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”.
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.