Ravens and riddles

Odin’s Cove #25 from the amazing photographer Beth Moon.

I love ravens. A “conspiracy” of them dwells in the woods behind my house. When I stand on the balcony outside my writing studio in the loft of our barn, my “perch” puts me nearly eye to eye with them. I talk to them daily and delight in any squawk, chortle, tuck or caw the give in reply. They may not always respond, but they’re always watching.

It was inevitable that one of these intelligent, beautiful creatures would come to inhabit the pages of one of my novels. Enter, Perdu, the magical raven who lives with The Witches of New York. For fear of spoiling his part in the story, I won’t say much more about him here, but rather show you some of the things that inspired his character.

Grip the raven and Barnaby Rudge

Charles Dickens was also fascinated by ravens. During his writing career he had not one, not two, but three ravens in succession he called “Grip.” Grip the First apparently had quite a large vocabulary and was the inspiration for the raven of the same name that appeared in Dickens’ novel, Barnaby Rudge. A letter to his friend George Cattermole in 1841 speaks to this: “my notion is to have (Barnaby) always in company with a pet raven, who is immeasurably more knowing than himself. To this end I have been studying my bird, and I think I could make a very queer character of him.” 

Grip the Second was dear to Dickens, but less so to his children. His daughter Mamie wrote that the bird was “mischievous and impudent.” Grip the Third was known to have regular stand offs with the family dog, a large mastiff who would back down and surrender its food to the bird.

It is the general belief of literary scholars that “Grip the Raven” from Barnaby Rudge in turn inspired Edgar Allan Poe to pen his famous poem, The Raven. Poe had reviewed a few of Dickens’ novels, including Barnaby Rudge and wrote that he found Grip to be “intensely amusing.”

A stuffed and mounted specimen of Dickens’ first beloved Grip (it once hung over the author’s desk) made its way to the U.S. sometime after 1870 and now resides in the Free Library in Philadelphia.

Grip the raven now resides in Philadelphia.

As for Perdu from The Witches of New York, he too has become a mythical figure that dwells in the imagination of more than one artist. The talented painter Holly Carr is a dear friend who is just as obsessed as I am with ravens. During the years that I was researching and writing Witches, she put together a show that featured several paintings with ravens. Her vivid, fantastical work captured my heart and I wound up keeping a small painting of one of her ravens on my desk as I wrote.

Perdu with a blue marble in his beak.

After the ARCs of the Canadian edition were finished, I gave Holly one as a gift. Because of our shared adoration for ravens and all things witchy, I couldn’t wait for her to “meet” Perdu. A few months later, just after Witches was released, she contributed several pieces to a new show at the Harvest Gallery in Wolfville, NS, called “WhichCraft.” Every piece featured ravens and magical items and one of them (my personal favourite) was simply titled: Perdu.

Perdu, by Holly Carr.

In addition to observing the real-life ravens that live behind my house, I watched online footage of trained ravens and read many accounts of human interaction with corvids. There’s loads of wonderful stuff out there concerning research with these amazing birds, but one of my favourite videos is this one. (I imagine Poe would’ve liked it too.)

Another online sensation I fell in love with while writing Witches was Merlina, one of ravens that lives at the Tower of London. Beautiful, bright and cheeky, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. I freely admit that my descriptions of Perdu and his mannerisms are largely modelled after her. She and the rest of the Tower’s resident ravens are looked after by Yeoman Warder, Chris Skaife, the Ravenmaster, and I’m happy to say you can follow him, Merlina and the rest of the ravens via social media.

Merlina on Facebook, via the Ravenmaster, Chris Skaife.

But…Who is Perdu? 

If you’ve already read The Witches of New York you may have gotten to the end of the book and asked the above question. Again, I don’t want to give any spoilers. What I will say is this: the answer can be found in the pages of the book.

109-112 to be exact. (Or wherever the fairytale “The Princess Who Wished to Be a Witch” falls in your edition of the novel.)

Ravens, people, places and things mentioned in this post:

Beth Moon Photography

More on Charles Dickens and Grip

Holly Carr, artist

The Ravenmaster on facebook

The Ravenmaster on Twitter 


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