Swan-may

Skin-changer

There were some in Middle-earth who were skin-changers: they could change their own shape into that of another creature, usually an animal of some sort. The best-known example is Beorn, a man who could become a great black bear, as could the men of his line. Another example is the wizard Radagast the Brown, who was said to be “a master of shapes and changes of hue”. The elf-king Finrod used a change of shape to attempt to penetrate the stronghold of Morgoth: by his power he disguised himself and his warriors as Orcs. There was also the elf-maid Lúthien, whose arts disguised herself as a bat and her lover Beren as a wolf so that they too could enter Thangorodrim. Finally the half-elven lady Elwing, wife of Eärendil, was temporarily transformed by Ulmo into the form of a great white sea-bird and was later taught the art of flight on bird’s wings by her avian friends so that she could fly to visit her husband on his voyages.

Lakeside village

This woman is a swan-may, a maiden able to change her skin to assume the form of a graceful swan. This change of hue she achieves by donning a mantle decorated with the white feathers of a swan, her most cherished possession. She dwells with her kin in the north of Wilderland, at a small homestead hidden in the wetlands between the Long Lake and the forest of Mirkwood. Like the Beornings, a line of skin-changers who favour the shapes of bears and who also live in Wilderland, our swan-may’s folk are descendants of the Men who lived in these lands in very ancient days, before the goblins came down into the Misty Mountains in Ages past. The Men of the Long Lake and of Dale have little contact with her and her folk, but tell many tales about them. The swan-may and her kin are content for it to remain thus, living in peace among the reedy pools where they can watch the swans and other waterbirds that they love glide in to alight gracefully on the water.

She was clad in a feathered mantle

While there are no swan-mays in Tolkien, the concept would be at home in Middle-earth. Like other skin-changers, swan-mays (Middle English swan-may is from Old English swan “swan” + mǽg “female relation, maiden”) are found in Northern mythology. Typically in these stories (for example, the Völundarkvitha of the Icelandic Poetic Edda) a man comes across several swan-mays bathing in a pool with their swan-robes cast upon the bank. By stealing one of the feathered garments, the man prevents one of the maidens from flying away and is thus able to marry her. More famously, another example of swan-mays can be seen in the Russian ballet Swan Lake. In Tolkien, Elwing comes the closest to the figure of the swan-may, although she learns to take the shape of a great white sea-bird, probably a seamew (a gull), and she uses this form not to escape her husband but to be reunited with him. We are told that she flew with “wings of white and silver-grey” and this could refer not only to her bird-form but also to a garment that she might have worn to effect her transformation.

Elfet-sister

  • Head: Winged Circlet (purchased — LOTRO Store), washed
  • Shoulders: Lesser Arrow of the West Shoulder Guards (bartered — Harndirion novices quartermaster/tier 1 difficulty Hunter armour), rose
  • Back: Cloak of the Dove (looted — spring festival/Blue, Green or Red Flower Gift Box; or purchased — LOTRO Store), washed
  • Chest: Robe of Viisaus (quest reward — epic [50] Volume 1, Book 13, Chapter 4: The Hand of Angmar; or purchased — LOTRO Store), washed
  • Hands: Pristine Gloves (crafted — tailor T5; or looted — world drop/general), violet
  • Feet: Leather Shoes (looted — world drop/general), violet

Tips: I used the Cloak of the Dove (which is available from the LOTRO Store or from gift boxes during the spring festival) in this outfit, both because its base colour is a very good match for the cream-coloured portions of the Robe of Viisaus, but also because it has a white feather motif that carries the swan theme of the outfit. As an alternative, you might like the Cloak of the Ibis (purchased — LOTRO Store), which features swan-like imagery, or the Swan-cloak (purchased — LOTRO Store), which features stylized swan wings. With both of these cloaks you might have to experiment with dye colours a bit to find the right match. In this outfit, I chose to leave the Winged Circlet in its base colour, but it also looks very nice dyed violet, if you’d like to really play up the outfit’s tertiary colour.

Further Discussion

In a previous post, I mentioned that I had more to say about skin-changers in Middle-earth, and this post is the extension of that. I’m bending the blog’s usual format a little here to have a sort of expanded discussion and I hope you’ll indulge me — and join in with your thoughts and comments!

Other types of skin-changers are found frequently mythology, including the Northern mythologies that Tolkien drew most heavily upon as sources for his own stories. In mythology, the physical transformation of a skin-changer is effected by donning a garment made from the hide, or decorated with the fur or feathers, of the creature to be transformed into. In the Icelandic Saga of Hrólf Kraki,  Bödvar Bjarki is a berserker (from Old Norse ber “bear” + serkr “shirt”) able to enter a trance to project his spirit in the form of a bear in which he can do battle. In Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, and Scottish folklore, selkies are men and woman who can become seals by donning sealskins (I wonder if the coastal fisherfolk of Enedwaith or the Lossoth of Forochel might have had such legends?). In the Icelandic Völsungasaga, Sigmund and Sinfjötli become outlaws (metaphorically “wargs” or werewolves; see Outlaw Wolf-keeper) and, by wearing the skins of wolves, are able to assume wolf-form, just as Beren is disguised as a wolf by wearing the grisly hame of Draugluin. Likewise, Lúthien dons the winged fell of Thuringwethil to disguise herself as a vampire (that is, as a bat). Though it is never stated in The Hobbit, one could reasonably assume that Beorn was able to change into his bear’s form by wearing a bearskin garment, perhaps a cloak or coat.

I’ve often seen suggestions on the LOTRO forums for a new class called Skin-changers, and these suggestions usually get shot down pretty summarily. Sometimes this is on the basis of role redundancy, and sometimes it’s on the basis of “lore-breaking”. I think the former is a very valid argument against any proposed new class, but (issues of appropriate tone for the game aside) I disagree with the latter because, as I think I’ve shown above, the concept of skin-changing is not only well at home in Middle-earth, it is furthermore not restricted to any one community of people (it is, I think, a common misconception that the Beornings were the only skin-changers and the only skin-changers were Beornings). To play devil’s advocate to my own feeling, though, what is tonally fitting in one of Tolkien’s books is not always appropriate in another, and skin-changers are more at home in The Hobbit and The Silmarillion than they are in The Lord of the Rings.

What would a Skin-changer class look like in-game, and what kind of role would it fill? I have no idea, but let’s play “what if”! All classes in LOTRO cite a character or characters from Tolkien’s stories upon which they are based. Skin-changers naturally would cite Beorn as their inspiration, and would also take cues from the stories of Beren and Lúthien and Elwing. Thus a hypothetical Skin-changer class might be restricted to Men and Elves. They might equip “hames” as special class equipment or their secondary legendary item (or indeed both, like Rune-keepers and their satchels). These hames (from Old English hama, “a cover, skin”) would be the special garments that allow them to take on their animal shape(s). Maybe each hame and each of the class’s three traitlines could focus on one type of creature, say, wolf (yellow line — debuffs), bear (red line — DPS), or gull (blue line — buffs). This scheme would seem to set up the class as a buffer/debuffer with a secondary DPS role, depending on trait selection. Trait deep down one line and the Skin-changer loses access to the other two forms. Maybe there would be three toggle/stance skills that limit the skin-changer to one of the three animal shapes and/or change class skills to relate to that particular form (kind of like the Warden’s stances).

One of the arguments I’ve seen come up against a proposed Skin-changer class that I think is very valid is the general ridiculousness of the idea of a bunch of animals wandering around the village of Bree, for example. I agree that would be a problem would need to be limited in some way. Maybe Skin-changers would be unable to interact with NPCs in animal form. On the other hand, Lore-master pets and Captain oathbreaker heralds go wherever they like with no thought to how ridiculous their presence is. It’s all part of the challenge of adapting a book with a very serious and specific tone to a videogame! Perhaps there might be an out-of-combat toggle skill or a skill with a longish duration that allows the Skin-changer to take on an animal form for increased travel speed: wolf for running speed, bear for swimming speed (useful in Evendim!), or gull for enabling a suite of skills called “Flight to…” similar to the Warden’s “Muster in…” skills. In combat a Skin-changer might remain in their natural Man- or Elf-shape and their skills’ VFX evoke the appropriate animal (similar to the VFX for the Warden skill Boar’s Rush). Perhaps legendary capstone traits would allow actual sustained transformation into animal shape in combat with attendant skill modifications.

Well, this has been a very different line of discussion than we usually have here at the Starry Mantle! Ultimately this is a just a very rough, very sketchy thought experiment about what a Skin-changer class might be like. I haven’t even touched on what might be the class’s mechanical hook, the thing that sets it apart from other classes (for example, Burglar tricks, Captain heralds and battle-readied states, Champion fervour, Guardian reactives, Hunter focus, Lore-master pets, Minstrel ballads/anthems/codas, Rune-keeper attunement, Warden gambits, etc.). That kind of thing is really not my forte! What do you guys think, about today’s outfit, about skin-changers in Middle-earth in general, or about a hypothetical Skin-changer class? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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12 Responses to Swan-may

  1. cennwyn says:

    Just to get it out of the way (so I can participate in this thought-experiment), I certainly never want to see a skin-changer class introduced to the game. Not because it’s lore-breaking (I agree with the above logic you’ve set forth), but because it’s a question of numbers–people would flock to the new class, and before you knew it, Bree-town would be Bear-town :p

    That said, I think you’ve presented some very interesting ideas for class mechanics. I was thinking of the chicken session play in the Shire–though of course, if skin-changers were to be a viable class, they’d have to be able to interact at least with other players while they were in animal guise.

    I seem to remember, but can’t find the reference–doesn’t Gandalf intimate at some point in The Hobbit that Beorn isn’t limited strictly to taking the shape of a bear?

    • Very good point about the numbers, Cennwyn! I completely agree with you that the overall tone of the game is the biggest barrier to considering a Skin-changer class. Bree-town becoming Bear-town would be very inappropriate!

      Off the top of my head, I don’t recall any suggestion that Beorn can take on other shapes but I’ll certainly see if I can dig up a reference. Is it possible that you’re remembering the “shapes and changes of hue” comment about Radagast, which is also in The Hobbit? Later on Beorn says that he knows Radagast and thinks he’s an all right sort.

      • cennwyn says:

        Now that I think about it, I think it was simply a matter of Gandalf never says he can’t: “He changes his skin. Sometimes he is a huge black-skinned bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man…”

        I wouldn’t count this as evidence that Beorn could take any shape he wanted, but it implies a fluidity to the idea of being a skin-changer.

  2. Malacon says:

    What a great outfit. And an even better background story. Most excellent!

    As for a shifter class, I’m in. They make more sense than the runekeeper and warden abominations. No emotes when shifted. Don’t need bears doing the golfswing. No shifting in non-combat zones like Bree, etc. I get stuck on a skill system for them though. LotRO has a much too complex skill set. At least 10 too many skills per class. Shifters would need a very small skill set. This wouldnt sit well with those that think more skills to click means better class. I dunno. I like the concept. Will have to give it some more thought.

    • Thank you so much Malacon, and welcome to the blog! :D

      I didn’t try to think too hard about potential skills or mechanics — definitely not my area of expertise. As for the large amounts of skills for the existing classes, I’ve heard that Turbine is working on a skills pruning for later this year. What are your thoughts on that? I do see that some of my characters — minstrel and rune-keeper come to mind — have very full skill bars (although the new skill bar swaps helped a lot!).

      • Malacon says:

        Thanks!
        I’m all for skill pruning. I’m also pretty sure they won’t prune enough. :) They can’t. The public outcry from the noisemakers would be deafening. I THINK I read a dev note that mentioned 2-3 skills MIGHT be pruned. Can’t swear to that though.

        As an example my current most active toon is a L37 Champ. At L37 he has 27 different skills. Yes… 27. Who in the world needs 27 skills? And he is still a baby. He’ll train another 10 or so more by the time he hits 85 like my other toons. Even if we ignore 3 stances and 1 tracking skill that still leaves an obnoxious amount of skills on his toolbars. LOL.

        I’ve recently run into another issue with too many skills. I want to get my granddaughters into LotRO. They are very adept with computers and ipads considering they are 10 and under. They each have their own ipad. Even the 4yr old can run games on her ipad. Trouble with LotRO is the number of skills and the 3-4 deep chained skills. Having to manage so many skills takes away from the their fun. “I just need these 3 grandpa.” says the 10yr old as I’m explaining chains. They like the game and have fun riding in my neighborhood. But they want to explore and fight too.

        Whew sorry this got long. Let me mention TonicBars though. If you’re not against addons it is useful for freeing up toolbar space.

  3. Let me say this first: I would never marry a man who steals my clothes while I’m bathing!! Secondly, yes I would love to see a skinchanger class and I always totally ignore any arguments about it being “lore-breaking” to see so many run around Bree for the same reasons you mention, and because having your horse vanish into nothingness when dismounting is just as unreal yet accepted by everyone as normal.
    Now about this outfit: it’s superb! I totally love it, especially the violet detail you highlighted by bringing the colour back on the shoulder piece. Personally I would use boots as I abhor shoes underneath that robe, as a matter of fact I never ever use shoes except underneath long length robes. The colours and the theme are just incredibly good and I regret that the default biscuit colour that this cloak used to have when it came out was replaced by common plain white. I think the biscuit colour would have been great in this combo, but white looks more like swan feathers so goes just as well. Very nice job!

    • Hahaha, no kidding! If I get out of the shower and the towel’s a bit out of reach I get pretty hostile, never mind if some random dude stole my clothes! :P

      Glad you like the outfit, thanks so much Hymne! I tried some various boots but in the end went with the shoes because I wanted to keep the silhouette of the legs skinny, to try to recall skinny swan legs. I didn’t even remember that the cloak had a different base colour originally! I’ll have to scour Google and see if there’s a screenshot. If it was similar to the old base colour of the 4th anniversary cloak, that would have looked really nice!

  4. Elenluin says:

    Beautiful outfit and story. It’s interesting how the same story is found in different cultures, the Japanese play Hagoromo is also based on a similar swan-maiden.

    • Thank you Elenluin! It’s fascinating how those motifs repeat themselves. I know next to nothing about the mythologies and folklore of Asian countries, I’ll have to do some reading to learn more! :)

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