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Fantasy fiction, mythology, Vikings (tv series), Vikings and Normans

The fellowship of the raven: black wings, wizards, kings and gods

  the-moon-and-the-crow-gideon-knight-2016

Image by Gideon Knight, publushed by The Guardian 2016

Why ravens, rooks  and crows? For one thing, why the raven in the header image of this blog?

Ravens have cropped up quite often recently, at least for those who read or watch fantasy fiction: there are ravens in A song of ice and fire, and the Raven King in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, but they’ve been around the stories we know for much longer – think of Maleficent’s raven, for one. A few days ago I suddenly remembered a poem,  a charm in a collection of verse for children actually, which begins: “Power of the raven be thine”.

Ravens are Odin’s birds. In the days of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings (and all the other Germanic peoples) battle standards often bore a raven, which stood for the god’s eye. It didn’t have to do with war, strictly speaking, but with knowing. Odin and the other gods of Asgard are not omniscent (they’re not immortal, either) so Odin uses his two ravens to see what is going on in the world. Their names are Memory and Thought, which is simply wonderful.

So it makes perfect sense that GRR Martin chose ravens as messengers in his heroic fantasy world. It is such a pity that nobody cared to put Bran Stark’s raven dreams in the tv series, but maybe finding a visual equivalent to the strange, supernatural stream of consciousness was not possible in a show that lots of (American) viewers find  difficult as as it is. These dreams, which start when Bran is between life and death after his fall from a tower,  are the first hint that humans and animals are actually closer than people  think in this world.

Susanna Clarke never refers directly to Odin in her novel, and her Raven king is human, a warrior wizard who ruled the North of England at the time of Edward III, and who is called to help; the novel is set at the time of Napoleon, and English wizards contribute to  England’s defence system. He does have some of  the god’s features: the raven on his shoulder and the one flying on his banner. The other reference to Odin is the tree which one of the wizards in hanged from.

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(This  picture belongs to History Channel)

In Vikings, the remarkable History Channel series, ravens appear to signal Odin ‘s presence. Sometimes you just see the reflection in their eyes, sometimes they become a fictional device as well: in one episode in Season 2, when Aethelstan is back in England and Ragnar, at home in Scandinavia, is thinking about him, a raven looks through a window of the scriptorium where the monk is at work.

Who knows, maybe somebody one day will write stories for Poe’s raven to tell: it must be tired to say  Nevermore for ever…  In the meantime, a black- winged poem:

The cold heaven – W. B. Yeats
Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

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