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Swans A-Swimming

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Pictured: Something that will enchant you. Also pictured: Something that will hurt you.
Ask a lot of folks what the most beautiful bird is, and they're very likely to say "swan." And really, why wouldn't other answers come up as often? Maybe it's because of their pure white plumage, their graceful movements, the legendary song they're said to make when they die, or the fact that their wings can break human bone.

Yes, you heard right — their wings can break human bone.note 

A lot of portrayals of swans in the media paint them as beautiful, peaceful birds, which isn't surprising considering that they're nigh-exclusively herbivorous.note  That said, however, peaceful they ain't — thanks to media depictions of them as almost angelic in behavior, not many people realize swans are very territorial birds and that a pissed-off swan will mess you up, especially during nesting season when they've got cygnets to protect — swans are among the greatest parents in the animal kingdom, and will protect their cygnets with their life against any predator or intruder, including careless humans. Nonetheless, that hasn't stopped folklore and fiction from portraying swans as symbols of purity, because their imagery is very similar to that of angels, and that includes the white feathers, and everyone knows that Light Is Good. They have also been used as symbols of love, due to their monogamous habits and the heart shape their necks make when two swans face each other. Many Shapeshifting Lovers are swans. The meme of the swan as graceful on the water and somewhat otherworldly has been influential on human minds, especially those who dwell in riverfaring cultures: witness the existence of Swan Boats in many cultures.

On a side note, expect all swans you see in pop culture to be white, and typically based on Whooper swans, Mute swans and Trumpeter swans; the Tundra swan is shown considerably less than the others. Black swans and black-necked swans do exist, but they're only native to Australia and South America respectively, which explains why Western culture never even heard of them until around the 18th century or so. In fact, black swans were for a good while used as metaphors for something which could not exist, and later for something whose existence couldn't be predicted but is later rationalized as predictable.

Swans are the largest members of the duck family, Anatidae. Contrast Foul Waterfowl, where water birds (like swans) are depicted as violent.


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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • Zig-zagged by Wonder Woman villain the Silver Swan. The three women to have worn the identity are all fairly dangerous individuals armed with a deadly "Swan Song", but all of them fall under Tragic Villain to one extent or another, having their insecurities manipulated by worse (usually male) villains.

    Comic Strips 
  • In Rose is Rose, two swans say Jimbo and Rose are not so graceful as swans, but they are as romantic.

    Films — Animation 
  • The Swan Princess is based on the Swan Lake ballet. It also has six sequels as of 2017. Interestingly, Odette is a former Tomboy Princess who's still brave and tenacious, so she actually combines the traditional image of swans with their real-life ability to fuck you up.
  • Not swans per se, but the Pegasi from the "Pastoral Symphony" in Fantasia evoke their imagery when they land on a lake and glide along its surface.
  • Peter Pan: Peter Pan briefly landed on a pair of swans and rode on them as if they were waterskis while taking the Darling children to Neverland during the song "You Can Fly!"

    Films — Live-Action 

  • Ingrid, the Swan, is a character from Graeme Base's The Eleventh Hour.
  • E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan is a children's story about a trumpeter swan who, having no voice, wants to play a literal trumpet.
  • The Black Swan never misses an opportunity to mention how lovely the poor maidens are when swimming as swans.
  • There is a running gag in Shades of Grey involving swans of various sizes being very dangerous.
  • In Mossflower Martin and his companions see swans and are very careful to get away unnoticed, knowing how dangerous the birds can be. However, the mooks who are tracking them are somewhat less informed on swans' nature, and it does not go well for them.
  • The Forgotten Beasts of Eld has The Black Swan of Tirlith, who once carried a king's daughter from the stone tower of exile. Larger and stronger than an ordinary swan, the Black Swan is unafraid of mere men.
  • In The Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship sees a flock of swans flying by while boating down the river. They are also mentioned to be black swans, which seems to disturb Aragorn.
  • In John C. Wright's Count to the Eschaton, Larz invokes this beauty and elegance to describe Rania as a Swan Princess.
  • Hans Christian Andersen:
    • The literary fairy tale "The Ugly Duckling" tells the story of a cygnet ostracized by his fellow barnyard fowl because of his perceived homeliness. To his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a graceful swan, the most beautiful bird of all. The swans themselves are depicted as friendly and welcoming.
    • The tale "The Wild Swans" is similar to "The Children of Lir". The king has eleven sons and one daughter, named Elisa. The evil stepmother turns the eleven brothers into swans and banishes Elisa, an interesting exception to the tradition of swan maidens.
  • In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Cho Chang, who is noted to be beautiful and graceful even if she is an emotional wreck that year following the murder of her boyfriend, manages to learn how to produce a corporeal Patronus and discovers that hers is a swan, a nice reflection of her beauty and her willingness to fight.
  • In Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, the heroine is a swanmay — one of the forces of Good, despite the tendency of this world to have The Fair Folk.
  • One P. G. Wodehouse Jeeves and Wooster short story includes a scene where Bertie and another man end up trapped on the roof of an island gazebo by an angry swan.
  • In Susan Dexter's The True Knight, the prince was turned to a swan. And found a mate, who tracks him down grieving. He finally escapes back into that shape.
  • In the variants of the Chivalric Romance The Swan Children, the bride is more or less clearly a swan-maiden; she gives birth to children who are first exposed and then transformed into swans by removing the chains they wear about their necks. When this is discovered, the children are changed back by restoring them — except that one chain was melted down, trapping that child in swan form.
  • Discworld
    • In Witches Abroad, Nanny Ogg compares palaces to swans; they look as if they glide gracefully through history, but only because there's a hell of a lot of work going on beneath the surface.
    • Maskerade has a brief scene where Death visits a swan who is presented as an arrogant noble of the waterfowl world, and is also quick to add that he can break a man's (or Anthropomorphic Personification's) arm with a blow of his wing.
  • The elegant swan ballerina Madame Bella Swanna makes a brief appearance in the background of "Punchinello" in The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast, and gets her own poem in the sequel The Peacock Party.
  • This trope is averted in Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. When Adrian lives near a canal, swans are no thing of beauty, but his enemy, and he writes that he is constantly being "harrassed" by them, and they will not let him pass. He tries to contact the council to have an injunction taken out against them, adding that as swans belong to the Queen, she is responsible for their behaviour, and Her Majesty may well end up in court. Adrian nicknames one of the swans Gielgud, and it becomes a Running Gag that everyone who hears where he lives says "a swan can break a man's arm, you know".
    I saw Gielgud and his wife standing in a frozen patch of water. They looked like a bad-tempered Torvill and Dean.

    Live-Action TV 

  • On the seventh day of "The Twelve Days Of Christmas", my true love gave to me the Trope Namer, along with many, many other presents.
  • For all their rarity in the rest of pop culture, black swans are surprisingly popular in the music industry.
    • Gian Carlo Menotti in his opera The Medium named one of his most famous arias "The Black Swan", which is a "dark lullaby" sung by the character Monica.
    • Perth rock group The Triffids released an album called The Black Swan in 1989.
    • The American thrash metal band Megadeth released a song entitled "Black Swan" as a bonus track on their 2007 album United Abominations.
    • Singer/songwriter Tori Amos released a song entitled "Black Swan" as a bonus track on her 1994 UK CD single Pretty Good Year.
    • Singer Thom Yorke of the band Radiohead released a song entitled "Black Swan" on the soundtrack of the 2006 film A Scanner Darkly, and three days later on his debut solo album The Eraser.
    • The American alternative rock band Chiodos released a song entitled "Lexington" which references black swans in the lyric, "All the water in the ocean couldn't turn this swan's legs from black to white".
    • The American avant-garde band The Blood Brothers released a song entitled "Giant Swan" in which a giant swan is used as a metaphor for society and war, until it is renamed in the lyric, "It's gonna sting like a raw sunrise when the Black Swan's gone."
    • Finnish power metal band Sonata Arctica included a song titled "Fly with the Black Swan" on their 2007 album Unia.
    • American band Story of the Year released an album entitled The Black Swan in 2008.
    • The American ambient band Amber Asylum released a song entitled "Black Swan" on their 2000 album The Supernatural Parlour Collection.
    • The German death metal/gothic rock band Lacrimas Profundere released a song entitled "Black Swans" on their 1999 album Memorandum.
    • The Japanese noise artist Merzbow titled the eighth volume of his 2009-2010 box set 13 Japanese Birds Black Swan.
  • Irish folk-rockers The Horslips use the black swan motif in their remorse-and-regret laden Time to Kill, which, (in the context of a protracted messy war), regrets the Irish national tendency to kill first without taking too much time to think beforehand.
  • Renaissance Music: Two prominent madrigal examples:
    • The Silver Swan by Orlando Gibbons, relating the myth of the swan that sings before it dies. The song also laments that nowadays "more geese than swans" are alive.
    • Il Bianco e dolce Cigno, by Jaques Arcadelt, also telling of a swan that sings before it dies. Here, the singer, also dying compares himself to the swan: "While he dies singing, I die weeping..."
  • Carmina Burana includes the movement "Olim lacus colueram", a lament sung by a swan that once swam in lakes but has been roasted and is about to be eaten.

    Mythology & Religion 
  • In Finnish Mythology, the swan is associated with Tuonela, the Underworld. Pretty much the only way swans represent Light Is Not Good. In the same mythology it's also forbidden to kill a swan. The Anti-Hero Lemminkäinen in The Kalevala dies after killing a swan. (He gets better, though) Swans (or occasionally other waterfowl) are traditionally viewed as holy in many other Finno-Ugric/Uralic cultures as well which might be a remnant of an ancient religion.
  • Classical Mythology:
    • Zeus, the king of the Greek Gods, seduced Leda, Queen of Sparta, in the form of a swan.
    • Apollo is sometimes depicted riding a chariot pulled by swans.
  • Celtic Mythology:
    • Swans also appear in Irish mythology. For example, the Irish legend "The Children of Lir" is about a stepmother transforming her children into swans for 900 years. In another instance, in the legend "The Wooing of Étaín", the king of the Sidhe transforms himself and the most beautiful woman in Ireland, Etain, into swans to escape from the king of Ireland and Ireland's armies.
    • Aengus Og fell in love with Caer Ibormeith, who was cursed to become a swan every other year. Her father said if Aengus could pick her out of 150 swans, the curse would break. Being the god of love, Aengus chose correctly—at which they both turned into swans and flew off to his castle to get married, singing such beautiful music that everyone fell asleep for three days.
  • The Swan Maiden - Common to mainland Europe, and Russia. The women (occasionally men too) in question are normally swans, but they leave their feathered cloaks behind when they bathe as humans. This has influenced many stories, modern and old, including the ballet Swan Lake, Swanmays in Three Hearts and Three Lions and Dungeons & Dragons, Anita Blake's Swan Men, etc.
  • In the Lithuanian tale of "The Swan Queen", the swan woman is treated very badly by all and sundry.
  • In The Six Swans, the brothers are turned to swans.
  • In Norse Mythology, there are two swans that drink from the sacred Well of Urd in the realm of Asgard, home of the gods.
  • Swans are revered in Hinduism, and are compared to saintly persons whose chief characteristic is to be in the world without getting attached to it, just as a swan's feather does not get wet although it is in water.
  • Lohengrin, one of the Knights of the Round Table, was known as the Knight of the Swan and is often shown in a boat pulled by swans.

  • Bleak Expectations: Bungling Inventor Harry Biscuit is just a teensy bit obsessed with swans as the solution to all life's problems. During a period where he turns incredibly evil, he manages to turn a flock of swans to his side by infecting them with evil... by kissing them. And not on the beak...
  • John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme: The example of Zeus and Leda mentioned up in Myths and Legends is savaged. Leda is not remotely turned on by being propositioned by a swan, especially since Zeus makes it clear A: it's not a costume, and B: he intends to seduce her in swan form

  • In Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's famous ballet Swan Lake, the protagonist Odette and her many companions are cursed to turn into swans during the day. Prince Siegfried, her lover, has to make a declaration of love to her to break their spell. Odette’s Evil Counterpart Odile can presumably turn into a black swan as well.
  • Rimsky-Korsakov's Legend of the Tsar Saltan (the opera "Flight of the Bumblebee" comes from) is based on a traditional story about a prince who saves the life of a swan princess.
  • Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour costumes the duo straps performers for "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" as stylized swans: one white, one black.

    Video Games 
  • Pokémon Black and White gives us Swanna, the White Bird Pokémon. Sure, it's beautiful and it dances at dusk, but the creators also kept its Killer Rabbit/Feathered Fiend status in mind. Of course, it should be kept in mind that Swanna's White dex entry claims that it attacks with its beak, despite the fact that the only move involving a beak it can learn is Pluck by TM. However, it CAN learn a fair few wing-based attacks, so it would have been more accurate if the dex entry had said that it administers punishing blows with its WINGS instead, as swans often do in Real Life.
  • In Loom, Weavers turn one another (or occasionally themselves) into swans, usually as a precursor to exile. Their patron spirit is The Swan; several characters are swan-themed; the main character's mother is named Cygna (Latin for 'swan') and all the game music is from Swan Lake. Yup, everything's swannier with Loom.
  • In King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella, there is a landmark on Genesta's island: a bridge over a pond with swan heads carved at either end, as well as a swan swimming in the water. It had absolutely nothing to do with the gameplay, but was one of the game's most striking images.
  • Planet Zoo: The Eurasian Animals Pack adds mute swans, who are safe enough for guests to enter their habitats.
  • Catherine-Marie Cygne of Aviary Attorney has the head and part of the neck of a swan. Described as 'sorry-looking', she's an impoverished flower-seller.
  • Swan imagery is associated with Abigail Lockwood in The Room: Old Sins.
  • Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number: Invoked by Alex and Ash, who wear swan masks and fight as a duo, with Alex wielding a chainsaw and Ash using any firearms he picks across. As two brutal killers of mafiya mobsters and street gangs, the twins are inseparable.
  • Mobile Legends: Bang Bang: The hero Odette, being a homage to Swan Lake, is a mage who accompanies her spells with swan imageries, shooting out a swan-shaped beam for her first skill. She's aptly titled 'Swan Princess' and lives in 'Swan Castle'. She's known to be a great, graceful beauty much like swans being considered beautiful. And her swan-based spells hurt, as long as enemies do not get a jump on her early.
  • Invoked in Civilization VI when Ludwig II of Bavaria sends a delegation to you — as a patron of the arts and elegance he sends a hundred swans as a gift to you. However, as Ludwig is also a bit of a Cloudcuckoolander and not the most meticulous of planners, all but one of the swans fly away right as he's introducing them to you.

    Web Videos 
  • TierZoo: At the end of the "Are Geese OP?" video, TierZoo makes no hesitation at telling the viewers that swans are territorially-aggressive animals which are "everything scary about geese but shifted to maximum overdrive" such as actually having a good attack stat, and also have one of the highest aesthetics/beauty values in the game.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • The swan (specifically, the whooper swan) is the national bird of Finland, and the mute swan is the national bird of Denmark.
  • During the ice ages, Malta was dominated by giant swans. Taller than the native elephants (although, to be fair, said elephants were pony sized).
  • Annakacygna were giant, flightless filter-feeding swans (basically a swan version of a whale). Because its wings apparently evolved to hold its young the researchers responsible for the paper refer to it as the "ultimate bird".
  • Canadian royalty gives us the Royal Swans. Notably, the flock consists of both Mute and Black Swans.
  • Swan Upping is an annual ceremonial and practical activity in Britain in which mute swans on the River Thames are rounded up, caught, marked, and then released. This is because swans were prestigious foodstuff in the Middle Ages, and by medieval law all wild swans in Britain belong to the Crown. This is still the case today. By Royal Charter, two City of London livery companies also have been granted the rights to certain populations.
  • The Sydney Swans are an Australian Rules Football team based in Sydney, Australia. The Association Football team based in Swansea, Wales is referred to as the Swans, and uses a swan as their logo.
  • Cygnus is a constellation. It also contains Cygnus X-1, which was the first object suspected to be a black hole. That's right, even in outer space, swans are still trying to kill you!
  • Figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu’s exhibition skate/gala program at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics is set to “Notte Stellata” by Il Volo (the band’s name itself meaning “the flight”), which is Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Le cygne” (The Swan) set to Italian lyrics. The program is graceful and elegant, with a particular move evoking a swan with its wings out, and the costume is a stylistic representation of a white swan, feathers and all, with a plunging, elegant V in both the front and back. It also contains many choreographic shoutouts to the short ballet “The Dying Swan”, which is set to the same Saint-Saëns piece. It’s affectionately referred to as “Swanyu” by fans.

Alternative Title(s): Swans Are Graceful