I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Monday, January 02, 2012

The Hazards of Love, Explained

I've been obsessing over the Decemberist's album the Hazard's of Love. It's a fantastic fairy tale love story told as a rock opera. Most of the story is relatively easy to follow, but there are some gaps that are left open to interpretation. I thought I'd take my stab at interpretting things. If you haven't heard the album, you can probably stop reading right here. I'm addressing this post to people familiar with the work who may be puzzled by certain plot points.

The grand arc of the story is easy. A maiden named Margaret rides into the forest and finds a wounded fawn. She attempts to help the fawn and before her eyes it changes shape into a man, William. Margaret and William share a night of passion. When she returns home, she longs for him, and soon discovers she's pregnant. She returns to the forest and reunites with William, who is deeply in love with her. But, William is the adopted son of the Queen of the Forest, and the Queen is jealous that her child's heart now belongs to someone else. A villianous rake who has murdered his own children passes through the woods, discovers Margaret, and kidnaps her. The Queen is eager to remove Margaret from the forest, so she helps the Rake escape by crossing a raging river. William chases after them, but his horse is afraid to enter the river. Having no time to build a boat, and with the waters too wild to swim, William begs the river to calm down and not drown him, and, in exchange, when he returns, the river can have his life then. The river accepts the bargain; William kills the Rake and when the villain enters hell he's greeted by the ghosts of his dead children who will torment him for all eternity. Alas, all does not end happily ever after, for William still has his bargain with the river, which floods the fortress where he and Margaret have reuinited. As the waters rise, William and Margaret accept thier fate and exchange wedding vows, so they will be united in marriage even in death.

The album contains these major mysteries:

1. At the end of the second track, "The Hazards of Love Part One," a woman can be heard shouting. What she shouts is tough to say, but I believe it is the Queen shouting "You'll feel my wrath, yes!" It's definitely a pissed off shout, and it's deep female voice, which matches that of the Queen. Musically, I think it's a tip of the hat to Pink Floyd's The Wall, where a shout leads into "Another Brick in the Wall"

2. Based on lyrics in the same track, there's some debate as to whether Margaret is a prostitute. I think, given the setting of a "bower," that she is instead a Lady in Waiting, who does entertain men, but chastely. I also think that the "sister" who comes to visit her in the next track is actually the Queen of the forest in disguise. The evidence is that when the "sister" speaks, the Queen's musical theme is playing. When she asks Margaret who the father of her unborn child is, she's searching for confirmation that William has betrayed her trust by falling in love with a human woman. My biggest argument that Margaret isn't a prostitute is that her pregnancy is a scandal to forces her to flee the bower. If the bower is a brothel, as some people argue, then an unwanted pregnancy was probably a pretty run of the mill work hazard, hardly worthy of fleeing into the wilderness to hide.

3. The most controversial claim I'll make is that one of the tracks on the album is out of sequence. Track 8 is The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid. In it, William asks for the freedom to enjoy the night as a man. The Queen agrees, but tells him she'll take his life come morning. However, William certainly seems alive on the rest of the album, so did she not keep her word? Also, William's pleas that he wants to enjoy the night come after he's knocked up Margaret, so he's already been having plenty of fun with his evenings, unless this scene is treated as a flashback or a memory. (In the song immediately before, William and Margaret sleep together beneath a sky full of stars, so perhaps William is dreaming.) In this light, his curse makes sense. The Queen has granted him the freedom to be a man during the night, but during daylight he changes into a white fawn. The Queen did this to ruin his chances of ever finding permanent love with a human woman, but didn't count on Margaret being kinky enough to be turned on by the whole half man/half fawn thing.

4. Another mystery is whether William is the Rake's son. The Rake boasts of murdering his son, burning the body, and burying the ashes in an urn. The Queen tells William that she rescued him from a "cradle of clay." The Queen tells William:

"How I made you
I wrought you
I pulled you
From ore I labored you
From cancer I cradled you
And now: this is how I am repaid?"

"From ore I labored you" could certainly be interpretted that he was nothing but minerals when she found him, which would certainly be the case if he was ash. The beauty of this interpretation is that it makes revenge against the Rake a double revenge. But, despite the poetic justice if it were true, I don't think this interpretation is correct. My main argument would be that the dead boy is singing right along side his sisters during the revenge song. William is one of the distinctive voices on the album, and this boy ain't him. Unless Colin Maloy, the songwriter, says otherwise, I think that William and the burnt son are different people.

5: In the last song, a lot of people seem to feel that William and Margaret are taking a boat back across the river and their ship is sinking, probably because the word "sinking" is actually used.

"Margaret, array the rocks around the hole before we’re sinking
A million stones, a million bones, a million holes within the chinking"

My objection to the boat theory is that William would have to be an idiot to go back to the river, and even more of an idiot to try to take Margeret back to his mother's kingdom. Also, what kind of boat is carrying a million stones? Instead, William has probably been clever enough to think he's not going to go back to the river. But, alas, the river comes to him, flooding the castle where he's rescued Margaret. He has no time to get her to safety. They've retreated to a chamber where they are trying to plug up all the holes so the rising water can't reach them, but the water is gushing through more tiny holes than they can fill. He knows he's brought this fate on her, but tells her that, if they must die, they will die as man and wife.

"But with this long, last rush of air let’s speak our vows in starry whisper
And when the waves came crashing down, he closed his eyes
and softly kissed her."

Thus, death may bring an end to life, but not to love.

Obviously, there's no definitive way of knowing if these interpretations are correct, but I think it's a pretty good mesh with the lyrics. The only remaining point I'm undecided on is whether Margaret is still pregnant when she dies, or if she had the child earlier. In the seventh track, she sings:

"And isn’t it a lovely way
We got in from our play
Isn’t it babe? A sweet little baby"

Is she still pregnant as she's singing this? "A lovely way we got in" could mean that she's pregnant. But, the way she coos "sweet littly baby" makes it easy to imagine she's cradling the child as she sings. If so, what is the fate of the child? It seems odd that it would just vanish from the lyrics. But, I can't see anything that makes a case either way. It's probably the most unsatisfying mystery of the album, since there are no real clues to work with.


tmillermsu said...

Discovered your blog after searching google for interpretations of this album. Never heard of your books, but I'm a big fantasy fan, so I'll have to give you a read!

I like your take on Hazards, for the most part, especially the idea about the castle flooding. I always wondered where the hell they got a boat from.

As for the child, I like to think it had been born some weeks prior to the climax, and was with Margaret when she was abducted. After discovering Margaret missing, William takes the child and chases after the Rake. He leaves the child on the banks of the Annan as he crosses. After the death of his parents, the Forest Queen discovers the secreted child, and raises him as her own, beginning the cycle again. Nothing in the lyrics to support this, but it has a nice poetry consistent with the story, I think.

Love the album, and all the interpretations it brings!

James Maxey said...

Thanks! You realize this is how religions get started don't you? The right combination of poetry and vagueness triggers obsession. Certainly, it all must mean something!

Kat Baze said...

I know this is an old post, but there were just a couple things I saw that really jumped out at me that I disagreed with (while I do think you're pretty spot-on for the most part).

1) When the Queen promises to retake William's life, I don't think she literally means his life as in she is going to kill him. I think she more means his freedom, as in "Okay, you can go and have your fun tonight, but once you come back in the morning, you are mine." However, it would appear that William doesn't keep his promise and tries to run off with Margaret, which is what causes the queen to retaliate and allow the Rake to take Margaret.

2) I do think William goes back to the river. I don't think whether he's stupid or not has anything to do with it. However, he has made two bargains/promises: One to his mother, which I mentioned above, that he will go back to stay with her (and therefore be without his beloved Margaret). The other promise, obviously, was made to the river that, if it would just let him pass to rescue Margaret, it could take his life. He knew that even if he didn't go back to the river to honor his end of the deal, his mother would probably eventually catch on and find him (as she is the spirit of the whole forest and is very powerful), and she would take him back and who knows what would happen to Margaret? So I think William decided that of the possible outcomes of that moment, taking Margaret's hand in marriage and sacrificing their lives to the river was the best possible choice.

Despite having been familiar with this album since it came out in 2009, there are still things that I rethink here and there! I just listened to it again today and started peeking through interpretations again. I don't know if you will see this comment with the post being a couple of years old, but I just wanted to contribute those two points :)

Andrew Van Herik said...

I've been wondering about the story of this album for years and finally this blog helped me understand. As a lit teacher, I'm a bit ashamed to admit that, but it's true. Thank you for your hard work analyzing the lyrics and looking at the story. Such a valuable piece of work here. Thanks again!

James Maxey said...

You're welcome, Andrew! Also, to Kat Blaze, I'm sorry I never noticed your reply before now. I don't remember ever getting a notice about your post, alas. I do think your interpretation is perfectly plausible, and avoids the fractured timeline of my interpretation. The only argument I see against it is that the last song does start with him trying to plug holes to avoid sinking, so he doesn't seem to be willingly going into suicide at first. I'm kind of glad the album is a little vague here... if everything was clear, I doubt I'd have listened to it as often as I have.

Kat said...

I agree! I feel like I notice (or reinterpret differently) something new with every listen. It really is great!

Julie said...

6 years later, and I am listening to this album for about the 1,000th time and with time on my hands decided to find some answers to some questions I've had since the earliest listenings. Thank you for this interpretation. It's what I thought, although I always had a little issue with the Rake and wondered where he came from. (It's one of my favorite parts, especially since I love Robyn Hitchcock and this fits him perfectly)

James Maxey said...

You're welcome, Julie!