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

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Yet the truth is that they arrived in Victorian times as props in gory plays for tourists. But the ravens' past has far more high drama. From the plains of the North American Indians to the arctic tundra, all the way to the Tower of London, they have been symbols of cruelty, of survival through adversity, and a loveable icon. Boria Sax shows how our attitudes to the raven Yet the truth is that they arrived in Victorian times as props in gory plays for tourists. But the ravens' past has far more high drama. From the plains of the North American Indians to the arctic tundra, all the way to the Tower of London, they have been symbols of cruelty, of survival through adversity, and a loveable icon. Boria Sax shows how our attitudes to the raven and to the natural world have changed enormously over the centuries. By describing the distinct place of this special bird in Western culture, he shows how blurred the lines between myth and history can be. This is a unique and brilliantly readable story of the entwined lives of people and animals.


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Yet the truth is that they arrived in Victorian times as props in gory plays for tourists. But the ravens' past has far more high drama. From the plains of the North American Indians to the arctic tundra, all the way to the Tower of London, they have been symbols of cruelty, of survival through adversity, and a loveable icon. Boria Sax shows how our attitudes to the raven Yet the truth is that they arrived in Victorian times as props in gory plays for tourists. But the ravens' past has far more high drama. From the plains of the North American Indians to the arctic tundra, all the way to the Tower of London, they have been symbols of cruelty, of survival through adversity, and a loveable icon. Boria Sax shows how our attitudes to the raven and to the natural world have changed enormously over the centuries. By describing the distinct place of this special bird in Western culture, he shows how blurred the lines between myth and history can be. This is a unique and brilliantly readable story of the entwined lives of people and animals.

30 review for City of Ravens: The Extraordinary History of London, its Tower and Its Famous Ravens

  1. 5 out of 5

    Riley

    My father, a wildlife biologist in Alaska, gave me the middle name of Wolf. In turn, I gave my son the middle name of Raven. So obviously ravens are close to my heart. Unfortunately, I found that this book didn’t really speak to me, though that really isn’t the fault of author Boria Sax. The problem is that because I associate ravens with the life and myths of the Pacific Northwest, the ravens of the Tower of London just didn’t really resonate with me. My take away was that the British have looked My father, a wildlife biologist in Alaska, gave me the middle name of Wolf. In turn, I gave my son the middle name of Raven. So obviously ravens are close to my heart. Unfortunately, I found that this book didn’t really speak to me, though that really isn’t the fault of author Boria Sax. The problem is that because I associate ravens with the life and myths of the Pacific Northwest, the ravens of the Tower of London just didn’t really resonate with me. My take away was that the British have looked at the Tower ravens either as images of dark savagery or as playful and cheeky pets. Neither of those are what springs to mind for me about the bird, which has a dignity, a wisdom and an age-oldness that I think few others have.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Initially I was drawn to this story by the cover, with the ravens sitting over the Tower of London. I've been there, and you can't help but be drawn to the great black bird that roam around. Of course, those ones can't fly over, as they have had their wings clipped to prevent them leaving. The author mainly looks at the origin of the Towers birds, and the truth regarding the idea that the Monarchy will fall if the birds ever leave. He also explores how other European cultures have their own myths Initially I was drawn to this story by the cover, with the ravens sitting over the Tower of London. I've been there, and you can't help but be drawn to the great black bird that roam around. Of course, those ones can't fly over, as they have had their wings clipped to prevent them leaving. The author mainly looks at the origin of the Towers birds, and the truth regarding the idea that the Monarchy will fall if the birds ever leave. He also explores how other European cultures have their own myths and beliefs about this regal bird. Although I learnt a little bit, I found that some of the facts were repeated over and over, and I would have liked to learn a little more about the mysterious birds. 2/5

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Speart

    The mere mention of ravens is enough to conjure images of darkness and death. Boria Sax’s book “City of Ravens” helps to rectify their reputation. This magical book traces the legend and lore of ravens as it tackles the mystery of how they first came to reside in the Tower of London. Along the way, the bird undergoes a transformation from that of despised scavenger to much loved tourist attraction. There is an ancient prophesy that Britain will fall if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London. The mere mention of ravens is enough to conjure images of darkness and death. Boria Sax’s book “City of Ravens” helps to rectify their reputation. This magical book traces the legend and lore of ravens as it tackles the mystery of how they first came to reside in the Tower of London. Along the way, the bird undergoes a transformation from that of despised scavenger to much loved tourist attraction. There is an ancient prophesy that Britain will fall if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London. May the ravens long enjoy their reign.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Stuart

    ... And then it flew off, opening up as it went, to a hugeness unimagined, ... the dead...can be more alive for us more powerful, more scary, than the living. It is a question of ghosts The Ravens, in devouring the bodies of the slain, seemed to become those who were beheaded

  5. 5 out of 5

    Geoff Huckle

    More like a collection of essays and thought-pieces about the history and myths of Ravens in the UK, and particularly London. Interesting but disjointed collection of ideas.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kim

    Ravens at the Tower of London are not descended from King Henry 8, and other perpetuated myths about ravens dispelled.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Charles

    I love ravens, who knew?

  8. 5 out of 5

    Abbey

    Significantly more academic than anticipated. Put on Humanities pants before reading. 12/10 awesome author name.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    fun book!

  10. 5 out of 5

    David Dinaburg

    "Bran means 'crow' in Welsh, and 'raven' in Cornish, Irish and Scots Gaelic." Now that Song of Ice & Fire fans have collectively perked up their ears, let's talk about the Tower of London. As one of the huddled masses yearning to breath free, if I had ever heard of the legend of the Ravens of the Tower of London, it didn't stick. For those that don't know or can't remember, rumor has it that when the Tower has no more ravens, Britain shall fall. And while this may feel torn from the pages of th "Bran means 'crow' in Welsh, and 'raven' in Cornish, Irish and Scots Gaelic." Now that Song of Ice & Fire fans have collectively perked up their ears, let's talk about the Tower of London. As one of the huddled masses yearning to breath free, if I had ever heard of the legend of the Ravens of the Tower of London, it didn't stick. For those that don't know or can't remember, rumor has it that when the Tower has no more ravens, Britain shall fall. And while this may feel torn from the pages of the Fantasy genre, it is no more nonsensical than American hotels refusing to acknowledge that the floor after twelve is still thirteen, regardless of what you name it. Moving deftly from the apocryphal “origin” of the Tower Ravens during the reign of Charles II up to the commercialized theater currently surrounding the Tower, so much information is delivered so succinctly that you barely realize you now know way, way more about symbolic, mythological, or zoological ravens than you thought possible. Peppered with historical anecdotes of questionable veracity but certified provenance, Sax makes sure to capture the cultural atmosphere with first-hand sources. “A.L. Rowse, an ardent supporter of the British Empire, reported that, 'In the 1930s a Nazi official, on tour, commented—with typical mixture of bombast and inferiority complex: “Oh, in our land we have eagles.” One of the ravens heard him, and at once bit him.'” “Retired Ravenmaster Derrick Coyle reported that one of the ravens at the Tower of London, Thor, had picked up a good deal of human speech. When Coyle fed the ravens, he would say, 'That's for you.' Thor sometimes replied, 'That's for me.' This answer indicated that the raven understood some basic grammatical distinctions...” City of Ravens is akin to a great video documentary: you're so entertained, you barely realize you're learning. “The Victorians loved medieval pageantry, even as they ceaselessly castigated the cruelties and narrow-mindedness of the medieval era. After the promise of the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century degenerated into a reign of terror and the dictatorship of Napoleon, disillusionment increased the nostalgia for the old order. Medievalism was also a reaction against empirical science, which seemed to threaten the spiritual foundations of culture, just as surely as the French Revolution threatened the aristocracy. The raven as literary device—full of portent and mystery—has such a fascinating history rooted as much in myth and story as in historical reality. City of Ravens does an admirable job of parsing both without damaging either.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Autumn

    The book itself was quite scattered and it was kind of like, "Oh, it's done?" when I reached the end. Still, an interesting beginner's intro to the story of the Tower ravens. But very little about the raven's mythology or place within the rest of the world is touched on. I think I got a bit more out of the end notes - at least in terms of further books to check out that are hopefully a little more in depth. I particularly enjoyed this quote from Stephen Spotte: "Zoos take considerable pains to de The book itself was quite scattered and it was kind of like, "Oh, it's done?" when I reached the end. Still, an interesting beginner's intro to the story of the Tower ravens. But very little about the raven's mythology or place within the rest of the world is touched on. I think I got a bit more out of the end notes - at least in terms of further books to check out that are hopefully a little more in depth. I particularly enjoyed this quote from Stephen Spotte: "Zoos take considerable pains to deny their animals an alternative existence, that of myth. The signs that accompany zoo exhibits provide information about how the snake consumes rodents or how the bat navigates using sonar. They approach each animal as an object to be studied, with little regard for individual triumphs and tragedies. Animals are supposed to belong to nature, conceived as a pristine, changeless realm, so they are not permitted to have stories. But the Tower Ravens, as we have already seen, have a mythology that can often obscure both their zoological and historical dimensions." I like this idea. And find it akin to Alain de Botton's premise that art museums should be categorized not by artist or style, but by human emotion. As zoos are often now the forefront of animal welfare and conservation, perhaps it is animal mythology that they must now use to appeal to the public to create a sense of empathy and compassion for the species' survival.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Shaun

    For me, the meat of this book was in Sax's writings about the nature of mythology, which he gets into deeper when wrapping up the book. Prior to that, it is something of a chronology of references to the Ravens and the Tower of London, going back to Brân, and a questioning analysis of the popular idea that "if the ravens leave the Tower, Britain will fall" (and what "falling" even means). It's good, and actually fairly short, if not a little light and skimmable in some parts (anecdotal stuff abo For me, the meat of this book was in Sax's writings about the nature of mythology, which he gets into deeper when wrapping up the book. Prior to that, it is something of a chronology of references to the Ravens and the Tower of London, going back to Brân, and a questioning analysis of the popular idea that "if the ravens leave the Tower, Britain will fall" (and what "falling" even means). It's good, and actually fairly short, if not a little light and skimmable in some parts (anecdotal stuff about the Tower ravens and their foibles, etc where Sax's writing is less engaging). I meant to pick this up off the "Crows/Pirates" shelf at Freedom Press in London, but ended up buying it instead at a more touristy spot near the Clink - far more appropriate, I think, and found in that context I think a reader less familiar with Sax's other work could find some really good starting points for thinking about myth, human/animal alterity, etc. (Nicely printed as well, hardbound!)

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    This was a book that I won through Goodreads. I was a little surprised when I opened the package and to my amazement, I received 4 copies of the book. Apparently it is not selling too well. There were parts of the book that I really liked--the historical information on the actual executions that took place in the Tower of London, and the information on Victorian England, their fascination with the ravens and with their own ancestry and history, and how many of the "ancient" customs and tradition This was a book that I won through Goodreads. I was a little surprised when I opened the package and to my amazement, I received 4 copies of the book. Apparently it is not selling too well. There were parts of the book that I really liked--the historical information on the actual executions that took place in the Tower of London, and the information on Victorian England, their fascination with the ravens and with their own ancestry and history, and how many of the "ancient" customs and traditions of England actually started during Victorian times. What I didn't like was the tendency of Sax to frequently list references to the ravens in other books, and writings. That gave me the feeling that I was reading a college thesis rather than a book for the general population.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jason Ruggles

    This was an interesting little book. I thought it would be more about ravens... or about London. While it mentioned both, the book is more about myth, folklore, tradition and how a myth can form in modern times and what that says about a culture. At times, this book was fascinating. I've never heard the history England (or Britain, as it goes farther back than national borders) has with ravens, nor the symbolism within the British context. Also, there were some pretty amazing facts about ravens. This was an interesting little book. I thought it would be more about ravens... or about London. While it mentioned both, the book is more about myth, folklore, tradition and how a myth can form in modern times and what that says about a culture. At times, this book was fascinating. I've never heard the history England (or Britain, as it goes farther back than national borders) has with ravens, nor the symbolism within the British context. Also, there were some pretty amazing facts about ravens. Unfortunately, this book takes itself way too seriously to be an entertaining read. If you're up for some dry reading, you love history, myth, ravens and London, then this is the book for you.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    The subject matter of this book is very interesting, especially for someone who heard about the Tower ravens during the coverage of the Olympics. The history and significance of the ravens is covered well, but I couldn't give this book higher than 3 stars. It reads like a manuscript or a brainstorming session. The chapters are broken up into smaller sections that are given hardly any explanation, and some of the conjectures made by the author seem a little strange. So if you can look past the is The subject matter of this book is very interesting, especially for someone who heard about the Tower ravens during the coverage of the Olympics. The history and significance of the ravens is covered well, but I couldn't give this book higher than 3 stars. It reads like a manuscript or a brainstorming session. The chapters are broken up into smaller sections that are given hardly any explanation, and some of the conjectures made by the author seem a little strange. So if you can look past the issues in structure, the fragmented storytelling, and are interested the history of the Tower of London's population of ravens, it's a good read. Just don't expect to always know what the author's intent is.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Linda Schell

    Linda Schell City of Ravens puts forth some amazing antedotes. For example, according to Pliny "...one raven made its nest in the shop of a cobbler in Rome and became so beloved that a man who killed it was punished with death. The raven was given a splendid funeral attended by a large crowd of mourners." Anyone who loves birds will find this book enthralling. Hitler, of all people, wanted to confiscate the ravens in the Tower of London to protect Germany should Germany succeed in conquering the Linda Schell City of Ravens puts forth some amazing antedotes. For example, according to Pliny "...one raven made its nest in the shop of a cobbler in Rome and became so beloved that a man who killed it was punished with death. The raven was given a splendid funeral attended by a large crowd of mourners." Anyone who loves birds will find this book enthralling. Hitler, of all people, wanted to confiscate the ravens in the Tower of London to protect Germany should Germany succeed in conquering the island empire. That the ravens are intelligent is an understatement. The author, I am sure, went to the "far corners" for his research

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kerfe

    This book is full of information , but there's no real structure to direct it or pull it together. Mythology, science, history, literature, ecology, folklore, and the relationship between animals and humans are all touched upon. I think the author means to use animal-human relations as his key theme, but it isn't strongly emphasized in much of the book. And though the book says it is about the Tower of London ravens, they seem almost incidental to the historical and mythological context. This book is full of information , but there's no real structure to direct it or pull it together. Mythology, science, history, literature, ecology, folklore, and the relationship between animals and humans are all touched upon. I think the author means to use animal-human relations as his key theme, but it isn't strongly emphasized in much of the book. And though the book says it is about the Tower of London ravens, they seem almost incidental to the historical and mythological context.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Cindy

    I had difficulty getting into the author's writing style which seemed disjointed and choppy. Interesting tidbits about the legend of the ravens at the Tower of London. The author's final proposal that, with the re-emergence of the raven population in Britain, the Tower ravens could be joined by a wild raven population in London and perhaps freed from their "captivity" is intriguing. EXTENSIVE bibliography on Tower history and ravens! I had difficulty getting into the author's writing style which seemed disjointed and choppy. Interesting tidbits about the legend of the ravens at the Tower of London. The author's final proposal that, with the re-emergence of the raven population in Britain, the Tower ravens could be joined by a wild raven population in London and perhaps freed from their "captivity" is intriguing. EXTENSIVE bibliography on Tower history and ravens!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Berrendsci

    Seemed more like a padded journal article than a cohesive book. Ravens at the Tower don't seem to have that much written history. Stretching the cult of ravens to repeatedly mention their roles Celtic, Egyptian and NW Coast mythology felt reaching versus integral to the topic at hand. A book of observations from the raven warders would have been more informative about these subjects. Seemed more like a padded journal article than a cohesive book. Ravens at the Tower don't seem to have that much written history. Stretching the cult of ravens to repeatedly mention their roles Celtic, Egyptian and NW Coast mythology felt reaching versus integral to the topic at hand. A book of observations from the raven warders would have been more informative about these subjects.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    The author kept stressing how he was an American, so it gave him a unique outsider's perspective, but frankly, I don't think that was something to brag about. From the way this book was written, I would guess he'd never even been to London at all. His knowledge and understanding of the city was lacking, and the book almost seemed dumbed down. Disappointing. The author kept stressing how he was an American, so it gave him a unique outsider's perspective, but frankly, I don't think that was something to brag about. From the way this book was written, I would guess he'd never even been to London at all. His knowledge and understanding of the city was lacking, and the book almost seemed dumbed down. Disappointing.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Cynthia

    This is a fascinating account of the London towers ravens. It is full of interesting information while it introduces the precepts of folklore. For this reason it is an excellent "dual purpose book": easily read in a weekend for both those interested in ravens as well as introducing ideas about the creation of myth. This is a fascinating account of the London towers ravens. It is full of interesting information while it introduces the precepts of folklore. For this reason it is an excellent "dual purpose book": easily read in a weekend for both those interested in ravens as well as introducing ideas about the creation of myth.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Tad Richards

    There's always a special pleasure in finding something fascinating that you had never thought about before. This book did that for me. Boria Sax's naturalism, his knowledge of myth and literature, and his writing style all add up to an engrossing time, and time well spent. There's always a special pleasure in finding something fascinating that you had never thought about before. This book did that for me. Boria Sax's naturalism, his knowledge of myth and literature, and his writing style all add up to an engrossing time, and time well spent.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Janean

    This is a decent history of the ravens who live at the Tower of London. I did not know about these ravens and only briefly noticed them when I was there standing in a rain storm trying to eavesdrop on a tour guide.

  24. 5 out of 5

    JodiP

    This was a very pleasant diversion, full of lots of historical myths about ravens and the Tower of London. It is quite charming, but sadly I think it won't stick in my mind in the manner of Esther Wolfson's book, Corvus. This was a very pleasant diversion, full of lots of historical myths about ravens and the Tower of London. It is quite charming, but sadly I think it won't stick in my mind in the manner of Esther Wolfson's book, Corvus.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Maryellen

    Mildly interesting "history" of the Ravens at the Tower in London. Very repetitive. Mildly interesting "history" of the Ravens at the Tower in London. Very repetitive.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Linda Nichols

    Folklore and history of ravens, especially those of the Tower of London. Interesting read. If you like folklore, myth, and how they relate to history, this is a good book.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Susie Cook

    I love history and I love stories of the animal world. Fascinating book.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Melanie H

    All I want to do now is visit the Tower of London. Interesting take on the purposeful ignorance that allows urban legends to endure.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jenine

    Pleasant, mostly harmless. Rides on the charm of the Tower and the ravens with only moderately convincing explanations. I like the idea of a wild raven population in the future.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Carmen

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