Barnaby’s Raven

I’ve been reading and re-reading the novels of Charles Dickens for over forty years and I still stand in awe of the writer’s powers. Although his novels could stand to be edited substantially, it must be remembered that he was writing for his nineteenth-century audience, and the readers of that era seemingly liked maudlin and sentimental passages suffused with Christian values.

Dickens is commonly praised for the vigor and imagination of his portrayals of human characters, but he also had an uncanny ability to portray birds and animals, shamelessly personifying them and imagining the thoughts creatures might be having.

Recently I re-read Barnaby Rudge largely due to my memories of a non-human character in the novel. Grip is a raven, the boon companion of the half-wit Barnaby Rudge. The first time I read the novel I thought, “Dickens must have been around a talking raven at some point!”. The verbal ejaculations of the bird seemed just as would be expected. Some quotes from the novel:

“Look at him!” said Varden, divided between admiration of the bird and a kind of fear of him. “Was there ever such a knowing imp as that! Oh he’s a dreadful fellow!” The raven, with his head very much on one side, and his bright eye shining like a diamond, preserved a thoughtful silence for a few seconds, and then replied in a voice so hoarse and distant, that it seemed to come through his thick feathers rather than out of his mouth. “Halloa, halloa, halloa! What’s the matter here! Keep up your spirits. Never say die. Bow wow wow. I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil. Hurrah!”–And then, as if exulting in his infernal character, he began to whistle. “I more than half believe he speaks the truth. Upon my word I do,” said Varden. “Do you see how he looks at me, as if he knew what I was saying? To which the bird, balancing himself on tiptoe, as it were, and moving his body up and down in a sort of grave dance, rejoined, “I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil,” and flapped his wings against his sides as if he were bursting with laughter. Barnaby clapped his hands, and fairly rolled upon the ground in an ecstasy of delight. “Strange companions, sir,” said the locksmith, shaking his head and looking from one to the other. “The bird has all the wit.”

Here again the raven was in a highly reflective state; walking up and down when he had dined, with an air of elderly complacency which was strongly suggestive of his having his hands under his coat-tails; and appearing to read the tombstones with a very critical taste. Sometimes after a long inspection of an epitaph, he would strop his beak upon the grave to which it referred, and cry in his hoarse tones, “I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil!” but whether he addressed his observations to any supposed person below, or merely threw them off as a general remark, is matter of uncertainty.

“Call him down, Barnaby my man.” “Call him!” echoed Barnaby, sitting upright upon the floor, and staring vacantly at Gabriel, as he thrust his hair back from his face. “But who can make him come! He calls me, and makes me go where he will. He goes on before, and I follow. He’s the master, and I’m the man. Is that the truth, Grip?” The raven gave a short, comfortable, confidential kind of croak;–a most expressive croak, which seemed to say “You needn’t let these fellows into our secrets. We understand each other. It’s all right.”

Dickens created a believable character in Grip and gave the bird a somewhat diabolical cast. I just learned two remarkable facts, though the second might be more of an inference. The first is that when Dickens was contemplating writing the novel he actually acquired a pet raven. So there was a real Grip! The second is that Edgar Allan Poe read Barnaby Rudge in serial form and it is likely or at least possible that Dickens’ depiction of Grip inspired Poe’s poem The Raven. Thanks go to writer Jennifer Ouellette, who blogs at Cocktail Party Physics, for this link which goes into more detail:

Poe’s Raven Stuffed At Free Library

I’ve always wanted a pet raven, but at least here in Arizona I can see them flying by, uttering their guttural croaks!




Filed under Books

2 responses to “Barnaby’s Raven

  1. bev

    Dickens certainly captured the behaviour of a raven in the character of Grip. I have had more than a few close encounters with ravens and the narrative puts me in mind of them. Interesting to learn that he acquired a pet raven before writing the novel!

  2. Joan

    I think you have a great fondness for intelligent black colored birds. I recall a post about Bartram’s mischievous crow a few years back that was quite amusing. Now of course that fellow didn’t talk. He just pilfered things.
    I have no access to either ravens or crows (like I’d know the difference) However I have a goodly number of grackles in my back yard that you are ,most welcome to.for free. Shipping and handling extra. (grin)

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