Monday, May 02, 2005

Steeleye Span: "Two Magicians"

And now for what's sure to become an ultra-popular feature on this site, in the unlikely event that I don't forget about/lose interest in it: ruminations on the subject of Steeleye Span songs. I should say, songs *performed* by Steeleye Span; unless otherwise noted, these are all "traditional"...but they're "arranged" by the band, whatever that might entail. So. Anyway. "Two Magicians."

As you know if you listen to a lot of the Span, they perform an inordinate number of songs in which young girls are seduced and abandoned by caddish young men (e.g., "The Ups and Downs," "Cold Haily Windy Night," "Royal Forester," "Seventeen Come Sunday"). We presume that this reflects a certain sort of sexual anxiety on the part of the society that produced them. But that is another discussion.

At any rate, at first glance "Two Magicians" seems to be a first cousin of this genre of song, featuring as it does the word "maidenhead" (a common feature), and the male magician's repeated attempts to deflower, in reality or symbolically, the female one. However. I think you will find that this song is considerably more interesting than that.

We must look at the song's tone. In the chorus, the maiden, in spite of the definitiveness of her rejection or her would-be lover, sounds more playful, or even flirtatious, than severe. "You have done me no harm," she notes, seemingly emphasizing that she has no reason to dislike him. And when she says:

I'd rather die a maid
Ah, but then she said and be buried all in my grave
Than to have such a nasty, husky, dusky, fusky, musky
Coal black smith

it really sounds more like teasing than a serious prohibition. She may be serious in basic intent, but she seems to see it more as a game than as a violent, life-or-death struggle.

This perception is enforced by the verses, in which she transforms into something to escape him, and he changes into something else to catch her. These could easily seem predatory, but they don't. When the song says:

She became a rose, a rose all in the wood,
And he became a bumblebee and kissed her where she stood

...well, that just seems romantic to me. A rose being kissed by a bee is not a violent or invasive metaphor. Quite the antithesis, really. And check it:

She became a nun, a nun all dressed in white,
And he became a canting priest and prayed for her by night.

That's funny, is what that is. Can't you just picture him looking like a priest from Final Fantasy Tactics? This seems like less a quest to violate and more like a numinous game of tag, where she chooses something to change into and he has to find something he can change into that can interact with her. And so it goes, until we get to the final verse, sung in a significantly more subdued manner by Maddy Prior:

She became a corpse, a corpse all in the ground,
And he became the cold clay and smothered her all around.

Whoa. That puts a new spin on things. What are we to think here? Presumably, this is in some sense meant to be real death; a conclusion to the song. Still, are we to construe it as a sort of "victory" for him? I prefer to think otherwise: that the previous transformation duels described are symbolic of much more; that they represent a kind of elaborate, life-long courting ritual, which culminates in this final "marriage." Note that she only says that she'd "rather die a maid." Having done that, why shouldn't they be together in eternity? Yes...all evidence to the contrary, I'm a romantic at heart. Which is probably why I HATE the last verse of this alternate version that I found:

She became a quilt, a quilt all on her bed
And he became a coverlet, and gained her maidenhead!

Gee. Quel excitement. Talk about stripping the song of all sense of drama. And the exclamation point is in the original, suggesting that someone somewhere thought that this was a clever/amusing ending. Talk about adding insult to injury. Goodbye to ambiguity! So much for romance! "He chased her for a while; then, he fucked her." How...edifying. I have no idea which version is more "authentic" (if such a judgment can be meaningfully made), this or the Span one, but in either case, Span made a good call here. I highly recommend this song; your local file-theft network ought to have it.

Whee, that was fun--I feel like the college freshman who gets away with writing a paper on "Textual Ambiguity in the Lyrics of Robert Smith" for a poetry class.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

> "Textual Ambiguity in the Lyrics of Robert Smith"

Hey now, Robert Smith was a fine lyricist. Sure, these days he gets by on repetitive combinations of "I," "you," "kiss," and "this" (not unlike Brett Anderson, only with a different set of words), but I still think Disintegration contains some fine writing. Particularly the title track. But hey, it's not like I'm objective on the subject of the Cure or anything.

- SK

5:09 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

Hey, I have no problem with The Cure...Killing an Arab, Fascination Street, Wrong Number...fine tunes. It's just college kids trying to write papers about popular music in general that I find amusing (I think there was an Onion article about this a while ago), and The Cure seemed like exactly the type of band one would try to pull that with.

6:41 PM  

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