Today’s entry of my reading journal is White Ravens by Owen Sheers, published in 2009 by Seren, which is an imprint of Poetry Wales Press. It’s a modern retelling of the second branch of Mabinogion, about a woman called Branwen.
‘Mabinogion’ is a collection of ancient myths and folklore from Wales. It was written down in Middle Welsh around the Medieval time and translated into English in the 1830s by a woman called Lady Charlotte Guest, about the same time as the Romantic Movement.
An Irishman called Matthew joined the English in the Second World War and after being wounded in action, now worked for the government in London. He was one day instructed to go to a Welsh farm to collect and escort a pack of raven chicks back to London. More on the ravens later. Matthew went and stayed with a brother, Ben, and sister, Branwen, on the farm. And it goes from there.
My Favourite Scene
After a long travel from London, Matthew arrived at the farm and the cottage, which were in the middle of nowhere, in the dark and absolute stillness. He knocked and there was no reply. It was getting cold and there was no one around. Then he hears the sound of someone sharpening an axe.
Before he could move, the crack of light at one side of the door started to widen, laying down a broadening path of yellow lamplight over the grass. The light captured Matthew in its lengthening beam, and then, just as suddenly, went out again, as the huge bulk of a man appeared at the door.
For a few seconds the two of them stood there like that, facing each other in the darkness. Matthew couldn’t stop looking at the axe in the man’s hand. Combined with the night’s strange ride, the looming mountains all around him and the silent, dark farmhouse, it stopped his tongue in his mouth.
And then we are introduced to my favourite character of the story:
‘Oh!’ Ben said, genuinely surprised. ‘Hello there. Is that you Mr O’Connell? How long you been there? Not too long I hope?’
I love the contrast of the darkness, the headless giant and the axe, the door opening in slow motion and all the suspense, and the kind and friendly man.
Churchill and the Tower Ravens
Matthew’s instruction reads like this:
The Tower Ravens. Six ravens have been kept at the Tower of London by Royal decree since Charles II was asked to remove the birds at the request of the Astronomer Royal (Flamsteed, John) because they were ‘disturbing his examinations of the heavens’. The King – informed of the myth that if the ravens leave the Tower, the Tower of London, the White Tower, the monarchy and the Kingdom of Britain would fall – refused Flamsteed’s request and issued a Royal decree for a full complement of six ravens to be kept at the Tower at all times. The Royal Observatory was moved to Greenwich.
A single handwritten note at the bottom of the Photostat completed the order sheet. ‘One surviving Raven. Re-stock tower with new chicks from above address. Escorted collection and delivery required. By order of the PM.’ … Matthew saw the logic behind it; Churchill couldn’t allow the Tower to go raven less, not at such a crucial point in the war.
Fascinating! I thought it was made up. But no, ‘The Ravens of the Tower of London’ has their own Wikipedia page. The Tower Ravens ‘are a group of at least six captive ravens resident at the Tower of London. Their presence is traditionally believed to protect The Crown and the Tower; a superstition holds that “if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it”.’
This is my first Welsh novel and it certainly made me want to read more!