The Decemberists’ “The Hazards of Love”: An Interpretation

The new Decemberists album was loosed last Tuesday, March 24, and has been met with enthusiasm almost universally.  I purchase only a few discs a year these days, preferring to spend the majority of my music dollars online.  This disc, I knew in advance, would be one of my purchases.

Upon purchase, I quickly came to understand that “The Hazards of Love” is a concept album in the truest sense: the songs are a single, uninterrupted blob – continuous sound from the haunting opening notes of “Prelude” to the final waves of “The Hazards of Love, Part 4.”  The challenge, as with any Decemberists offering, is to decipher the meaning of the often Victorian-style lyrics, and with “The Hazards of Love,” it’s proven to be a challenge.  However, within, find my interpretation of the Hazards of Love story.

Before I get into it, let me address a few complaints I have with this album:

  1. The CD liner smells like a camel pen
  2. The font in the liner booklet is far too small, doubling the challenge
  3. That’s it

I have no other complaints about this disc at all.  In fact, I’ve read only two complaints online, the first being that the talented Jenny Conlee is underused.  To those who have noted that, I urge you to relisten.  Her harpsichord, the Hammond, and her accordion can be heard throughout the album, and while she certainly takes a backseat on some songs, she provides depth to many of the themes that might otherwise deliver much less forcefully their message.

To those  who felt this album is too “heavy metal” and too far a departure from previous Decemberists material, I ask you to relisten paying greater attention to the story.  There is no unnecessary “metal” here.  There is only emotion to properly align to the lyrics.  The queen is accompanied by loud electric guitar.

So, let’s get on with it, shall we? Please read on, I’ll include my entire dissection of “The Hazards of Love.”

The Hazards of Love

The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)

MargaretThis song sets up the entire story.  We learn right away that a young lady – who we will later love as our heroine Margaret – goes horseriding out past the fields, far from home.  She crosses into the forest, as she often does, and comes upon a young deer at the edge of the forest, injured and limping, but despite the rapidly approaching dusk (“white and green and gray“), being a woman, the fairer, caring gender, she dismounts and tries to help the fawn.  Before she can assist, she feels a sharp shake of the ground, and the fawn shifts shape into a man.  She glances upon the man and falls immediately in love with him, and he with her.

They have sex, right there, in the forest, upon the forest floor, flowers and leaf beds (the “thistles“) providing the only padding.

Later, back in the grounds of the village,  the ladies relax and chit-chat, worry-free and without care, except one: our Margaret, who is otherwise distracted and thinking of her William and their marvelous encounters in the forest.

A Bower Song

Margaret’s sister, or perhaps just another maiden (Edit: or a nun), approaches and says to our heroine, “Don’t cry, Margaret! I know you’re pregnant, when are you going to give birth? And, by the way, which of the jerks around town is your baby daddy?” (I had some trouble with the line “when wilt thou trouble the water in the cistern“, but I’ve decided that troubling the water must mean draining it or reducing the level, which would mean an event that would require lots of cleaning, in short: the birth.)  [Update 2010-04-12: By far, the most popular debate in the comments is the relevance of the line “trouble the water in the cistern.”  It could mean the birth, it might reference Margaret’s next cycle, or it may even suggest a baptism.  Truth be told, it’s irrelevant.  All basically hint at the same thing: her peers suspect she’s pregnant. The specifics of the line are generally unimportant to the storyline.] As Margaret’s baby bump begins to show, rather than stay with the maidens and be exposed, she packs her things and heads back to the forest to find her William.

Won’t Want For Love

Our Margaret makes her way back to the forest in search of William, begging the forest as she goes to create a path to lead her to William and to alert him that she seeks him.  As she grows tired, she makes a bed in the forest, just as she and William shared a leafy bed in moons past.

Meanwhile, not so far away, William calls to Margaret, he pains to be with her.

The Hazards of Love  2 (Wager All)

WilliamWilliam finds Margaret and they declare their love for one another.  William tenderly confesses that he feels more for her than just a need for sex, rather, he loves her.  He lays her down in soft clovers and makes love to her beneath the sky.  In post-coital bliss, he tells he that he wishes that they could lay together all night, naked, until the morning birds sing.  We’ll later learn that he explains his predicament: his mother, the Queen of the Forest, she who rescued him from a clay cradle in the rough rivers, has cast a spell upon him.  He will live the remainder of his days as a fawn by day, a man only by night.  But he will risk everything for Margaret, he will face his mother, in due time…

The Queen’s Approach

Unbeknownst to our lovers, William’s adoptive mother, the Queen, approaches.  Our lovers, in great haste, part ways once again. Update: I’ve been rethinking this. It makes more sense that the Queen catches William and Margaret, and as a result, she forbids William from going out at night. That’s why they’ve spent nights together, but he must beg his mother to let him out in “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid”.

Isn’t It a Lovely Night?

I like to believe that our lovers sing this song while together, but it makes more sense to me that as Margaret soliloquizes from her perch in the forest, William sings from afar.  Margaret remains, perhaps, in the bed of flowers and clovers referenced earlier that she and William had shared.  She cherishes her baby-to-be, the child of William.  William, retreating to his forest dwelling, smiles giddily remembering how the breeze bent the leaves which tickled him as he made love to Margaret in the brush. Each agrees that in many ways, parting again is like dying a little death. Update: As pointed out in the comments below, “little death” is middle English slang for orgasm. Make of that what you will.

The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid

The Queen

Now the story gets interesting.  The Queen — William’s adoptive mother — finds William, and although she hasn’t caught him in the act,, she knows that he’s been out sleeping with a woman.   In anger, he tells her that he heard her coming, her approach was betrayed by the weight of her footsteps, much like black smoke covering a coffin precedes a funeral. He tells her that he wants this night to do as he pleases, for the need to be with her is strong, and although he can suppress it from time to time, sometimes, he cannot (hence, the wanting comes in waves).

She responds: “Hold on, I saved you from the river.  I cradled you.  I raised you.  I protected you.  You belong to me.  And now you want the night, the only time you’re a man, to spend with other women?   This is how you repay me for the years I spent as your mother?”

He bargains with her; he makes a foolish, pennywise offer: let me free for this one night, and I will return by dawn, and I will be yours forever.  Of course, we already know, he’s planning to run with Margaret.  After all, he’d “wager all.”

Th mother thinks this over and carefully responds: “Ok, you can have tonight – total freedom.  But here’s the catch, as you promised, come morning,  you belong to me for all future nights.  You just cashed in your one favor, m’boy, from here on out, we’re sqaure.”

An Interlude

Relax and enjoy friends, we’ve now the backstory, here’s where the adventure begins.

The Rake’s Song

The RakeEnter: The Rake.  The Rake is a vile man, married young.  The first 9 or so months of marriage was great, as he got lots of sex from his wife.  Of course, there was one unintended consequenece: she started having babies.  However, when delivering her fourth child, she and the baby died, leaving the rake with three kids and no chance to have the amount of sex he was craving. So he sets about to change his life: he poisons Charlotte by feeding her bad flowers.  He drowns poor Dawn in the bathtub.   And while his son Isiah struggles admirably, nonetheless, he kills him, and in response to the fighting, he burns the body.  Though we might think he’d be bothered by all of this, he assures us, it’s never really bothered him.

The Abduction of Margaret

The rake hides in the bushes, the very same bushes in which William and Margaret enjoyed their first enounter together.  As Margaret passes, the rake grabs her, binds her hands, throws her over his shoulder then across his horse, galloping away.  Then he comes to Annan Water, the uncrossable wild river, the very river from which the Queen once rescued baby William!

The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing

Here we learn the backstory to which I referred above: the Queen, she of the very fabric of the forest, found William in a clay cradle.  She took the poor baby and gave him the form of a fawn by day.

“So,” she says to the Rake, “since you have kidnapped Margaret, the only thing that has ever tempted my poor boy to defy me, I will fly you over the uncrossable Annan Water, so that William will be unable to chase you.  In exchange, you may keep young Margaret, to do with as you will, including raping and killing her, if you so desire.”

Annan Water

Meanwhile, William discovers that Margaret is nowhere to found, and upon tracking her trail, soon learns that she has been abducted.  He begins his quest to rescue her, but soon finds himself at the bank of Annan Water, the uncrossable river.  The river is far too wild and untamed to be crossed without a suitable boat of some sort,  a device which he neither has nor has time to make.  His horse would never make it across, and his mother has warned him many times that attempting to cross on horse would certainly end in his death.

But William is close, and can hear poor Margaret’s screams.  He is due to return to his mother for eternity and Margaret is captured by the Rake.  Desperate, he beckons the river: “Please, river, let me cross.  As I cannot grow wings and fly across, calm your waters and let me save my love.  If you do this, I will return, and if you desire, you can have my body then.  I will willingly submit myself to you.  Just let me pass to rescue my Margaret!”

Margaret In Captivity

The Rake, in one of the particularly creepy moments of the tale, paces about the bound Margaret in a small, abandoned forest castle, leans in, and tells her pointedly, “My swan, do not struggle, as you will only cause yourself rope burns or break your precious wrists and fingers.

But she calls for William.

Don’t bother getting your hopes up,” the Rake continues, “no one will hear you, and no one will find you.  At least not before I’ve raped and killed you.

But she calls for William!

The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)

The song begins with theme from “The Wanting Comes in Waves,” which we know, by now, is William’s theme.  William comes for his Margaret! But is he in time?

But wait! What is that sound? It’s the ghost of Charlotte, come to warn her father that his children have returned, she rises. Enter Dawn, chastising papa for keeping the water running, but fear not – she breathes again.  And Isiah,  the struggling son, has returned as well.  In fact, the Rake is driven mad by the return of his vengeful children.

The children have saved Margaret temporarily, but for long enough?

The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)

The lack of lyrics here leave much of the story up to us, so here is how I see it: as the Rake is struggling with the ghosts of his late children, William triumphantly bursts into the fortress, killing the Rake, and saving his Margaret!  He pulls loose her binds and they leave the body of the Rake behind to be forgotten.

The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)

No Decemberists adventure is complete without a tragic ending.  This one bothers me more than most.  I wish it didn’t end this way, but I think it’s clear what happens.

William and Margaret are now stuck on the far side of Annan Water.  They attempt to cross, but the waters, obeying William’s one-time wish, attempt to claim his body, as he promised.  He cannot escape Annan Water like he did his mother.  So, as he and Margaret struggle to stay above water, William asks Margaret to marry him, with only the waves to witness their matrimony.

William’s debt to the water exists, of course, only because he decided to rescue Margaret and Margaret knows this. What is left for our star-crossed lovers? William can only be a man during the night, which is already promised to his mother, who will stop at nothing to prevent Margaret and William from being together. Margaret cannot return home with child. William cannot stay in the forest, as he has crossed his mother, and she has sent the Rake after Margaret. It looks like there will be no happy ending for our hero and heroine.

In their last moments, they swear eternal loyalty to one another and share a final and touching kiss as the air rushes from their lungs and, then, gently and willingly, they submit to the rough waters of Annan.  And with that, our poor lovers break the surface and rest, entwined, at peace, undisturbed, in Annan Water, for eternity.

————————-

What we don’t know is whether or not the child has survived.  It would be nice to think that Margaret has actually delivered the baby and that the poor child survives.  It’s funny to think that somehow, William himself was abandoned in the forest.  However, it seems unlikely that Margaret would have been wandering for the Rake to seize her without her baby.  I fear the child has gone to the eternal rest with his parents.

Either way, it’s sad to think that William and Margaret were unable to escape and live happily ever after.  I’ve listened to the album several times through, and I fear I cannot find any way to bend the story such that they don’t die.  Unfortunately, this is one section of the lyrics that is relatively straightforward.

Flyer

A note on geography: the first Hazards of Love makes reference to Offa’s Wall. Offa’s Dyke is, according to Wikipedia, “is a massive linear earthwork, roughly following some of the current border between England and Wales.” That, it would seem, puts us in the British isles. The Rake’s fourth child was named “Myfanwy,” which is an Welsh name, which seems to set us firmly in Welch territory. The only hesitation I have on this is that the taiga, referenced a few times, doesn’t extend to Wales.

Taiga

There is a town called Annan Water in Scotland, not far from Glasgow, which I found by simply Googling Annan Water. It doesn’t appear there is taiga in Scotland, although there are apparently “taiga bean geese” which are nearly extinction. Given that Annan Water is in Scotland, but Offa’s Dyke in Wales, I think it’s safe to give Meloy and crew some poetic license and simply conclude that it’s either Wales, England, or Scotland. I’m even willing to grant that the “taiga” we’re referring to is only cold forest, but that, for literary amusement, we’re calling it taiga. I may be wrong here, but I don’t think it’s necessary to plot the location with GPS precision.

The incredible story of this album is puntuated by the recurring themes of the music and the associated voices.  I am absolutely haunted by Queen, voiced by the incredibly vocally gifted Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond.  Her last note of “Repaid” is one of the most amazing moments of the story.  She conveys the Queen’s seriousness in one dramatic note.

The tragic story of The Hazards of Love is one that is best understood upon multiple listenings.  Take the time to pass over it more than once before passing judgement, as a complete package, it’s absolutely enchanting.

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182 thoughts on “The Decemberists’ “The Hazards of Love”: An Interpretation

  1. Michele says:

    thanks for this explanation. after listening to it 20 times i had almost gotten a grasp on it. but alas, colin meloy’s lyrics sometimes reach far beyond my vocabulary and always throws me curveballs. but your interpretation went hand in hand with mine and cleared up many of my questions. thank you for taking the time and writing this out. i completely appreciate it.

    always
    michele

  2. Jason says:

    Thank you so much for writing this up. This album is amazing and I was having a little bit of difficulty understanding the story as a cohesive thing. I tend to glaze over and treat Colin as another instrument and end up missing crucial bits.

    I agree about Shara Worden.

  3. Josh says:

    Random eprops here.

    Thanks for writing this up, it’s nice to have the entire story sorted out in a logical fashion. I just wanted to help you with one thing: Le Petit Mort is a common french phrase that translates literally as “The little death”. Le Petit Mort is used to refer to the post-orgasm feeling after sex.

    Oh and this might just be me, but the line “A forest’s son, a river’s daughter” led me to believe that Annan Water might be Margret’s parent and therefore troubling the water in the cistern may be meant as her telling her mom/dad about the pregnancy. Just a thought.

    Anyway, I figured it’s the least I could do since you either have the vocabulary to match wits with Colin, or you took the time to look up all those big words 🙂 Thanks again!

    Josh

  4. CORBIN says:

    Thanks for taking the time to fully explain it, its good to know i was on the right page,

    At first i entertained the idea that there was no magic, that “fawn” was only a literary device for innocence, and the queen was only an overprotective mother, but your right its a little more strait forward than that….. or less strait forward…. in any case magic makes everything better:)

    Its funny my brother got so caught up in the music of things that he freaked when i showed him that the rakes song is about killing babies, ill play the guitar lick late at night just to creep him out

    Oh ya and holy mother can the chick who sings as the queen sing, im not always about
    female rock vocalists….. but shes awesome.

    • Sean says:

      Haha this reminds me of an experience I had with my father. We had recently bought and listened to Castaways for the first time, and he told me how much he liked July July. I told him it was about murder and he was freaked out ;0

  5. Kris Whyte says:

    This is terrific. One small note, though. “Died our little deaths” isn’t nearly as poetic as you interpreted it — it actually means orgasm. Pretty sure it dates back at least as far as Shakespeare.

  6. miles says:

    thanks so much for this..

  7. purchasedgirl says:

    Excellent Interpretation. I was listening/looking at lyrics while reading through and I think it’s pretty dead on. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this!!!!!

  8. DM says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I had much of the story down but not all of it. After reading this & then going back through the cd & listening/reading lyrics you sound dead on in your interpretation which just makes it an even more powerful story than I had first thougth! Very nice : )

  9. Danny says:

    Wow! Thanks so much. This really put the missing pieces together for me, especially with the last few songs. I had interpreted the chorus of the last song, “But I pulled you…,” to be The Rake joining them in death. But your interpretation makes a lot more sense. William and Margaret are saying to each other that they’ve pulled each other into “these hazards of love.” It makes me feel much less disturbed about the ending. It’s perfect and even kind of happy.

  10. Johana says:

    “Trouble the waters of the cistern”, in my humble opinion, meant to stain them red, from the blood of a period….Margaret, being pregnant, would have not done this in a little while, and of course her snoopy sister has been checking to see, noticing her sister’s change in behaviors.

    • Gvette says:

      This seems the best and most likely correct interpretation of the “cistern” line of any I’ve seen. Props.

  11. Lisa says:

    Wow..you are as obsessed as i am! I am a major Decemberists freak. Not since The Who, Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention (stuff I grew up on and that I am convinced little Colin must have unearthed from his Dad’s attic) have I encountered such amazing melodies joined with incredible lyrics. I saw them last November and that was AMAZING..Now I am headed back for more when they come to Radio City this June. I’m only expecting the moon and the stars and the planets to align. And this time, I’m bringing my kid.

  12. stephenonmusic says:

    Could “Trouble the waters of the cistern” be a reference to breaking the calm (waters) by stirring things up and telling everyone about her scandolous condition?

  13. Jackie says:

    I really like your interpretation of the story. It explains a lot that I didn’t quite understand (such as the placement of certain events).

    However, I took the “trouble the water in the cistern” line to be referencing the basin of holy water in a church. One of the nuns is asking Margaret “Look, I know you’re pregnant… when are you going to go to church and repent for your sin?”

    Then, Margaret, realizing that she will be judged by the other nuns in her convent for her “sin,” retreats to the forest to be with William.

    • Gvette says:

      ‘Cistern’ is more often associated with the water for a WC, not holy water. If it were holy water he were referring to, I think the knowledgeable Colin would have used ‘font’ or ‘aspersory’. Just a guess.

  14. ryan says:

    My friend gave me a slightly different interpretation of the song, with a sort of never-thought-of-that interest, but i think it holds water.

    The main part comes in The Hazards of Love 3 and one line from The Queen’s Rebuke.

    My friend argues that William is actually Issac, The Rake’s son.

    During the Queen’s Rebuke, she says he found William in “A cradle of clay”. Remember, the Rake burned Issac’s body due to Issac fighting back. This cradle of clay is Issac’s urn.

    Then comes The Hazards of Love 3. William shows up to save Margret, and the Rake sees him, recognizes his child who has returned, and goes mad. This also accounts for The Rake’s daughter saying how his children have come for revenge. Specifically, the one who fought back.

    Anyway, i find it a really cool interpretation. Hazards is a great album (though i think i like Castaways a bit better)!

    Seeing The Decemberists in May. Cannot wait.

    • Jac says:

      burn 2 (bûrn)
      n. Scots
      A small stream; a brook.

      [Middle English, from Old English burna; see bhreu- in Indo-European roots.]

      ^ According to dictionary.com . So perhaps, the body wasn’t ‘burned’ by fire, but ‘burned’ as in, thrown into the water. It also makes sense with it being a Scottish word and the area the story takes place in being Scotland. So, William is Isaiah in my head… Or maybe it’s 1 o’ clock and I haven’t quite slept in days and wanted to make a connection that wasn’t really there.

      • B. Fisher says:

        When the children return to haunt the rake, Isaiah says he was turned to ash. Its a fairytale so I think its possible Isaiah is Willliam, saved by the Queen, see “Queen’s Rebuke.” His sisters and Willliam as Isaiah put a period to the rake. Another post say that the fawn is a faun. That is incorrect. The album notes use the word “fawn.” I tend to agree with the interpretation the the Cistern lyric refers to M. doing the “honorable” thing and drowning herself. This gives an explanation as to why she flees to the forest searching for her fawn-lover. Any explanation as to what happens to the baby? Did M. give birth, or did she die pregnant? My opinion is that M. dies while still with child. The birth would deserve a song. The album is about lust/love not about living on for the sake of the child. Everyone in the story is self-absorbed; concerned with their own desires, “the wanting comes in waves”, not about sacrificing for another. That is why the story must end with everyone in misery. No one acted in the best interests of another. It would be better titled “Hazards of Lust.” Anyone who has a child knows about self-sacrifice. This as a fairytale works because it is a cautionary tale and deep in our Puritan hearts we are satisfied that the lovers got their just reward for illicit sex. Now don’t kill me over that, I’m just analyzing it. I don’t believe anyone deserves death because they had sex, just an old English major interpreting a fairytale.

  15. […] I haven’t been able to listen to the entire album as I’d like, but this guy went to exhaustive lengths in his interpretation of The Decemberists’ “Hazards … […]

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP (75.119.220.5) doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP (75.119.220.247) and so is spam.

  16. sev says:

    I believe that the up-tempo part before the children singing actually represents the fight as William kills the Rake, and he’s dead when the children return to him, the second up-tempo reprise immediately after is simply the reunion of William and Margaret. The reprise ends so chaotically because of the lack of a way out and the sheer level of emotions between the two at that moment.

  17. Thekla says:

    thanks for the story! I tried to figure it out myself but kind of failed. However, I believe that Margaret delivers her baby before they try to cross the river – already knowing that they will drown. This way the circle is complete: it started with a baby abondened in the forest and it ends with it. That would be pretty decemberisty.. moreover: the baby would contribute nothing to the story, if she was just pregnant and that’s it. No, I really think she had her baby but had to abandon it in the forest.

    • Aidan says:

      That would be sad…. It would mean that the Queen may have another baby to care for and the tragedy may repeat itself. 🙁

      However it is nice to have at least one happy conclusion to be left with, considering the heart-wrenching ending.

  18. Konstantine214 says:

    Thanks so much for this, The Decemberists’ music is definitely something that can’t be listened to just once to understand the entire story. I do have one speculation to make, and I`m not sure if you`ve already considered this, but I think “troubling the water in the cistern“ might be in reference to Margaret`s water breaking when she gives birth. That`s what I got from that line. 🙂

  19. Rachel says:

    This is amazing and I’m so glad I found it! I think the album is amazing, as most do. You’re interpretation made it even more cool to listen to. Thanks!

  20. Jason says:

    RE: the location of the story…

    Annan is actually a river in Scotland (not just a town). It would be difficult to place the story anywhere else, due to this fact.

    Margaret refers to a Mistle Thrush in “Won’t Want for Love.” The Mistle Thrush is a very common forest/farm songbird, found primarily in Northern Europe — certainly in Scotland.

    The term “taiga” refers to any predominently coniferous forest in a sub-temperate climate. Even Minnesota contains taiga, technically speaking. Scotland, being a smidgen farther north than Minnesota, could call many of its pine forests “taigas.” It’s true that “Taiga” generally refers to “The Taiga,” found just south of the northern tundras, but this is not always the case. Literally speaking, most biome maps place Scotland barely within the Temperate biome (but if you look at such a map, it’s unclear as to why!).

    So, Scotland it is, if you ask me. Thanks for the rundown, by the way! 🙂

    • Ed says:

      I appreciate the detailed explanation of “the Taiga”; at first I wasn’t sure if it was a geographic location or a metaphorical beast (and NOT just the horrible type of “beast”), but it seems that it could be fickle… with a chance to influence outcomes based on whomever was in its presence. Actually, there are a lot of metaphors used – duh! of course there are – but they are meant to make an all-to-common story seem grander in scope with a general rendering; but, then again, it IS a story about specific people in an unspecified time (though well before THESE modern times and likely before or near the beginning of the industrial revolution). The story dictates the music, rather than a beat and some riffs laid out, waiting for lyrics to be “insert(ed) here” later.

  21. Jason says:

    PS:

    Scotland is a perfect location for the couple’s final dilemma. If the hero crosses the river from East to West to save Margaret, then the pair could be trapped against the coast in some areas of SW Scotland. The river would certainly be its wildest as it nears the ocean, so this makes sense. This would force the pair to cross back over the river, especially if they were being chased (by the forest and its queen, as I imagine it occurring during the Wanting Comes in Waves – Reprise).

    As the pair narrowly escapes the forest’s onslaught from the west, they are finally pinned against the West bank of River Annan, leading us into The Hazards of Love IV.

  22. Rachel says:

    Could the water in the cistern be “when will your water break?” ie when is your due date?

  23. Eric Atkins says:

    It’s a faun, not a fawn. Faun, like in Pan’s Labyrinth: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faun

  24. Michelle Kalus says:

    I think that the “14 occupations paid” means they got their periods…but of course Maragret does not

  25. rounders says:

    Thou unconsolable daughter, said the sister
    when will you trouble the water in the cistern

    I interpret this to mean the sister is saying that since Margaret is single, pregnant, and distraught, her only honorable recourse is to kill herself. She’s asking “when will you throw yourself down the well and drown yourself?” Of course, Margaret eventually does drown herself but not because she’s forlorn about being pregnant, so this line is also foreshadowing her death.

  26. Travis says:

    This is one of the greatest albums of all time. The story is sooooo sad, yet so beautiful! I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out the plot, and this really helpful! Thanks for the Cliff’s Notes!

  27. macindot says:

    I took “troubling the water in the cistern” to mean an abortion. Maybe I’m totally off base, but, it seems to me, the sister is advising Margaret to terminate the pregnancy, seeing as she’s unmarried and can only assume the father is not the sort of person one would want for a husband (an “irascible blackguard”).

  28. rascalphoto says:

    Oh, Thank you for this. I just cannot get enough of this record. It seems that there was a pretty thorough wikipedia synopsis that disappeared. My disagreement lies in the ending. I thought that the Rake’s children killed him (flogged to death by the first wiki synopsis that I read) after he killed Margaret. In that last song, Margaret does not sing. I hear only William, who I thought had found her lifeless body. The only solace I find in the ending is that the Rake is dead and that Margaret and William will be together as ghosts. I wonder though, does William ever realize that his mother was instrumental in the tragedy? I swear, I have listened to this record 50 times and it still makes me weep.

    • graham says:

      I’m not sure about that, Margaret does sing in The Hazards of Love 4, just not alone, always with William, although it certainly is a very interesting and noteworthy interpretation.

  29. Meloyonnaise says:

    I don’t think there’s a boat in Hazards 4. The hole (around which Margaret is allaying the rocks) is the grave of their stillborn child, who died in utero, thanks to the Rake’s punishment.

    “Tell me now, tell me this: A forest’s son, a river’s daughter?”

    Seems to be William inquiring as to the sex of the child.

  30. Matt says:

    I agree with the assertion that Margaret probably had the baby. My interpretation of “Isn’t a lovely night?” seems to indicate that Margaret has had the baby and she and William are gushing over it during the song. “Providing us the holy light..” would seem to indicate some sort of wondrous event, almost like the manger scene in Christianity. Colin uses imagery from all kinds of different philosophies, so I wouldn’t put it past him to incorporate that type of imagery into the piece.

  31. meloyonnaise says:

    Isn’t it a Lovely Night, to me at least, seems more like a post-coital romantic imagining of their future together, which unfortunately, never comes to pass.

  32. rascalphoto says:

    I initially thought that Margaret had had the baby in “Isn’t it a Lovely Night?” too, but the other interpretation makes a lot of sense too. I like the idea of it being full circle. That, in the end, there is an abandoned baby left in the woods (after Margaret and William are gone). Then, it starts again with the story of Margaret finding William (the grown abandoned baby rescued by the queen). I don’t know about the idea of Isaiah being William, but it is interesting to contemplate (cradle of clay actually being an urn). And let me revise that yes, I do hear Margaret’s voice in the last song but it is so faint…I believe that William is singing to her in death.

  33. bachwords says:

    I would like to add this little tid-bit. Though it is not fully relevant to this interpretation, one of the lyrics that stood out to me was, “…your humble narrator…” at the end of The Rake’s Song. This seemed to me to be a reference to A Clockwork Orange, and revealed the similarities between The Rake and Alex. That of how they rape, murder, and are not bothered by their actions at all.

  34. macindot says:

    Yeah, “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” is totally post-coital. The “little death” that Melloy references is a pretty common euphemism for orgasm. Well, maybe not common currently.

  35. Woland783 says:

    Thank you man! i’m italian and so i really needed a guide like this to get through this beautiful, beautiful album. thanks again!

  36. sara says:

    Jungian symbols abound

    margaret; the symbol for feminine goodness, and trials she must go through for maturity and completion…nutururing, helpful, seeing the potential, healing, needing to break with the protected life around her (arthur’s castle), and the distractions of life ( 14 occupations), but knowing that even the best intentions cannot CAUSE a thing to change (the prettiest whistle cannot undo) ….william; the masculine, must learn to be a man at all times, not just in the night (subconscious), and overcome his animal instints (day). this involves him learning to let go of dependency of mother, who does rescue and nuture him in infancy, but this no longer works when he is ready for mature, partner/love. he is strong, willing male symbol, going through phases of growth. rake; symbol of male sabotage and all weakness: killing children born of love because he only can see sex (william makes distinction between sex and love), and control, can only love out of greed and need for own satisfaction. queen; symbol of over-dominate female power, needed in childhood, but inappropriate on maturity, alines herself with over-dominate male as each tries to control and hold down the emancipation and growth of healthy self. in the end, MY interpretation is the river is the collective unconscious, the healthy ‘death’ of immature self, where they both can be together in a real love (i caught you here, i brought you here, the hazards will not bother us)
    also, queen and rake see river as threat…even though that is where the queen found her son! margaret and william find it to be salvation…

  37. punchy sandoval says:

    Re: A Bower Scene
    “Thou unconsolable daughter said the sister
    When will you trouble the water in the cistern
    And what irascible blackguard is the father”

    We know they are in a bower, and that Margaret is visibly upset (unconsolable). A bower is either a bedroom or a sort of shady arbor. In either case, to me it provides the image of Margaret having separated herself from everyone, unconsolably ruminating on her plight. A nun is there (perhaps she happened by if it is in an arbor, or was summoned there by Margaret’s family if the scene takes place in a bedroom). “When will you trouble the water in the cistern?” to me is the nun asking her when the child is due. It’s a baptism reference. This makes the most sense because the follow-up/related question is regarding who the father is. So the nun says “When is the child due and who is the father?” As the pregnancy continues and Margaret becomes more visibly pregnant, and she knows such questions will only continue and her shame of being an unwed mother expose her to public ridicule. So off she goes to the forest.

  38. James17930 says:

    I agree — I also think ‘trouble the water in the cistern’ means an abortion.

    But, like others have said, thanks so much for this. I found myself getting confused because since Meloy sings all the male parts, I wasn’t sure when it was William and when it was the Rake and so forth. Since the Rake says he’s just the narrator, I thought he never actually came into the story, and he’s only included for a little dramatizing. I thought that William had actually turned evil somehow and abducted Margaret (which is silly now that I read you post).

    So anyway — thanks again.

  39. James17930 says:

    ^ I also thought Margaret might be a prostitute because of the line ’14 occupations paid to pass the idle hour,’ Margaret obviously not being able to help the ’15th’ due to her pregnancy.

    • Daryl says:

      “Fifteen lithesome maidens”
      If we go with the Old English meaning, they are gentle, meek, soft, mild. They way ladies should appear in an OE tale. They are in a bower, another OE term for a bedroom in a castle. Thus we can probably assume the “Fourteen occupations paid” is sewing, knitting, embroidery, things that women did to pass time “idle”. Because we all know that all women just love to sit on their butt and do nothing. *sarcasm* But Margaret won’t have any of this “you’re a woman, you’re only allowed to do these certain things.

  40. amy says:

    I agree with some of the comments above regarding “Isn’t it a lovely night?” I believe this is when Margaret has the baby. The tone changes so much within this song to such a gentle tempo as if they are singing the baby it’s first lullaby. I recently recieved the album as a gift, however I had know that this album was meant to be listened to as a whole. I went looking for others interpretations since I had my own strong interpretations. When I listened for the first time, I did not simply listen to it as I usually would do with a new album, but used the lyrics insert as a guide, as one might use a program while watching a play. I was practically on the edge of my seat at the queen’s rebuke.. and oh, when the rake entered the story… biting my fingernails… This album is genious and beautiful; hardly words strong enough to use. Never have I felt this way when listening to an album for the first time, and each time since. I have still been unable to fully listen to track 17. It brings me to tears from simply listening to the introduction to the song and reading the lyrics. Thank you Decemberists.

    • BlisterPlease says:

      I agree this is when Margaret has the baby. “And here we died our little deaths
      And we were left to catch our breaths so switftly lifting from our chests” is in past tense. Perhaps they are reminiscing about how their baby came to be?

  41. odonata says:

    I have to tell you that your interpretation is similar in many ways to one that I had written about a week before reading yours. I had the same trepidation about the taiga references before I took into consideration the time setting. If, as suggested by Meloy’s Middle English references, the story takes place sometime in the 14th-15th centuries, parts of northern England and Scotland could possibly be considered to have been taiga in nature. Prior to the deforestation of Great Britain which took place from Roman times up through the Pre-Industrial Era, much of the region was covered in boreal forest. The map you include in your interpretation indicates only what is considered the taiga today.
    The second question you seem to have about setting involves the “Annan Water.” I take the reference to be the River Annan in southwestern Scotland. The location would be right if The Rake is fleeing north from England to a stronghold in Scotland. The name “Annan” itself possibly comes from the Celtic word for water or, more likely, from the Gaelic “ann” or “ann an” meaning “in” or “into” (see MacBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language) which would also be suggestive of the manner in which our couple meet their tragic end.
    My interpretation has Margaret leaving her home in Wales, traveling east into northern England where she meets William and then abducted north into Scotland by The Rake.

  42. Keith says:

    An excellent guide to a wonderful album, probably the best new music I’ve heard in 10 years.

    On the location of the events – the story has a very strong resemblance to the tale of Tam Lin – a heroine called Margaret who meets a man in the forest, a man cursed by the Faerie Queen, she falls in love with him, she becomes pregnant and flees her family to join him in the forest, and together they attempt to escape the Queen’s curse. Tam Lin comes out happily and the lovers defeat the Queen, but the story up to that point is very similar.

    Tam Lin originates from the Scottish Borders, in the same area as the River Annan.

    Tam Lin has been recorded by many artists, notably both Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, whose musical influences seem to me to be all over this album, and by Anne Briggs – who also recorded an album called The Hazards of Love, from which the Decemberists got the title of this album..

  43. Fair Paul of Kent says:

    You ask And what of the baby of William and Margaret? Delivered in the swirling of Annan Waters as it’s parents drown, the river places the baby to safety in a cradle of clay, and so the the story is cyclical, history doomed to repeat itself for eternity.

    This is not such a far fetched fantasy, a familiar motif in popular culture, eg, 2001: A Space Oddesy. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and The Wall before start where they end, and vicey versey.

  44. Fair Paul of Kent says:

    OK, so some one else had already said it was cyclical. You don’t expect me to read all of this do you ?

    Right further listening leads me to this…

    I still think it’s cyclical, but that Margaret is pregnant, with twins! A boy and a girl. The baby boy, left in a cradle of clay, by the River, is the young William (or the next William), rescued by the Forest / Queen. The baby girl is Margaret (or the next Margaret). In The Bower Scene the ‘sister’ call Margaret “daughter”, indicating she’s an orphan. In the same song the results of her “amourous” [encounter] “entwine” within her. It takes two to entwine (see also My Sisters Tiny Hands, by the Handsome Family). William knows this by the end of the cycle, “A Forest’s Son, A River’s Daughter”, which is also why he submits so readily to death, the guilt of the incest. Come on, it’s the Decemberists. It wouldn’t be an proper album without a little bit of infanticide, incest and drowning!

    On the theme of cycles in popular culture, lets also bring in Wagner’s Ring, the Matrix and even Groundhog Day too.

  45. sara says:

    This is fabulous.

    I have a different interpretation of the phrase “and the wanting comes is waves” however. I disagree that he FORGETS his longing. I believe that the WAVES are pounding, much like the river. It leaves him breathless, it’s unrelenting, like waves crashing on a shore. I know this from experience, in my humble opinion.

    Also, “And we will lie like river stones, rolling only where it takes us” is the one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking lines i’ve heard in a long time. It’s brilliant and brings conclusion to a story relatable to us in the 21st century – still dealing with the ‘hazards of love’ (i believe that this is why this is the most clear and modern song on the disc)

    Just lovely.

  46. Fair Paul of Kent says:

    The Wanting Comes In Waves. The Waves are Margaret, in that she is of the water, as he is of the forest.

  47. macindot says:

    Fair Paul of Kent: I think the “entwine” in “Bower Song” is meant as a noun, modified by “amorous.” One doesn’t normally see entwine as a noun, but it seems to be the only interpretation that makes sense. Otherwise, we’re left with “the fruit of her amorous [blank] inside her.” So, the “entwine” refers to Margaret’s and William’s lovemaking, methinks.

  48. Howard says:

    I think that “trouble the waters in the cistern” is a reference to baptism, and hence birth. The word “trouble” in reference to water means to disturb it. Typically, troubled waters are storm-driven river rapids or stormy seas. Remember Simon & Garfuncle’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’? Thanks for a great interpritation of this excellent album.

  49. Howard says:

    Oops. Should have read through the comments before posting. Sorry for the dupe.

  50. Allison says:

    I feel like the story could be interpreted as a sort of eternal struggle: William was found in the water, rescued by the queen, and falls in love with Margaret. They conceive a child and die together in the water, but the cradle Margaret’s making (the stones, or clay) holds their baby, who floats to safety… to be rescued by the queen? And we start the whole thing over again.

    Also, someone referenced William being the Rake’s son, possibly, which is kind of a neat interpretation.

  51. Maddie says:

    “when wilt thou trouble the water in the cistern” is referring to baptism. the sister is asking margaret when they baby will be born and baptised.

    • plunderpants says:

      C’mon people! “When wilt thou trouble the waters in the cistern?” is simply “When are you going to have your next menstrual cycle and dirty the water in the cistern? You’re pregnant, aren’t you?!”

      Also, I think the whole “occupations paid” is a referrence to the other young ladies as prostitutes, who are “working”, while Margaret, instead, just lies and thinks of her William.

  52. Fair Paul of Kent says:

    Macindot, The Fruit Of Her Amourous Entwine: Yes, you’re right, I’m wrong. I’ve listened to it about twenty times since and came to the same conclusion.

    I still think Margaret has twins at the end though and not just the one baby, re A Forests Son, A Rivers Daughter. Both to be regenerated as their parents, and live the whole ghastly saga over for eternity. Where did those miillion bones in Annan Water come from?

  53. lisa says:

    fabulous. thank you so much~

  54. mike says:

    thanks!

  55. Esther Wakeman says:

    With regard to the line “When willt thou trouble the water in the cistern” – troubled water means water that is either disturbed or mucky/dirty (or both). Since giving birth involves a LOT of blood, the waters in the cistern would get troubled at that time. That’s what I think this line means. 🙂

  56. macindot says:

    Re: “Trouble the water in the cistern”

    Isn’t the story better if the phrase refers to an abortion? In that case, instead of people being innocently curious about when Margaret will give birth, they are pressuring her to terminate the pregnancy. It’s this pressure that causes her to flee back into the tundra.

  57. macindot says:

    Taiga, not tundra.

  58. Zoe says:

    Just to clear this up once and for all, I have a degree in English Literature and to trouble the waters in the cistern definitely refers to waters breaking, as many people have already commented, she is asking margaret when she is due and who the father is. It is NOT referring to having an abortion, drowning herself, having a period etc. etc. it’s as simple as that! I would also like to point out that yes annan is a river in scotland but offa’s dyke is clearly mentioned (in wales, like me!) as well as the welsh name myfanwy, i agree that poetic license has been used and the story isn’t set anywhere specific, just in ‘Britain’ in general. Great interpretation though, many thanks!

  59. macindot says:

    OK, Zoe, but if “trouble the waters” referred to a birth, why would the question be, “When wilt thou trouble the water in the cistern?” If it were birth that was being referred to, wouldn’t the voice be more passive? Women don’t break their own waters, and, in this sentence, it’s being asked when Margaret will perform an action.

    So, I don’t think it’s that clear, Zoe.

  60. Zoe says:

    It’s poetic! Believe me I’ve studied eough medieval literature, voices are rarely passive and people never say things directly. Some people look into things too deeply and overinterpret, but I guess some people have too much time on their hands!

  61. macindot says:

    I just don’t think, Zoe, that you can so easily dismiss a different interpretation. It’s fine if you disagree, but I don’t think you should attempt to “clear things up once and for all” because you have a degree. That’s not what people are looking for here, I don’t think.

  62. Rosie says:

    I’m going to have to agree with Zoe on the “When wilt thou trouble the water in the cistern?” line – it’s referring to the due date probably, not an abortion. I think the angry tone of the song is from the fact that the “sister” believes that perhaps Margaret was raped or the father is not taking responsibility for the child.

    I think the baby is born on “Isn’t It a lovely night?” and the song is Margaret and William singing a sort of lullaby to the baby: “Isn’t it babe? A sweet little baby” and remembering the night that they made love: “And here we died our little deaths/And we were left to catch our breaths” is in the past tense.

    I’m having trouble interpreting the last song, especially this set of lyrics:
    “And painting rings around your eyes, these peppered holes/So filled with crying/A whisper-weight upon the tattered down/Where you and I were lying”
    But the lines before sound like they’re making a cradle for the baby, so everything will come full circle.

  63. Laurel says:

    Perhaps the rake and the faun are one. It may be a commentary on man that is overly browbeaten by his mother and an unknown father. It never did say what the faun was at night. I think it is a very well thought out, and orchestrated fight of the inner hate of love struggle within all of us. Which of course ends up affecting our children and what they do. The sins of the father…

  64. macindot says:

    On “Hazards of Love 4 (Drowned)”: Is the line, “Margaret array the rocks around the hull?” Then it would seem like the two are in the boat William said he would build in “Annan Water” (“Build a boat that I might ford the other side”), and “the chinking” refers to gaps in the woodwork of the boat that are causing it to sink. Rocks don’t seem like an ideal way to fill a gap in a sinking boat, but I think it makes sense for the most part. Other lines in this song still really confuse me…

  65. Erin says:

    This is fantastic. I’ve always been a fan of them, not huge though, and was really thrilled about his album and seeing it performed live at Bonnaroo. They outlived my high expectations and put on a beautiful show. Although I knew a lot of the words I never really grasped the entire story, especially with the Rake and all, so you really set me straight and gave me even more reason to appreciate this album and Colin Meloy’s talents. Thank you so much!

  66. Zoe says:

    Laurel – The fawn is William, the Queen put a curse on him when she rescued him, fawn by day and man by night, so that no woman would ever steal him away from her – not that it worked! lol 🙂

  67. Ben says:

    I saw them at Bonnaroo and Becky Stark was wearing a white nun’s habit (all white nun’s outfit and veil) during the performance. I looked up online and saw that the nuns that wear all white are novice nuns (or new to nun-dom). So this would make sense that Margret is a nun and she went back to tell her nun friends.

    And thanks for this explanation, it really helped the whole thing make sense. I kept hearing taiga and thought he said tiger. My first thought was Margret was raped by a tiger in the beginning 🙂 How far off I was! Thank You!

  68. listener says:

    The Decemberists website has a downloadable version of the CD insert with lyrics.

    http://decemberists.com/downloads.aspx

    I think some people have a couple of parts backwards:
    i.e. river’s son, forest’s daughter not forest’s son, river’s daughter and also fawn not faun.

    Reading through the correct lyrics after reading the interpretation here might clarify some things for people posting.

    Any ideas on if “whisper-weight upon the tattered down where you and I were lying” could mean that the child was born and left when Margaret was captured or if the child was stillborn?

  69. Todd says:

    I just wanted to add my appreciation for all the work you’ve done here. I bought “THoL” a couple of months ago, but for some reason I only got around to listening to it last week. Since then, I’ve hardly listened to anything else, and this guide makes it much more enjoyable. Thanks, man.

  70. […] if you get an idea of what the "story" is for The Hazards of Love before listening to it. Here's a link with a pretty good interpretation. I liked the album, but I wouldn't call it their best […]

  71. […] if you get an idea of what the "story" is for The Hazards of Love before listening to it. Here's a link with a pretty good interpretation. I liked the album, but I wouldn't call it their best […]

  72. Andy R says:

    Could troubling the waters not be a reference to margerets water breaking, indicating the birth of her child?

    just an idea

  73. Andy R says:

    Oh, I see that has been pointed out. In any case though that would be my interpritation. Just because women dont break their own water doesn’t mean that it couldent be phrased that way. Just think about the logical progression of questions after the pregnency is revealed: “I know your pregnet… When is the baby due/when will your water break?” or “When wilt thou trouble the water in the cistern?”
    Also if margeret is a nun, this interprition makes more sence… Abortion as a general rule is frowned upon by religouse communities, escpecially in Catholisism.

    Anyway… I could be wrong. Just throwing that out there.

    Thanks for the whole interpritation it cleared up some murky spots on the album. And kudos to the decemberists… you just dont see writing of this caliber anymore and when something like this comes out its a definite refresher.
    Oh yeah… sorry for the spelling I’m sure its horrible.

  74. Michaela says:

    Lovely interpretation! I got the CD from a friend and noticed it was a concept album from the connections in The Rake’s Song and The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!). I then proceeded to Google the story behind it. 🙂 Thank you so much for posting this!

  75. David Y. says:

    Is the Rake really the narrator? If so, then is the very first line in the story “My true love went riding out” being narrated by the Rake himself? You would think this was William saying that line but it is confusing to me.

  76. David Y. says:

    Thanks Adam.

  77. jeff says:

    the explaination is great and this tour is a MUST SEE, i’m on # 2 and waiting for them to head west to catch them again. Hazards rivals pink floyd, yes, elo, or the strawbs as far as a story album goes. REALLY, GO SEE THIS LIVE, IT IS AWSOME!!!

  78. Jon says:

    In “Hazards of Love 4”, the line “A forest’s son, a river’s daughter” is transposed in the liner notes, so it’s written as “A river’s son, a forest’s daughter”. I guess “a forest’s son” makes the most sense relating to the forest queen/mother, but in a way I suppose William was born from out of the river when the queen saved him, so perhaps that’s an interesting interpretation. I’m not sure what would make Margaret a daughter of either forest or river. Anyone care to speculate?

  79. Julie says:

    Thank you so very much for writing this! I sometimes feel Colin’s vocabulary is pretty much too complex and puzzling for me as English is not my native language and oh dear, what a story. What a story! Colin is by far the best storyteller in rock music in a long long time.

    I will definitely listen the whole album again with a whole new perspective. 🙂

  80. L. Smith says:

    Not only is there a town called Anna, but there is an actual River Annan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_Annan It flows through Scotland.

  81. Andre says:

    thanks for this! I am from Germany and not an English native speaker and this was a huge help for me to understand this wonderful new decemberists album!!! THANKS

  82. Steve says:

    Thank you for taking the time to explain in depth the story behind the ablum. I saw the band play last night at McMenamin’s Edefield. It was a brilliant show and knowing the story behind the album enhanced the enjoyment of the live show. I continue to be impressed with each release by The Decemberists. I believe many enjoy a complex story that ties a melody, beyond todays normal transparent noise.

  83. Amy says:

    Just wanted to say thanks! Really enjoyed reading this and even though I just discovered the Decemberists I can tell they are going to be one of my very favorites! : )

  84. Jason says:

    Regarding the fate of the baby (didn’t see this mentioned in other comments)… I find it highly possible that the entire cycle would repeat itself with the forest queen rescuing the baby from the water and placing upon it the same curse. I feel this outcome is likely being that the death of William and Margaret (while pregnant) occurs at the spot where William was originally found, which doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. The queen has lost her child, and here is an opportunity to try again. Still not a happy ending.

  85. sarah says:

    thank you! i had everything figured out pretty much, but i couldn’t quite figure out how the ending worked.. i knew they both ended up dead, but i had like, 3 different versions of the story.

    Either he turned into a fawn right before he managed to cross the water and drowned (his last words in that song was about the night, then the song suddenly ends), or she died before he could rescue them, or they both made it out.. but i couldn’t figure out if they both lived why they then drowned themselves.

    Anyways, thanks!

  86. Kyle says:

    Great post! I just got HoL a week ago so I missed out on the bulk of the conversation. But in case anyone is still interested I am going to add my thoughts and questions. When I first listened to the album, I wasn’t sure if I liked it. But it definitely grew on me and now I love it. The fact that the story is somewhat ambiguous is part of the enjoyment. Meloy stated in Rolling Stone that “There’s a story there, but it’s really painted with broad strokes.” So the details are open to interpretation, and reading all of your different views has been fascinating. A lot of them may never have crossed my mind. It’s great that there can be different takes on what is going on. I hope there is never an “official” interpretation. Pretty sure there won’t be.

    I have a lot coming, so I will post separate comments by topic. Even if no one is reading anymore, it will be fun for me to interact with the post and comments up to this point.

  87. Kyle says:

    The Hazards of Love 1: Who is the First Voice? Why does he call M his “true love?”

    Seems that this voice should be William’s. But W is IDed in the lyric sheet, but here only says FIRST VOICE. Also if it is W, why does he speak of the fawn and the beast in 3rd person. Isn’t W the fawn? It makes for an interesting and more tragic story if W is not the fawn, but rather the fawn is this shapeshifting beast that forces himself upon M (the level of consent between M and the beast is unclear). The only indication that W is the fawn is in The Queen’s Rebuke: gave him the form of a fawn to inhabit by day. Granted, that is pretty clear evidence that W is the fawn. I had a far-fetched scenario where W was a fawn but not the wounded fawn, which would be another shapeshifting fawn. But it became less and less credible so I won’t even go into it.

    Assuming W is the fawn, I take the FIRST VOICE to be W but the song shifts to a 3rd person narrator in verse 2. The same thing happens with the SECOND VOICE in the Bower Scene; verse 2 is no longer the sister speaking.

    • kitrona says:

      "but rather the fawn is this shapeshifting beast that forces himself upon M (the level of consent between M and the beast is unclear)."

      I don't think it's unclear; most women who are raped don't then run off to find their rapist when they start showing from the resulting pregnancy, nor do they call their rapist "my own true love". 🙂

  88. Kyle says:

    Not much attention has been paid to the line: the prettiest whistles won’t wrestle the thistles undone. This is a confusing line to me. But as it is the subtitle of the song, I think it is meant to be a very important line. In fact, this line may be the key commentary on the overall story and what is meant by the hazards of love.

    The preceding line You’ll learn soon enough indicates that the whistles/thistles concept will be learned by experience in the near future. So it refers to more than the forest bed upon which the beast (W) and M lay.

    Here’s my stab at the meaning. Prettiest whistles symbolizes the grandeur and beauty of true love. (Tangent: This is a very Westernized, self-centered view of “true love.” W and M are infatuated with one another and are blissfully in love. Would their “true love” last over the span of a lifetime when the infatuation fades? Right now they are getting a lot of fulfillment out of their relationship. Would they remain committed through times when the “fire” didn’t burn so hot and they didn’t feel personally fulfilled? Sorry, had to add that thought, a comment on our me-first divorce culture).

    OK, no more moralizing! Thistles are painful when touched; I have many in my yard. So the whistles of true love will not prevent pain and difficulty. In fact, the whistles of love will be the cause of much pain, difficulty, and loss. This is what they learn soon enough. M is abducted successfully because of their love (else the Queen wouldn’t help the rake cross the river), and they end up dying because of their love. They seem to think it is worth it.

    I’m not sure what to make of undone. It could refer to the Queen’s curse of W only being a man at night. Or in general to the bondage W finds himself under. Or (now I like this one best), it could refer in general to the hazards of love. The bliss of love is not enough to remove (undo) the danger and consequences.

    • plunderpants says:

      I like your last thoughts on this the best. Undone means rendered powerless. I’m also a strong believer in “trouble the water of the cistern” to mean “When will you have your next period, Margaret?”. The reason the popular interpretation to be that it is a reference to water breaking is not convincing because why would one have to frame that reference as a question? There is no drama in that question. However, there is an element of drama and suspicion in the question if it refers to her menstrual cycle. “Hey, when are you going to get your period? You’re a bit overdue. Is something going on here?” Poorly drafted entry here, but I can’t help rushing for some reason. Got to get to bed.

  89. Craig says:

    If you read the lyrics to “The Hazards of Love 3”, the Rake’s son is the last verse sung, and that verse refers to: “My sisters drowned and poisoned all and me reduced to ash And buried in an urn but father I return”. So William is certainly Isaiah, who was resurrected by the Queen to be her ‘son’….

    • Craig says:

      And William was found in a ‘cradle of clay’ by the Queen (an urn). The Queen sings: “And he
      Was a baby abandoned Entombed in a cradle of clay And I was a soul who took pity and stole him away And gave him the form of a fawn to inhabit by day”. Cradles don’t typically ‘entomb’ a baby, so hence it is the urn Isaiah was placed in by the Rake of being burned. Earlier she sings: “Remember when I found you The miseries that hounded you And I gave you motion Anointed with lotions”. I interpret this that he is not just a regular baby in a cradle, but the burnt body of Isaiah that she healed with magic (hence the man by night, fawn by day). The song of the rake’s children’s return, only Isaiah’s verse specifically says he has returned (as William to save Margaret, but recognized by the rake, and possibly even by William). Killing the rake would mean he would join his murdered children in death.

      • Ed says:

        “clay” could very well be what they think they saw when the ashes met water and were transformed into a maleable medium. But I still have a very hard time believing that Isaiah (Eziah?) is William.

  90. DavidK says:

    More evidence of William being the baby born to Margaret and the cyclical nature of the story; the Queen said he would be hers forever…

    I like the twins idea too.

  91. […] Decemberists’ “The Hazards of Love”: An Interpretation | firsttube.com The Decemberists’ “The Hazards of Love”: An Interpretation | firsttube.com. […]

  92. kate says:

    There’s a lot of frustration about the line “when wilt thou trouble the waters of the cistern?”

    If that line stood alone, I would see the confusion (is it concerning due date or her period?), but it is followed immediately with the line “and what irascible black bart is the father?”

    The other woman is not asking Margaret when her next period will come. The woman ALREADY KNOWS Margaret is pregnant. Otherwise, she would not follow that question by asking who the name of the father of the child in question. It doesn’t make sense to say, “When is your next period coming, and also, who is the father of your baby?” She is asking “When are you due to give birth, and what man is the father?” It’s pretty simple to me.

    • Gvette says:

      2 points on that:

      1. It’s “blackguard”, a medieval word for scoundrel.
      2. Interpreting the ‘cistern’ line as an inquiry into Margaret’s next period still works if you take it to mean Margaret being asked “How far along are you?” When will your periods reume, in effect. And this still seems like the most likely interpretation. All the others I’ve seen have some aspect that doesn’t quite fit.

  93. kitrona says:

    "When wilt thou trouble the water in the cistern" is spoken by a nun and refers to having the baby baptized. (By the way, it's "irascible blackguard". 🙂 ) She's not just being nosy when she asks "what irascible blackguard is the father?"; depending on when this is set (I think it's fair to say sometime in the Middle Ages) the child could be denied several sacraments considered important depending on whether the father was known or not, and possibly if he wasn't what the Church considered "up to snuff".

    William is not Isaiah; when the Queen says she "gave [him] motion", I think he had some sort of deformity that caused his parents to set him adrift on the water, in a cradle that would've been his tomb and was probably made of clay to withstand the "wild waters" of the Annon river. If William was Isaiah, why would he have a different name? And how could Colin possibly resist an intensely dramatic scene where William comes to rescue Margaret and recognizes the Rake? 😛

  94. Kaluz says:

    Much as I’d like to ascribe a more coherent and tasteful storyline, it seems obvious to me that the Rake is in fact William. The Jungian overtones are everywhere throughout the work, William & the Rake are the two sides of the male archtype while Margaret and the Queen represent two sides of the feminist archtype. Recognizing our shadow side is often disturbing, and perhaps more so is the perverse ability of lovers to stay together throughout life’s travails and vagaries. Death also is a duality – an end, but also peace.

  95. W says:

    Two things I wanted to comment on – thistledown is mentioned in the song as well. I think that when they lay together it’s actually soft down – there is a correlation between love and sorrow/pain being part of the same thing.

    My second comment had more to do with the printing of the lyrics – whoever did this does not understand printing very well. When you reverse out white, you need to consider dot gain from the black ink which fills in the letters. It might have looked fine on someone’s screen – but they did not adjust for the gain. There are also some space artifacts (mostly the names) and a few spelling errors.

  96. Kristen says:

    it’s A Bower Scene not Bower Song.

    🙂

  97. […] an old college friend of mine to see The Decemberists, who are touring in support of their “Hazards of Love” album. As expected, the concert did not […]

  98. EveretteMP says:

    Isiah also says in “Hazards 3” that he was reduced to ash and buried in an urn which the Queen could have been referring to as his being “entombed in a cradle of clay.”

  99. […] actual Hazards of Love part of the show was fun, full of animal-morphing mischief, slashing guitar riffs, Colin Meloy sticking rigidly in character and Shara Worden conjuring up […]

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP (97.74.24.97) doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP (97.74.141.128) and so is spam.

  100. ZanGilani says:

    i think the line when will you trouble the waters of the cistern is fairly straightforward. no need to search for metaphorical allusions.

    it just means she hasnt had her period yet i.e. troubled the waters of the toilet. which means the question being asked is if youve missed your period it means youre pregnant. collin however refers to it a lot more stylistically and euphemistically

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