Dragons are strongly associated with fantasy fiction, so much so that they have become a symbol for the genre. Given that these imaginary beasts only inhabit the realms of fantasy, fairy tale and legend, and thrill many a reader, this makes sense. However, I’d argue the humble crow or raven pops up in fantasy books and films just as often, even if it is sometimes in a more symbolic or background role.
Since I love crows, and recently changed the look of my blog to feature a crow rather prominently, I thought this might be a good excuse to take a closer look at these sometimes under-appreciated birds and their prevalence in speculative fiction.
Crows, Ravens, Blackbirds… What’s the Difference?
Firstly, let’s get this little confusion out of the way. Crows and ravens both belong to the genus Corvus, along with jackdaws and rooks, and all of these birds are often referred to as corvids. They can be hard to tell apart, especially as many different subspecies around the world have been given the name ‘crow’ or ‘raven’. In general, however, ravens tend to be larger, and they differ in other subtle ways with regard to shape, throat feathers, call and behaviour (e.g. this site shows some differences between American crows and ravens).
When it comes to fantasy, however, little distinction is made between the two, and I have a feeling it simply comes down to whatever sounds better to the author. For example, the ‘Three-Eyed Crow’ in the Song of Ice and Fire book series became a ‘Three-Eyed Raven’ in the Game of Thrones TV adaptation.
It’s also common to encounter blackbirds in fantasy. A blackbird is a type of thrush, smaller and quite different in appearance to crows and ravens. However, the term ‘black bird’ is sometimes used to refer generally to a crow, raven or bird with black plumage.
Book Covers & Book Titles
You don’t have to look far on a fantasy shelf to see a corvid, or a mention of one. Above are just a few examples of fantasy covers littered with crows, ravens and blackbirds. Here are some fantasy book titles that also involve them:
- Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
- The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
- Master of Crows by Grace Draven
- Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop
- The Crow by Alison Croggon
- Follow the Crow by B. B. Griffith
- A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin
- Crow Moon by Anne McKerrow
- The Crow Talker by Jacob Grey
- Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
- Black Bird of the Gallows by Meg Kassel
- The Tower of Ravens by Kate Forsyth
- Raven’s Shadow by Patricia Briggs
- A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden
So, Why Are Crows and Ravens so Beloved in Fantasy?
The characteristics of crows have influenced their perception by humans and role in stories and mythologies. As carrion birds with black plumage, they are often associated with death, darkness, and bad omens.
As intelligent creatures they have often gained a reputation for wisdom, trickery, and powers of prediction. Ravens have been observed to be very good at problem solving and mimicry, as well as being playful and intensely curious as young birds. They often remember the locations where other birds have stashed food and steal it, and have even been observed pretending to stash food to confuse other ravens. (Here’s a more detailed look at the various intelligent behaviours of ravens)
Undoubtedly their tendency to land on windowsills and buildings, and to flock around human habitations and battlefields has also contributed to their importance in the stories and beliefs of humans.
Symbolism and Mythology
Crows are important symbolic figures in many mythologies, religions and cultures across the world. It is unsurprising these associations have filtered into literature over the centuries, and particularly into fantasy fiction, which often draws on ancient legend and myth. Here are a few examples of the symbolic associations of crows in different cultures (many drawn from this informative article):
Norse: the two ravens Huginn and Muninn fly around gathering information for the god Odin, acting as his messengers. Odin is sometimes called the raven god, and ravens often feature on old Norse banners, armour and jewellery.
Swedish: ravens are said to be the ghosts of murdered people.
Irish: Morrígan, who is associated with fate, death, battle and the foretelling of doom, often appears in the form of a raven.
Welsh: the king Brân the Blessed (which translates as ‘the blessed crow’) is associated with crows, death and resurrection, and his head is said to be buried under the current location of the Tower of London as a ward against invasion. This may be the origin of the belief that England will not fall to a foreign invader as long as there are ravens in the Tower of London – the reason why ravens are still kept there today.
Hindu: crows appear regularly in Hindu literature and faith, often bringing information, appearing as omens, or acting as vessels used by the souls of the recently deceased or the ancestors.
Australian Aboriginal – the crow is a trickster and an ancestral being.
Chinese, Japanese and Korean – the three-legged crow is a figure in East-Asian mythology, associated with the sun or with divine intervention.
Crows are also famous for their unfavourable collective nouns in English, namely a Murder of Crows and an Unkindness or Conspiracy of Ravens, which date back several centuries.
Fables, Poems and Literature
Ravens and crows have appeared in multiple tales, nursery rhymes and works of literature.
The most memorable is perhaps Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, with its iconic refrain “Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.'” firmly associating the raven with death, bad omens, and, to some degree, the mystery and horror genres. Charles Dickens owned a pet raven, which was believed to have inspired Poe’s poem, as well as the raven named Grip in Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge who was smarter than his human owner. Shakespeare often used ravens to create a sense of foreboding or impending murder, and Ted Hughes wrote a poetry collection titled Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow.
Crows appear in some of Aesop’s Fables, exhibiting cleverness and vanity.
In The Metamorphoses by Roman poet Ovid, a crow once again plays the role of the spy, exposing a lover’s tryst with a mortal and enraging Apollo so much that the god turns the crow’s feathers from white to black.
Fantasy stories make use of the mythological and literary associations of corvids as:
- spies for powerful magicians or gods
- vessels for ancestors and dead spirits
- harbingers of death or murder
- bad omens
- wise creatures with the power to foretell the future or influence fate
- residents of towers
The Three-Eyed Raven from A Game of Thrones is a particularly prominent fantasy corvid. It appears to be many things: the name for the soothsayer-like role and power taken over by Bran Stark, a real vessel for him to see through, and a symbol of his abilities. (Notice Bran’s name is the same as that of the Welsh King Bran the Blessed, whose name means crow in Welsh? Hardly a coincidence!) Ravens are also used to carry messages and feature in other ways in A Game of Thrones.
It was perhaps The Lord of the Rings that set the precedent for crows being spies or vehicles to see through in fantasy, likely influenced by Odin’s crows. Crow-like black birds called Crebain were used by Saruman as spies, and the fellowship had to hide when the black swarms flew overhead.
Even if not directly shown to be evil spies, the appearance of crows often precedes the coming of evil, and they are shown to linger around dark towers and haunted ruins, such as in Kate Forsyth’s The Tower of Ravens.
Sometimes no actual crow appears in the story, but is simply used as the symbol for a character or group in the novel, such as in Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, where Kaz Brekker uses a cane with a crow’s-head-shaped handle, and works for a gang that uses a crow as its symbol and runs the Crow Club. In Crooked Kingdom he reveals that he sees the bird as symbolic of himself and his past.
Ultimately, crows and ravens can be found in many different tales and works of fiction, not only fantasy. They have fascinated storytellers of all kinds for centuries. However, the genre does have a particular penchant for and fascination with them.
Personally, I like crows not only because they remind me of fantasy books or ancient tales, but because I find them fascinating. Every time I see one outside my window, or perched on a tree, or scratching in a field, I find myself stopping to watch. I love how sleek and black they are, the way they walk and fly, their intelligence, and the rich symbolism associated with them. I like how they appear to abound in winter, when other birds and wildlife seems scarce. I even like their morose cries (though I should note, where I grew up in Australia it was the currawongs I was usually admiring, not crows). So I guess you could say I have a soft spot for the creatures.
Do you like crows and ravens, or have a favourite fictional crow? Let me know in the comments.