Thursday, May 9, 2013

Tales of the Tower

I spent the day at the Tower of London yesterday and two things struck me.

After hearing a number of stories about weapons, torture and beheadings from the Yeoman Warders and our tour guide, I thought how strange the impulse is to enjoy telling and hearing gruesome and gory details about things that happened in the past. The macabre is a kind of folk entertainment; debased fairy tales, like the horror genre and slasher films.

I suppose this response is a form of self defense, to cover our discomfiture? To deflect feelings of sadness about the horrible things humanity did and still does to each other? The centuries of graffiti carved into the walls of the Bloody Tower were so poignant.

But there was also a kind of jokey, patronizing tone to some of these stories—"Our ancestors were right bastards, weren't they? But we're above all that kind of thing today." To which I say, yes and no.

Even the glorious Tower ravens—who, being ravens, love soaring, diving, airborne acrobatics more than all things—even they have had their feathers clipped so they can't fly away. While the ravens are loved and cared for by the Ravenmaster, they are still the last prisoners of the Tower, aren't they?

So on the one hand was the knowledge of all the suffering that had happened in this place, which seemed a fulcrum for drama, dark deeds, violence and cruelty.

But later on, as I wandered up and down spiral staircases and peered out tower windows, I thought about how vast swaths of humanity have surely made progress and enacted many reforms since those lawless days, despite the fact that there are still too many places where violence reigns.

A heart-opening welling of love came over me...for the English and their treasured history, for preserving this amazing gift of the past that they now offer to the world. It feels like generosity. It feels like I have been given the gift to live here for a while, and to experience this people's incredible sense of place and tradition and belonging.

Yesterday was the opening day of Parliament, and fusiliers began to fire the traditional 62-gun Royal Salute toward the Thames as our group entered the Tower. The shots echoed off the stones, puffs of sulfurous smoke tickled my nose before being whisked away on the wind, and there it was again—that sense of alternate reality that probably seems perfectly normal to any British person.

The Tower is a symbol of how London itself is living history, how people here live within and alongside history. In addition to all their individual stories and family stories, they are part of a much larger story...a Dickensian type of story, richly peopled, moving through darkness and light.

Inside the Jewel House, I entered the dramatically darkened room and stood on the moving sidewalk, which ferried visitors past either side of the Crown Jewels. And the great prisms of light that flashed forth from the Cullinan Diamond in the Sovereign's Sceptre entranced me so that I rode by another four times. And even to the story of that starry, lancing silver light, there is probably an accompanying human darkness, somewhere.

That is just our story.


  1. In a Gaiman short story I read recently, his protagonists wonders what it's like to live in a place where a 50-year-old building is considered old. But even here, in America, a relatively youthful country, there is so much despair in its history.

    What you've said about the tower and ravens reminds me of when the conquistadors visited Mesoamerica and witnessed human sacrifice. They, of course, thought the indigenous peoples were crazy, serving the devil, etc. But at that same time, witches and heretics were being burned, tortured on a daily basis at home and all over Europe. And this all reminds me of the gay rights debate today, how people against the movement will recite the same bible passages people used to support slavery. Of course, racism is considered so, so wrong and those bible-thumpers were way backwards, but we're actually really right about this whole gay thing.

    Everything makes me hope history will not yet again repeat itself, that we can show compassion to every human as well as ravens. And not think we're always so much more enlightened than either our past or another people.

  2. I wouls love to visit the Tower, to stand where so many of my heroes and heroines stood and dreamed and prayed. But it is a very sad place.

    Of course, we still have places like that thriving today - look at Guantanamo Bay, for example :-(

    1. Yes, indeed...and there is an oddness in the juxtaposition of entertainment with tragedy. It is the hidden places where some of the worst atrocities seem to occur, the concentration camps and the prisons, or within the confines of private houses, away from public view and censure and help. I'm thinking of abducted children.

      But these are very dark thoughts, and so many, many more of us are kind and compassionate. We must use our powers for good at every turn to overwhelm feelings despair and powerlessness, flood ourselves with love that spills over and alters the chemistry of air and water.


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