The Ravenmaster/ posted in: Book Review, Reading The Ravenmaster: Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife
on October 2, 2018
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
The first behind-the-scenes account of life with the legendary ravens at the world’s eeriest monument
The ravens at the Tower of London are of mighty importance: rumor has it that if a raven from the Tower should ever leave, the city will fall.
The title of Ravenmaster, therefore, is a serious title indeed, and after decades of serving the Queen, Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife took on the added responsibility of caring for the infamous ravens. In Ravenmaster, he lets us in on his life as he feeds his birds raw meat and biscuits soaked in blood, buys their food at Smithfield Market, and ensures that these unusual, misunderstood, and utterly brilliant corvids are healthy, happy, and ready to captivate the four million tourists who flock to the Tower every year.
A rewarding, intimate, and inspiring partnership has developed between the ravens and their charismatic and charming human, the Ravenmaster, who shares the folklore, history, and superstitions surrounding the ravens and the Tower. Shining a light on the behavior of the birds, their pecking order and social structure, and the tricks they play on us, Skaife shows who the Tower’s true guardians really are―and the result is a compelling and irreverent narrative that will surprise and enchant.
I’ve been following the author on Twitter for a while so I was familiar with his job and what it entails. Despite that, this is still a fascinating look at the care of the ravens at the Tower of London.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, there is a legend (which the author casts doubts on) that if the ravens leave the Tower of London, then England will fall. There are seven ravens who live in the Tower. They are free during the day to mingle with the tourists, steal food from the tourists, and observe the general hub bub. At night they have an enclosure to help protect them from the foxes who also live in the tower.
“In the past the Ravenmasters preferred to put the food out around the Tower, but the problem was that a seagull might take a nice juicy piece of ox liver, say, that was intended for a raven, have a little nibble on it and then casually drop it on a visitor from a great height.”
The ravens aren’t pets. They aren’t tame. They don’t work on your schedule. They don’t sit nicely on the bench when David Attenborough wants to film with them. They are prone to killing and eating pigeons (not always in that order) in front of the tourists. Most of the Ravenmaster’s time seems to be taken up with getting them where they are supposed to be and getting them out of places where they shouldn’t be.
“[m]ore than once I’ve seen a raven chasing the Tower’s many resident cats and dogs.”
Readers of this book will find out not only lots about ravens but about what it takes to be a Yeoman Warder. He discusses The Story – the official tour group talk that takes people about 6 months to learn perfectly before they can start to change it by adding in their own embellishments. The Story is standardized so any Yeoman Warder can step in and take over a tour if the original guide has to step away to help someone (like if they faint after watching ravens murder other birds.)
The book is written in short chapters in a very conversational style which makes it a very quick and entertaining read. I enjoyed this more since I have been to the Tower and could visualize most of the places that he is discussing. If you haven’t been there, looking at a map of the grounds would be helpful to understanding the story.
There are several stories of the deaths of some of the ravens from illness, accidents, and old age. They made me a little teary as did this last line of the acknowledgements about Munin, who hated him from day 1.
“A very special thank-you to Munin. During the publication of this book, sadly, Raven Munin passed away due to complications of old age. Her presence at the Tower will be greatly missed by her partner, Jubilee; by Team Raven; and by all staff at Historic Royal Palaces.”