Legends of Saints and Birds – Saint Guthlac and the Ravens

He of whom I write was a hermit, who had his dwelling in desolate mid-England. This bleak fen district was indeed the “dismal swamp,” where black streams wandered, oozing in stagnant morasses round the roots of the alder and willow trees. Reed and sedge grew there amidst the floating peat – all that remained of the vast forests of oak, hazel, and yew, which had sunk beneath the sea as year upon year passed by. Trees, torn down by flood and storm, dammed the waters back upon the land. Will-o’-the-wisp lights shone forth by night, warnings which were needless, for no travellers set foot in this land of marsh and mud, where even the sky seemed less blue than in fairer climes.

Yet to this fen came Guthlac, monk of the monastery of Repton, having permission to seek that wilderness for which his soul longed. And he asked of one called Tatwin, who dwelt on the edge of the fenland, whether he knew of any land in that morass which might serve him for a dwelling. Then Tatwin told him that there was, indeed, an island, yet because of its loneliness no man dare live there. “Strange tales,” said Tatwin, “are told of this land. Demons torment those who dwell there, making the dreary night a terror with their howlings.”

“I fear no demons,” answered Guthlac, “so show me the way thither.”

So they rowed through the fens until they came to the island called Crowland or Croyland, known to few but Tatwin. On the Feast of Saint Bartholomew did Guthlac first see the place where he was to dwell all his life.

Now, after he had settled there he was tormented at night by strange noises; fierce-eyed, hairy men, with teeth like horse-tusks, having crooked shanks and deformed feet, came to him. And they tugged and pulled him from his hut, leading him to the fen, where they let him sink in the dark waters, or dragging him through reed and thorn until his body was torn and bleeding, or carrying him on great wings through the cold regions of the air until he fell trembling and shivering, so chill he was. These, then, were the demons of which Tatwin had spoken; yet some folk hold them to have been naught evil, but simply the cries of the water-wolf, and the moaning of the wind in the alder trees, which were thought to be the shrieks of demons by those whom the marsh fever had laid low. And, maybe, the burning heat and trembling cold of an ague fit caused Guthlac to imagine he was being dragged through brambles or carried through the cold air. But he persevered and dwelt on in that land.

Now, the wild birds of the fens came to him, and he fed them. We are told how the ravens teased him, for they came to steal from the men who sometimes came to Guthlac for the teaching he was ever ready to give to them.

Over the fens came the ravens, with their necks and feet drawn in; they floated high in the air, steady and self-possessed, then on a sudden off they flew, swooping down upon Guthlac and his friends.

“Cawruk! cawruk!” they cried, then flew off with some treasure. But Guthlac told them that it was not kind to do this, whereat the ravens listened, sitting upon the alder boughs, and it seemed as if they understood the Saint, for after having communed with each other, they flew down with what they had taken, giving it back to the Saint. Therefore Guthlac praised the ravens, and the ravens bowed their heads and flapped their wings, making obeisance to him.

Now, one day a holy man named Wilfred came to visit Guthlac. He sat speaking with him on that island in the dismal swamp, when the ravens came, as was their wont, crying “Cawruk!” And Wilfred deemed those cries to bode evil, but Guthlac told him not so. “The raven speaks but after his kind,” saith he, “and willeth no ill to any. The good God gave them those hoarse voices and clothed them with sombre feathers. Blessed be His Holy Name who hath given us eyes to see, and wit to perceive the beauty of yonder raven’s wings as the sun shines upon them.” And another time two swallows came to Guthlac, perching upon his shoulders. They lifted up their voices, singing joyously. Then said Wilfred, for he chanced to be there again:

“I marvel at these birds. Tell me wherefore comes it that the wild birds so tamely sit upon thee?”

To whom Guthlac made reply:

“Hast thou not learned, Brother Wilfred, in Holy Writ, that with him who has led his life after God’s will the wild beasts and wild birds are tame?”

Thus dwelt Guthlac in the fens. After his death monks came to the isle whereon he had dwelt, and driving great piles deep into the morass, they built the great Abbey of Croyland that abbey which became a sanctuary for all who were desolate and oppressed. Wherefore let us give thanks to God who gave Guthlac grace to persevere, and ourselves learn not to be lightly turned from well-doing. For had the Hermit Guthlac forsaken this place where he proposed to lead a holy life, in prayer serving God, because of night fears or marsh fever, the Abbey of Croyland would not have been built.

– taken from Legends of Saints and Birds by Agnes Aubrey Hilton