Fantasy Out Loud – Part II
Yes, Black Gate’s focus is on the literature of the fantastic. But sometimes, fantasy needs a soundtrack.
In my first installment of “Fantasy Out Loud,” I focused on the act of reading adventure fantasy aloud. To children, by and large. But what happens once the darling tots are tucked into bed, with visions of sugarplums (or online MMO’s) dancing in their heads?
I’ll tell you what happens. I go downstairs and crank up the music. And what makes it onto the stereo more often than not? The music of the fantastic.
I’m not referring to film soundtracks, no, nor Wagnerian opera, though both surely count as fantastical (and I hope to treat both in future editions of “Fantasy Out Loud”). No, I’m talking here about rock music and its venerable forbear, folk. Folk music, with special attention here to the tradition of the British Isles, is positively rife with fantasy settings and tropes: swordplay (of both kinds), fairy abductions, marauding giants, the works.
While Led Zeppelin provides an obvious opening, the better avenue is Steeleye Span, a veritable gateway drug for British folk-rock in general and surely the ultimate purveyor of all things elvish in rock music. Inspired by Fairport Convention’s 1969 Liege & Lief album, Steeleye Span’s aim was to mine the vast catalog of traditional English folk music and put it, with ever more amplified instrumentation, before a contemporary audience. No surprise, then, that faerie culture came along for the ride.
Consider “Thomas the Rhymer,” from 1974’s Now We Are Six, in which Thomas, also known as True Thomas, is such a fabulous balladeer that he captures the heart of the Queen of Fairyland. The story, told only in outline form in this rendition, is not dissimilar to that of “Tam Lin,” a fairy ballad that some think the real Sir Thomas may have penned. “Tam Lin” comes replete with a weighty recording history, multiple webpages dedicated to its story cycle, and fame enough to drive any number of doctoral theses. For “out loud” purposes, here is how the most popular versions tend to conclude:
Then up spake the Fairy Queen
An angry queen was she
“Woe betide her ill-far’d face
An ill death may she die.
Had I know Tam Lin,” she said
“What this night I did see
I’d have ta’en out both his eyes
And turned him to a tree.”
Note that while “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer” are nominally love songs, they are hardly of the hand-wringing, my-heart-is-broken variety. Rather, these are narratives featuring highly engaged protagonists, and as such, they also function as mini-dramas, plays in short form. Indeed, as we search for the origins of modern fantasy writing, we could do worse than turn our attention to balladry.
Even if fairies aren’t your exact cup of tea, Steeleye Span still merits consideration. Try “Longbone,” in which a greedy giant waylays a party of travelers and devours every last one, narrator included. Gory stuff, but Steeleye sets the tale to a jaunty, sing-along beat. (I’ve been known to sing it to my kids––poor little blighters!) In “Samhain” and “Harvest of the Moon,” Steeleye invokes pagan deities, the former via an incisive electric setting. “The False Knight on the Road” finds an honest urchin pitted against the Devil himself, but Steeleye plays it as a jig, with electric fiddle leading the way. The sinister bloodletting of “Long Lankin” would do Cemetery Dance proud.
Drama, action, and peril, in combination with otherworldly settings: are these not the very essence of what we love about print-venue fantasy? Here it is, all over again, rendered in song.
To my mind, “The Elf Knight” rules the roost. Here the Steeleye Span method is on full display: confronted with an ancient ballad whose tune has been lost, Steeleye provides and arranges its own. (On other songs, where they have a melody but no surviving lyrics, they do the reverse; the members of Steeleye double as ethnomusicologists.) Over a series of grim arpeggios, “The Elf Knight” begins:
The elk-knight sits on yonder hill
(Fine flowers in the valley)
He blows his horn both loud and shrill
(As the rose is blown)
Soon enough, the elf-knight catches the attention of Lady Isabel who “sits a-sewing,” and he flies in at her window to kidnap and kill her. Unluckily for him, Lady Isabel proves to be a heroine worthy of Warrant Officer Ripley; after pretending to be under the elf-knight’s spell, she stabs him with his own blade, telling him:
“If seven king’s daughters here have you slain”
(Fine flowers in the valley)
“Then lie you here, a husband to them all”
(As the rose is blown.)
Take that, Disney heroines. This one draws blood.
And the music? Sublime.
If you prefer your violence fantasy-free but still enjoy a pre-industrial milieu, Steeleye can provide. “Babylon” tells of a desperate siege, a battle fought until “the eagle tower does fall and the walls they are thrown down.” Meanwhile, “Sir James the Rose” makes the mistake of killing “a gallant squire,” so “four and twenty belted knights” go riding out to deal predictably rough justice. In “Lady Diamond,” as with Fairport’s traditional show-stopper “Matty Groves,” a jealous, well-armed man responds to unfaithful women by means far more direct and vicious than modern divorce courts.
I believe to my bones that my ability to parse Shakespeare, Malory or even (on a good day) Chaucer is directly related to my having steeped myself in these other-era songs. The education provided is necessarily Anglo-Celtic, but it has consistently opened doorways that would otherwise have been harder to pry open or just plain unavailable. When I last encountered actual live Morris Dancers, I was able to explain to my family parts of what we were seeing thanks to songs like Steeleye Span’s “Padstow,” among others. In meeting the talking fox lord in Michael Moorcock’s A City in the Autumn Stars, I recognized the character as a riff on Reynardine specifically because of Fairport’s song of the same name. Repeated listening to the old English employed by “Tam Lin” doesn’t merely tell me how to avoid being carried off and sacrificed by the cruel Fairy Queen (although these are surely useful skills); rather, it allows me to read Burns and other Scots without scurrying repeatedly to crack yon wee bairn o’ a dictionary.
In my own writing, too, these songs provide constant, happy reminders of the flexibility of English, of its snake-like ability to invert syntactic positions and create new (or old) effects. Consider these lines, from “Two Butchers,” a traditional collected by Martin Carthy, and one of my personal Steeleye favorites:
It’s of two noble butchers, as I have heard men say
They started out from London all on a market day,
And as they were a-riding as fast as they could ride
“Oh stop your horse,” says Johnson, “for I hear some woman cry.”
Were this expressed in present-day prose, it might read something like this:
“I remember hearing tell of two butchers––they worked for Albertson’s grocery, I think it was, and the man who told me this––we were at a bar, drinking––I like drinking––anyway, my point is, these butchers were on horseback, riding fast, and one of them, Johnson, hears a cry for help. He thinks it’s a woman. ‘Hang on!’ he yells, to his buddy. ‘Stop your horse!’”
“There were these two guys, riding horses, and one of them goes, ‘Hey, man, hold up. I hear something.’”
You get the idea. But in the more antiquated constructions celebrated by Steeleye (and others: let us not forget the Albion Band, Pentangle, and the Incredible String Band), more poetic effects spring back to life. Efficient ones, too; brevity is the soul of many a lyric line.
I suppose we must let the heavyweight, Led Zeppelin, return to the ring. On Led Zeppelin IV, Led Zep had the smarts to borrow Fairport Convention’s lead vocalist, Sandy Denny, as a duet partner for “The Battle of Evermore.” How many of us, back in high school or whenever, realized just how far down fantasy lane this tune went? Dragons of darkness, ring wraiths riding in black. The Angels of Avalon do battle in the skies. For a brief moment, rock’s first heavy metal kingpins found their way back to Edmund Spenser.
Those who remember Marc Bolan’s T. Rex will likely think first of “Bang a Gong,” that act’s big glam-rock hit. But before T. Rex, Bolin fronted Tyrannosaurus Rex. (That’s right: the poor man spent years learning to abbreviate.) Early albums like Beard of Stars feature lines such as “Dragon’s ear and druid’s spear protect you while the dworn are here.” Now, I’ve got no idea what a dworn is, but clearly we should run for our lives. Rex’s first hit was “Ride a White Swan,” in which Bolan orders all listeners to sport tall hats in the manner (according to Bolan) of druids, and to wear our hair long like “the people of the Beltane.”
Can’t forget Queen. Their first two albums, in particular Queen II, are riddled with fantasy standbys. “Ogre Battle,” “My Fairy King,” and “The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” provide prime examples.
Finally, for the science fiction set, there’s always Billy Thorpe’s “Children of the Sun.” What it all means, I have no idea––“they passed the limits of imagination,” which sounds uncomfortably like a preview for Willow––but it certainly sounded exciting in its day. Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Karnevil 9 also jumps to mind, also “Starship Trooper” by Yes. Or what of “Starman” and Ziggy Stardust by the original spider from Mars, David Bowie? (Bowie also deserves mention for “The Laughing Gnome,” a zany modern fantasy in which Bowie duets with himself––on helium.)
So here I am, at the end of the day, my eyes tired and bleary. My ears, however, feel preternaturally alert, and so it’s time once more to ride the heath with True Thomas, defend the castle walls with Lady Charlotte (“They called her Babylon”), and flee the fell advances of Alison Gross, “the ugliest witch in the north countrie.”
No question about it. For my money, no love of the fantastic can be complete without a musical accompaniment.
Mark Rigney is the author of Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet University Press), as well as the play Acts Of God (Playscripts, Inc.). Recent short fiction appears in Black Static, Realms Of Fantasy and Sleet, with upcoming work scheduled for Black Gate and Ancient New. His website is www.markrigney.net.
Great piece, Mark. I’m looking up some Steeleye Span right now on YouTube.
My general impression’s always been that fantasy entered rock music with the psychedelia of the late 60s. Barring some kitsch stuff (“Monster Mash,” things like that) I can’t find much before about 1965 or 1966. After that point, it explodes. Besides the groups you’ve named, in the next few years there come Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull (another strongly folk-influenced band), Black Sabbath, Genesis, Hawkwind — all of them (and many, many others) really intensely exploring fantasy and occasionally sf themes.
Zeppelin to me are interesting; it seems to me that when I was a teen, call it about 20 years ago, they were considered a heavy metal band. Nowadays when I listen to them, they seem much more like a folk group. Certainly they used fantasy in a lot of their lyrics, with references to Tolkien in “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Ramble On.”
I suppose punk was one reason why rock music moved away fantasy, though you could still see some fantasy influence through the 80s. Heavy metal was and is a different thing, and still makes strong use of fantastic and mythological themes, as it always has. At any rate, one still stumbles across occasional fantasy-oriented rock songs, some of which are really good:
Ha, just heard Children of the Sun on the radio during my commute this morning!
Matthew: Thanks for mentioning Jethro Tull (one of whose bass players, Dave Pegg, later joined Fairport––for life). I suspect I should also add Gentle Giant to the list, but I don’t know their music…the name alone, however, lends it a certain pedigree.
I do think you are generally correct that prior to the sixties, popular music tended to avoid outright fantasy elements, but there are exceptions. One song that has been covered in every decade as far back as I can see (which in the grand scheme is admittedly not very far) is “She Moved Through the Fair,” a ghost story that hails from…heck, I don’t even remember what century. It’s old. Sixteenth, maybe?
Led Zeppelin IV is definitely a folk-rock effort. As a band, they resisted the label, but Rolling Stone correctly said the band had “gone soft” with that release.
Andy: I’m so sorry.
I’ll have to look at some of the ones you mentioned. 🙂 Hm, does the genere of ‘Filk’ count?
What about Rush’s….er… I think it’s called “War of the Trees”?