Sunday, 21 June 2015

Why are ravens so popular in fantasy fiction?

I love watching ravens.

An unkindness of ravens.

Not long ago, an unkindness of ravens moved into my back paddock after waging a war on the resident magpies. They're very shy and if they know I'm near they will fly off. But now and then I can out-sneak them and study them for a little while. In the sunshine, their feathers are glossy and fascinating to watch. They're graceful and silent fliers. And their mournful 'caw' can be seriously creepy on a foggy morning when I'm attending to my ducks.

Inspiration soon hit and I thought of an idea for a story. That idea grew and now I have finished my next novel, a standalone fantasy called, you guessed it, 'The Raven'.

A scene from Poe's 'The Raven'. Illustrated by Gustave Dore.
I know what you may be thinking - how can I call it 'The Raven' when everyone knows that delightful poem? And besides, Ravens have been done to death in fantasy fiction, as symbols, as characters and in titles. A quick search of 'fantasy books ravens' in Amazon brought up thousands of samples.

So, why are ravens so popular in fantasy fiction?

Raven's plummage - so shiny!

I think it definitely has something to do with the look of them. They are a deep, dark black. There's no denying it, and there's no other bird who is so purely black (well, aside from that other group of birds – a murder). And over time we have come to see their darkness as symbolic of more abstract dark and sinister aspects of life, and the supernatural. As we've all heard in Game of Thrones - 'Dark wings, dark words.'

Odin with his ravens Huginn and Muninn

Ravens have been long regarded as symbols in various cultures. The Ancient Greeks considered ravens to represent good luck, and believed them to be Apollo's (a god of prophecy) messengers. They served a similar purpose for the Viking god Odin. His ravens, Huginn and Muninn, would fly all over the world and bring back important information. In Celtic mythology (my favourite) they symbolize warfare in Ireland, and in Wales they're associated with the god Bran the Blessed – whose name actually means 'raven' in Welsh.  And, of course, in England it is known that if the ravens at the Tower of London fly away, the crown and Britain will fall. Ravens hold significance in almost every culture throughout history. So this is one major source of inspiration for writers of fantasy fiction.

I like to think that it is also their intelligence that has earned our careful respect. Many studies have documented the high-level problem solving capacity of ravens - "they possess surprising and sophisticated mental abilities". Here's one example from a fascinating study by scientist Bernd Heinrich.

Smart birds!

One of my favourite fantasy books is called 'The Black Raven' (book 10 of the 'Deverry series' by Katharine Kerr). It features a sinister raven skin changer, and wonderful raven imagery.

I've decided to keep my novel's title as 'The Raven' despite that well known poem. That is simply what it must be called. As a finishing note, I thought I'd add one more picture that I tweeted not long ago – it reminds me of one of my most favourite scenes in my story.


Aderyn's new book The Raven has now been released. Find out more here.

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