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15 june 2011

A few weeks ago, I was eating dinner on the banks of the Flensburg fjord in northern Germany when two swans took flight from the water. They are amazingly powerful birds; the largest swans are the heaviest flying animals alive, and once aloft they don't lumber in the least; they're the 747s of the bird class.

A few days ago, I learned this scrap of fact:

On a day over six thousand years ago, about ten miles from what is today Copenhagen, the bodies of a young woman and a newborn boy were laid in a grave. The infant's body was cushioned by a large swan's wing. (Ruth H. Sanders, German [Oxford 2010: 9])
Swans have a complex interrelationship with the human societies of northern Europe – indeed, throughout the temperate world. That relationship continues today, in fact and in imagination.

Swans keep coming up wherever I look recently. (Not long after I wrote this review, I opened Henning Mankell's Before the Frost, which begins with a serial killer setting swans on fire.) At a museum shop in Schleswig, not far from Flensburg (a day's drive from Copenhagen, for that matter), I saw a German translation of Peter Young's Swan and resolved to read it (in the English original) as soon as I could. I had enjoyed Young's Tortoise, also for Reaktion Animal, but found it one of the thinner efforts in the series. Swan is a more substantial book: still at times a lists of facts strung one after the other, but with thoughtful attention to the perils that face swans in an environment crowded by humans.

Swans are emblems of purity and chastity (they mate for life, or at least for much of it). But they also stand for unrestrained eroticism. (Young's art-history chapter is a positively hot selection of images of Leda and her attendant swan.) Swans are calm and dignified; they're also pugnacious, one of the few bird species capable of doing grievous harm to humans. Like all large animals, swans are endangered by human encroachment on their habitat. They have large appetites and long ranges, and we trap them inadvertently in the networks, figural and literal, of our civilization.

Swans take irritably to domestication, and they are not very good to eat. (So say most culinary traditions; I've never eaten one myself, and to be fair, they've served as a food source faute de mieux in many cultures.) Roast swan was the prerogative, in medieval and early-modern Europe, of noblemen and high clerics who could afford to maintain swanneries and swanherds. Swans, in English cookery, are basically geese on steroids. My gosh, I suppose a swan is literally in some respects a goose on steroids.

But Young keeps coming back to the classic lines of the swan, a compromise between musculature, skeleton, and gravity that has made swans inescapable in advertising iconography. They just look good, and, as Hans Christian Andersen's fable of the Ugly Duckling tells us, they look best grown up. They are an adult kind of bird, well worth our contemplation and our conservation.

Young, Peter. Swan. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.