The Ravenmaster: My life with the ravens at the Tower of London

“Christopher Skaife is both a raven master and a master storyteller. Compulsively readable, I devoured the book in a single sitting!”—Lindsey Fitzharris, author of The Butchering

Copies of The Ravenmaster can be found at Mac’s Fireweed Books and Cole’s.

So did I! From 4 p.m. to midnight on the very day I found the last hard copy of The Ravenmaster for sale in Whitehorse. I bought it as a birthday present for a 10-year-old grandson, anticipating he might learn a few things about the Yukon’s official territorial bird. Boy, was that ever an under-assessment!

This lovely little 229-page gemstone of a book from the UK is not only “cute and funny” (the first two words I used to assure his parents the book was properly scouted for a pre-teen reader), but also extremely informative when it comes to ravenhood, raven history and ravenology.

The book details the real-life experiences of author Christopher Skaife, who works as Ravenmaster at England’s Tower of London, famously home to a group of ravens. Legend has it that if the ravens should ever leave, the Tower will fall. This is certainly the most comprehensive and inclusive raven book this researcher has encountered, even after a lifetime of admiring the mighty, black birds from a suitable distance.

Don’t be misled by this overly effusive intro into what is just another commonplace book review. Ravenmaster isn’t a children’s book. It’s intended for readers of all ages, living anywhere in the world. (Though Skaife obviously had British readers in mind while he was writing it.) The only places this book might not find a grateful readership are in the southern hemisphere because the noble raven is not found south of the equator. This is just one tidbit of hundreds which Skaife brings us with his flowing, entertaining writing style.

Skaife also credits Shakespeare and Dickens (both Brits) as the literary bellweathers of ravenhood rather bestowing that honour on the American Poe, but all that sort of intellectual commentary comes near the end when you are totally hooked on what you are reading and have unexpectedly learned along the way.

The hook is set from the first sentence, which is cast like a fly rod at 0530 on an autumn London morning. The author starts his day by hollering “good morning!” to the rising sun. This serves as his verbal signal to Merlina, perched on the highest pinnacle of London Tower, to fly down and begin her new day. Merlina is the only raven who is given the option to stay outside overnight to guard The Tower, an assignment Skaife gave her for only one reason—she refuses to come inside unless it’s raining and sees herself as the protector of the other ravens.

From that pre-dawn moment, Skaife spends the long full day with his readers, guiding them and the ravens through a daily routine which concludes with the following:

“Final Check at 2300 hours:

“Once again, it’s just me and the birds. The Tower is in darkness. Everyone is asleep.

“I rise up onto Tower Green and open up the night box for Merlina. She’s the last to bed. She only goes to bed once all the other ravens have been put away for the night. Often she refuses to go to bed at all and stays up on the rooftops. It looks like she’s going to stay there tonight, watching and thinking.

“Almost a thousand years ago a great fortress was built by a river on its northern shoreline, on the site of an old Roman fort, a huge building reaching skyward, the likes of which no one in England had seen before. Designed to provide security and protection, it was also a reminder to the citizens of the city that they had been conquered.

“Rising above it all were the birds. “They rise above it still.”

Christopher Skaife signs copies of The Ravenmaster at Hatchards bookshop in London on November 29, 2018

In between 0530 and 2300, Skaife becomes a Tower tour guide and writes the book as if it’s just another day explaining the Tower and its ravens to the vast hordes of international tourists which number close to three million per year or 8,300 per day. The retired military machine-gunner thus becomes an entertaining guide and storyteller. This is where and how Ravenmaster gets its charm. He becomes a combination of sarcastic comedian and caustic lecturer as he goes about his job, bombing readers with one great fact after another until you find yourself awestruck at the number of things you are learning about ravens and Tower history. I thought to myself, if this pre-birthday scout reading is blowing the mind of a 72-year-old gift-giver, what will it do to the formative and fertile intellect of the 10-year-old birthday boy himself?

We have a four-quadrant grandparent entourage around here, each of whom have slipped into predictable styles of gift-giving. Yours truly is the “Grandfather of Books” for our teh grandchildren, aged eight, 10 and 12 this year. I never buy toys for them and always buy books, trying to time the gifts to whatever stage of childhood development they are currently enjoying, or whatever new interests they have made public. )At one time early in their lives I referred to them as Trucks, Baseball and Horses.)

Ravenmaster might be the best kiddie gift ever, but it comes with a wise grandparental warning—hide it from your parents or you may never get your turn to read it!

As literature, it’s a minor masterpiece. As a birthday present for a 10-year-old boy, it’s better than blood-soaked dog cookies or dead rats to a hungry raven.

See also The London Tower Ravens

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