The prologue to Nick Cave’s novel And the Ass Saw the Angel opens with three crows, harbingers of the narrator’s death, just as the prologue itself is a harbinger of the grim and gruesome – yet brilliant – 300-odd pages to come.
“Three greasy brother crows wheel, beak to heel, cutting a circle into the bruised and troubled sky… These sly corbies are birds of death. They’ve shadowed me all mah life.”
The crows are there to pick at and devour the book’s protagonist, left dying out in the open.
The book was published in 1988, but this imagery is far from new. In fact, the corbies of Cave’s book are the descendants of a trio of big black birds that first appeared in print way back in 1611, in Thomas Ravenscroft’s songbook Melismata.
Doubtless, the ballad “The Three Ravens” is much older. Chances are, the sad song was already a well-known folk ditty when Ravenscroft wrote his rather genteel arrangement, adapting it for courtly tastes, rather than those of the farmstead.
However, the motif of the three ravens has a rather primordial feel about it. In myriad ancient cultures, ravens and crows (note: Ravens are members of the larger crow family. All ravens are crows, but not all crows are ravens.) have been the birds of death, of war, of violence. Odin, that fiercest of Norse gods, was never seen without one. Irish mythology assigns them to the Morrigan, the goddess of battle. And that big old Welshman, Bran the Blessed (not to be confused with Brian Blessed, another larger-than-life Briton) always had a raven about.
And what could be more disturbingly ancient than the unsettling imagery of a dead man about to be feasted upon by beasts?
I first heard this song in a concert by the Baltimore Consort, an early music outfit that used to play around here while I was growing up. It always stuck with me.
There were three ravens sat on a tree,
They were as black as they might be.
The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?
Down in yonder green field,
There lies a knight slain under his shield.
His hounds the lie down at his feet,
So well they can their master keep.
His hawks they fly so eagerly,
There’s no fowl dare him come nigh.
Down there comes a fallow doe,
As great with young as she might go,
She lift up his bloody head,
And kissed his wounds that were so red,
She got him up upon her back,
And carried him to earthen lake,
She buried him before the prime;
She was dead herself ‘ere evensong time.
God send every gentleman
Such hawks, such hounds, and such a leman.
Note: I have modernized the spelling of Ravenscroft’s text and removed the jolly chorus of “Down a down, hey down a down.” Also, a “leman” is a lover.
So here we have three birds (a male and a female and a third-wheel raven), whose efforts to eat the newly deceased knight are thwarted by the man’s loyal dogs and hawks. And along comes his pregnant girlfriend, who manages to drag him off for burial and who herself dies that day, either from grief or effort.
And if it’s too maudlin for your tastes, may I present the “Twa Corbies”? Sir Walter Scott, that bestseller of the early 19th century, and a main reason why some of you wear kilts at renaissance festivals, included it in his 1803 poetry collection, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Volume 3.
The version Scott published is darker and, in my opinion, leagues more interesting. I can’t bear to remove it from Scott’s dialect. If you have difficulties, read it out loud, and that might help you make sense of it. If you still can’t, I better not see you wearing a kilt at a renaissance festival.
As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane,
The tane unto the t’other say,
“Where sall we gang and dine today?”
“In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new slain knight;
And nae body kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.
“His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s ta’en another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.
“Ye’ll sit on his white hause bane,
And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een:
Wi’ a lock o’ his gowden hair,
We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.
“Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken are he is gane:
O’er his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.”
Well, well, well. Our raven couple has ditched that other bird, and here they are, successfully having their dinner sweet and – how economical! – gathering extra material for their nest.
The knight’s dogs? They’re off being dogs. The knight’s hawks? They’re off being hawks. These animals have no need for human sentimentality.
What about his lady? She’s already off with someone else. Maybe she’s coldhearted. Maybe she’s just practical (after all, it was tough for single women back then!). Maybe she even murdered the knight herself.
It’s hard to vilify the ravens here. They seem to have the most stable, civilized relationship of all the characters in the song. They’re looking out for each other, providing for their meal and for their future eggs. You can hardly blame them. Would that the knight’s friends have had such loyalty.
Francis James Child, who collected more than 300 English and Scottish ballads during the late 19th century and whose 10-volume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads is practically the bible for folk music aficionados, obviously preferred the former version. After all, he was a sentimental Victorian. He assigned “The Three Ravens” the spot of No. 26 in his type classification system. “Twa Corbies” he appended as a mere variant, disparaging it as a “cynical variation of the tender little English ballad.” It didn’t even get its own number.
Here’s a great, chilling version of this song recorded by electric folkers Steeleye Span (although a superior version also appeared on their excellent 1970 debut album Hark! The Village Wait):