Thursday, May 12, 2005

Steeleye Span: "King Henry"

"King Henry" could in some ways be considered the definitive Span song: the story of chivalry rewarded is very redolent of English legend and folklore, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the Wife of Bath's Tale in Chaucer. And the instrumentation and particularly British intonations of the singing only serve to deepen the impression of archaicism--this is the band in a nutshell. It's the song that my father played for me when I was curious about the band and wanted to hear what they were all about. Obviously, it stuck.

Picking apart the song in a literal manner isn't really fair, since it's essentially an allegory, but will I let that stop me? Not bloody likely! Because when you think about it, you can't help but notice some significant weirdness.

Obviously, we're meant to think that Henry accedes to the fiend's demands out of chivalry rather than sheer terror, which is what most people would be operating on the basis of. Fair enough: "a store of gold, an open heart, and full of charity." I have to say, though: it's one thing to let her eat his various animals. I mean, you can tell yourself, okay: feeding strangers at one's door is the most basic form of hospitality there is. It's quite another thing to...well, have sex with her. You might think that it's a stretch to claim that that's what happened, but that is only because the mental images it conjures up are so alarming. I don't see how else we can interpret

“I've met with many a gentle knight
That gave me such a fill,
But never before with a courteous knight
That gave me all my will.”

I think it's meant to represent sort of the ultimate incarnation of chivalric sentiment. Which is okay on a purely abstract level, but not so much when we try to think about it literally. Our first issue here is that it's very difficult to imagine that ol' Henry would be, um, capable of maintaining a state of arousal, under the circumstances. But beyond that, have we forgotten that she's a giant, whose head hit the roof tree of the house and whose middle you could not span? I really, really have my doubts that this would even theoretically be physiologically feasible. And...I would speculate further along these lines, but the fact is, this is a family blog, and this entry is becoming a lot dirtier than I had anticipated.

So sure, fine, whatever. So he sleeps with her, and she becomes the fairest lady that ever was seen. Huzzah! But...I don't know about this. First, I can't help but think that there's going to be some lingering resentment here over his having had to slaughter his animals in order to achieve this result. "I'm not kissing the lips that devoured my beloved Fido!" The linked-to page includes additional verses by some random guy in which the animals are revived in the end, which would make the whole situation considerably more palatable, but those are not in the actual song, so we shall not consider them. In any case, I know I would have a lot of trouble accepting this situation.

And beyond that, come on: Henry is a king. His new betrothed is some random she-demon who barged into his hall and demanded that he kill his greyhounds. I don't CARE if she becomes the fairest lady that ever was seen. I can't help but think that htese two crazy kids are not going to have a lot to talk about. Honestly, what do you say?

"So...I, um, understand you're...a fiend that comes from hell."

"Yes. Yes, I am."


"From hell, yes. That's where I come from."

"That's really interesting."

It'll never last. The song, however, will. It's a classic, one of Span's defining moments, so get it today.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

What the heck is the origin of those lyrics--where did Steeleye find them? Some trove of folk songs, I guess, which are often not lacking in weirdness, but this one takes the prize, so I wonder if it has any sort of trail (as folk lyrics often do). Chivalry isn't what comes to my mind as the point of this song; if anything it seems closer to a pagan Mother Earth revenge song. I mean, it seems unlikely to be a coincidence that the king and his mates have been merrily slaying the fattest buck and sitting at their meat in their hunting lodge--the ultimate male activity and bastion--when along comes this female spirit who makes a point of forcing Henry to now slay animals he likes, and adds insult to injury by devouring them. The carnal bit at the end and transformation into fair lady seems unknowable -- is it a joke? Release of unbearable tension? Self-deception on Henry's part? No matter -- the song works best with a mysterious ending.

So let's hear from you scholars of ancient texts -- see if you can track this one down.

6:05 AM  
Anonymous erik pontificated to the effect that...

The sleeve of the orignal Vinyl reads: (Child 32) From 'The English and Scottish Popular ballads' edited by Francis James Child. More data on

I've been in love with this song ever since I first heard it (way back in the Middle Ages, that must have been).
Hope to have been of service.

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

It all comes down to allegory...
King Henry could be any man having the time of his live, being jolly with his mates and not acting that much responsible( hunting, feasting, playing around)... Now this is soon to come to an end > in comes the she-demon, who asks various offerings from him... all of wich are hurtfull or even insultive for him... At the end, she becomes the best thing that ever has happened to him > in this case his most beautiful wife (and queen) but put into a real life setting it could be anything...

So the moral goes like this: whenever one meets a responsibility or a destiny and he goes for it, no matter the cost and the offerings, the reward can be the most beautiful thing he or she has reached in life... It could be the Queen or the Crown of your life, your destiny, your True Will (let's add a little bit of Crowley, shall we?), if only you are willing to get through the offerings you will have to pay... No Pain, no Gain...

5:02 PM  

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