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.
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.
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.
- Head: Winged Circlet (Store), washed
- Shoulders: Arrow of the West Shoulder Guards (In Their Absence instance cluster token barter reward — Hunter), rose
- Back: Cloak of the Dove (Store or spring festival token barter reward), washed
- Chest: Robe of Viisaus (Volume 1 Book 13 epic quest reward or Store), washed
- Hands: Pristine Gloves (crafted or world drop), violet
- Feet: Leather Shoes (crafted or world drop), 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 fits the swan-may theme very well. As an alternative, you might like the Cloak of the Ibis (Store), which features swan-like imagery, or the Swan-cloak (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.
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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