News from the nest

A road muddy and fox-gloved: Hozier’s “As It Was” as faery ballad

The first time I heard “As It Was”, I was struck by the mention of foxgloves. “There is a roadway, muddy and foxgloved”: What is this roadway and why is it bordered with foxgloves in particular? The foxgloved road is the first clue we have to the background of the imagery in this haunting song.

I had read in a number of sources over the years that “foxglove” had nothing to do with foxes, but was rather a corruption of “folks-glove”, the Folks in question being the Fair Folk, the faery beings. I was somewhat disappointed to find in Wikipedia that this etymology has now been thrown out, and an Anglo-Saxon original of “foxes-glofa” has been accepted. Foxes and foxgloves tend to have overlapping territories on hillsides. But the association of the foxglove and the Fair Folk seems sound to me. Foxglove is one of the many plants which are both poisonous and medicinal. Ingested, it can cause death; however, the digitalin group of drugs derives from it, used to treat cardiac conditions since the eighteenth century. A flower which is beautiful, poisonous, and yet healing in strictly regulated doses is a perfect emblem of the Fair Folk as they appear in European tradition.

“There is a roadway / Muddy and foxgloved / Whenever I’d had life enough / My heart is screaming of,” says the singer. There is a road, bordered by toxic flowers, that his heart desires passionately. He continues, “And in a few days / I will be there, love / Whatever here that’s left of me / Is yours just as it was.” The singer is coming back to his beloved on this road, having had “life enough” elsewhere, but whatever is left of him, he assures the beloved, still belongs to them.

To identify the road, where it goes, and where the singer is returning from, I suggest looking at a tradition in English folksong, the faery ballad. The corpus of faery or fairy ballads deals with encounters with the fairies, euphemistically referred to as the Fair Folk or the Gentry (because one does not directly name beings who might be dangerous). My readers are probably thinking now of Tinkerbelle or the fairy godmothers of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, but the fairies of folklore have far more in common with Tolkien’s Elves, and vice versa. They are older than humans, wise, powerful, and not always benevolent towards their younger, mortal siblings; some are merely indifferent, others can be malicious.

The two best known faery ballads, and thus the most important for this analysis, concern Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin. They might be described as the two directions of Hozier’s roadway: Thomas the Rhymer is a poet who goes into the faery realm and comes back safely, whereas Tam Lin is a faery lover brought into the mortal world by his lover Janet. 

Thomas encounters the faery Queen beneath a tree said to belong to the Fair Folk. He becomes her lover and servant and travels with her into the faery realm, taking the third road which goes neither to heaven nor to hell, and crossing rivers of water and blood. When he attempts to pluck an apple from a tree, the Queen forbids him and he obeys; instead, he gives her the apple, which is returned to him as bread and wine, of which he partakes. Because he is faithful and obedient, he is at length allowed to return to the faery world with a gift: the tongue that cannot lie. He becomes a poet and prophet, and books of his prophecies, like Merlin’s or Nostradamus’, are still extant.

Thomas the Rhymer represents what you might call an ideal faery encounter; if one can accept the Fair Folk’s terms and conditions, one may bring great good out of a relationship with them. The tale of Tam Lin recounts a much more dangerous situation. The ballad begins with a warning to young women not to go to or even pass near a place called Carterhaugh, because it belongs to a person named Tam Lin who claims a toll from any visitor, frequently a girl’s “maidenhead”. Janet, the protagonist of the ballad, does not heed this warning, for she deliberately goes to the forbidden well in search of the mysterious Tam Lin and picks his roses (obvious metaphor) until she gets his attention. Tam Lin warns her away, but Janet declares that Carterhaugh is on her land, so she will come and go as she likes.

Janet then returns home, and her people chastise her for dealing with Tam Lin. Her father declares that she is pregnant, and she denies that the father is any knight in his hall, but the “elfin grey” Tam Lin. She returns to Carterhaugh and once again summons Tam Lin, who accuses her of trying to abort their child. She asks him if he was ever a mortal; he tells her that he was, that he was captured by the faery Queen near seven years ago, and that he fears he will be turned over by the Queen as a “teind to hell”, a tithe or sacrifice. However, it is nearly Halloween, that is, the eve of All Saints, which is also Samhain, and there is a chance that she may win him away from his faery lover. He gives her careful instructions on how to do so, which involves considerable risk. 

Is the singer of “As It Was”, whose heart is “screaming of” the mysterious roadway, desirous of returning from the faery realm to his mortal lover? Or is he longing to escape mortality and go after a faery lover? I suggest that the song can be read both ways. 

The singer promises he will return to his love with “whatever here is left of me”. That suggests to me that he has been in the faery realm and is at last able to return to the mortal world. He offers himself, however diminished, just as he was

Before the otherness came

And I knew its name

The drug, the dark,

The light, the flame

These lines in the refrain suggest experiences other than faery abduction: drug addiction, perhaps the stress of performing on tour, even alien abduction (and I would not be the first to observe that faery abductions and alien abductions are curiously similar). This does not, however, negate the resemblance to the faery ballad, which is essentially a record of an encounter with “the otherness”.

He continues, 

The highs hit the heights of my baby

And its hold had the fight of my baby

And the lights were as bright as my baby

But your love was unmoved

Again, “the highs” and “its hold” suggest drug addiction, “the lights” could refer to the lights of a concert or the mysterious lights of a UFO. “But your love was unmoved” points back to the ballad of Tam Lin and his instructions to Janet for getting him away from the faery host. She must correctly identify him among the riders in the faery troop, pull him from his horse, throw her cloak around him, and hold on no matter what, as he is transformed into various frightening shapes. We will come back to this connection at the end of the song.

The singer now pleads with his beloved for some reassurance that he is still wanted, still loved: “How long you would wait for me / How long I’ve been away”. Has it been the seven years mentioned so often in the ballads? In a heartbreaking juxtaposition of courtly, formal language with 21st-century domesticity, he sings, “Make your good love known to me / Just tell me about your day”, and launches again into the refrain, “Just as it was….”

“The otherness came” and brought with it an intensity of experience accompanied, in this iteration, by shame. He juxtaposes again the allure of the otherness experience with the allure of his baby, whose love was “unmoved”. Unmoved by his absence, perhaps; unmoved by the trials of dealing with an addict in the throes of withdrawal; unmoved by the needs of an exhausted performer coming off a tour. “Unmoved”, to me, suggests steadfast, reliable, undeterred, but it can equally be read as emotionally cold or unavailable. 

The song concludes with a new variation on the refrain:

And the sights were as stark as my baby

And the cold cut as sharp as my baby

And the nights were as dark as my baby

Half as beautiful too

In order to win back her lover Tam Lin and have a father for her child, Janet of Carterhaugh must endure his being changed into a lizard, an adder, a bear, a red-hot bar of iron, and a burning coal, at which point she must throw him into the nearby well. He will then turn into a naked man and she must cover him with her cloak. She must remain unmoved despite the terrifying changes; “Hold me fast, and fear me not,” Tam Lin tells her. 

So the singer’s lover might withstand the drug, the dark, the light, the flame, the stark sights, the sharp cold, for the dark night is as dark as his baby, but only half as beautiful. There is a reluctant longing in this song for “the otherness”, for its terrible intensity, yet the singer’s lover turns out to be more powerful, more intense, than the otherness, perhaps terrifying in themselves. 

Hozier’s fans often resort to metaphors out of myth and legend to describe him: He is our forest god, faery prince, bog man, Orpheus. Especially in performance, he has a numinous, otherworldly quality, a more than human charisma. On stage, he is Thomas the Rhymer, the poet who has been to the otherworld and now must tell the truth, as the price or the reward of his dealings with “the otherness”. Or he is Tam Lin, won back from the faery Queen by a determined, persistent lover who can outwait the Fair Folk and hang on in the worst of times. The tune shifts between a light folk-influenced melody on the verses and a rock beat in the refrain, just as the action shifts between the otherworld and this world, the world of “Make your good love known to me” and the world of “Just tell me about your day”. The fairy tales and the faery ballads all tell us that the most important thing about the faery realm is being able to come back from it. Hozier seems to be doing just fine.

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I… appear to have written another story

This one is fanfic, and a crossover at that:

Two Serpents Meet in a Bar (1207 words) by MToddWebster
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Good Omens (TV)
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Julian Bashir/Elim Garak, Aziraphale/Crowley (Good Omens), Ineffable Husbands – Relationship
Additional Tags: Crossover, Walk Into A Bar, Alternate Universe – Angels & Demons, Wine, Innuendo
Summary:

Crowley and Garak meet in Quark’s bar. That’s it, that’s the story.

 

Behold! a story!

The Forest God (2829 words) by MToddWebster
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Faerie Folklore, Fairy Tales & Related Fandoms, Celtic Mythology, Andrew Hozier-Byrne (Musician)
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: Rape/Non-Con
Relationships: Narrator/Original Character(s)
Additional Tags: Forest Sex, Past Rape/Non-con, Pagan Gods, Ritual Sex, Beauty and the Beast Elements, Penis In Vagina Sex, Sacrifice, Shapeshifting, Minor Character Death
Summary:

Every year, the tribe offers a bride to the Forest God. This year, I am the chosen one.

POEM: The apple (for Alan Turing)

The apple lies in your hand, round and sweet. It is all

the forbidden fruit that you have ever tasted: The loves,

the pleasures, the stolen joys. There is no hiding from

the one who walks in the garden in the cool of the evening.

There is no offering you can make to your god, your

country, to atone for what you are.

 

The apple lies in your hand, the bitter apple of

self-knowledge. In another time, another place,

it might be the apple of Iduna, whose fruit gives

life to the gods. It might be an apple from

the Hesperides, the gift of Hera to Zeus, or

that apple which Eris tossed, designated for

the fairest. You have known your fairest and

lost him. You have lost all the immortality

in your veins. It might be the apple that was

given to True Thomas, or was that bread

and wine? He lay with the Faerie Queen and

gained the gift of prophecy. You have taken

the fruit unbidden and it will give you only death.

 

The apple lies in your hand, heavy as all your

memories. With a last gesture of defiance,

you put it to your teeth and bite.

 

(For Alan Turing, computer scientist, homosexual, who died on this day in 1954, possibly of suicide. His codebreaking skills helped the Allies win World War II; after the war, he was arrested and chemically castrated for being a homosexual. Written in 2015.)

 

POEM: To the Queen of Heaven

juno_vatican

Let it not be said that there are no goddesses in heaven.

Let it not be said that all goddesses are of earth.

Let no one deny the sovereignty of Juno,

queen of heaven, lady of the sky.

Praise to Juno whose domain is the heavens.

Praise to Juno whose mantle is the clouds.

Praise to Juno whose handmaid is the rainbow.

Praise to Juno who both stirs and calms storms.

Praise to Juno, wife and mother, queen and matron,

protectress of all women whether slave or free, rich or poor.

Praise to Juno, equal to Jove, wise as Minerva,

steadfast as Vesta, free as Diana, beautiful as Venus.

Praise to Juno, protectress of women, shaper of heroes,

guardian of the nation, noblest of goddesses.

Ave Juno Dea!

 

The Gospel according to Hozier: A close look at “Take Me to Church”

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I’m talking about this fellow here. Andrew Hozier-Byrne.

I can tell you exactly what and when and how I first heard the music of Andrew Hozier-Byrne. The date was May 16, 2014, and he performed a Live Lunch concert on air at a local college radio station. I was tuned in to listen because a friend of mine who worked at the station pinged me on chat to tell  me about the concert and said she thought I would like him.

My friend’s intuition was 100% correct. Listening to the three or four songs he performed that day kindled a flame of interest in me that has grown slowly into a raging bonfire, culminating in the experience of seeing him perform live in March of this year (thanks to the same friend, who was able to score free tickets for me from the station). I’ve followed him on YouTube, and then Instagram and Twitter, bought his EPs and his self-titled debut album, listened to that music while he toured for two years and then went home to his cottage in Ireland for another two years to create a second album, and been blown away by that new album, Wasteland, Baby! and his live performance of old and new music with a fantastic band. I cannot praise Hozier enough for his combination of magnificent voice, complex and intelligent songwriting, charismatic performance, and sheer physical beauty.

But rather than talk about his gorgeous hair, I’ve been wanting for a while to talk about his songs, particularly his lyrics. Hozier has always been forthcoming about his influences, musical and otherwise, and alongside black musicians like Nina Simone and Otis Redding, he mentions poets W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. I’m pretty sure he would dismiss the idea that his lyrics can stand alone as poetry, but I think I must beg to differ.

At the age of 24, an Irish lad nobody outside his hometown and environs had heard of had a tremendously successful hit song, a powerful gospel anthem called “Take Me to Church”. You might reasonably wonder why, especially if you’ve never heard the song with its powerful baritone vocals. I’d like to do a close reading of the lyrics and tell you what I think.

 

The song starts out fairly conventionally with a description of the singer’s beloved: “My lover’s got humour/ She’s the giggle at a funeral.” This note of irreverence is followed by a sudden turn to religious language: “Knows everybody’s disapproval/ I should’ve worshipped her sooner. / If the heavens ever did speak,/ She’s the last true mouthpiece.” The singer has gone from describing his lover as someone with a sense of humor to identifying her as something to be worshipped, a trustworthy oracle of “the heavens”.

He then turns, in the same verse, to conventional religion: “Every Sunday’s getting more bleak/ A fresh poison each week/ ‘We were born sick,’ you heard them say it”. To say that “we were born sick” is a reference to the Christian doctrine of original sin, which teaches that every human being has inherited what you might call a tendency from the first man, Adam, that separates us from God and makes us incapable of doing anything that isn’t sin.

The next verse offers a bold contrast: “My church offers no absolutes/ She tells me, “Worship in the bedroom”/ The only heaven I’ll be sent to/ Is when I’m alone with you”. “My church” is the singer’s relationship with his lover, and she is his deity, who tells him to worship “in the bedroom”, that is, through sex. Original sin has often been equated with sexuality and vice versa; some Christian theologians proposed that Adam and Eve did not have sex until they had eaten the forbidden fruit and were banished from Eden. “Forbidden fruit” is often, though not exclusively, a metaphor for sexual acts.

The singer’s religion is his love, his deity is his beloved, his worship of her is sex, and heaven is the intimacy of being alone with her. Hozier is far from the first poet to use religious metaphors for erotic/romantic relationships, just as mystics have for centuries used erotic metaphors for their spiritual intimacy with their god. But this theme is not something we have seen in popular music for a while. Instead of degrading his lover, Hozier exalts her.

Then, he takes the Church’s depressing doctrine and turns it on its head: “I was born sick/ But I love it/ Command me to be well.” And Hozier opens up and delivers a powerful threefold “Amen” before launching, at last, into the first chorus:

Take me to church

I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies

I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife

Offer me that deathless death

Good God, let me give you my life.

This is, straightforwardly, a plea to a woman to have sex with the singer, couched in religious metaphor. But it’s not just a metaphor; it claims love and sex as religious experiences in themselves. Sex is as powerful to the singer as worship, sacrifice, and confession; it provides the “deathless death”, a reference to the “little death” of orgasm but perhaps also to the ritually enacted death and rebirth of the mystery cults which allowed the initiates a happy afterlife. The singer doesn’t just want to have sex, get laid, and go away; he pleads to be allowed to give his whole life to the object of his worship.

After this first chorus, the song turns openly critical of the Church once again. “If I’m a pagan of the good times,/ My lover’s the sunlight./ To keep the goddess on my side/ She demands a sacrifice.” I’m struck by the fact that Hozier identifies his personal goddess not with the moon or other conventionally feminine symbols like the ocean, but with the sun. This is the first time he does so, but it won’t be the last time in his discography.

Now he rips into the Church for not satisfying its faithful: “Drain the whole sea/ Get something shiny/ Something meaty for the main course/ That’s a fine-looking high horse/ What you got in the stable?/ We’ve a lot of starving faithful”. I can’t help but read this as a criticism of the Church for not satisfying people spiritually while at the same time profiting from them materially. As an Irishman, Hozier grew up with the Roman Catholic Church as a pervasive influence (though he himself was raised as a Quaker), but there are plenty of American megachurches that are guilty of the same charges. Rich clerics collecting wealth from poor congregants can be found in every form of Christianity and in other religions as well.

Hozier calls on those who are sitting on their high horse judging others to be mindful of those who are starving and make a sacrifice, give something up, for their benefit. He goes on, “That looks tasty/ That looks plenty/ This is hungry work”. The “hungry work”, I would suggest, is the work of dismantling religious institutions that exploit their laity, of dismantling the religious viewpoints that demonize erotic love and, dare I say, demonize women as objects of love and devotion in particular.

He then repeats the chorus, singing even more passionately than before (and this is very noticeable in live performance), and sings it a second time before going into the bridge of the song: “No masters or kings/ When the ritual begins/ There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.” The ritual here is sex with its lover, and in their lovemaking there are no “masters or kings”, perhaps no top or bottom, no dominant or submissive; there is no hierarchy in the sexual sacrament, the two lovers are equals. The Church may call it sin, but Hozier affirms, “In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene/ Only then I am human/ Only then I am clean,” following these lines with another powerful triple “Amen” before singing the final chorus. Hozier insists that his experience of sex contradicts the Church’s description of it; while it may be “earthly”, it is an experience which makes him “human” and “clean”.

Hozier arrived on the music scene with this song pretty much out of nowhere, unknown outside of Ireland, perhaps unknown outside the Dublin area, and was triumphantly successful. The song was hugely popular, and many interviewers asked him what it was about, what it meant. He repeatedly delivered a short version of my exegesis–the goodness and humanness of sex vs. the Church’s demonization and repression of it, especially in Roman Catholic Ireland–and authorized a music video that featured images of gay men being attacked and arrested in the Ukraine, broadening his words beyond any implied heterosexuality. He also affirmed same-sex relationships in his interviews, while dodging the question of whether he himself is gay. (He has consistently been private about his romantic/sexual relationships while being sex-positive, so I’m not going to inquire further.)

What no one seems to have asked is why this song by a virtual unknown was so popular. The immediate, obvious answer is that it’s a damned good song: rich lyrics and a powerful melody delivered by an accomplished singer with passion and commitment. Hozier’s rich baritone pouring from the speakers can grab the listener by the chest, making your breastbone vibrate in sympathy and your heart throb to his rhythm.

The deeper answer, I think, is that the song carries a message people are desperate to hear. In the gospel harmonies of American religious tradition, Hozier proclaims that whatever their church has told them, his listeners are not sinful or dirty for wanting, needing, and liking sex. Sex itself can be sacred, spiritual, holy, far more so than the Church’s greed for wealth and lust for control. Sexual love is love, in all its madness and messiness; sex is an act of worship, not of violence or corruption.

Hozier will return to these themes and work variations on them in other songs, with extensive borrowings from European myth and poetry. I’ll be revisiting his discography to discuss more of his songs in future, and I hope you’ll read along.