Redbreast: The Robin in Life and Literature

By Astle, Richard | John Clare Society Journal, July 2010 | Go to article overview

Redbreast: The Robin in Life and Literature


Astle, Richard, John Clare Society Journal


Redbreast: The Robin in Life and Literature. By ANDREW LACK. Arundel, West Sussex: SMH Books. 2008. x + 294 pp. £19.95.

Even the most cursory glance at the Christmas cards around my house as I write this serves to reinforce the theme of Andrew Lack's charming book: the central place of the robin in British culture, history, literature and tradition. No other Christmas motif seems as popular this year - not even the Holy Family.

And if the book itself is aptly described as the author's own labour of love - a tributary update to the original work of his father, David, first published in 1950 - then the overwhelming sense that it projects, is the quite astonishing relationship between this diminutive member of the thrush family and the British people. The wealth of evidence presented makes it no surprise at all that the robin was voted our national bird in 1960. It features in almost every aspect of our lives and many key moments of our history. It is there in rural folklore/ features in chapter and verse throughout literature and fittingly even plays its part in the great struggles for national identity -nesting both in a hole in the mast of HMS Victory (albeit after it has been removed from the ship following the Battle of Trafalgar) and calmly in the engine of a Spitfire during World War Two.

Andrew Lack's book is a very fitting celebration of the robin. It is well researched, truly comprehensive and beautifully produced. Individual chapters cover such as aspects as the robin's song; the robin and Christmas; and Children; in Myth and Folklore,- and home-life, and there are separate chapters on the most enduring of robin legends - 'The Saga of Cock Robin' and its central role in 'Babes in the Wood', where the robin covers the bodies with moss, thus cementing its strong association down the years with death. It is, however, very much an update of David Lack's original, so this is not quite a new book in itself, with many pages of the original untouched - though more modern poems have been added.

What makes our relationship with the robin so special is that it is unique to Great Britain. Unlike other national figures, such as St George for instance (probably born in Palestine and also patron saint of Ethiopia, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal and Georgia), we don't share our relationship with the robin with any other countries. Not only is there no other nation that celebrates the robin in this way, there are no other robins that have such a strong relationship with people! In mainland Europe the robin is a more secretive, woodland bird. It has also, by tradition, been mercilessly hunted and eaten across large parts of the continent.

Indeed, Andrew Lack's brief survey of the robin in continental literature reveals the main focus to be on their taste and how to trap them. One of the illustrations reflects the contrast between continental and British attitudes to the robin perfectly - a Christmas card produced in Germany for the British market which depicts the robin sitting on top of a bird trap. Similarly Charles Waterton is quoted during his visit to Rome in the early nineteenth century, writing: 'At the bird market near the rotunda in Rome, I have counted more than fifty robin redbreasts lying dead in one stall. "Is it possible", said I to the vendor, "that you can kill and eat these pretty songsters?" "Yes," said he, with a grin; "and if you will take a dozen of them home, for dinner today, you will come back for two dozen tomorrow."' (These two stories are in both the original and Andrew Lack's version of the book. There is more about Waterton's visit to Rome in David Lack's book, none of it about the robin, but, as an example of the editorial nature of the reworking of the original, his son has put the rest of the story as a footnote, rather than in the body of text.)

That said, Lack rather passes over the evidence for our own darker relationship with the robin, noting only that the fashion for ladies to wear 'these little birds stuffed, on their hats and gowns' did not last, 'as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, founded in 1889 has no record of it'. …

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