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  • City of Ravens: Boria Sax October 31, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    The story so far. An ancient British myth going back to ‘ye olde Celtic times’ states that while ravens reside at the Tower of London then Britain will prosper. However, turn the neatly embossed tourist sign with ‘ye olde Celtic times’ over and there is a ‘Made in Taiwan’ marker stamped into the plastic.

    Translated? In the last generation, a series of historians, with Boria Sax and Geoffrey Parnell at the head of the queue, have realised that the raven legend is not as ancient as was previously believed. Indeed, struggle as these gentlemen may, they have not found a convincing stand-up reference to black wings at the Tower that goes back beyond about 1895.

    Even more worrying Geoffrey Parnell found a very convincing piece of evidence from 1955 (in the tweedy magazine Country Life!) showing that the Tower ravens were gifted by a mystery donor in the nineteenth century. Beachcombing has reflected before on this raven confusion. And it really is incredible that we cannot do better, notwithstanding the millions upon millions of words available.

    But this ‘not doing better’ reflects badly on history rather than on our historians. And there is a consolation… While we are waiting, we now have a fabulous little book City of Ravens (Duckworth 2011) by Boria Sax to keep us thinking. This extended essay, tells the tale of the ravens at the Tower in an enjoyable and often exciting manner.

    Beach can’t help noting that most authors who reference Terry Eagleton and Eric Hobsbawm, as BS does, write like, to use the London vernacular, ‘plonkers’. BS, instead, has a winsome English that is childlike (in the best possible sense) and beguiling. It is not that he ‘wears his learning lightly’: a phrase that misinterprets the nature of learning. It is rather that the author has assimilated the authorities he is quoting.

    This unusual prose style is matched by the fact that Boria Sax is not satisfied with a simple narrative: you have here more of a raven’s ever decreasing circle around carrion. There is a chronology, beginning with the myth of Bran and moving then on towards and finally into the twentieth-first century. But there is also much more, from every direction, on ravens, on ravens and humans, on ravens and myth and, of course, the really troublesome combination, on humans and myth.

    No one was ever going to say that the death of the ravens and the death of Britain was anything other than legend: it is not as if the birds had remote bomb-timers linked to a pile of dynamite in the national gold reserves (such as they are…). But there is often a petty triumphalism when newly minted myths (examples of  ‘fakelore’) are exposed. The author, instead, reminds us that myths constantly make and remake themselves. We are then privileged observers here at, if not the birth, then the infancy of the myth of the Tower ravens and what is most striking about this myth is how rapidly and how completely it has taken over its surroundings.

    Beach is always on the look out for exceptional books on history: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Here, while you are waiting for your ordered copies of City of Ravens to arrive, is Beachcombing’s 1897 contribution to the ravens at the Tower debate: see below.

    Beachcombing will also offer a paperback per year for any previously unnoticed written reference to ravens there – no images! – going back beyond 1880: i.e. 1870 = 10 paperbacks, 1860 = twenty paperbacks. Time limit: Christmas Eve 2011. Max 20 paperbacks!! We live in difficult times…

    ‘The Tale of the man who bought a raven to see if it really would, as reported, live two hundred years, is hackneyed, but part of its lesson is very new. It is surprising how little direct evidence we have on the subject of birds’ ages. The owner dies and the record is lost. We no not know with any exactidude how long a raven does live. An innkeeper at Croydon has a jackdaw which he has had in his possession for nineteen years. Long may bird and master live, but might we suggest that some naturalists should subscribe to buy the right to own the bird if it should outlive its owner, the bird being now ringed with an inscription of date and the owner to whom, after its present master, is to go. Might we also suggest that the Zoological Society should publish a list of the deaths of their fauna with their ages dating from the time that they are acquired by the society? At present the Zoological Society publish a weekly account of acquisitions but make no reference to deaths so that the account of accessions to the gardens is no index of what is to be seen there either by members or by the public. National buildings, such as the Tower, where ravens and other pet birds are kept, might also, with great advantage to natural history, chronicle the birth and death of these pets’.