Among must-see things in London, the Tower of London and its famous ravens is usually on everybody’s top ten list. There you may learn that these “Tower Ravens” have been around since Charles II, who heard a prophecy that Britain would fall if the birds ever left the Tower’s grounds. The birds on site — there are traditionally six — have had their wings clipped ever since. During the Blitz, the birds even acted as unofficial airplane spotters….
But wait a minute. There are no records of ravens kept at the Tower before the late 19th century. The Charles II story is “most definitely not historically accurate,” says Boria Sax in Storytelling, Self, Society. But is the Tower Raven story “fakelore,” a deliberately fabricated work of folklore, usually for commercial purposes; an invented tradition that arises somewhat organically; or simply a modern myth? The distinctions between these categories are fine ones, and Sax argues that the Tower Ravens are a mixture of all three.
Historically, the ravens only enter the record around 1883, two centuries after Charles II’s death. The birds were part of a distinctly Victorian fantasy, made up of Gothic and Celtic elements, largely in response to tremendous industrial and imperial change. Sax calls the Tower, which was restored and rebuilt during Victoria’s reign, “a genuine Victorian fantasy of Tudor England, which, in turn, was pervaded with nostalgia for the Middle Ages.”
But the Tower Ravens really entered the public consciousness with the re-opening of the Tower in January of 1946. In the ruins of war-ravaged London, the birds were living proof that Britain had not fallen to the Nazis or anyone else. The jet-age tourism of the second half of the 20th century made the birds famous.
Sax wonders, “If it is not history, does it have any legitimacy as a tradition, legend, or myth?” Yes, he argues – since, like any nation, Britain is just as much a series of stories its people tell as it is a written history. His caveat: commercial exploitation of the ravens freezes the tradition/legend/myth, not allowing it to grow, develop, or change as stories should over time. Instead, he suggests that a colony of wild ravens be released at the top of the Tower, to generate new stories, not least about our ever-changing relationship with nature.