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Sax: City of Ravens

SaxIn 2004, The Guardian found itself forced to make a dreadful announcement: The ravens of the Tower of London, rumored to have been resident for centuries upon centuries, were in fact first released on the site in the late nineteenth century. Not the Romans, not the Anglo-French, not Charles II: it was the Victorians who completed their romanticizing, medievalizing image of the Tower with the addition of half a dozen great black croaking birds.

Such was the conclusion reached, independently, by Geoffrey Parnell, then the Tower’s official historian, and by Boria Sax, an American scholar. Sax now explores the ravens and their legend more thoroughly in his unusual little City of Ravens. In a series of articles published over the last several years, the author has already presented the evidence for the tardiness of the ravens’ coming on the scene. Here, he proposes a broader assessment of their significance in the English and British consciousness.

City of Ravens begins with a brief, inevitably very selective look at some of the “mythology” of the raven in sources ranging from Native American narrative traditions to the Epic of Gilgamesh; Sax also provides quick (and largely unmotivated) references to some material from pre-modern encyclopedic traditions.

Sax briefly retells the story of the Celtic warrior Bran (or Bendegeidfran–not, as Sax styles him, “Bendegeidfran Bran”) from the Mabinogion; at the end of his life, Bran’s head is buried at “White Hill” in London, a site tentatively identified by a nineteenth-century editor and translator as the Tower of London. Because Bran is onomastically associated with the raven in the medieval tradition, we are apparently to believe that the story somehow offers a background to the presence of birds at the Tower in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The truth, though, is tucked into a footnote: “There is actually no known link that directly ties the story of Bran to the ravens in the Tower.” Instead, relying on a naive sort of golden-bowdlerized Jungianism, Sax points out “suggestive parallels,” including the facts that both the ravens and the buried head are rumored to protect against invasion, that seven ravens are kept in the Tower and seven warriors accompanied Bran to London and there have been seven executions in the Tower.

Sax wanders even farther out on the trembling branch in adducing “parallels” between the Grail castle and the Tower: this is the stuff of role-playing games and late-night radio call-in shows. This chapter of the book plummets to the depths when Sax asserts an “archetypal” connection between Charles I–father of that same Charles II who had nothing to do with the Tower ravens–and the mythical Bran–whose story cannot, fide Sax’s footnote, be linked to the birds–just because both eventually suffered a fatal haircut at the shoulders.

We’re back on firmer ground when Sax introduces–and then leaves too soon–the fascinating story of the Earls of Dunraven and the antiquarian and forger Iolo Mroganwg (Edward Williams). This Welsh Ossian flattered the Countess of Dunraven that her home had been “the primary residence of Bran,” our warrior from the Mabinogion. The reader is apparently meant to draw a connection, left unstated by the author, between this bit of romantic fantasy and the fact, attested by George Younghusband in 1918, that the Dunraven family, following some “esoteric agenda,” had provided some of the ravens to the Tower.

There are more examples where the author stretches for connections that cannot in fact be demonstrated, and more examples where even an established connection in the misty past could have nothing to do with the introduction of ravens to the Tower in the late nineteenth century. Given what Sax does with it, most of the overlay from mythology and history could have been left aside without harming this book at all, letting the author and the reader concentrate better on the “meat” of the author’s story, which begins in Chapter IV. Here at last Sax seems to return to the matter of the changing attitudes towards ravens and nature over time, as promised in his introduction.

Before the seventeenth century, Sax argues, ravens and other predatory scavengers were appreciated even in the cities for their value as sanitation workers. By the close of that century, however, the intensification of agriculture and a great increase in sheep husbandry made the large birds ever less welcome, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, ravens were rare indeed in Greater London.

Sax first detects a real public affection for the Tower ravens in the years after World War II. The Yeoman Quartermaster, whose responsibilities included feeding and housing the birds, was re-christened the Yeoman Ravenmaster, and the ups and downs of the birds, especially the mated pairs, were covered in the newspapers. And of course there’s no better place than the gift shop to measure attitudes: you can buy raven games and raven toys and cute little stuffed animal ravens–even as the real birds on the sidewalks outside are stealing little childrens’ sandwiches.

Sax returns to his mythological hobby horse at the end of the book, where he suggests that the modern British self-image draws deeply on notions of the country’s Celtic heritage; it is no longer the Middle Ages that provide the fantasies of “romantic Britain.” Sax says that the Tower ravens and their legend, Victorian survivals that they are, are “being absorbed into the lore of Celtic Britain.” Unable to resist one last overstatement, he goes on to claim that “with the ravens, Bran has claimed the Tower for the original peoples of Britain, triumphing at last over the invaders who followed him.”

I like that assertion: it’s bold, straightforward, clever. But it’s also unsupported by any evidence outside of Sax’s own book. Nowhere does he cite a book, a newspaper article, a tourist pamphlet, a television interview, a casual remark overheard on the street to the effect that visitors to the Tower connect the ravens to any events or personages in the islands’ Celtic past. That might change, especially if Sax’s recommendation that “Yeomen Warders … tell visitors that [the ravens] represent the spirit of Bran, of Arthur” is followed; but what Sax is doing here is suggesting the manufacture of a new myth, a bit of “fakelore,” not demonstrating that myth’s existence.

City of Ravens would have been a much more persuasive, much more satisfying book had it concentrated wholly on the history and social significance of the real ravens living in the real Tower of London. As it is, the valuable insights provided here into the mechanisms behind the formation of legends can be hard to pick out from the author’s attempt to create another.

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright studied French, German, philosophy, and biology at the University of Nebraska. Following a detour to Harvard Law School, he took the Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1990. He held appointments as Assistant Professor of German at the University of Illinois, Reader in Art and Archaeology at Princeton, and Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at Fordham. Rick was a department editor at Birding from 2004 to 2008 and editor of Winging It from 2005 to 2007. He leads birding and birds-and-art tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Alison Beringer, and their chocolate lab, Gellert.
Rick Wright

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