselves a city. The halls and mansions of that city were crafted of pearl and they named the city Alqualondë - the Haven of the Swans.

    For that was their city and the haven of their ships; and those were made in the likeness of swans, with beaks of gold and eyes of gold and jet.

    Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië

    Now we are getting somewhere, for surely the Teleri fashioned these ships in the likeness, specifically, of those swans which had borne them to those shores and which, perhaps, graced the coastal waters of their new abode.

    One painting by Tolkien, commonly entitled Taniquetil, shows one of these Teleri Swan-ships (in fact, two ships are depicted but one is in the distance and rather indistinct). The ship is white and has a single large white sail bearing a prominent red-and-orange sun design. The billowing sail and streaming red pennant are interesting in themselves: Ossë sent swans to pull the first ships because there was no wind ... The ship also has four pairs of oars, and a steering oar at the stern.

    Teleri swan ship(7KB)

    Rudimentary swan wings are in evidence - but most interesting to us is the large swept-back swan's neck at the prow and (just visible) the black-in-yellow eye. Also discernible is a prominent black knob at the base of the orange-red bill.

    The Ossëan Swan, then, was very similar in appearance to the modern Mute, though probably much larger and with the Black Swan's distinctive eye coloration. The Mute, though, is an inland bird: in its undoubted coastal preference the Ossëan Swan resembled rather the Whooper or Whistling species.

    The Swan-ship of Lórien

    The ship of Círdan which bore Frodo, Elrond and Galadriel into the West was also white, yet no swan-prow is mentioned in the text. This is understandable, for the swans of Ossë need have had no particular significance to Círdan or his people.

    Although originally of the Teleri, Círdan did not journey into the West with the rest of that folk but, heeding the persuasion of Ulmo, remained by the western coasts of Middle-earth with many of his people. Thereafter these were called the Falathrim, Folk of the Falas.

    But there was at least one Swan-ship in Middle-earth at the close of the War of the Ring.

    They turned a sharp bend in the river, and there, sailing proudly down the stream toward them, they saw a swan of great size. The water rippled on either side of the white breast beneath its curving neck. Its beak shone like burnished gold, and its eyes glinted like jet set in yellow stones; its huge white wings were half lifted. A music came down the river as it drew nearer; and suddenly they perceived that it was a ship, wrought and carved with elven-skill in the likeness of a bird.

    Farewell to Lórien

    Here once again we come face to face with the Ossëan Swan. But wait a moment - what is a Teleri Swan-ship doing in late Third Age Lothlórien? To answer that question we must return to Aman and the events of the First Age.

    This portion of our investigation centres upon Galadriel herself. It must be considered unfortunate, then, that "... there is no part of the history of Middle-earth more full of problems than the story of Galadriel and Celeborn, and it must be admitted that there are severe inconsistencies 'embedded in the traditions'" (Unfinished Tales). For our present purposes, however, it should be possible to remain on relatively solid ground. Psychologically, Galadriel was as Noldo as they came:

    Galadriel was the greatest of the Noldor, except Fëanor maybe, though she was wiser than he, and her wisdom increased with the long years.

    Unfinished Tales

    But, as the genealogical diagram (below) shows, Galadriel was half Teleri on her mother Eärwen's side. This twinned lineage, which must have brought Galadriel so much grief and pain, lies at the heart of the matter of the Swan-ship of Lothlórien.

    The lineage of Galadriel (5KB)

    As is described fully elsewhere (primarily in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales), the creature Ungoliant poisoned the Two Trees of Light and the Enemy Morgoth stole the three Silmarils, Fëanor's lifework and slew Fëanor's father Finwë. In vengeance - and against the express order of the Valar - Fëanor led such of the Noldor as would follow him back to Middle-earth in pursuit of Morgoth in the doomed quest to regain his treasures.

    Although her motives for doing so are not recorded plainly (yet love for Fëanor would not have been high on her list of priorities) Galadriel also left Valinor and returned to Middle-earth.

    It is known that she was present at the Teleri haven of Alqualondë when Fëanor descended upon it and seized the Teleri fleet by force of arms (having failed to persuade Olwë to provide the ships). In one version, related in Unfinished Tales, it is said that Galadriel took up arms against Fëanor in defence of her mother's people: whatever the truth of that it must be certain that she took no part herself in the Kinslaying.

    With equal certainty we can say that from that moment on, Galadriel's life got a whole lot more complicated. We can only imagine the mingled emotions of guilt, anger and fierce, stubborn pride that drove Galadriel down all the long years.

    The details of her life and wanderings through those years are the subject of differing and frequently contradictory stories. Fortunately, the details are not particularly important to us here.

    At the time of the War of the Rings Galadriel was undoubtedly the chief Noldo still living East of the Sea. Furthermore, she and her family - Celebrian, Arwen - represented the highest (if not the only) "High Teleri" blood in Middle-earth.

    The status of her consort Celeborn is not altogether clear. "Officially" (see The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) Celeborn was a kinsman of Thingol of Doriath (and thus Sindar) but in some versions he was a Teleri Prince, grandson of Olwë of Alqualondë (see Unfinished Tales).

    Whatever these details the Swan-ship of Lothlórien was, for Galadriel, much more than a pretty way to sail down the river - it was an affirmation of her Teleri lineage and an homage to those of her grandfather's house whose blood was shed upon the silver shores in the West.

    It may also have been in part a tribute to Ossë, by whose grace (according to some tales) Galadriel and Celeborn returned to Middle-earth fleeing the horror of the Kinslaying. Indeed, if that tradition is to be believed, the Swan-ship of Lórien might have been the very vessel in which they sailed East. It is told that they came first to "the haven where Círdan was lord" - ie the Falas, not the Grey Havens of which he was later Lord.

    If not, then the Swan-ship of Lórien was probably built later, at Edhellond or Dol Amroth where Galadriel and Celeborn dwelt for most of the Third Age before taking up the stewardship of Lothlórien.

    To my mind (and backed by no real evidence) Elven ships had a relatively shallow draught (the Taniquetil ship looks remarkably "Viking" in nature). From Edhellond or Dol Amroth the ship would have been sailed south to the Mouths of Anduin, then up the Great River.

    But, Teleri original or not, also and always the Swan-ship of Lórien would be to Galadriel a deliberate and permanent reminder of her (assumed though undeserved) guilt and complicity, personal and by association through her Noldo bloodline, in the Kinslaying of her grandfather's people and the rape of Alqualondë.

    What became of this vessel in the Fourth Age is not told.

    Imrahil of Dol Amroth, the Swan Prince

    The swan also appears upon the livery of Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth. We first see the Prince through Pippin's eyes as he watches the arrival of forces to swell the garrison of Minas Tirith:

    And last and proudest, Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, kinsman of the Lord, with gilded banners bearing his token of the Ship and the Silver Swan ...

    Minas Tirith

    This would seem to indicate two distinct symbols: a ship and a swan. However, elsewhere in The Lord of the Rings the banner of Dol Amroth is described as "silver upon blue, a ship swan-prowed faring on the sea" (The Field of Cormallen), "a white ship like a swan upon blue water" (The Houses of Healing) or simply a "Silver Swan" (The Black Gate Opens).

    Another instance, it would appear, of the Teleri Swan-ship and the Ossëan Swan. But can we be certain of this? How and why should such a device appear as the symbol of a Mannish house?

    The promontory of Dol Amroth (literally "the Hill of Amroth") lay close by the great Elven port of Edhellond ("Elf-haven"). According to tradition (see Unfinished Tales) Amroth had lived many years with his father Amdir of Doriath amongst the Sindar ship-wrights of Edhellond before moving south to build Tirith Aear, the Seaward Tower, upon the promontory that came to bear his name.

    In later times, Amroth removed to Lórien as King of that people, leaving Tirith Aear in the hands of Galadriel and Celeborn. It later passed under Gondorian rule, yet its Mannish Princes retained Amroth's device in his honour. It was said by some that the folk of Belfalas had Elven blood in their veins.

    Amroth's adopted device attests to the likelihood that one or more coastal species of swan dwelt in the region of the Falas. The fact that his heraldic swan was silver may indicate a different, grey species: in that case it would be one unknown to the modern world. Alternatively the colour may allude to the grey plumage of juvenile birds - or to mineral taints. The plumage of Whooper Swans is known to tinge a reddish brown after feeding on iron-rich material in their Icelandic breeding grounds.

    There is one other tantalising, if unlikely, possibility. Some accounts (see Unfinished Tales) have claimed that Amroth was not the son of Amdir of Doriath but rather the first-born child of Galadriel and Celeborn. This would give rather a different twist to his adoption of the Swan-ship device - if it were true. In truth this pedigree must be considered very unlikely, not least because of the total absence of any such reference in The Lord of the Rings.

    But Amroth is most remembered for the manner of his passing; leaping into the stormy seas off the Falas as the wild winds tore his ship from the shore and bore him far from his Silvan lover Nimrodel. For she had been delayed in her crossing of the White Mountains, and did not come to the Elf-haven in time.

    From helm to sea they saw him leap,
    As arrow from the string,
    And dive into the water deep,
    As mew upon the wing.
    The wind was in his flowing hair,
    The foam about him shone;
    Afar they saw him strong and fair
    Go riding like a swan.


    Note the imagery. In consecutive stanzas the unknown poet compares Amroth first to a seabird (mew) as he leaps dramatically into the raging seas and, second, to a swan as he attempts to gain the shore. Tragically, Amroth was never more seen alive in Middle-earth, nor was his body ever recovered from the Sea. His ship perhaps suffered the storm and came at last to the shores of Elvenhome - the last ever to sail there from the Havens of the South.

    Intro : Today : Former days :Third Age
    Later Ages : Summary

    The swans of Third Age Middle-earth

    We seem to have come a long way from the flesh-and-blood bird with which we began this investigation. What of the swan itself, in later Ages?

    The Swans of Nîn-in-Eilph

    There are only two reported sightings of swans in The Lord of the Rings. Meagre though the evidence is, we may find it worth studying. Here, presented first, is the second of the two sightings. It is late August and what is left of the Company are returning north:

    ... they rode at ease until they reached the Swanfleet River, and found the old ford, east of the falls where it went down suddenly into the lowlands. Far to the west in a haze lay the meres and eyots through which it wound its way to the Greyflood: there countless swans housed in a land of reeds.

    Many Partings

    What manner of swans might these have been? In the absence of any form of description, we are thrown back upon supposition. The birds are clearly gregarious and are "housed" - ie resident (or perhaps nesting) - far inland in a land of reeds, meres and twisting streams.

    Modern swans breed between April and July. The young of migratory species fledge at between two to three months, in preparation for the migration flights to warmer climes. In the Mute swan, a normally non-migratory bird, young are not fully fledged until between four and five months old.

    But migratory species normally summer in the far northern latitudes. Given the temperate location of Nîn-in-Eilph, we should take this population to be resident. In August there would be many young in their juvenile plumage (though, amidst the reeds and viewed from afar, these would probably not be visible to any but Elven eyes).

    Plumage colour is not stated, but given that the appearance of black swans seemed worthy of note (see below), it would be safe to assume that these were white. In which case, they seem to have been closest in appearance, habitat and nature to either the modern Mute, or Trumpeter species.

    Black Swans over Celebrant

    The earlier reported sighting was in mid February as the Company journeyed south by boat from Lothlórien; somewhere north of the Limlight close by the ancient battle site of Celebrant.

    On this side of the River they passed forests of great reeds ...
    There was no sign of living moving things, save birds. Of these there were many: small fowl whistling and piping in the reeds, but they were seldom seen. Once or twice the travellers heard the rush and whine of swan-wings, and looking up they saw a great phalanx streaming along the sky.
    'Swans!' said Sam. 'And mighty big ones too!'
    'Yes,' said Aragorn, 'and they are black swans.'

    The Great River

    The "rush and whine" reported here recalls most strongly the Mute Swan, whose wing beats are accompanied by just such a whistling, beating sound. However, patently, these swans are not white, but black - and there is no need for us to look farther than the modern Black Swan for a model of this species.

    The question of the swans' size arises. The modern Black Swan is smaller than all other species apart from the Black-necked and Coscoroba. To Sam, those overflying the company were "mighty big". Perhaps these Middle-earth Blacks were indeed much larger than their modern counterparts. On the other hand, they were flying overhead at some speed and altitude - and we must wonder how many other swans Sam had come across in his travels.

    Of course, we might turn that last argument around and deduce that swans of one sort or another (probably white, and presumably smaller than these Blacks) were not uncommon in the Shire. A cursory glance at any map of the area will reveal any number of possible swan-haunts. The pool at Bywater might have supported a small resident population if the local inhabitants were friendly. Aside from the various streams there are also suitable wetlands at Rushock Bog to the north-west of Hobbiton and Overbourne Marshes south of Deephollow.

    The largest body of standing water in the region, however, was Lake Nenuial. This would have been an ideal breeding site for any species of tundra swan from the far north. Some of the winter visitors might well have made the small additional distance to the Shire.

    In any event, the appearance of black swans was worthy of note by Aragorn, a seasoned traveller throughout much of Middle-earth. We may assume, then, that they were not normally to be found in those parts (or at least, not during that season).

    The Black Swan has been introduced throughout Britain and Europe, but it has not established wild populations outside its native Australia, most likely because of competition with the hardier native species, and/or predation. In the wild they are mostly migrant, preferring to breed in the southern regions of the country. During February, modern migratory swans would be secure in their wintering grounds, not ready to return to their breeding colonies for another six to eight weeks.

    The swans' presence in this place at this time requires an explanation, but we can offer only possibilities. If Aragorn had further to say on the matter it has gone unrecorded. Certainly, there is no hint that he saw their appearance as sinister in itself - we may assure ourselves that these Black Swans were not likely spies of Mordor. But their appearance was seen by Aragorn as significant, as signifying something. But what?

    We have a number of large birds out of their normal habitat, flying in determined formation ... in what direction? From the passage cited, we cannot be certain. They were "streaming along the sky" - but north or south, east or west? My own reading is that they were streaming south, overtaking the Company upon the river, because they were heard before they were seen.

    They might have been amongst the spies, not of Sauron but of Radagast, looking for him with news and warnings from the far south - or returning home. They might have visited Lórien just after the Company left and been sent on their way by Galadriel in the hope that their presence would alert Aragorn.

    All this is speculative, yes; but such an anomaly - the presence of which is, of itself, anomalous - invites speculation.

    Intro : Today : Former days :Third Age
    Later Ages : Summary

    Swan symbolism in later Ages

    But what of the symbolism of the swan in later Ages? We do not have to look too far to find this bird in the tales of our forebears. Intriguingly, all bar one of those I have been able to gather involve the swan in stories of metamorphosis.

    Leda and the Swan

    Perhaps the most widely known is the Greek tale of Leda. Leda was the wife of Tyndareus, King of Spartan, whom Zeus seduced in the form of a swan. Of this union was born Polydeuces. His brother was Castor - in some accounts also the son of Zeus but more commonly the mortal son of the king.

    After Castor's death, and at the supplication of Polydeuces, Zeus transformed the brothers into the constellation Gemini, or The Twins.

    The Children of Lír

    As with all true Stories, various versions of this wonderful Tale have survived to the present day.

    Lír was twice married, first to Aobh and later to her sister Aoife. By Aobh, he had four children: Fionnuala, Aed, Conn and Fiachna but of jealousy Aoife turned them into swans, destined to wander the world for 900 years.

    The first 300 years was spent in peace beside Lake Derryvaragh in Westmeath. The next 300 years the children passed upon the Straits of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland. Finally, they removed to the Atlantic coast by Erris. There they at length heard the chapel bell of a hermit who gave them Mass and set silver chains about their necks.

    The conditions of the spell were met when a "man of the north" and a "woman of the south", desiring the swans, laid hands upon them. At once the children of Lír transformed into 900 year old men and women, and straightly perished. The hermit baptised them and buried their withered bodies.

    Swan Lake / The Swan Princess

    Purists will forgive me if I take together Tchaikovsky's ballet of 1876 and the recent animated version of The Swan Princess which was based upon it.

    I have been unable to trace the original story underlying Swan Lake but both ballet and film relate the tale of Princess Odette. Odette is transformed by an evil magician (aren't they always?) Until the spell can be broken she must exist as a swan, returning to mortal form only upon the lake and only while the moonlight shines upon it.

    The Wild Swans

    This story is my personal favourite and was very much a part of my childhood. It was learned and loved in an abridged and beautifully illustrated collection of the Fairy Tales of Hans Andersen.

    Long ago, there was once a King who had eleven fine sons and one lovely daughter, the fair Elise. They all lived very happily together, until the widowed King remarried a Queen from a distant land.

    Of course, the Queen is jealous of the princes and princess. Elise is sent far from the court, but the eleven princes are cast under a spell.

    "Out!" hissed the wicked Queen. "Away in the shape of birds you shall fly! Dumb swans shall you be from this very moment!"

    The Swan-princes must spend all but two days each year far from their land, returning to human form only during the hours of darkness. Elise grows up and goes in search of her brothers. Finding them she learns their story. Later she undertakes the arduous and arbitrary tasks that will break the spell, instructed by a Fairy who appears to her in a dream.

    "Do you see these stinging nettles?" she asked Elise. "You must pick them with bare hands, though they will sting and burn; you must tread them with your bare feet, and with the yarn from them you must weave eleven shirts to cast over your brothers. But beware, once started, not one word must you speak until the work is finished, or all is lost and you will never see your brothers again."

    Of course, Elise accomplishes the tasks against all odds, and saves her brothers. The number of children aside there are strong echoes here of the Children of Lír and Princess Odette tales.

    Yet there are differences also. The Swan-princes are dumb (Mute Swans as illustrated in my book) whereas the Children of Lír, we are told, retained musical voices which charmed those that heard them sing.

    The Swan-boat of Lohengrin

    Finally, the only reference to a swan-ship I have unearthed. I know little of the tale of Lohengrin, which Encarta® 98 dubs "a popular medieval Arthurian legend ... the theme of the earliest written version of the legend, the epic Parzival (circa 1210), by the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach.":

    [Lohengrin] was the son of Parzival ... the knight of the Holy Grail. At King Arthur's command, Lohengrin was taken by a swan-drawn boat to Antwerp, where he fought for a noble lady, Elsa of Brabant.

    In the city of Kleve in west central Germany near the Rhine there is a castle called the "Schwanenburg" (Swans' Castle). This is in some manner associated with the Lohengrin legend and the "Knights of the Swan".

    Intro : Today : Former days :Third Age
    Later Ages : Summary

    Summary / conclusion

    In this article I have sought to draw together swan references, symbolism and sightings from the Middle-earth corpus and examine these with reference both to their original setting and the swans and swan-lore of later days. No doubt I have missed much that I might have included, and erred at times in my interpretations. In which case I sincerely ask you, the reader, for enlightenment. So we learn.

    I have found significant evidence for three swan species in Tolkien's works, and circumstantial evidence for perhaps two more.

    First and above all is the great Ossëan Swan of Aman, gift of the Maia Ossë to the Teleri, that drew their ships west from Tol Eressëa. Large and white with a golden-red beak and strange black-in-gold eyes, this favourite of Ossë was perhaps never seen east of the Sea. The Black Swan (alone amongst the various modern species) has carried the distinctive eye coloration of this noble bird into the current Age.

    Second, there was the gregarious white swan, probably akin to the modern Mute, that resided in large numbers the environs of Nîn-in-Eilph above Tharbad.

    Last of the three definite species is the mysterious large Black Swan seen by the Company south of Lórien, but almost certainly a visitor from the south.

    With less confidence, we can posit the existence of a white (or perhaps grey) coastal swan along the southern coasts of Gondor, in the region of Pelargir. This species, emblemised in the livery of the House of Dol Amroth, may have been a lesser variant of the Ossëan Swan.

    Finally, with no real evidence to support us, we note that the wetlands about the Shire might have provided winter habitats for tundra swans from the Far North.

    The image of the Ossëan Swan remained a powerful symbol throughout the first Three Ages of the world, especially for the Elder Kindreds. To them the bird betokened their love of the sea, their friendship with Ulmo and Ossë, and the promise of passage into the West. But also the emblem of the Swan preserved against forgetting or forgiveness the memory of bloodshed and blood-hatred: Kinslaying and Banishment.

    I have been unable to find any comparable imagery in the various swan stories which have come down to us, excepting only the swan-ship of Lohengrin. The others all involve swans as vehicles of transformation - a theme unexplored in the tales of Middle-earth.


    1. The Lord of the Rings
    2. The Silmarillion
    3. Unfinished Tales, chapter IV, The History of Galadriel and Celeborn)
    4. A-Z of Tolkien, David Day
    5. Swans, Dafila Scott, Colin Baxter Photography
    6. British & Irish Mythology, John and Caítlin Matthews
    7. Celtic Myths & Legends, TW Rolleston
    8. Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales, Ward Lock & Co. Illustrated by René Cloke
    9. Microsoft® Encarta® 98 Encyclopedia. © 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation

    Intro : Today : Former days :Third Age
    Later Ages : Summary