The Tower Menagerie

Daniel Hahn

Read September 2004

I learned the word ``menagerie'' when I was eight. I was reading a book about the Tower of London, and it said that the Tower once housed such a display of animals. I was rather confused about this practice because, inexplicably, I had thought that the Tower was a tower, and it seemed rather dangerous to house wild animals in such a constrained structure. Twenty-five years later, when I saw this book at the British Bookshop in Frankfurt, I immediately knew what it was about, and wanted to know more.

For what its title suggests it should be, this is a perfectly reasonable book. The story is an intriguing one, has more twists than one might expect, and provides some insight into both royal and popular views of animals and animal rights over the centuries. Hahn liberally draws on other (probably deeper) research, but keeps the story moving along.

Sadly, Hahn also stumbles a lot. He tries too hard to find the dramatic and fixate on it. For instance, he finds claims that the Tower once housed polar bears, which fed down at the Thames—claims that are speculative and based on creative interpretations (and a dollop of wishful thinking) of ancient texts. Yet not only does Hahn not bother to dig deeper—asking whether such a beast could fairly survive in London's climate—but some pages later, he's presenting it as if it were fact.

In addition, because there's not really enough material (at least at the level of detail Hahn chooses), Hahn chooses to cover the treatment of animals more broadly; sometimes in interesting ways (the advent of public shows and of zoos) and sometimes dreadfully (extended discourses on animal rights). While the former discussion is informative, on the latter, not only does he not have original thoughts to offer, he chooses his spots poorly, thereby damaging his narrative.

More broadly, Hahn's writing style is often juvenile, and his editors have done a poor job curbing his excesses—shame on them. In addition, the book assumes too much of a knowledge of the layout of the Tower complex; a few maps would have helped greatly.

All that said, I was happier for having read the book (if only because it scratched a twenty-five-year-old itch). Someday, perhaps, the material will receive even better treatment, but Hahn's book will do for the now.