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Thread: Swans and Elves

  1. In the Old Norse poem Vǫlundarkviša, the background of the story somewhat curiously draws in both swans and elves. The basic myth, as found in the Poetic Edda, tells about the captivity of the smith Wayland (Old Norse Vǫlund) in service of King Nķšušr, and of Wayland's brutal but masterful revenge on the king. But before getting to this main part of the story, the poem tells how Wayland and his two brothers came across three strange maidens, and the three brothers married the three maidens, living together for nine years until the maidens departed off to the north for Mirkwood. (Wayland stayed behind and was captured by Nišušr, leading to the rest of the story, while his brothers were off looking for their lost wives.)



    The mythological connections are pretty thick in this relatively archaic poem: the maidens are swan-maidens, and can fly. When the brothers first discover them, their swan-garments lay near them (the Old Norse says Žar vóro hiį žeim įlptarhamir žeira, with the element įlpt-'swan' being a very interesting word linguistically), and the very first words of the poem are about them flying as swans (Meyiar flugo sunnan/ myrkviš ķ gǫgnum'maidens flew from the South/ headed toward Mirkwood'). The three brothers are apparently Elves. Although there is a prose prologue which says they are sons of the Finnish king, the poem itself doesn't mention anything about Finnland, and calls Wayland įlfa lióši'prince of Elves' (10.2a) and vķsi įlfa'ruler of Elves' (32.1b). This poem doesn't say that the swan-maidens are Elves, but does draw a pretty close association between the two types of being.
    Also curious is the opening of the story of Kullervo in the Kalevalawhich gives the ancestor of that tragic hero (not an 'Elf' as such - there was no such distinct category in Finnish folklore) as a swan:
    A mother reared chicks a great crowd of swans;she set the chicks on the fencebrought the swans to the river.An eagle came, snatched them upa hawk came and scattered them a winged bird strewed them:one it bore to Kareliaone it took to Russian soiland the third it left at home.The one it took to Russiagrew to be a trading manthe one borne to Kareliagrew up to be Kalervo [Kullervo's father]and the one it left at homesprang up to be Untamo [the main villain of the episode]who would blight his father's dayswho would break his mother's heart.-The Kalevala, canto 31, trans. Keith Bosley, p. 432
    Tolkien cites this as an example of the 'wealth of mythology' in the world of the Kalevala, and of its 'delightful atmosphere/variety', noting that 'Kullervo, most tragic of peasant boys, is but two generations from a swan' (Kalevala Essay, either draft; TS7 p. 254 and p. 275). As I said, there is no Elvish linkage per se, but this reinforces further the impression that a) swans have a fair mythological significance in the North, and b) the categories between swans and human-like beings are relatively blurry.
    I've given these two mythological examples basically as a prelude what I think is a much more interesting linguist web surrounding the words for swans and Elves in Germanic, Indo-European, and Eldarin, which are coming in the next post due to length.
    It is hard indeed to believe that one of so great wisdom, and of power—for many wonderful things he did among us—could perish, and so much lore be taken from the world.

  2. *albh
    Like I said, the connections between Elves and swans get much more interesting (though not necessarily clearer) when we turn to language. The Germanic languages have two common words for 'swan'. One is the familiar swan(Common Germanic *swanaz), a name apparently given either for the sound that swans make when they fly, or for the idea of the 'swan song' (the belief that the mute swan is normally, as the name implies, silent, but sings a beautiful song just before dying). The word is ultimately cognate with Latin sonus, from which we get our word sound.
    But it's the other Germanic swan-word that's more interesting right now. I mentioned it in the post above, where the Norse for is įlpt(the 'p' actually represents an 'f' sound). Old High German also has this word as alpiz, and it appears in Old English (ylfetuin the 'normal' West Saxon dialect, aelbituin the more archaic dialect of Mercia). These all come from a Common Germanic *albitō'swan'.
    This word, *albitō, looks like it is probably a derivative of a well-known Indo-European root *albh'white, bright', presumably because swans are so strikingly white (using a suffix *-idō). This root is also the source of Latin albus'white, bright', whence we get Albus Dumbledore. More immediately relevant, it is also the source of the word elf, which comes from Common Germanic *albiz (there was also a common variant *albaz), and apparently referring to the idea of Elves has being bright or shining somehow. Because of this probable common derivation (or a the least, coincidence of sound), Germanic is filled with similar word-pairs for Elves and swans:
    Old Norseįlpt'swan' (remember the 'p' represents an 'f' sound, either [f] or [ɸ])įlfr'elf'
    Old English (Late West Saxon dialect)ylfetu'swan' (the 'y' was in later Old English probably just a short 'i', [ɪ], but comes from the German (short) ü sound, [ʏ])ylf'elf'
    Old High Germanalpiz'swan'alp'elf'
    Now, there's no necessary deep significance to these similarities, but someone like Tolkien could hardly have missed the similarity here, and in light of the (at least partial) mythological association between Elves and swans in Germanic it is hard to wonder if this was not at least reinforced by these words.



    It is hard indeed to believe that one of so great wisdom, and of power—for many wonderful things he did among us—could perish, and so much lore be taken from the world.

  3. Dorwiniondil's Avatar
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    #3
    Not to mention Q: alqua Telerin: alpa S: alph ...
    "I am no longer young even in the reckoning of Men of the Ancient Houses."

  4. alph
    The words for 'swan' are an enduring part of the Elvish lexicon. In the very earliest versions of the Elvish languages, we find Gnomish alfaalongside Qenya alqa(the latter still recognizable decades later in Alqualondė'swan-haven'). The Gnomish form winds up as Sindarin alph, and the resemblance of this word to the Germanic words cited above may not be entirely incidental. If nothing else, I would say that we have here a particular sound-sense relationship that Tolkien found pleasing or appropriate, of the soundalf-and the idea 'swan'.
    In the earliest stage of Eldarin, there is also an etymological similarity. The Qenya Lexicongives the swan-words under the root (I)L̥KL̥, which seems to mean 'blaze, be brilliant' - the derivation must be basically the same as Germanic, calling the bright white birds after their most distinctive visual trait.
    Later on Tolkien changed this, and the Etymologieslists the swan-words under ĮLAK 'rushing', apparently particularly used for rushing wind or flight. I think anyone who's heard a swan fly will agree that this is an appropriate etymology, but it does make the word somewhat less similar to the Germanic word in terms of its semantic derivation.
    That said, I think in the earliest stages of his working out the Elvish languages, Tolkien drew quite heavily on a (to him) familiar and possibly significant Germanic sound and semantic complex for 'swan'.



    It is hard indeed to believe that one of so great wisdom, and of power—for many wonderful things he did among us—could perish, and so much lore be taken from the world.

  5. Not to mention Q: alqua Telerin: alpa S: alph ...



    Looks like you beat me to it!
    It is hard indeed to believe that one of so great wisdom, and of power—for many wonderful things he did among us—could perish, and so much lore be taken from the world.

  6. Dorwiniondil's Avatar
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    #6
    "I am no longer young even in the reckoning of Men of the Ancient Houses."





  7. Swans in Tolkien
    I was trying to think of all the occasions in which swans feature in Tolkien's fiction, and I doubt I've caught even all the major ones. But there does seem to be a running theme to their appearances: they are connected not only with Elves, but also with the Valar.
    The ones that seem least Elvish and most Valian are the seven swans Tuor follows south to Vinyamar. I thought the line that introduces these swans, 'And one day, as Tuor sat upon the shore, he heard the rush and whine of great wings, and he looked up and saw seven white swans flying in a swift wedge southward' (UT, Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin), was particularly interesting in light of Tolkien's later etymology of the word. These swans are clearly servants of Ulmo, leading Tuor to his doom (aside from everything else, although other birds are mentioned as migrating south, as soon as the swans have lead Tuor southwards, they fly again back north), and their connections are Elvish only insofar as Tuor has many dealings with the Elves.
    But the Elvish connection comes across much more strongly with the Teleri, in particular the 'many strong-winged swans' that Ossė gave them as gifts to propel their white ships across the sea. The Telerin port of Alqualondė reinforces the swan imagery, as do the white ships themselves, which can possibly be inferred to be swan-shaped (I can't find an explicit statement to that effect at this moment, but the similarity to other swan-boats and Tolkien's 1928 painting Halls of Manwėmake this pretty clear {Artist & Illustrator, cover and #52, p. 56}).
    We also get something perhaps more significant than associations of imagery in The Lord of the Rings, with Galadriel's swan-boat:
    They turned a sharp bend in the river, and there, sailing proudly down the stream towards them, they saw a swan of great size. The water rippled on either side of the white breasts 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.-The Lord of the Rings, Book II, Farewell to Lórien
    This seems to me to be Tolkien's quintessential swan-elf moment. Possibly inspired by the close linkages of the two things mythologically and linguistically in Germanic, we have his own fictional blurring of swans and elves. The swan-boat itself is an older image, and there is a related motif in the swan who guides Loherangrīn's boat at the end of the Middle High German romance Parzival, but as far as I know Tolkien's blend of swans, swan-boats, and Elves in this scene is distinctive.







    Edited by: Lord of the Rings
    It is hard indeed to believe that one of so great wisdom, and of power—for many wonderful things he did among us—could perish, and so much lore be taken from the world.

  8. Dorwiniondil's Avatar
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    #8
    There was I waiting for Lohengrin, and here he is at last. And yes, Galadriel singing in Farewll to Lórien is for me at least a far finer image than that of some Heldentenor belting out his song to his swan.

    Congratulations, LotR!
    "I am no longer young even in the reckoning of Men of the Ancient Houses."

  9. halfir's Avatar
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    Congratulations indeed- an impressive piece of work.

    Tolkien's use of the swan motif has an interesting 'sidebar' to it as well, the fact that swans are closely associated with poets themselves e.g. Pindar is 'the swan of Dirce', Homer is 'the Swan of Meander', Shakespeare is the 'Sweet Swan of Avon', Vaughan is 'the Swan of Usk' and so on. {Micheal Ferber- A Dictionary of Literary Symbols}.So, what is Tolkien? ( cf. Letter # 306 My poetry has received little praise and Letter # 257 I was also interested in .......verse and metrical devices).
    He that would foil me must use such weapons as I do, for I have not fed my readers with straw, neither will I be confuted with stubble.

  10. Dorwiniondil's Avatar
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    #10
    On the other hand ..

    "Swans sing before they die; 'twere no bad thing
    should certain persons die before they sing."
    (S.T. Coleridge)

    (back to the Heldentenor)
    "I am no longer young even in the reckoning of Men of the Ancient Houses."

  11. halfir's Avatar
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    #11

    <DIV marginheight="1" marginwidth="1" topmargin="1" leftmargin="1" ="WebWizRTE">
    <DIV marginheight="1" marginwidth="1" topmargin="1" leftmargin="1" ="WebWizRTE">Reminds one of that wonderfully cruelparody about Wordsworth- 'two voices', by J.K. Stephen's:
    <DIV marginheight="1" marginwidth="1" topmargin="1" leftmargin="1" ="WebWizRTE">
    <DIV marginheight="1" marginwidth="1" topmargin="1" leftmargin="1" ="WebWizRTE">Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
    It learns the storm-cloud's thunderous melody,
    Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
    Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
    And one is of an old half-witted sheep
    Which bleats articulate monotony,
    And indicates that two and one are three,
    That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
    And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
    Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
    The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
    At other times -- good Lord! I'd rather be
    Quite unacquainted with the A.B.C.
    Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.
    <DIV marginheight="1" marginwidth="1" topmargin="1" leftmargin="1" ="WebWizRTE">
    <DIV marginheight="1" marginwidth="1" topmargin="1" leftmargin="1" ="WebWizRTE">{my bold emphasis}

    Sorry LOTR I promise no more digressions.
    Edited by: halfir
    He that would foil me must use such weapons as I do, for I have not fed my readers with straw, neither will I be confuted with stubble.



  12. Dorwiniondil, something like this?http://youtu.be/1M9FKp89kj8



    I do wonder what Tolkien made of the 'swan-knight' tale in Parzivaland other sources - he has his own swan-knights at Dol Amroth, of course, but they're a little bit different (they seem perfectly happy to give their names, for one thing).

    Edited by: Lord of the Rings
    It is hard indeed to believe that one of so great wisdom, and of power—for many wonderful things he did among us—could perish, and so much lore be taken from the world.

  13. Dorwiniondil's Avatar
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    #13
    That's the music - but you really have to see it on stage! And I have to say that as Heldentenors go, Melchior was pretty outstanding.
    "I am no longer young even in the reckoning of Men of the Ancient Houses."

  14. Elainiwen's Avatar
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    #14












    That's interesting. The sagas and Kalevala do have some connections, it's nice to get to study them more this way. I can also tell that (whooper) swans are the national bird of Finland, always used at least in our money. They are the original swan species here, before mute swan was brought in.



    Swans are also depicted as birds of the underworld in Kalevala. They were thought as somewhat holy animals in our ancient beliefs. If someone tries to kill a (whooper) swan, he will risk dying himself as well (see Lemminkäinen).

    What about Elwing? What kind of "sea bird" did she turn into, besides described of having white and silver wings?












    Edited by: Elainiwen

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