28 May 2015

Swanships and Swanroads in Tolkien and Beowulf

From the earliest days of the legendarium the swanships were present.  In 1917 (or so) Tolkien wrote in The Book of Lost Tales, Part One1:
Now do the Solosimpi take great joy of [?their] birds, and of the swans, and behold upon the lakes of Tol Eressëa already they fare on rafts of fallen timber, and some harness thereto swans and speed across the waters; but the more hardy dare out upon the sea and the gulls draw them, and when Ulmo saw that he was very glad.  For lo! the Teleri and the Noldoli complain much to Manwë of the separation of the Solosimpi, and the Gods desire them to be drawn to Valinor; but Ulmo cannot yet think of any device save by help of Ossë and the Oarni, and will not be humbled to this.  But now does he fare home in haste to Aulë, and those twain get them speedily to Tol Eressëa, and Oromë was with them, and there is the first hewing of trees that was done in the world outside Valinor. Now does Aulë of the sawn wood of pine and oak make great vessels like to the bodies of swans, and these he covers with the bark of silver birches, or .... with gathered feathers with the oily plumage of Ossë's birds, and they are nailed and [?sturdily] riveted and fastened with silver, and he carves the prows for them like the necks of upheld swans, but they are hollow and have no feet; and by cords of great strength and slimness are gulls and petrels harnessed to them, for they were tame to the hands of the Solosimpi, because their hearts were so turned by Ossë.
(BoLT 1.124)
And though Tolkien never wrote more than a few scraps and notes of Eärendil's tale, he nevertheless had at least one detail of his ship clear in his mind. It was 'shaped as a swan of pearls' (The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, 263).  Tuor, Eärendil's father, had a boat just like those of the Elves of Tol Eressëa, 'with a prow fashioned like to the neck of a swan' (BoLT 2.151), and he was subsequently guided by swans on a path that led him in time to Gondolin, where he adopted the swan's wing as the sign of his house (2.152-160).2  In his later years, after Gondolin had fallen, Tuor built a ship called 'Swanwing' in which he sought to sail to Valinor (2.253-55, 260, 263, 265), on whose shores was Alqualuntë (later Alqualondë), 'Swan-Haven,' where the ships of the Solosimpi were berthed (BoLT 1.163-64). 

In Tolkien's painting of Taniquetil from the 1920s, we can glimpse just such a ship

in the sea at the foot of the mountain:

Nor does Tolkien abandon the swanships as Middle Earth develops.  The one in which Galadriel comes to bid farewell to the Fellowship is only the most famous example from The Lord of the Rings (FR 2.viii.372-73):
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.... 
Aragorn stayed his boat as the Swan-ship drew alongside.... 
The Swan passed on slowly to the hythe, and they turned their boats and followed it.
In the song Bilbo sings at Rivendell he can still say of Eärendil's ship: '[h]er prow he fashioned like a swan' (FR 2.i.234); and the banner of the Prince of Dol Amroth bears 'a white ship like a silver swan upon blue water' (RK 5.viii.871; cf. 6.iv.953). We can also find swans and swanships in The Silmarillion (61, 238), and the link between these birds and Tuor is maintained in the lengthy fragment Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin in Unfinished Tales (25-28). 

So clearly the images of the swans and the swan-ships had an abiding appeal for Tolkien, but where the swanships come from is a question that to my knowledge has not been answered.  There are a number of possibilities, and though I incline more to one than the others, it is not implausible or unlikely that several influences combined to produce the swanships.

The first is simple, and might seem ridiculous.  Indeed it might be ridiculous, but that in itself does not rule it out.  When I first read of the swanship of Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, I found it odd, but I could visualize it immediately.  At that time I was a little boy spending my summers in a small beach town adjacent to Asbury Park, NJ, and in the lake between the two towns there was a swan-boat:

As I was considering this, and actually inclining to dismiss it, the latest issue of The Tolkien Society's newsletter, Amon Hen (253), arrived in my mailbox.  Inside, by chance, was a request from one member, Mr Anthony Roland Clent, to contact him if anyone remembered 'the "Swan" boats at Hinksey boating pool' at Oxford in the 1940s and 1950s, which he saw as a possible source of inspiration for Tolkien. And while I don't consider chance-if-chance-you-call-it an adequate basis for scholarship, it made me think twice.  Now the swan-boats at Hinksey Park cannot be the inspiration for the swanships themselves, since the park did not exist until the mid 1930s,3 and both The Book of Lost Tales and the painting of Taniquetil predate this. It's quite possible, however, that the boats at Hinksey influenced Tolkien's description of them in The Lord of the Rings.4 As the gentleman from The Tolkien Society put it in his reply to my email:
I cannot but think that Tolkien used the idea of these two boats at Hinksey for his Swan boat of Galadriel. The description is uncannily similar to how I remember them, with their "white wings half lifted", and I guess Tolkien must have seen them if he ever walked down that way. They were not, alas, propelled by two elves clad in white, using black paddles....
For a medievalist and a man of his time like Tolkien inspiration might also be found in the tale, first found in the late 12th century, of the Knight of the Swan and more recently in Wagner's Lohengrin.  In sum, a mysterious knight arrives in a boat drawn by a swan to rescue a woman in peril. Here there clearly seems to be a link to the passage of The Book of Lost Tales I quoted above, which describes the swans pulling the rafts on the lakes of Tol Eressëa.

Lohengrin Postcard ca. 1900

17th Century Woodcut

But while this might explain the swans drawing the boats in the lakes, it does not explain the swanships themselves.  For this we must look elsewhere.  Fortunately an answer seems to be ready at hand, in a source that will surprise no one.
                             Hét him ýþlidan
gódne gegyrwan;   cwæþ, hé gúþcyning
ofer swanrade        sécean wolde
mærne þéoden,      þá him wæs manna ðearf.

(Beowulf  198-201)
                             He ordered his ship built,
A great wave-walker, and said he would seek
Over the long sea, the swan's road,
that well-known king needing brave new men.

(transl. Williamson)
Swanrad, the swan-road, as the context makes clear, is a kenning for the sea, much like the better known hronrad, the whale-road (Beowulf 10). But there's something odd about it.  Swans may be water fowl, but they are not seabirds.  That Tolkien perceived this is evident: in the lakes of Tol Eressëa swans pull the rafts of the Elves; but in the salt sea petrels and gulls are harnessed to the swan-ships.  Robert Woodward resolved this oddity by pointing out that swanrad is in fact a double kenning, in which swan is itself first a kenning for ship, and then is joined to rad to become a kenning for the sea.5 And it's only a few lines later, as Woodward notes, that the poet likens the 'neck' of the ship to a bird's:
Gewát þá ofer wægholm    winde gefýsed
flota fámiheals    fugle gelícost,

(Beowulf  217-18)
Over the scending sea, driven by the wind,
Went the ship, foamy-necked much like a bird,

(transl. mine)6 
Heals, the second element in the adjective fámiheals, means both prow and neck, and the poet plays ably on both these senses in fámiheals fugle gelícost.  Birds don't move fast enough through the water to make the sea foam around them, but ships do; and ships don't have necks, but birds do. 'Its foamy prow so like a bird's neck' catches, I think, the double sense of it, but loses the poem's eloquent compression. Nevertheless, the poet evokes the image of a bird here to describe Beowulf's ship, and it can hardly be an accident that seventeen lines earlier he had chosen to use swanrad when he could just as easily have used hronrad,7 but instead of the whale he conjured the swan, whose neck curves so like the prow of a ship of this era.

The famous Oseberg ship, built ca. 820
And Tolkien's close attention to this passage could not be more clear.  He chose these very lines (210-228) to illustrate his explanation of the workings of alliterative verse in his essay On Translating Beowulf (61-71), in which he also already discussed swanrad, though the meaning of rad was his subject there (51-52). We have three separate renderings of fámiheals fugle gelícost by him: in verse as 'foam-throated, like a flying bird;' in prose as 'with foam at the throat most like unto a bird;' and a literal prose version in the Old English word order, 'foamy-neck (to) bird likest.'8 

If, moreover, we turn back for a moment to consider Galadriel's swan-ship, 'wrought and carved with elven skill in the likeness of a bird,' we can see an interesting progression in Tolkien's description of it.  When the members of the fellowship first see it, they take it to be a proper 'swan.' Then they realize that it is in fact a 'swan-ship.'  And finally it becomes a 'Swan.'  From 'swan' to 'swan-ship' to 'Swan,' it's like watching the birth of a kenning.  If Tolkien did not recognize the swan in swanrad as itself a kenning for ship, he turned it into one here.

Now Old English possesses a second word for swan, ilfette/ilfettu, which establishes another link to the swanships and the Elves in The Book of Lost Tales.  In a marginal gloss on the words 'Kópas Alqualuntë, the Haven of the Swanships,' Tolkien wrote Ielfethyþ. This word, Christopher Tolkien explains,
is Old English, representing the interpretation of the Elvish name made by Eriol in his own language: the first element meaning 'swan' (ielfetu), and the second (later 'hithe') meaning 'haven, landing place.'
(BoLT 1.164)
As Christopher Tolkien's note indicates, ielfethyþ is his father's coinage through the character of Eriol, the seafarer who finds his way to Tol Eressëa and learns the stories told in The Book of Lost Tales (1.13-27). Why use ielfethyþ when swanhyþ would have worked just as well? Not to conceal one connection by choosing the less obvious synonym, but, I would argue, to suggest another by echoing ilfe, the Old English for elves, the entry for which directly precedes ilfette in Bosworth Toller.9

Hyþ, the second element in ielfethyþ, also has echoes in this connection since 'hithe' is used by Tolkien only to describe the landing place where the swan-ship of Galadriel lands; he spells it 'hythe' in an archaic manner evocative of Old English; and the three times the word 'hythe' appears here are the only three times the word appears in The Lord of the Rings (FR 2.viii.371, 373, 377).  Except for Christopher Tolkien's note above, it also does not appear, in either spelling, in The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales, or Unfinished Tales.  In an author so careful of his words, so knowledgeable about them, and so inclined to archaic words in the right context, the fact that he uses 'hythe' three times here and nowhere else indicates great deliberateness in choosing it.  It was not merely an old word that meant 'landing.'

On balance then there seems to be ample evidence for tracing Tolkien's inspiration for the swanships to the combination of swanrad and fámiheals fugle gelícost. Other influences are not to be ignored for other aspects of the swanships, like the Knight of the Swan and the likelihood that Tolkien saw swanboats at Hinksey Park. Michael Martinez has summarized still other likely reasons for the imagery of swans in Tolkien.  But the ships themselves first sailed the swanroad.


1 For those not familiar with The Book of Lost Tales, a couple of quick observations may be useful. First, it contains early versions of many stories that we later see in The Silmarillion, but these stories often differ greatly in emphasis, tone, style, names, and characterization (to name a few). Some find these differences as surprising as The Silmarillion itself is to those who have known only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Book of Lost Tales, however, is as interesting a work in its own right as it is as a precursor to the later tales. Second, Christopher Tolkien performed heroic work on chaotic manuscripts to come up with a publishable version, reading nearly unreadable handwriting set down in faded 70 year old pencil on paper that had sometimes held older versions which had been erased and overwritten. No doubt an electron microscope and a palantír would have come in handy.

For the date see The Book of Lost Tales, Part One (Boston 1984) 1.203; The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two (Boston 1984) 2.146-47; Unfinished Tales (1981) 4-5.

2 At BoLT 2.160 Tuor names himself as being 'of the house of the Swan.' He seems to have taken this description to himself rather than inheriting it: 'This [dwelling] by slow labor [Tuor] adorned with fair carvings of the beasts and trees and flowers and birds that he knew about the waters of Mithrim, and ever among them was the Swan the chief, for Tuor loved this emblem and it became the sign of himself, his kindred and folk thereafter' (2.152).

3 Hinksey Park was built on the grounds of the former Oxford Waterworks, which were purchased for this purpose in 1934.  See here.

4 I contacted the gentleman who had placed the notice in Amon Hen by email, to which he was kind enough to reply as quoted.  Unfortunately he did not have a photograph of his swan-boats, and I have so far been unable to find one.

5 Robert H. Woodward, 'Swanrad in Beowulf,' Modern Language Notes 69 (1954) 544-46.  He also identifies parallels in Old Norse using svan.

6 I supply my own translation here because I think a more literal rendering is necessary to the point being made. I also think Williamson's otherwise excellent translation of Beowulf stumbles on fámiheals fugle gelícost, for which he gives us 'the foam-necked floater.' To be sure flota is a rather colorless word for ship, but the super-literal 'floater' conceals more than it reveals. And revelation is what we seek here.

7 On hronrad see Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (2014) 141-43, where he argues that "'whale road'-- which suggests a sort of semi-submarine steam engine running along submerged metal rails over the Atlantic" is not quite the right translation for this word.

8 The poetic and the literal prose translations come from On Translating Beowulf, 63 and 69 respectively, reprinted in in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (London, 2006), and the prose from Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (New York 2014).

9 What the difference may be between swan and ilfette is unknown to me. Hexam. 8 suggests that to some there was one: sume fugelas beóþ langsweorede swá swá swanas ond ilfette. 'Some birds are long-necked like swanas and ilfette. According to Bosworth Toller, in Icelandic svanr, the cognate of swan is only poetical, while alpt/alft, the cognate of ilfette, was the normal word for swan, but it does not appear from the citations in Bosworth Toller that Old English maintained so neat a distinction.


  1. What a beautiful, thought-provoking post - thank you!

  2. Probably there is no difference between swan and ilfette. Sometimes we use two different words to name the same animal. In Russian we can call a dog with two different words: pios or sobaka; a horse - kon' or loshad'. And usually it does not depend on gender of the animal (like cow / bull).
    Or maybe the difference between swan and ilfette is in gender?
    Moreover I remembered Russian fairy-tale about quite strange birds called "gusi-lebedi" (geese-swans). They stole children for old and evil woman Baba-Yaga. These birds are like geese and like swans in the same time.