Swablu, Altaria

#333 – Swablu

Look at him. He’s so soft and cuddle-able and just as content as could be. Ugh, Swablu is another first-stager that’s just begging to be the Pokémon equivalent of the teddy bear, a plush animal that you assume is in every child’s room on principle. And this is for a Pokémon that isn’t even that well-marketed, at least in the U.S.

Domestic songbirds can be so squat, round, and downy to begin with that it makes perfect sense to boil one down to a near-spherical body (a solid seven years before that one phone game did it).

That might be enough for a baby stage, but then those those fluffy wings get recycled into pillowy clouds, which which are typically shown with a soft enough outline that at first glance he still looks like just a head floating in air. It makes him look surprisingly light and buoyant for how wide he is, which ties nicely into how most birds weigh so little – and are as fragile as this precious chubster looks.

Swablu cheers me up whenever I look at him. Soft blues and whites, a pleasant outline, and even a big ol’ dorky split-cowlick up top. He’s simultaneously simple and has a ton of fun details that add to his charm, and that’s the sign of a good little mascot character. So, square in this series’ strike zone.

#334 – Altaria

It’s Swablu, but bigger, and that’s just fine by me.

Fully enveloped by his comfy cloud-wings, now he had a curvy neck and long, ribbon-y crest, plus fun little cheek spots and a wider tail too better act as a rudder. He’s at once both more graceful and also embodies my current January state, that is to say wrapped up warm in a blanket and peeking out just enough to interact with other folks.

I don’t quite know if he needs feet at this stage – I could do with an Altaria that seems to drift on the wind like a song carried through the air. They feel a bit awkward and pokey as they are, but hey – it’s a minor mark against a Pokémon who’s otherwise perfectly fine.

In fact, Altaria is perfectly fine in the main game, too! He’s surprisingly accessible for a Dragon-type when he appears in the wild, and most of his stats end up being around average, with higher defenses and slightly lower HP making him even easy to maintain. Besides, with level scaling against NPCs, you’ll rarely miss that bit of attack he has below average. It’d be nice if he favored one attack or the other, but hey – he has great type coverage and a natural recovery move. Super-solid all-arounder!

This line plays a lot on bluebirds as an omen of goodness and happiness across tons of different cultures. In fact, Swablu is one of the species that’s openly more fond of humans, giving themselves over to comfy, warm lives of domestication in clean homes. Oh, dear, do Swablu love to clean up their environments at any given opportunity, at the expense of dirtying their own precious down to make the place look spick-n-span. Which, mood.

But can you imagine having a house-pet that actively helps tidy up for you, and even finds it personally amusing to perch on your head like a fluffy hat? I’m tellin’ ya, one in every home.

Altaria’s got a bit of wanderlust to her, though, being literally written as “[soaring] way up into the wild blue yonder” on an updraft with her wings, then singing and humming a song second only to the series’ most famous vocalist. Considering what it must looks like from below – a recent adaptation, presumably in response to humans – I can certainly imagine travelers making up folklore about how the sky itself was humming with a song, not knowing it was a low-flying animal.

Of course, those travelers could run into the albatross problem, given that provocation turns that birdsong into a klaxon at the drop of a pin. But hey, who would ever want to harm such a huggable critter?

That aside, this pair may or may not be a more specific reference to L’Oiseau Bleu, a 1900s Belgian play about a pair of siblings who seek out a mythical Bluebird of Happiness before returning home to find it as their own pet bird, caged up in their house all along. And, as soon as they let it out as a gift to a sickly neighbor, it seems to glow even bluer than before. Aww, true joy comes from within and all that jazz. And that’s more-or-less what most Western allusions about bluebirds have been drawing from ever since, to boot.

Of course, that runs a bit contrary to a wild bluebird evolving into a hyper-common house pet, but hush now. Altaria is described as having much more of a “wandering soul” tendency than Swablu, so the intent is still there.

Swablu’s English name is positively droll compared to Tylto(n), its French and Japanese names. Tyl specifically is a call-out to Tyl, a star, which is a fun enough play into this line’s theme of a bright sky. The more direct call-out is that it’s part of the constellation Draco, making it a call-out to where that line is headed after evolution.

I still think the link between Altaria’s design and a literal dragon is a bit tenuous, but hey – it was designed before Fairy became the catch-all for “mythical folklore” Pokémon, and Dragon is a hard identity to shake.

But tying that back into the play, the “star” Tyl isn’t just one star, but the combined light of a binary system – two stars orbiting one another. Two stars, two siblings.

It’s not clear to me if that’s a coincidence on the designer’s part – in fact, it probably is, considering that bluebirds are pretty universally a symbol of positivity. But I’m going to choose to live under the assumption that they made that cross-language connection, because invoking a fairy-tale power inside of a cheery little bluebird feels just close enough to plausibly read as intent.

Swablu and Altaria work on so many levels. They’re utterly charming on the surface. Then they have some fun lore all their own. And, if you choose to believe so, they may be a complete allusion to an old Belgian play, made real in an indirect sort of way. I love how quickly this series has diverged into non-obvious uses of the Dragon type and folklore motifs, and if it were up to be they’d be a Must-Have. As is, there’s a lot more popular Dragon-Flying competitors around, which I can see demoting him into Reserve territory.

Any and all appreciation for Swablu and Altaria is welcome in the comments!

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