The motorway into London is my constant companion right now. I dice with city-bound traffic, getting bolder and bolder, jostling with London taxis with cocky familiarity.
But as I flew up the M4 on Friday the most extraordinary sight met my eyes.
I was on the section which passes over the River Thames at Windsor, when I looked up. I am used to seeing all manner of aircraft: geekily I adore each sighting; but what I saw was no motorised bird.
No: it was ten real ones. But they were far too large to be geese. And as I adjusted my focus I realised that I was seeing swans.
Their span is so different from other birds: a great white accent in the sky, a flash of something with such regal grace, so rare, that I could scarcely take it in. There were ten of these beautiful creatures.
I was awe-struck. Mesmerised. And instantaneously, the wild mystery of all those swannish fairy tales and all the lore and history and prehistory rushed in and clamoured in my mind for attention.
For these creatures have been here longer than we have.
Cygnus Falconeri – the giant swan – was a lot bigger than today’s swans, back in the Middle Pleistocene period before man had appeared on the scene. Fossilised remains show a bill-to-tail length of more than two metres. And the giant swan stood tall, too: taller than the dwarf elephants of the time.
Maybe we hold some residual awe for the length of time these creatures have held their own on this globe. Their stay dwarfs ours. And they haunt our existence; a royal bird here in England, the Greeks had their God Zeus transform into one. The Fins have a swan who lives in the river which flows through their underworld, and whoever kills it would certainly die.
Swans are revered in Hinduism and a wise spiritual person is called a ‘Great Swan’. And St Hugh of Lincoln’s saintliness was accentuated by the swan who appeared utterly devoted to him.
Once a swan has found a partner they remain with them for life. If their partner dies naturalists have documented swans going into periods of mourning; if they stay in the same place they will remain single for the rest of their lives.
Extraordinary birds inspire extraordinary tales.
Swan tales are some of the most haunting in the realm of folklore: and none more than a tale which nods in the direction of the aeons the creature has occupied this earth.
It is an Irish tale called The Children Of Lir.
And it does not have a happy ending.
It concerns a strange race of people who haunt Ireland’s prehistory called the Tuatha Dé Danann. They appear as mortals in all the tales, yet there is evidence that once, like the Greeks, these were tales of the Gods and their whims.
So once, there was a selection for King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and Lir was most anxious to be chosen. But it was not to be: the people chose Bodb Derg instead.
There is a way to heal the rifts caused by political disappointment, to forge political links without conceding one’s own position: and that way is through judicious marriage.
Bodb Derg offered one of his daughters to Lin, and Lin was much taken with this gentle beauty. They married and were very happy: and had four children, a daughter and three sons.
But fairy tales are wont to kill off beautiful mothers and replace them with harridans. The beautiful Aoibh died, leaving children and father bereft; and her sister, Aoife, moved in as second wife.
She was jealous, of course, and wanted the children dead. She tried paying someone to do it but they refused; tried herself but she was too cowardly; and so, an enchantress of the stature of Morgan Le Fay, she turned them into swans.
The poor children. They were cursed to spend 300 years on each of three waters, almost a thousand years in total. And this they did, lonely and listless.
A monk’s blessing was the antidote, and during their sojurn Ireland became Christian. They found a monk – MacCaomhog – who gave them sanctuary.
But a nearby King’s wife wanted them for her own. She ordered the monastery attacked and the swans captured. The silver chains which had always bound the children together were broken, and the enchantment with them: but the siblings must pay the price of 900 years of living. The emerged old, withered people, at the end of a long and desolate life.
Barren and uncompromising, this and most swan stories.
Maybe its spinners sensed the ancient provenance of this strangest spirit of the skies.