The Bonny Swans: Compleat with Images, Music, Literary Analysis, and Funny Stories

Juanita Bay is the winter home for a lot of awesome birds. I think my favorite are the swans. I’m not sure when they arrive, but B and I got to see them a few days ago when we went walkies. They were lovely!

Image shows a line of swans floating in the water. There's a bit of sunset-orange making the water near them blush.
Bonny swans!

This is so much better than a few years ago in February, when Cujo and I saw a bunch of them, but they were all being boring. The most exciting moment was when one tipped over a bit.

Image shows a line of swans in the water, most with their heads tucked into their wings for a good nap. The one on the far left has tipped over with its head underwater.
Sleep-eating, mebbe?

But still: swans! I’m always excited to see swans. Swans were things that happened to other people, back when I lived in Arizona. I thought they were elegant and awesome. I’d grown up on stories like The Ugly Duckling, and then there was Swan Lake, and really, they just sounded incredible. The ballerinas of the animal world. Much too elegant to exist among the plebeian ducks and so forth.

They were even majestic in fairy tales.

I always knew things weren’t right in that family, but it didn’t strike me until today just how effed up the relationship between the lady who became a swan and then a harp and her sister Anne was. I mean, really, check this out:

A farmer there lived in the north country
a hey ho bonny o
And he had daughters one, two, three
The swans swim so bonny o
These daughters they walked by the river’s brim
a hey ho bonny o
The eldest pushed the youngest in
The swans swim so bonny o

K, so we have three daughters. The oldest one gives the youngest the old heave-ho, which I’m given to understand by my friends with siblings isn’t all that unusual. Cruel pranks? Yep, that’s siblings. So far, not that odd. But here’s where it gets really bloody strange:

Oh sister, oh sister, pray lend me your hand
with a hey ho a bonny o
And I will give you house and land
The swans swim so bonny o

All right. I get having to possibly bribe your sibling to pull your soaking wet butt outta the water, but what does it say about your relationship when you have to offer them real estate? Seriously? Something’s really very wrong in that family.

And even that’s not enough for the eldest:

I’ll give you neither hand nor glove
Unless you give me your own true love
The swans swim so bonny o

Criminy. They’re trading men, now. And the eldest just lets her youngest sister drown cuz she can’t have the dude. And the middle sister doesn’t do a thing about it. She was there – the song said so. But not a peep. Not a single attempt to rescue her baby sis. That family has issues, people.

Now, of course, this being a fairy tale, the youngest gets her own back. She gets made into a harp, and is able to play herself, and the harper takes her to her father’s court so she can tell her story. She proves she recognizes all the family, finishing with a sick burn:

And there does sit my false sister, Anne
with a hey ho and a bonny o
Who drowned me for the sake of a man
The swans swim so bonny o

I’m sure there was some consternation, there. One likes to believe that the harp went on to have a nice life, perhaps traveling the world with her handsome harper, while Anne got thrown in the dungeon.

So, a bit grim, or perhaps Grimms, but still, swans. Awesome.

Crop of previous image, showing more detail of the swans. Two have their heads together.
The two facing each other look like lovers, don’t they just?

It wasn’t until Connie Willis introduced me to Jerome K. Jerome that my faith in swans being the absolute most elegant and awesome creatures ever to glide serenely across a lake began to be shaken. This anecdote from Three Men in a Boat* didn’t reflect reality as I understood it.

Harris had a sad expression on him, so we noticed, when we got into the boat. He gave you the idea of a man who had been through trouble. We asked him if anything had happened, and he said-


It seemed we had moored close to a swan’s nest, and, soon after George and I had gone, the female swan came back, and kicked up a row about it. Harris had chivied her off, and she had gone away, and fetched up her old man. Harris said he had had quite a fight with these two swans; but courage and skill had prevailed in the end, and he had defeated them.

Half-an-hour afterwards they returned with eighteen other swans! It must have been a fearful battle, so far as we could understand Harris’s account of it. The swans had tried to drag him and Montmorency out of the boat and drown them; and he had defended himself like a hero for four hours, and had killed the lot, and they had all paddled away to die.

“How many swans did you say there were?” asked George.

“Thirty-two,” replied Harris, sleepily.

“You said eighteen just now,” said George.

“No, I didn’t,” grunted Harris; “I said twelve. Think I can’t count?”

What were the real facts about these swans we never found out. We questioned Harris on the subject in the morning, and he said, “What swans?” and seemed to think that George and I had been dreaming.

Could they really be such arseholes? My beautiful, elegant swans? Apparently, English authors think so, for P.G. Wodehouse came along** to shatter my final illusions. Bertie Wooster’s encounter with an enraged swan that trees him on a roof kind of put paid to my mindless worship of the creatures. Now I watch them warily. But they’re still lovely. And I always love seeing them on our lake.

Image shows the portion of the bay with the swans, sunset on the water, and a couple of people on the dock sort of thing beyond watching them.
They’re bonny at a distance.

Just. Y’know. Don’t get too close.


*To Say Nothing of the Dog is the only book I’ve ever read where the author pulled an actual clever trick with first-person narration. It’s also hilarious. And an excellent love story. And an adventure tale. And a fantastic time travel novel. It’s like everything you ever wanted in a book but didn’t think you could ask for in one. Go read it right this instant.

**This is absolutely a book I recommend for those looking for outstanding British humor. It’s like Monty Python in Victorian England going for a boat ride.

**The Most of P.G. Wodehouse. That’s the book to buy if you want a thorough sampling. He’s one of the best comedic authors I’ve ever read, and this has got a little of everything that makes you happy to curl up on a rainy day and escape to a time when butlers were brilliant, tall tales were taller, and the misunderstandings merrier.

The Bonny Swans: Compleat with Images, Music, Literary Analysis, and Funny Stories

6 thoughts on “The Bonny Swans: Compleat with Images, Music, Literary Analysis, and Funny Stories

  1. rq

    Oh gods, swans are dangerous and vicious, especially if they feel themselves threatened!
    A couple of years ago, a pregnant woman and a man went swimming near some swans in the river, and the woman got too close, so a swan attacked – the man went to save her, she got out, but he lost the battle with the swan and drowned. Made some headlines here.
    So definitely, definitely, do not get too close, especially in the water. Perhaps on land (though my experience with various kinds of geese, including the ‘tame’ kind, would speak otherwise), but they are still water birds and they float better than humans do.
    Plus there’s that beak. See here (though I think the first attack-bird is a goose).

    But if you ever, ever, ever get a chance to hear them on a quiet, still stretch of water on a grey misty morning, hear them as they take off into the air – the beating sound the wings make against the surface of the water – it’s ghostly. You can almost hear it here, that whistle-like beat from the wings – but louder. It’s beautiful.

    Also, I love black swans.

  2. 4

    I’m very fond of McKennitt, and of swans, and hence of that song!

    You didn’t ask for an ID of the UFD, but these will be trumpeter swans. They were seriously endangered in the continental USA in my youth, but have made a pretty good comeback. rq’s swans, on the other hand, we’ll be mute swans, not native here but commonly introduced. If you see a curved neck, it’s a mute swan. And if you see yellow on the bill, it’s a tundra swan.

  3. 5

    Swans were positively everywhere there was water, when I lived in Germany.

    I had the fortune of being with a few feet of 5 of them when they decided to take off from the water. It was a spectacular rush of noise, wings, feathers, and wind (yes, I was close enough I felt the wind from their wings!). My mom stood there agape for a good 15-20 seconds just watching. :)

    They came back for a landing about 3 minutes later, and that was almost as cool. They water ski along the surface for quite a bit as they bleed speed, before settling on the water.

    It was a great way to top off our day at the Lustheim castle/museum. :D

  4. 6

    there are also BBC radio-play versions of several of the Bertie/Jeeves novels–often available as free downloads from your friendly public library. The late Michael Hordern was an amazing Jeeves.

    Oh, and the PG Wodehouse Society is having their convention in Seattle next year…

    Anyway, that scene of Bertie Wooster vs Mad Swan was also my first thought when I read this post!

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