Sea-birds and Wanderlust

Species: Several, most importantly seagull (Larus argentatus) and cuckoo (Cuculus canorus).

Source: Two Old English lyric elegies: ‘The Seafarer’ and ’The Wanderer’.

Date: Seafarer c.850, Wanderer c.900 AD. (Klinck, 1992:13-21)

Highlights: Tolkien’s totally stole the idea of “sea-longing” from medieval poetry.

Now I’m not saying Tolkien was a sneaking-snaking-snarer who purposefully snuck medieval literature into his stories to educate people, but, well, they didn’t call him Professor for nothing. Photograph by Julian Nitzsche CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Now I’m not saying Tolkien was a sneaking-snaking-snarer who purposefully snuck medieval literature into his stories to educate people, but, well, they didn’t call him Professor for nothing.
Photograph by Julian Nitzsche CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Have you ever read the Lord of the Rings? To some reading the books feels, weirdly, more like learning than relaxing.

If you feel this way, that’s because you are supposed to.

Near the beginning of the Return of the King, Professor Tolkien sneaks in a direct borrowing from Old English literature. Legolas and Gimli are sailing off to the Battle of Pelennor Fields when…

‘Look!’ he [Legolas] cried. ‘Gulls! They are flying far inland. A wonder they are to me and a trouble to my heart. Never in all my life had I met them, until we came to Pelargir, and there I heard them crying in the air as we rode to the battle of the ships. Then I stood still, forgetting war in Middle-earth; for their wailing voices spoke to me of the Sea. The Sea! Alas! I have not yet beheld it. But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which it is perilous to stir. Alas! for the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm.’ (Tolkien, 2012: 873)

You didn’t see that in the film because they Legolas’ emo moments are a total downer.

This kind of wanderlust (sea-longing) is common to all elves in Middle Earth, but it seems to have been inspired by the Old English lyric elegies.


The Old English Lyric Elegies are a group of poetic solos where the speaker laments their life spent in exile away from human society. The poems weave descriptions of the untamed natural world among the emotional cries, emphasising the sadness of the speakers.

In two of these poems, the ‘Wanderer’ and the ‘Seafarer’, seabirds represent the isolation of the characters’ lives at sea:

The Seafarer
Hail flew in showers,
There was no sound there but the slam of waves
Along an icy sea. The swan’s blare
My seldom amusement; for men’s laughter
There was curlew-call, there were the cries of gannets,
for mead-drinking the music of the gull.
To the storm striking the stone cliffs
Gull would answer, eagle scream
From throats frost-feathered. No friend or brother
By to speak with the despairing mind
(Alexander, 1970 ed.: 52)

This environment is not hospitable to humans. The narrator is contrasting some of the most cherished elements of Anglo Saxon life (sound, amusement, laughter, mead-drinking) with what they hear around him (birds, emptiness, storms, ice). The poem evokes a feeling of loss.

Species-wise, these lines are is ambiguous but carefully translated. Goldsmith (1954) has provided an eco-sensitive reading of this passage and identifies the migratory whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) as both the ‘swan’ and ‘gannet’, the curlew (Numenius arquata), herring gull (Larus argentatus), a small gull, most probably the kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) and the sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). This is based especially on the requirements of the birds being heard calling in winter and familiar to readers who had not spent time at sea.

I would propose only one alternative reading. The whooper swan in Europe is not usually a saltwater bird (Brazil, 2010:263), and Klinck (1992: 129) points out that the swan could actually belong to the previous part of the passage (the punctuation is modern). The literal translation of the term used here is ‘swan’s song’. There was a medieval piece of folklore that otherwise mute swans sing only once; a beautiful dirge just before they die. This concept is referred to (and rejected) in Pliny’s ‘Naturalis Historia’ and in Gerald of Wales’ ‘Topographica Hibernica’. Perhaps the reference is therefore metaphorical unlike the later ones.

The Wanderer
Awakeneth after this friendless man,
Seeth before him fallow waves,
Seabirds bathing, broading out fathers,
Snow and hail swirl, hoar-frost falling.
Then all the heavier his heart’s wounds
Remembered kinsmen pass through his mind…
(Alexander, 1970 ed.: 49)

Photograph by Poulpy, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0. Dear Family, Wish I was not here. Love, Lee.

Photograph by Poulpy, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.
Dear Family, Wish I was not here. Love, Lee.

The ‘Wanderer’ is more explicit about the main character’s feelings. Seeing these birds makes him feel heavier; it reminds him that he is missing human society. To a kin-based society like Anglo-Saxon England, the prospect of being exiled or cast-out may have been terrifying.


Initially I was talking about the seabirds in Tolkien which actually inspire wanderlust. The seabirds in the lyric elegies seem to have the absolute opposite effect and inspire homesickness.

In the ‘Seafarer’ another bird’s call seems to inspire wanderlust:

Cuckoo’s dirge drags out my heart,
Whets will to the whale’s beat
(Alexander, 1970 ed.: 54)

The whale’s beat is a kenning (riddle-term) for the sea, so it is the cuckoo here which is causing wanderlust. But why?

Angry looking cuckoo on hand.

Photograph by Nouhouhouk, licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0.
Oh, is that the time already…

The thriving of the treeland, the town’s briskness
a lightness over the leas, life gathering
everything urges the eagerly mooded
man to venture on he voyage he thinks of,
the faring over food, the far bourn.
And the cuckoo calls him in his care-laden voice,
scout of summer, sings of new grief
that shall make breast-hoard bitter
(Alexander, 1970 ed.: 54)

The cuckoo often acts as the herald of summer in poetry, as for example in ‘Sumer is icumin in’ a medieval poem still well known today. Interestingly however there are probably more poems where the cuckoo’s announcing summer brings sadness than where it brings happiness (e.g. early Welsh: ‘Kyntevin’, ‘Claf Abercuawg’; Old English: ‘The Husband’s Message’; even Classical Latin: ‘Conflictus Veris et Hiemis’). As I have previously explained, the cuckoo brings sadness by reminding its hearer of previous summers (Ramsay, 2012). Everything about the birds and the summer is painful to our narrators. In our texts the cuckoo also lets the listener know that the season for long voyages (summer) has returned; wanderers no longer have an excuse to remain at port.

Here is Tolkien's famous Rohirrim poem. Penned by the talented Sipho56, used with permission. Luckily for Tolkien, he was never sued by the Old English author of The Wanderer who wrote:

Here is Tolkien’s famous Rohirrim poem to Eorl the Young (sic) with calligraphy by the talented Sipho56, used with permission.
This use of what posh people call the “ubi sunt motif” was inspired by ‘The Wanderer’ which included a similar plaint over a thousand years earlier:
“Where is that horse now? Where are those men? Where is the hoard-sharer? Where is the house of the feast? Where is the hall’s uproar? Alas, bright cup! Alas, burnished fighter! Alas, proud prince! How that time has passed, dark under night’s helm, as though it never had been!” (Alexander, 1970 ed.:50)


Tolkien consciously borrowed several aspects of Middle Earth from medieval literature. The concept of sea-longing may have been one of these; specifically the wanderlust which infects elves who see or hear sea birds.

At first sight the borrowing seems unlikely since the cries of sea birds actually have the opposite effect in Old English lyric poetry; they make the hearers homesick. However that the sound of these birds has a special meaning to travellers is true in both texts. The sound of the cuckoo in the ‘Seafarer’ inspires its hearer to travel.

Further research could clarify why Tolkien had seagulls inspire wanderlust like cuckoos rather than homesickness, if it was intentional. It could also investigate when and why cuckoos became a predominantly negative image in medieval literature, and how they changed back again in time for modern folkloric opinion.


Alexander, M.J. 1970. The earliest English poems: a bilingual edition. University of California Press.

Brazil, M. 2010. The Whooper Swan. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Goldsmith, M.E. 1954. The Seafarer and the Birds. The Review of English Studies 5(19), pp. 225–235.

Klinck, A.L. 1992. Old English Elegies. McGill-Queen’s Press.

Ramsay, L. 2012. God as a Cuckoo in ‘Claf Abercuawg’. Unpublished paper given at Oxford University Celtic Seminar.

Tolkien, J.R.R. 2012. The Lord of the Rings: One Volume. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


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