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Powerslave – Commentary
 
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Powerslave

3rd September 1984

1. Aces High (Harris)
2. 2 Minutes to Midnight (Smith, Dickinson)
3. Losfer Words (Big 'Orra) (Harris)
4. Flash Of The Blade (Dickinson)
5. The Duellists (Harris)
6. Back In The Village (Smith, Dickinson)
7. Powerslave (Dickinson)
8. Rime Of The Ancient Mariner (Harris)

Singles:
    First Single
    Second Single
      Listen With Nicko – Part VI

Tour:
    Tour Commentary
    Tour Dates & Venues    

Video:
    Video

Lyrics
Mick Wall's Commentary
Various Pressings
Picture Disc
Line-up
Cover Details
Other Pictures
Interviews
Credits
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Powerslave represents the essence of Iron Maiden at the pinnacle of their "golden age", and is the first album without any lineup changes in the band. No other album so clearly captures the spirit of power, fantasy, and emotion. The album cover is in my opinion the best of all the Maiden albums, and perfectly sets the mood of power and mystery. The songs are for the most part superb, with four of them becoming timeless Maiden classics.

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Aces High single 'Aces High' continues the tradition of great combat songs that began with 'Invaders' and 'The Trooper'. It's a British fighter-pilot's view of a defence against a bombing raid during the Battle of Britain, the first all-aerial battle to be fought and which took place between 10th July and 31st October 1940. It's also another excellent album opener, and has one of Maiden's best choruses. Its inspiration comes from another great piece of bravoury in military history, showing the dedication of men to serve the cause they believed in and what Churchill called "their finest hour.".

I can only give this song 3.5 stars, and it only gets that much because it's great live. Sure the lyrics are great, but (in my opinion) the music isn't anything to write home about. My two complaints about the music are:

1. Every section of the song is exactly 16 bars long, which means that there's no surprise when a new section comes along; by the middle of the song, you can see the changes coming from a mile away.

2. I know Steve has always used plenty of VI-VII-i chord progressions, but this song relies more heavily on this musical idea than most Maiden songs. For non-musicians: VI-VII-i is just musical terminology for the 'rising chords' you hear throughout the song. One clear example you can listen to is the guitar chords in the chorus under the words "live to fly". Once you can recognize the sound of this chord progression, you'll see it's everywhere in this song. This lack of variety, in my opinion, becomes tedious after a while.

Exception to #2: There are two sections which don't use a VI-VII-i progression. These are "running, scrambling, flying" and the riff which bookends the guitar solos. However, these sections are not different chord progressions; they are just melodies which occur over an unchanging tonality. While they provide some variety, I personally don't feel it's enough to offset the preponderance of VI-VII-i progressions.

So, while the lyrics are superb, the music is hardly inventive and thus brings down my overall opinion of this song.

Nonetheless, there is one very interesting thing about this song: it has a 'mirror' structure. (This is sometimes called an 'arch' structure.) The 'mirror point' is the midpoint of the solo section (where Adrian takes over from Dave).

Before the mirror point: Introduction, Fast guitar harmonies, verse/chorus, 16 bar section in A minor, 16 bar solo.
After the mirror point, the reverse happens: 16 bar solo, 16 bars in A minor, verse/chorus, fast guitar harmonies, cadenza.
(For non-musicians who might not have heard the term before:
A cadenza, in rock music, is the closing "crash and burn" where everyone solos wildly for a few seconds prior to the end of the song.)

Steve has written some songs which have similar structures (such as 'Heaven Can Wait'), but I think this is the only song where the mirror concept is followed with almost* mathematical precision. I doubt Steve specifically intended to do this; it's probably more of an oddity than a compositional goal.

* It's not quite a perfect mirror because the Introduction is replaced with the Cadenza at the end, but the rest of the song is a perfect mirror.

SinisterMinisterX – 25th April 2004 (re-worked on 12th October 2005)

Following the defeat of France in June 1940, Nazi Germany planned the invasion of Britain (code named Operation Sea Lion, its launch day being called Adlertag [Eagle’s Day]) with the objective to land 160,000 German soldiers along a forty-mile coastal stretch of south-east England. A large armada of vessels was quickly assembled, including 2,000 barges in German, Belgian and French harbours. However, the Royal Air Force (RAF) constituted a substantial threat to the German Army during the invasion and Hitler therefore agreed to the request of his generals that the invasion should be postponed until the British airforce had been destroyed.

Michael Turner – Messerschmidt 109 and Spitfire during the Battle of Britain.

At the beginning of what was to become famous as the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) had 2,800 aircraft stationed in France, Belgium, Holland and Norway, outnumbering the RAF four to one. The British, on the other hand, had the advantage of being closer to their airfields whereas German fighter planes could only fly over England for about half an hour before heading back to their home bases. Britain also had the benefits of an effective early warning radar system and intelligence information. The German pilots had the advantage of a greater combat experience than the British and had the best fighter plane of that time: the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, then commander of RAF Fighter Command, only relied on the outdated Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.

The Battle of Britain began on 10th July 1940, when the Luftwaffe launched attacks on ships in the English Channel and limited bombing missions against RAF bases. Two days later, mass bomber attacks on British radar stations, aircraft factories and fighter airfields took place and many of these were badly damaged, along with twenty-two RAF planes that were destroyed. Although Germany suffered greater losses than England in this period (248 vs. 148), the British were quickly losing experienced pilots.

As England, despite her hopeless military situation, still shows no sign of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary to carry out, a landing operation against her.
The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English motherland as a base from which war against Germany can be continued and, if necessary, to occupy completely.

Adolf Hitler, Directive No. 16 (16th July 1940)

The Luftwaffe will use all the forces at its disposal to destroy the British air force as quickly as possible. August 5th is the first day on which this intensified air war may begin, but the exact date is to be left to the Luftwaffe and will depend on how soon its preparations are complete, and on the weather situation.

Adolf Hitler, Directive No. 17 (1st August 1940)

Operation Sea Lion officially began on 8th August with orders for intensified attacks directed at airfields and radar stations. Adlertag, originally planned for 10th August but delayed because of bad weather, was on 13th August. On that day, the Luftwaffe flew 1,485 sorties; losing 39 airplanes while the British lost 15. The Germans also knocked out a number of radar stations, shutting off the eyes of Fighter Command. Although most of these belonged to Coastal Command and the few that did belong to Fighter Command were repaired quickly, the Luftwaffe still maintained an edge for the next several days.

There's one coming down in flames – there somebody's hit a German – and he's coming down – there's a long streak – he's coming down completely out of control – a long streak of smoke – ah, the man's baled out by parachute – the pilot's baled out by parachute – he's a Junkers 87 and he's going slap into the sea and there he goes – smash. Oh boy, I've never seen anything so good as this – the R.A.F. fighters have really got these boys taped.

Charles Gardner, BBC Radio report (10th July 1940)

The Battle of Britain Due to the limited range of the Luftwaffe, the battle was mainly fought over southern England. Between 1st and 18th August the RAF lost 208 fighters and 106 pilots, and the second half of the month saw even heavier losses and wastage now severely hampered the production of new aircraft and the training of pilots to fly them. The British pilots who survived all suffered from combat fatigue. Commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering made several adjustments in tactics and for the remainder of the month; the RAF, although winning on paper, was losing aircraft and pilots faster than it could afford. It was three weeks away from defeat.

The climax of the Battle of Britain came on the 30th-31st August, 1940 when the British lost 50 aircrafts whereas the Luftwaffe only lost 41. However, the RAF was saved by a simple mistake. On 25th August, the pilot of a Luftwaffe Heinkel He.111 became lost and accidentally bombed central London, despite standing orders not to do so. Churchill ordered a retaliatory strike on Berlin, sending 81 RAF Hampden bombers to Berlin the next night. Although the attack was ineffectual, it struck right at Hitler’s ego. He immediately gave a radio address, promising, "If the British bomb our cities, we will bury theirs" and, against the advice of his generals, issued orders to institute a merciless bombing campaign against London. On 7th September, the London Blitz began (the name comes from the term "Blitzkrieg", or "lightning war") and brought an end to the Battle of Britain. Initially, the bombing was taking place during the day, but as Luftwaffe losses added up, it became a nighttime bombing operation.

During the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force lost 792 planes and the Luftwaffe 1,389. There were 2,353 men from Great Britain and 574 from overseas engaged in the conflict; an estimated 544 were killed and a further 791 lost their lives in the course of their duties before the war came to an end.

Robert Taylor – Spitfire and Hurricane in a victory flight over London at the end of the Battle of Britain.

The advantage of the Spitfire and the Hurricane in individual combat with the Me 109 was that both British aeroplanes could out-turn the German one which was why, when surprised from behind, the enemy's defensive manoeuvre was to push the stick forward into a dive which, in 1940, we could not follow. If we were surprised, our defence was to turn quickly and keep turning because the Me 109's radius of turn was bigger than that of a Spitfire or Hurricane and thus he could not keep you in his sights. If he was inexperienced enough to try, he would find the British fighter behind him after a couple of circuits.

Douglas Bader about the performance of the Spitfire and Messerschmitt Bf109 in his autobiography,
Fight for the Sky (1974)

Although it brought severe hardship on the civilian population, the Blitz gave the RAF a much-needed break. Air bases and factories could be repaired and plane inventory could be replaced. With its increasing strength, the RAF continued to deal the Germans horrendous losses, until the Luftwaffe could no longer absorb the punishment. On 12th October 1940, Hitler officially cancelled Operation Sea Lion and Great Britain emerged undefeated.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons, 20th August 1940

These pages catalogue the official reports of the most important event in Royal Air Force history, the Battle fought over Britain between the 10th July and 31st October 1940. For the first time, the complete Fighter Command Operational Diaries for the period have been published in full, day by day over the whole period the Battle. Supporting this official text are a series of pages detailing such facets of the Battle as the Commanders, the Aircraft and the changes in Tactics on both sides as the situation developed. Although some of the Fighter Command claims of the time (i.e., numbers of German aircraft shot down etc.) have since been proved to be greatly exagerated on some days, it nevertheless does give a unique insight into the RAF's perspective of the Battle of Britain.
Following the successful evacuation of British and French forces from Dunkirk, England's peril became clear to everyone. Churchill delivered this speech to the House of Commons on June 4th, 1940, in part to temper the optimism that the evacuation had engendered (he knew how much work was still to be done), and partly to make a clear and public appeal to the U.S. The final paragraph of this speech is frequently quoted, but it's interesting to read the entire thing.

Back to lyrics of the song, it is a bit surprising that the Flak should be mentioned, as it is the abbreviation of Flugabwehr Kanon (the German "Triple-A" – Anti-Aircraft Artillery) and the pilot, obviously British, could not hear it on his own airfield. I suppose that the word is shorter and blends better with the rest of the lyrics; besides, this word is nowadays integrated into the English language and, for those who are not familiar with it, the expression "to take the flak" means to encounter heavy cristicism or opposition.

A lot of aviation jargon is also used to create an appropriate mood for the song. "Scramble", for instance, means an emergency take-off and is still used by today's air force pilots. Likewise, the pilots use a clock reference to orientate themselves, the nose of their plane being at 12 o'clock and the tail at 6 o'clock. The "bandits" – another common expression meaning the enemy – arriving at 8 o'clock are therefore coming in from behind and toward the port (left) side of the Spitfire. "Beware the Hun in the sun!"

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day... 

– Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, August 20th, 1940.

When Winston Churchill gave this speech, the Battle of Britain was swiftly approaching its climax. Only a few days before this speech, the RAF had handed the German air force, the Luftwaffe, a powerful defeat over English and Scottish skies.

Of course, the Battle of Britain did not begin with the full might of the Royal Air Force engaging Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering's Luftwaffe. One can argue that it began over Dunkirk, where the British Expeditionary Force was attempting to swiftly evacuate. German Operation Sickle-Stroke had succeeded and had cut off the British and the French First Army from the remainder of the French forces. Every craft in Britain able to cross the Channel headed to Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers.

The Panzer advance on Dunkirk was halted by orders from the Führer. Some believe it is because of Goering's proud boast that he would bomb the Dunkirk pocket into oblivion. Others attribute it to the German High Command's nervousness that the Panzers required infantry support, which was several days' march back of the tanks. Either way, the advance halted. This allowed the British to escape.

However, Goering attempted to make good on his boast. German bombers, the Heinkel He-111, the Dornier Do-17, and the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka and Ju-88 bombed Dunkirk. The French fighters were outclassed by the German Bf-109s, as were the British fighters the Germans had encountered so far, the Hawker Hurricanes. Over Dunkirk, however, the first Supermarine Spitfires saw action.

The Spitfire was derived from a series of designs of seaplanes from Supermarine's back catalogue. The designer of the airplane was a sickly young man, who created the Spitfire after being informed that Germany had developed a superfighter that outclassed not only everything in the RAF, but even the then-experimental Bf-109. The designer, Reginald Joseph Mitchell, ignored even his health to give Britain a fighter that would rule the skies. Legend tells us he succeeded.

The Supermarine Spitfire was one of the three most-produced Allied fighters, along with the Hawker Hurricane and the Yakovlev Yak-3. However, it was also easily the best Commonwealth fighter, and definately one of the most adaptable. The airframe was powered by the famous Merlin engine, the same powerplant that allowed the North American P-51 Mustang to become reknowned as the "Cadillac of the Skies". The Spitfire was manoeuverable, that is able to turn quickly, and could accelerate swiftly. Armswise, the Mark 1 held 8 wing-mounted 0.303 machine guns. The frame was lightweight metal, the skin stressed metal over that, making for a very stable but light combination.

However, the majority of the Battle of Britain would be fought by the Hawker Hurricane. The Hurricane was made of metal and wood with canvas stretched over the frame, allowing for the machine to take amounts of fire that would drop a Spitfire or a 109 two times over. It wasn't as fast or as nimble as its comrade-in-arms but provided a stable gun-platform. The Hurricane had the same armament as the Spitfire.

Their chief opponent was the single-engined Messerschmitt Bf-109. The 109 was Germany's main fighter from 1938, when it debuted in the Spanish Civil War, until 1943, when it was supplanted by the Fw-190. However, the 109 was the most widely produced fighter in German history, with tens of thousands being produced and being used around the world after the war. The 109 was made of a stressed-steel skin similar to the Spitfire, mounted a large engine, and armed with two 12mm machine guns and one nosecone mounted 20mm cannon, which would later become the weapon of choice for airplanes (the P-51 would mount six).

Unfortunately for the Germans, the 109 had two disadvantages: one was its lack of manoeuverability, compared to the Spitfire. Two was its low range. 109s could barely reach England and have time for combat before fleeing back to bases in France. Because of this, the Germans had developed a second airplane, what they called a "destroyer" type. The Bf-110 was another Messerschmitt airplane, twin-engined, with a two-man cockpit. It was heavily armed with four cannons forward and a machine gun backwards and possessed a much longer range than the 109. However, it's manoeuverablity was so low as to be nil. Later in the war the 110 would find its niche as a night-fighter; during the Battle of Britain it would be naught but an easy target.

 

In Dunkirk the British and the Germans fought to something akin to a draw. Although the Luftwaffe inflicted some casualties upon the British forces, most of the BEF lived to fight again. The same could be said for the RAF forces committed. Although badly chewed up, they too would return to battle the Germans again. However, the poor perfomance of the Luftwaffe did not stop Goering, who was determined to try again. The Luftwaffe in late June began flying raids on the coastal convoys that moved much of Britain's goods. The main offensive weapon was to be the Ju-87 Stuka divebomber, with the Bf-109 in support.

During this initial phase of combat the RAF were often lured out over the English Channel to defend the convoys. This was often fatal to the British and other pilots who would be in damaged aircraft and unable to bail out over British lands. Of course, the same could be said for the Germans, who had to cross over the entire Channel to touch down safely.

This first phase of conflict was sporadic and really accomplished nothing, except for forcing the Royal Navy to withdraw their destroyers from Dover after losing one to a bombing raid. The next stage was to be more serious, with the German objective to be destroying the Royal Air Force and paving the way for the invasion of Britain.

Today that invasion, known as Operation Sea Lion, is widely considered to be no more than a ruse to cover Hitler's true objective – Russia. Even the name of the Operation fails to disguise its intention. The plan itself was somewhat sloppy and unrealistic, calling for river barges to ford the English Channel and land soldiers to take Britain. The barges were to be escorted by the Kriegsmarine's elite force of battleships (of which none were yet complete) and the battle-cruisers of the Deutschemark class. The Luftwaffe was to keep the skies clear and bomb the Royal Navy before it could engage the Kriegsmarine.

Whether or not Hitler ever intended to invade Britain is really unimportant. What is important is that the British believed he would. Territorial Army units were organized across the entire country. There were people ready to fight with hunting rifles, handheld pistols, and in one case, a small regiment of mounted sabremen was created. No doubt about it, the British were ready to fight whereever the Germans appeared.

But before the Germans could contemplate landing, the Battle of Britain would have to end with the destruction of the RAF. Operation Eagle was launched August 15th, 1940, to bring about that end.

All over Britain on Aldertag (as the first day of Operation Eagle was known as) the radar screens showed incoming German formations. From the Cotentin Peninsula and from Calais came waves of fighters and bombers. Even the long-range Bf-110s and Ju-88s from Norway launched raids on Scotland and northern England. The theory was that the RAF was already depleted from fighting in France, over Dunkirk, and in the English Channel. The Germans believed that most of the good British fighters were concentrated around London and therefore incursions all across the board would result in many getting through.

They were sadly disappointed.

On this first true test of The Few the Germans were defeated, although not decisively. Over seventy Germans were shot down for less than thirty-five RAF aircraft. Many of the kills came on the slow Bf-110s attacking from Norway that were attacked by veteran squadrons resting in the north after getting combat experience over Dunkirk and the Channel. It was this victory that prompted Churchill's speech in the House of Commons, five days later.

The Germans continued Operation Eagle, aimed at annihilating the airfields and airplane factories that the RAF relied on. Many times the overconfidence of the pilots cost the Germans opportunities. Often airfields that were only damaged would be reported as destroyed. Factories were unfortunately much harder to hit, and although there were a few stoppages, supplies of the Hurricanes and Spitfires never really slowed.

The real success in stopping lost fighters from being replaced was in the damaging and destruction of repair areas. One or two German bombers could destroy dozens of damaged or half-repaired British airplanes, and stop repairs from happening for crucial days. Combined with the RAF reaching its limit of new pilots and rested squadrons near the end of August, this led to the crucial point of the battle coming at the beginning of September. Many of the airfields were too damaged for the RAF to operate from, and replacement aircraft were only trickling in.

On September 7th, the Germans changed targets. Perhaps due to the overconfidence of the Luftwaffe, which believed all the forward airbases of the RAF were destroyed and that the British were down to their last fifty fighters, or perhaps due to the fact that Bomber Command had just delivered payloads to Berlin, the German target suddenly switched: London, and other major cities.

The radar screens showed hundreds of German airplanes heading for London, as well as other southern centres. The British scrambled many fighters to intercept. This pattern continued until September 15th, the high point of the Battle of Britain.

By this point the squadrons from Dunkirk and the Channel battles had been fully rested, re-equipped, and remanned. Many were moved south in time for September 15th, a day which opened with a 300+ German raid on London. The Prime Minister happened to be visiting Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park on this day. Upon receipt of the radar report Park scrambled every fighter from Dover to Coventry to intercept. Churchill, worried that the Germans might attack another city, asked Park where the reserves were. He received an answer that had galled French command in May: "There are none."

Luckilly for Churchill and the Marshal, there were none needed. The September 15th attempt to bomb London by day succeeded only slightly, with over fifty Germans downed and most formations scattered across the sky after encountering two hundred plus fighters. Both raids that day were turned back. The German attempt to destroy the RAF had failed.

The Battle of Britain did not have a decisive end date. It petered out sometime in October as the Luftwaffe switched over to night-bombing. But after September 15th the Germans never mounted a serious challenge to British air superiority over their own island.

The Few never amounted to more than 750 men. Their numbers fluctuated as men died or returned from well-deserved leave. Volunteers were not just British, either. Pilots from France, Belgium, Australia, South Africa, America, Ireland, Poland, New Zealand, and Canada fought. One of the battle's most famous aces, "Sailor" Malan, was South African. The Canadians had two units in the battle, 242 Squadron, which was led by the legless pilot Douglas Bader, and 1st Squadron RCAF, the only non-British squadron to see battle in the Battle of Britain. The Polish pilots were mostly refugees from that nation. They made 5% of "The Few" but were accredited with 15% of the kills – fighting with vengeance.

Aces High is an amazing song that gives us a little view into the cockpit of one of "The Few". It's a great way to pay tribute to those 750 men who stood, as far as they knew, between the free world, and between the fascist one. But we shouldn't stop at a song – it's important we learn our history, lest we repeat it.

LooseCannon – 29th February 2004

Great post LooseCannon! I really enjoyed reading it.

To bring my little stone to your edifice, I wanted to comment about the respective manoeuvreabilities of the Spitfire and the Me-109. They were both highly manoeuvrable, with the Spit having the advantage to be able to make very sharp turns, but the 109 had an advantage: her engine.

When a German pilot couldn't shake a Spit from his tail by zig-zagging all over the place, the last option was a straight dive. The BMW engine could handle that, whereas the Merlin would see all the fuel withdraw from the carburettor and stall... which could be really annoying!

To prevent such a problem, the only thing the RAF pilot could do was to perform a barrel roll that would bring the plane on her back before diving after the bandit. However, there was no visibility anymore in this position and the Spit would fire blindly, just hoping that the 109 was still somewhere within her sights. Many German pilots owe their lives to this BMW engine!

On an end note, I must say that I admire the men who fought in the air back then – both Allies and Germans (although the latter were doing it for the wrong reasons, this does not diminish their valour). It's just lucky that the RAF pilots and command were so determined, and that the Luftwaffe made so many mistakes because they were directed by fools. Those who fought, however, still need to be recognised for their bravery – the skies weren't so friendly then and the technology was certainly not what it is today.

If you're interested, I recommend reading a book called Le Grand Cirque by Pierre Clostermann, a French fighter pilot who found himself in the RAF at a very early time of the war and all the way until the surrender of Nazi Germany. There must be an English translation somewhere around and you'll see the story unfold with the eyes of one of the Few.

Maverick – 29th February 2004

I didn't like this song for a long time. I thought it was completely overrated and boring. But the song grew on me. I don't know if it was the video that finally made me appreciate it, or my growing interest in the air war, and in particular the Battle of Britain.

I have a little story to tell here. My grandfather (RIP) was a pilot in the Legion Condor (the one that also raided Guernica), and he flew an ME 109 during the Battle of Britain. According to what my mother told me what he told her, he got shot down over London and landed in an apple tree in the garden of a lady, who was somewhat shocked and clueless of what to do. She invited him for tea and then just let him go. He walked through the city for three days, in his German fighter uniform ("everybody in London was wearing uniforms at that time, and nobody noticed"). He was recognized as a German only when he raised suspicion by trying to pay with French Francs after having spent all his British Pounds. He was subsequently arrested and became a POW, first in Scotland, then in Canada.

On another note, I completely agree with Churchill when he says this battle was the RAF's finest hour. The Allied (mostly British) pilots who fought in this battle were true heroes who outdid themselves and their unbelievable performance laid the groundstone of the liberation of the world from the evil that was national-socialism and fascism.
Needless to say, even as a Pacifist, I felt great admiration when I saw the British planes, particularly the Spitfire, flying over London during the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the end of the war on TV.

I think this song does justice to the legendary RAF pilots who deserve admiration by everyone in the western world. It's not Maiden's best, but it ranks up there with all the classics. Four stars.

Perun – 4th August 2005


 

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4.0-star   2 Minutes to Midnight (Smith, Dickinson) Commentary Lyrics Discuss this song in the forum

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2 Minutes to Midnight single About the politics of war and destruction, '2 Minutes To Midnight' makes a meaningful statement about the morality of warmongers and politicians.

As the madmen play on words
And make us all dance to their song
To the tune of starving millions
To make a better kind of gun

The most vivid images are summoned here to highlight the horrors of this world, and the "prime-time Belsen feast" probably refers to those terrible pictures that show up at almost every news bulletin on TV. Bergen-Belsen was one of the most horrifying concentration camps in Nazi Germany (although it is obvious that the sheer existence of such places was an insult to Mankind in itself) and the reference to such terrible events happening in "prime-time" seems to indicate that, although such things are still taking place nowadays in one form or another, they have become some sort of a show and no one pays much attention anymore. In retrospect, this is somehow reminiscent of the verses "you watch the world exploding every single night" in the song 'The Wicker Man' or of "withered hands, withered bodies, begging for salvation" in 'Out Of The Silent Planet', both song from the 2000 album ironically titled Brave New World.

The title of the song refers to the Doomsday Clock, one of the most chilling and best known symbols of the nuclear age, representing how close humanity is to the brink of nuclear holocaust (midnight). The clock reached 2 minutes to midnight in September 1953, after the Soviets successfully detonated an awesomely powerful thermonuclear device. Today the clock stands at 7 minutes to midnight after little progress was made on global nuclear disarmament. In 2002, the United States rejected a series of arms control treaties and announced it will withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Moreover, terrorists seek to acquire and use nuclear and biological weapons. Bad news for mankind indeed!

In addition to its excellent lyrics, '2 Minutes To Midnight' has a great chorus and instrumental section, making it one of Maiden's most memorable songs.

In April 1943 the Nazis created Bergen-Belsen in Lower Saxony near the city of Celle as a transit center – Bergen-Belsen was never officially given formal concentration camp status. But the second commandant, SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, completed the transformation of Bergen-Belsen into a regular concentration camp.
The Doomsday Clock Since its inception in 1947, the Doomsday Clock has signified the level of threat posed by nuclear weapons and other changing factors in international security.

There are two interesting compositional techniques which are used in this song. They also appear in other Maiden songs, but they are especially prominent here.

1. Rhythmic modulation (also known as metrical modulation). In general, this term refers to a tempo change in which the new tempo is based on some rhythmic element of the old tempo. In this song, the fast and slow sections are related by a ration of 2 to 1. That is, two beats in the fast sections become one beat in the slow section. This is a common type of rhythmic modulation, and in these cases the slower sections are sometimes called 'half-time' – or, conversely, the fast sections can be called 'double-time'.

2. Pedal points. In general, this term refers to the bass remaining on a single note while the melody instruments (guitars in this case) change chords. Two clear examples in this song are:

a) "The killer's breed or the demon's seed..."
The bass remains on an A note while the guitars change chords.

b) The closing of the guitar solo section
The bass remains on E as the guitars play a C-D-E progression.

As I mentioned above, these techniques appear in other Maiden songs. Finding other examples is left as an exercise to the reader. Here's one hint: 'Sign Of The Cross' contains some clever and unusual rhythmic modulations.

SinisterMinisterX – 16th April 2004 (re-worked on 12th October 2005)


 

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4.5-star   Losfer Words (Big 'Orra) (Harris) Commentary Lyrics Discuss this song in the forum
 

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This is Iron Maiden's fourth fully instrumental song. It doesn't sound as good as the earlier ones, though it's difficult to explain why. It just seems to be lacking the feeling and emotion that can be found in the others. For anyone who might not be too familiar with English, the title simply means "lost for words", or more simply "don't know what to say". "'Orra" is a phonetic pronounciation of "horror" in the London cockney accent. Maybe Harris himself didn't like this piece and decided to call it "Big Horror"...


 

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4.0-star   Flash Of The Blade (Dickinson) Commentary Lyrics Discuss this song in the forum
 

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Phenomena This is a swordsman's song, undoubtedly inspired by Dickinson's love of fencing. The lyrics hint of a young swordsman in training, so that he can avenge the murder of his family. It's a good song with a very catchy intro, but for some reason it hasn't been played live in concert.

However, this song appears on the soundtrack of Dario Argento's 1985 film, Phenomena (also known as Creepers in its largely cut US version) about a young girl, with an amazing ability to communicate with insects, who is transferred to an exclusive Swiss boarding school, where her unusual capability might help solve a string of murders. Although the film is pretty low-grade for Dario Argento, it has the advantage of a good soundtrack to compensate a rather cheesy story, including artists such as Iron Maiden or Motörhead. You can check it out by watching the trailer here.


 

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5.0-star   The Duellists (Harris) Commentary Lyrics Discuss this song in the forum
 

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The Duellists 'The Duellists' is another fencing song, inspired by the 1978 Ridley Scott film of the same name. The movie is itself based on The Duel (published 1908) by novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), about a life-long feud between two French officers during the Napoleonic period (ca. 1800). This is a great film whose (slightly cheesy) tagline runs as follows:

"Fencing is a science. Loving is a passion. Duelling is an obsession."

This is another song that has not been played live in concert, which is a terrible shame since it is one of the best songs on the album, with powerful emotion and a brilliant instrumental section.


 

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4.5-star   Back In The Village (Smith, Dickinson) Commentary Lyrics Discuss this song in the forum

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The Prisoner Appreciation Society Like its predecessor 'The Prisoner', this song is based on the British TV series The Prisoner. "The Village" is the name of the mysterious place which is the setting for the story. This place really exists and is actually called Portmeirion, in North Wales. Although it has decent guitar solos, some people don't like this song much. Some accuse it of suffering from a horrible chorus where Dickinson seems to be more shouting than singing, but I personally think it's a brilliant song – yet again a matter of taste!

There is a neat thing where Bruce sings "...I see sixes all the way...". Superimposed on this is a whisper saying six six six. You can hear a RealAudio sample of it here.

Welcome to The Village!

An interesting interpretation of the song's meaning was submitted to me by HConnor7. Although I don't agree with it, it sheds an entirely new light on the lyrics and I thought that it should appear here.

I found your commentary interesting on 'Back in the Village'. I would like to add an additional explanation for some of the lyrics in this song. Note that in verse 1, Bruce sings "drop your bombs and let them burn". He later sings "there's a fox among the chickens". When a military pilot releases outboard ordnance it is referred to as a fox (number), where the number indicated the type of ordnance. An infrared guided air to air missile is 'fox 2', a radar guided missile is usually 'fox 1'. Napalm bombs have been commonly referred to as 'fox 6'. So when Bruce sings "I see sixes all the way", I believe this is to what he is referring.

I do hear a noise in the background that could be interpreted as "six, six, six", but such things always are matters of interpretation. Keeping with the pilot theme, I believe it could be a matter of reproducing a pilot's transmission of a successful delivery of napalm bombs, but this is all conjecture obviously.

This interpretation is certainly the most original I have ever heard about this song. I know that Dickinson (who co-wrote the song with Adrian Smith) is an air enthousiast and a pilot himself, and I answered the mail pointing out that the song refers to the British cult series of the late 60s "The Prisoner", with Patrick McGoohan, and that most of the lyrics are actually catchphrases that can be found in the episodes of the series, like "Questions are a burden and answers a prison to oneself" for instance. My interpretation of the 'fox' is not that of a codename but rather an image indicating that nb 6 – the main character of the series – is the only dangerous inhabitant of the famous Village (try to visualise what a fox would do among chickens). Besides, I added that the term 'fox' is used mostly by USAF pilots and that, as we all know, Maiden are English.

The explanation makes sense, but not within the context of the song (in my opinion anyway). Nevertheless, HConnor7 insisted:

I am still sticking with my views on the song, in part anyway, because of one line in the song, "In a black hole, and I'm spinning, as my wings get shot away", which I believe can only be interpreted as pilot talk of getting shot down after he has dropped his munitions, as per the "I see (fox) sixes all the way". We all know that Maiden are a British band, and therefore would have little use for exclusive USAF lingo, but NATO pilots of all nationalities will often use USAF lingo. The truth probably lies somewhere between our 2 respective interpretations.

Just a (second) thought.

I am now leaving this interpretation open to discussion...

Some notes about 'Back in The Village'.

In the final episode of The Prisoner, a missile/rocket is launched from the center of The Village – adding additional meaning to the 'fox' among the chickens.

When asked what his plans are:
No.6: "I'm going to escape and come back."
No.2: "Escape and come back . . . ?"
No.6: "Ah, yes—escape, come back, wipe this place off the face of the earth, obliterate it . . . and you with it."

Number 6 isn't just blowing smoke when he says he is coming back to obliterate The Village – another episode ("Once Upon a Time") indicates that he was a pilot in WW2.

Now that would be a satisfying personal revenge...

Kristen, Detroit, Michigan – 14th July 2006


 

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5.0-star   Powerslave (Dickinson) Commentary Lyrics Discuss this song in the forum

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This is the climax of the album, a song about a dying Egyptian Pharaoh lamenting on the limits of his power. The Egyptian mythology and imagery sets the mood for the album, which is perfectly matched by the album cover and pictures. This is a powerful song, and has one of Maiden's best instrumental sections, which begins with a slow and beautiful solo followed by two brilliant guitar solos separated by a bass part. It's so good that I wore out my first Powerslave tape in that part of the song from constant rewinding.

The Eye of Horus The Eye of Horus mentioned in the song has a very specific meaning. For the ancient Egyptians, the Eye of Horus or wedjat – the "Whole One" – was a powerful symbol of protection, and was also considered to confer wisdom, health and prosperity. Horus (whose name means "He who is above" and is itself a Latin form of a Greek word for the Egyptian name Heru or Hor) was one of the most important Egyptian gods, a sun-god represented as a falcon or with the head of a hawk (one of the first animals to be worshipped in Egypt), whose right eye was the Sun and whose left eye was the Moon (symbols previously encountered in 'Revelations' on the Piece Of Mind album). He was the son of Osiris (god of the underworld) and Isis (mother goddess). Osiris was slain by his own brother, the evil Set (jackal-headed god of night), and Horus fought Set to avenge his father's death, winning the battle but losing an eye in the process. The eye was restored by the magic of the god of wisdom and the moon, Thoth, and this allowed Horus to grant Osiris rebirth in the underworld (hence the verse in the song: "Enter the risen Osiris, risen again"). The Eye of Horus symbol was used in funerary rites and decoration, as instructed in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. After 1200 BC, it was also used by the Egyptians to represent fractions, based on repeated division by two.

It is interesting to note that the "Rx" symbol used in the pharmaceutical industry and in medicine has its origins in the Eye of Horus. Variations of the Eye of Horus are even nowadays still often encountered, a notable case being the all-seeing eye in the Great Seal of the United States. The reverse of the Great Seal is shown below with a detail of the Eye symbol that completes the pyramid:

The Great Seal of the United States

The Eye of Horus The eye itself is represented as a figure with 6 parts, these parts corresponding to the six senses: Touch, Taste, Hearing, Thought, Sight, and Smell. The eye was considered to be the receptor of "input" and had these six doors to receive data. The construction of the eye follows very precise laws. The senses are ordered according to their importance and according to how much energy must be absorbed by the eye for an individual to receive a particular sensation. All of the sensory data input is considered "food". In the Ancient Egyptian measurement system, the Eye of Horus represented a fractional quantification system to measure parts of a whole. The entire eye measured 1 heqat and each of the parts of the eye measured fractions of this heqat. This system was used to record prescriptions, land and grain. The complete Eye of Horus represents in fact 63/64, but it is rounded off to 1.

The corresponding sense data are:

1/64
1/32
1/16
1/8
¼
½

heqat – Touch
heqat – Taste
heqat – Hearing
heqat – Thought
heqat – Sight
heqat – Smell

The ancient Egyptians also used anther unit, the ro, whose symbol was the mouth and representing one mouthful (once again, these measures are associated with food, or input data). By definition 320 ro = 1 heqat. Considering the ro as the smallest unit of input energy needed for the input to register as sense data, we note that: 320 = 5 × 64. In terms of ro we therefore have 5 ro to register a Touch, 10 ro to register a Taste, 20 ro to register a Sound, 40 ro to register a Thought, 80 ro to register a Light, and 160 ro to register a Smell. The parts of the drawings of the eye correspond to the various senses:

1 – Touch (1/64 heqat or 5 ro):
This drawing corresponds to a stick planted into the ground, like planting a stalk that will take root. The Earth represents touch. The act of planting itself represents physical contact and touching.

2 – Taste (1/32 heqat or 10 ro):
This part of the eye represents the sprouting of the wheat or grain from the planted stalk. It is the food we put into our mouth and therefore represents taste. Taste is also: Touch + Shape. This means that the different tastes we experience come from touching different shapes. So Touch seems to be a more fundamental sense than Taste.

3 – Hearing (1/16 heqat or 20 ro):
This symbolises the ear and the figure points towards the ear on the face. Also, it has the shape of a horn or some musical instrument. The sound has a taste for us, causing a preference. Sound requires Touch + Taste and so is a combination of the lower senses.

4 – Thought (1/8 heqat or 40 ro):
This is thought. We often use our eyebrows to express our thoughts and this facial feature is closest to that part of the forehead we associate with thinking. Thought = Touch + Taste + Hearing. Thinking is a kind of surpressed sound. The language we think in is like the "touch" of muscle prior to giving voice. And of course, we have a "taste" for different types of thoughts.

5 – Sight (1/4 heqat or 80 ro):
This is the pupil of the eye and is pretty self-explanatory. It represents the action of seeing or simply the sensation of light.

6 – Smell (1/2 heqat or 160 ro):
This part of the eye points to the nose and it even looks like a nose. Naturally, it represents the sensation of smell.

The dying Pharaoh therefore probably sees the Eye of Horus as the loss of his senses to the power of death, and the "risen Osiris" is the equivalent of the Reaper in Western civilisations, waiting for him as he passes away. He reflects on his past life and he doesn't seem to have any remorse about having ruled the land with terror. He even pushes the sarcasm as to welcome his successor with "blood and red wine", apparently hoping that the dictatorial rule will carry on after he's gone.

The last verses deal with the infamous "Mummy's curse", a belief created by authors of fantastic fiction in the 19th Century and perpetuated by sensational press journalists in the early 20th Century when archeologists discovered and explored pharaohs' tombs. All this has of course a perfectly rational explanation, but it fits perfectly well with the Egyptian folklore and tales of long-dead pharaohs striking from the grave.

The term "Powerslave" can also arguably be applied to Iron Maiden, as they were at the time becoming increasingly popular and were caught in a vicious circle of album release / promotion tour, album release / promotion tour. There didn't seem to be an end and Bruce Dickinson wrote this song with this situation in mind. Nevertheless, despite many ups and downs, Maiden was going to enjoy a successful career for over 20 more years after the release of this album.


 

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5.0-star   Rime Of The Ancient Mariner (Harris) Commentary Lyrics Discuss this song in the forum

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Based on the famous 1798 poem (originally entitled The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere and re-written in 1817 mainly in order to "modernise" the archaic spelling) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), this is Maiden's greatest epic ballad. With a length of over 13 and a half minutes, it is also their longest song.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had met William Wordsworth in 1795 in Bristol and their subsequent literary association was one of the most fruitful, albeit sometimes stormy, in all of British literature. Attaining its peak with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, this team work led to the writing of a few great poems, one of them being the famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Like many other authors – including Poe, for instance – Coleridge has the reputation of being a poet who used drugs all along his literary career. His whole life was made of patches of debilitating addiction and painful withdrawal. Today's readers, used the the 20th Century's tales of recreational drugs and lethal overdoses cutting creative lives short, should keep in mind that Coleridge was not doing anything illegal at the time (the opiates he used were readily available, even if they were not always socially acceptable), and his drug-addiction did not result from opium use for recreational purposes: it was a pharmaceutical habit and he was convinced that narcotics played an essential role in his creative processes. However, it has been argued that the weirdest of Coleridge's images derive not from any chemical inducement but from his copious readings in not only literature, but also in philosophy, theology and all the sciences.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge The Rime of the Ancient Mariner originates from ideas that were discussed during one of the many long walks Coleridge and Wordsworth used to make. The seminal image of the poem came from one of Coleridge's Somerset neighbours, a farmer named John Cruikshank, who had dreamed of a skeletal ship, so that one could see through the hull. Wordsworth made other contributions in the form of a handful of actual lines, but even more importantly, with suggestions of not only of omissions but the all-important deus ex machina of having the Mariner's ship sink at the end of the narrative. But Coleridge chose the meter of traditional British balladry – a four-stress line followed by one of three stresses. He also made the decision to imitate the ancient language of balladry in order to create an atmosphere of antique wisdom. The Mariner himself is a variant of a folk-character of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, from the story of a Jew who refused to let Christ rest on the way to his crucifixion and, as a result, was condemned to travel about telling his story until Christ's second coming.

Coleridge used effectively a lot of archaic diction (e.g., "eftsoons," "rood," "uprist") in order to create an appropriate antique atmosphere. However many of these word were re-worked for the 1800 edition (even the spelling of the title went from Ancyent Marinere to the modern spelling). The poem itself is fairly long, comprising seven parts that can be analysed as follows:

  1. The Mariner mesmerises a Wedding Guest on his way to the celebrations. With no hesitation, the old seaman starts telling his tale, and, held by the teller's "glittering eye," the Wedding Guest has no choice but ignore the "merry din" and sit on a stone while the "bright-eyed Mariner" (Coleridge's first indication that the Mariner is a benign and not a malignant person) continues. He relates how he sailed on a ship toward the south, past the equator, and eventually to the Antarctic regions of "mist and snow," where the ice has an emerald sheen (a physical reality which Coleridge garnered from his reading). The reason of such a dangerous journey remains however unclear. As the ship seems lost in the icy seas, the crew is befriended by an albatross that seemingly appeared out of nowhere and they all hail the bird as a good omen. Shelvocke's Voyages, an 18th century travelogue which Wordsworth had read, gave some details about stories of the superstitious status of the albatross. The bird is hailed "in God's name" as a companionable spirit by the crew members and ,soon after his arrival, the ice breaks and the ship can make her way back to the North. However, in a capriciously evil moment, the Mariner tells the Wedding Guest with great trepidation, he took his crossbow (another detail which suggests a medieval time-frame) and shot it.

  2. Part Two of the narrative brings the Mariner's ship into the Pacific Ocean, and it sails up the South American coast. When the vessel is beset by fog, the crew members condemn the Mariner for having killed a bird of good omen which had brought the winds. But when the fog lifts, they reverse their attitude and praise his act. (Coleridge added a gloss to the poem in the 1817 edition which printed along with the poem in most editions, and even though some readers will find the commentary helpful, Coleridge is guilty of making assertions in the gloss that are not clear in the text. For example, the gloss claims that in "justify[ing] the same," the crew members "make themselves accomplices to the crime." Some complicity was necessary, since Coleridge's plan calls on them to die.) The ship carries on to the North until she encounters a zone where there is no wind to push her forward anymore. In the most famous passages of the poem, Coleridge depicts with maritime accuracy the desolation of the stalled ship. (We must remember that at the time he wrote this most famous of seagoing poems, Coleridge had never taken a voyage longer than the ferry-ride across the Severn estuary.) When a thirst plagues the crew, they revise once again their judgement and blame the Mariner for causing the anger of a spirit who had followed them from the southern seas and made the wind to abate.The parched-lipped crewmen hang the albatross around the Mariner's neck, replacing the cross.

  3. Then the skeletal ship inspired by the farmer's nightmare makes its appearance, first as a mere speck on the horizon. The Mariner is at first heartened by the sight of another ship and cries, "A sail! A sail!" But as the ship passes between the Mariner's ship and the "broad bright sun" (Coleridge accurately utilises the fact that the setting sun seems oval, just as a few stanzas later he describes how in equatorial regions darkness comes "at one stride," i.e., with virtually no twilight.) As the ship nears, the Mariner is horrified to see a ghostly female whose vile looks parody those of the bride in Part One. She is the "Nightmare LIFE-IN-DEATH" who is playing dice with Death. He hears her shriek "I've won! I've won," meaning that she has won the soul of the Mariner, who now must be alive among the dead crewmen. A crescent moon rises right after sunset, "with one bright star/ Within her nether tip." It is quite strange that in the instances of the color of algae thick ice floes and the quick-falling night, Coleridge could be so accurate, yet fail so utterly in these basic astronomical details. A new moon cannot rise after sunset, only at sunrise. Moreover, no star could be visible inside the tips of the "horned moon," since such is simply the dark surface of the moon. Yet an even more serious lapse of credulity comes at the end of Part Three, when, after the sudden departure of the ghost-ship, the two-hundred crewmen drop down dead. In any case, the result is that only the Mariner is left alive, as the souls of his shipmates leave their bodies. He is left alone with the corpses.

  4. At the end of Part Three, the Mariner tells how the two hundred souls went to their "bliss or woe" in a sound that was like "the whizz of my crossbow,", and the beginning of Part Four shows a frightened Wedding Guest who thinks that his narrator is a ghost. But the Mariner assures him that he remained alive in a world of death: "Alone, alone, all, all alone." He cannot even pray for heaven's help. Now that the crew lies dead, the only living creatures he can see are "a thousand slimy things" in the sea. All the while, the eyes of the dead men stare at him in savage accusation. After the mystical number of seven days and nights alone in a world of death, he stands on the deck under the benevolent influence of the rising moon (a popular Romantic symbol of the imaginative vision). He notes that the shadow cast by the ship in the moonlight is a "still and awful red." The pre-Reformation cross around the Mariner's neck, the prayer for "Heaven's Mother [to] send us Grace," and the fact that he knows they were the first to sail into the Pacific are strong clues that the story is medieval. Such ships would have been small ones, yet Coleridge says "four times fifty living men" dropped down dead. How he thought that two hundred men would be a proper-sized crew for a medieval ship remains a mystery. But the beauty of Coleridge's overall poetic vision and the haunting power of other images make these slip-ups pardonable. The ethical and philosophical pivot of the poem comes at this juncture, when in the enchanting light of the moon, he sees the very sea-snakes that he had ridiculed as "slimy things" the week before now seem quite different. The meaningless act of killing the albatross alienated him from the natural order. Now, with a heart chastened by loneliness, the creatures gamboling in the moonlight strike him as sacredly beautiful: "Within the shadow of the Ship/ I watched their rich attire:/ Blue, glossy green, and velvet black/ They coiled and swam; and every track/ Was a flash of golden fire." Coleridge manages to combine his scientific knowledge of bioluminescent life-forms with his powers of allusion to make their beauty reminiscent of purgatorial flame. He finally blesses them with his heart and the fact that the blessing came from some part of his consciousness not connected with his rational faculties shows Coleridge as advocating the superiority of the intuitive over the logical, one of the essential beliefs of all Romantics. Then, having learned his penitential lesson about the essential holiness of all life, including the water-snakes, the Mariner is attuned to the Divine again. The albatross, the cross-substitute, drops from around his neck. His sin of holding life as less than precious had been against Nature, and Nature has demanded that he do some act of expiation. Such is the rest of his life.

  5. Having returned now too a state of Grace, the Mariner falls into a restful sleep, and rain, the universal symbol of rejuvenation, falls on him. The return voyage can now begin. Coleridge uses the device of "a troop of spirits blest" occupying the bodies of the dead sailors and performing the tasks necessary for the voyage. As they work, the angelic spirits sing, their "sweet jargoning" filling the air with music. Once this work is done, the spirits leave the bodies again but the ship sails on, driven by the spirit that had followed her from the icy seas of the South. Although her course remains the same, the movements of the ship become short jumps that throw the Mariner onto the deck where he loses conciousness. Penance is not quite over yet.

  6. The ship carries on at an unnatural speed while the Mariner comes to and once again has to face his shipmates' dead bodies. The ship eventually reaches the North Atlantic, and the Mariner sees the landmarks of his native country. Now Coleridge is left with a plot dilemma: how to dispose of the ship, now a hindrance to the narrative in its unexplained presence. The spiritual crew flies off, leaving the corpses on the deck (note that they were supposed to have left already in Part V!). As the harbour is near, the Pilot's boat, with the Pilot's boy and a Hermit, approach the ship.

  7. Now that the spiritual machinery was disposed of, Wordsworth suggested that Coleridge merely have the ship inexplicably sink. The harbor Pilot, who sees the light of the angel-band and thinks it is a ship in distress, comes out. A Hermit, a holy man of the forest, comes with him and gives the blessings of the Church on his penitence. The Mariner is thrown into their boat and taken ashore. As they set foot on firm land, he begs the Hermit to shrieve him from his sins. Like the Conversion of St. Paul, the Mariner's learning of the holiness of all life is not just the end of his state of ignorance; it is the beginning of his apostleship. In his wanderings, the Mariner encounters people like the Wedding Guest who need the sermon and is compelled to tell his story and to teach by his experience that living creatures should not be killed for no reason. The Mariner invites the Wedding Guest to go to pray in the church with him, and he reminds him of the message of the tale: "He prayeth best, who loveth best/ All things both great and small,/ For the dear God who loveth us,/ He made and loveth all." The Wedding Guest leaves the joyful celebrations "like one that hath been stunned." The narrative concludes with the assertion that he rose the next day a sadder but wiser man. Wiser we can understand, since he has heard a story which teaches the essential sacredness of all life, but why sadder? No satisfactory explanation has been offered, except that he has been probably saddened by the Mariner's suffering.

The poem holds a position in the canon of being a poem that one reads in school, and therefore many readers see it as being like the story of Gulliver's voyages, a tale of adventure with some memorable phrases in it. Some, like Carlyle, dismissed the poem as "a lot of bother about a bird." The action is, of course, symbolic. The Mariner is the Romantic Everyman, the albatross Nature, and the penance-demanding spirits the Life-Force itself, which is as good a way as the Romantics knew to name God.

To further a bit this analysis, it should be pointed out that the poem can be read on at least three levels, two of which tending to overlap:

The literal level – The poem can be enjoyed simply as a suspenseful adventure story.

The moral level – This examines the poem as a fable of sin, penance, and redemption, drawing upon traditional Christian symbols and motifs. The Mariner's killing of the bird is a symbolic representation of the original sin. The punishment of the Mariner resembles the crucifixion and bears upon the scapegoat tradition of Christianity. His wandering and being forced to tell his story equals penance and his final redemption and reunion with society. (However, beyond a certain point, seeing the Mariner as a Christ figure doesn't follow logically.)

The allegorical level – This is similar to the moral interpretation, but without reference to the Christian myth. It sees the Mariner as an everyman figure who must come to grips with his isolation from society. It deals with sin in the universe and its overcoming.

The killing of the Albatross: While the Mariner sins against God on the Christian level, on the allegorical, the killing of the Albatross is a violation of the principle of cosmic love. In nature there is a moral pattern which demands of us that we demonstrate respect for the principle of life itself. The Mariner, "in contempt of the laws of hospitality," senselessly slays a living creature and shows man's capacity for blood-lust.

The deaths of the sailors: On both levels, the Mariner's fellow sailors must die. While at first they condemned the Mariner for his act, in the end they condoned it – hence they symbolically participate in the crime. (Also, they have no place in the dramatic development.)

The consequences of killing the Albatross: From a Christian standpoint, man is held accountable for what he does because he has freedom of will. From the allegorical point of view, Nature tends to look after her own; she is offended when her laws are violated. The Mariner must be punished and is by Nature herself. (Putting the bird around his neck shows the sailors trying to absolve themselves and make the Mariner a scapegoat figure.)

The Mariner's repentance: The Mariner cannot pray until he blesses the vile creatures unaware. This shows Christian humility and, at the allegorical level, a recognition of the principle of cosmic pity. Following this, he is on his way to be united with Nature. On the Christian level, he has repented and is ready to be saved; on the allegorical, he is ready to rejoin the great chain of universal life.

To conclude, it seems that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner captures an age-old dilemma: man's essential apartness in his loneliness. Man is alienated from the world. Hell, according to some iconoclastic theologians, is nothing more than such isolation (i.e., it is a state of mind). Subsequently, all of the above contribute to the poem's lasting appeal. Each reader leaves the poem, like the Wedding Guest, a "sadder and a wiser man"; that is, he or she is inititiated into the higher mystery which was shown to the Mariner through great suffering.

On a final note, I would like to point out that the Dover edition of the poem illustrated by French artist Gustave Doré (1832–1883) is a 77-page book that is well worth having and I would recommend it as an integral part of any well-furnished library.

Although the song's lyrics are an excellent summary of the story, they cannot do complete justice to this brilliant epic poem, and I highly recommend reading the original. Nevertheless, it is among the very best of Maiden's material, and a testament to Steve Harris's brilliant song-writing.


 

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