City of Ravens: The Extraordinary History of London, the Tower and Its Famous Ravens

Image of City of Ravens: The Extraordinary History of London, the Tower and its Famous Ravens
Release Date: 
July 5, 2012
Overlook Hardcover
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“. . . a valuable study [but] Professor Sax misinterprets the value the majority of British people place on the Tower Raven myth . . .”

If the ravens leave the Tower of London, the Tower and the British nation will fall.

Londoners have held tightly to this superstition since time immemorial. And for this very reason, common ravens has been held captive at the tower for longer than we can remember, wings clipped, their only freedom waddling discontentedly on Tower Green and pecking viciously at the toes of tourists.

Enter Boria Sax, the veritable Ace Ventura of contemporary academia. Professor Sax, an acclaimed American folklorist and historian, has devoted a sizable part of his career to researching the numerous bonds between animals and people. His previous work includes Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats and the Holocaust, The Serpent and the Swan: Animal Brides in Literature and Folklore, and Crow.

In his latest study, City of Ravens: The Extraordinary History of London, the Tower and Its Famous Ravens, Professor Sax sets about dismantling and rebuilding one of England’s most celebrated national myths.

At the turn of the millennium, the professor began to interrogate people about the legend of the famous ravens. City of Ravens relates his hunt for evidence linking the Tower ravens to ancient times.

In chapter one, Professor Sax states openly that he was unable to find references to ravens in the Tower dated prior to the end of the 19th century.

He then dons his binoculars, stalking the symbol of the raven throughout British history, beginning with the “Blessed Raven” Bran, giant king of Britain in Welsh mythology, and ending in contemporary London.

The author’s attempts to pin the myth of the Tower ravens to an earlier age are speculative at best. Ultimately, he succeeds in revealing Britain’s “longstanding” myth to be nothing more than a Victorian creation, which may prove a true disappointment for some.

Yet City of Ravens remains a valuable study of the symbolic role of ravens in Britain. The author successfully charts our changing relationship with the enigmatic birds throughout the ages.

We discover how they were perceived as precious entities by the way they sanitized public spaces by consuming discarded offal, the way they were then demonized as the “black birds of doom” due to their association with and proximity to death and the dark arts, and how the ravens called out a warning as bombs fell on London during World War II.

Professor Sax’s writing style is flowing and delightfully anecdotal; however, this particular study appears uncharacteristically choppy, perhaps because a significant proportion of the work was pulled from his academic essays on the subject.

The author also appears a little too self conscious in his role as an American outsider examining British mythology.

His graciousness and care is admirable, yet there remain a definite sense that he uses kid gloves. His customary vigor and passion appear stifled, resulting in an explosion of grossly overblown statements.

Aware he has trodden flat a significant part of English mythology, Professor Sax sets about appeasing the British public: “I have no expectation that I or anybody can ‘demythologize’ the story of the Tower Ravens, simply by revealing their true history.” There is palpable disappointment by the author that he is unable to find documentary evidence to support the myth’s longevity.

This leads to him scrambling to find a new symbolic meaning for the birds: “I suggest that the prophecy about the Tower Ravens now be given an ecological interpretation. Perhaps it could mean that if Britain (or any country) loses its natural inheritance, all life within it will be impoverished.”

May we cover our faces to hide our blushes?

Still, Professor Sax makes an important statement regarding the cruelty of trimming a bird’s wings and depriving it of flight. His solution? Encourage the ravens to nest in the Tower and soar freely above its battlements.

Professor Sax misinterprets the value the majority of British people place on the Tower Raven myth, writing: “To have ignored the evidence of their recent origin for so long, the British must have wanted very badly to believe in the Tower Ravens—if not as supernatural beings, then at least as an ancient legend.”

Not so. The myth is an antique: mindlessly maintained but seldom scrutinized.