One of Ireland’s, ‘Three Great Tales of Sorrow’ which all deal with the lives and tragic deaths of offspring, this one, the second in the series, is the most poignant perhaps as, ostensibly, the offspring are still children.
Whilst it is possible to regard Folk Tales, Legends and Myths as ‘reportage’ it is necessary to understand how to read them as such and this requires us to relinquish habitual notions of ‘literal-ness’.
From a structural point of view, we may wonder after the third foster-daughter, Alva, who, although named, plays no role in the action of the story?
Are these three names deliberately chosen to question or even expand the biblical tale of origins?
The twin motif also seems under used save for the curious assemblage of the swans on the ‘Rock of One’. Perhaps it is referring us to plane and direction, and hence, is ultimately concerned with notions of dimensionality?
And what of the slender silver chains which link the swans at the end of the story and which, when broken, lead to their release from enchantment?
The Crafty-Folk initially keep pace with the fate of the swans and then mysteriously disappear?
The tradition of both Ravens and Swans as ‘psychopomps’ or guides for the Souls of the Dead is far older than this story and ‘plays into the mix’ in curious ways.
Ravens gorge on corpses and Swans migrate, leaving the shores of Albion in early November and returning early in February which are significant calendrical dates for the ‘Celtic Peoples’.
The tradition of the ‘swan-song’ is also ancient and has been found to have, at least some, basis in ornithological fact.
Here, the ‘leit-motif’ is tantalisingly bound up with haunting notions of a, doubtless, pre-historical other-world.
The precise form of burial requested by the ‘children’ in old age, perhaps, is a ‘nod’ to the constellation of Cygnus.
The inner chambers of many neolithic mounds also follow the same form and at least one of Ireland’s Brughs was aligned with the winter rising of the swan constellation.
We may then, ultimately, wish to concieve the children of Lir as ‘walking’ to their home in the starry-fields.
The ‘historical compass’ of this tale spans well over two thousand years and opens up intriguing questions for students of archaeology, mythology, psychology, theology, topography and anthropology…
The people originally charged with propagating such tales were ‘bards’.
‘Ride it on out like a bird in the sky-ways,
Ride it on out like you were a bird…’