Paramaecium’s “Within the Ancient Forest” Lyrics – Outlined, Explained, Analyzed – Introduction and Index
This little analysis of Paramaecium’s Within the Ancient Forest album lyrics was first written in August 2012 and published on Facebook. I am now re-publishing it here with some minor changes. Scroll down for an overview of all chapters.
“We are generally the better persuaded by the reasons we discover ourselves than by those given to us by others.”
― Blaise Pascal, Pensées
“The end is already planted in us at the beginning, and it gnaws away at us until we get there freely and consciously.”
― Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, ch. 7
Within the Ancient Forest is more than your ordinary metal concept album. It is a whole concept within itself. As stated in the booklet’s liner notes, bassist, lyricist and vocalist Andrew Tompkins has written a book on which the lyrics are based. A book that (unlike Michael Haas (Angizia)’s Tagebuch der Hanna Anikin) actually exists, and even one that (unlike Steve Rowe (Mortification)’s Minstrel) is actually enjoyable. The world of this book has been with me for so long that I thought I’d blog a bit about it, and since more people know Paramaecium’s first few albums than are familiar with the book, I will center my thoughts on the album lyrics. Please feel free to contact me if you have any comments, questions, etc. I am also quite sure Andrew Tompkins himself will be glad to answer any questions you may have, as he was years ago when I wrote to him while reading and translating his book (yes, there is a German translation that I’ve been putting off adding a few finishing touches to for quite some time now).
Although Within the Ancient Forest is a rather thin novelette with a linear plot, it contains some solid fantasy mythology. I do encourage any readers to get a copy of the novelette if possible.
But before I get into the CD lyrics, allow me to shovel in a few remarks about the concept itself.
Within the Ancient Forest is, broadly speaking, an allegory. This is why, as with probably every allegory in the world, the names of characters, objects and places are “telling names.” A lot of the elements in the tale are to be “translated” into symbols of some less concrete element either known from common human experience, or from the author’s own faith and views at the time. In writing a philosophical/religious allegory, Tompkins aligns himself with a long tradition, of which Dante Alighieri, John Bunyan, Charles Kingsley or C.S. Lewis were part. If you want to know more about this rich and exciting strand of literature, I can recommend the book Christian Mythmakers by Rolland Hein. Please be aware, however, that calling something an “allegory” does not automatically imply that everything within the story really stands for something else – in every allegory, you will find certain elements that are part of the secondary world without pointing to any concrete entity in the moral/spiritual realm. This is not necessarily a weakness – it happens because a really good allegory is also a good story. I think that there is a very gradual continuum from almost completely allegorical tales (like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) over tales with some allegorical features (like Lewis’s Narnia stories) to tales which hardly anyone would call allegorical, but which nevertheless seem to have an overarching “meaning” or “moral” (like Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol, or some of the parables of Jesus, for that matter).
Here is a short list of some of the “telling” character names that occur in the story:
The protagonist whose journey we follow is called Dé-nyl for most of the story. The vocals on the CD indicate that this is to be pronounced as “denial”, and this is also what it means. Dé-nyl is a man who professes to be searching for truth while unwittingly denying the most important truth – until the very end of the story. This is why he is renamed at the end of the story – to show that his character has changed.
The mysterious lady who accompanies Dé-nyl for a long time is called Destiny. This name is a bit harder to interpret – it dawned on me only slowly the first time I read the book that she is meant to represent the Holy Spirit. There is a passage towards the end of the book that indirectly makes this clear, at least to anyone familiar with the precepts of Christianity. So why is her name Destiny? – Well, a short and probably quite useless answer that I might offer is that she seems able to give herself any name and appearance she wishes, so that this is by no means her only, or her truest name. Another explanation would be that she leads Dé-nyl to his destiny, or that it is his destiny to meet her. Still not happy? – Well, we might try contrasting her name with that of Freawil the falcon. The Freawil vs. Destiny dichotomy opens up a whole philosophical field that I am not sure Tompkins was aiming at. But the two names of the protagonist’s two most faithful guides actually provide an interesting contrast and suggest the two sides of the determinism debate: Is everything determined (“predestined”) or do we have a truly “free will”?
Apart from contrasting with Destiny, Freawil seems to represent more than just Dé-nyl’s “will” (whether free or not free). For lack of a better expression, the falcon often “externalizes” his owner’s emotions – this makes him akin to the “dæmons” in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy or the “bird selves” of people in George MacDonald’s Lilith – he is a totem, an animal guide, an externalized part of Dé-nyl’s personality in animal shape. Freawil also often flies ahead and has premonitions – thus seeming to represent Dé-nyl’s intuition. By the way, the only thing that ever really harms Freawil is the fossilized forest – a place of mere tradition that kills all true vitality. But I will get to that in due time.
One more name shall be briefly mentioned here – that of the Garensword. The spelling of this name is meant to be ambiguous (Garen-sword/Garen’s word) – so now we’ve added punning to our list of things that can happen with names in Within the Ancient Forest. This creative (and not always straightforward) use of language is definitely something to look out for. By the way, by giving a sword a name and thus a character of its own, Tompkins once again aligns himself with a very long tradition that goes way back beyond Tolkien!).
The CD begins with the song “In Exordium,” which lyrically covers the second half of chapter five of the book. The first image that the album lyrics center on is that of a boat with a single passenger, silently floating across a pool of water in the moonlight. The first four chapters tell the story of who this passenger is and how he got there. So what has happened before “In Exordium”? Here is a brief recapitulation:
Dé-nyl is a young man who lives in a mountainous region of an unknown country with his teacher (an old man with a very long beard), his horse, and his falcon, and a few servants. His main purpose in life seem to be his studies – he spends a lot of time in the library. He seems never to have left this lonely little mountain home in his whole life. I do not recall reading about any further details about his past – who his parents were, and how he came to live in this lonely place. The only time his father is mentioned, we learn that the teacher had also taught Dé-nyl’s father and sent him off on a similar journey back in the days. Dé-nyl himself doesn’t seem to know a whole lot about himself – which, of course, is a main point about his character. His very featurelessness qualifies him as the central figure of the allegory. All we really know is that he is a young man eager to learn. He is an Everyman.
The small community in which he lives is reminiscent of a medieval monastery – with the one exception that the scriptorium in which we would expect scribes to be busy writing, copying and translating texts has been replaced by a library where books are not created, but only read. Dé-nyl is very much on the receptive side of life. His job seems to be to lean back, think and meditate. In this sense the place might be closer to a Buddhist monastery. His teacher is also more of a stock figure – the type who could be played by Ian McKellen or Liam Neeson – who acts as a guide to Dé-nyl’s thinking, and not much else. Interestingly, the books that Dé-nyl reads sometimes contain glimpses of a “fantasy” world – heroic tales of warriors, dragons and legendary swords – but Dé-nyl sees them as mere fiction. Which means that in the beginning, we as readers are unaware of being in a fantasy world at all.
One day his teacher finds out that Dé-nyl has been spending his nights reading a very special book – the “Book of Garen’s Tale”, which tells of the adventures of a legended king and his disciples (the parallels to the Gospel are clear). And this is where the trouble begins. Dé-nyl’s confession that there were things in that book he didn’t understand leads the teacher (who represents reason) to give some seemingly irrational-sounding advice. And by advice, I mean orders. Dé-nyl’s teacher orders him immediately to go on a long, wearisome journey with no apparent aim or object but to learn what that book is about. Dé-nyl briefly considers the possibility that his bearded teacher has been enjoying a little too much pipe weed, but decides that he had better listen to him since so far he’s always been right.
So he goes on the journey of a lifetime, taking only his horse (named Dé-kaat), his falcon and some scanty provisions with him. Dé-kaat gets his name from René Descartes and thus represents the clinically rationalist philosophy of the “enlightenment”. The journey goes on quite well until they reach the “ancient forest” of the title, which is practically Mirkwood out of Tolkien’s Hobbit tale: A huge, dark and dangerous forest with one slightly less dark and dangerous path leading right through it. Dé-kaat grows more and more uncomfortable as they enter into the forest, and by the time they reach the forest pool of the fifth chapter the horse not only refuses to carry Dé-nyl, but goes raving mad and races off. I take this to mean that the rationalist mindset with which Dé-nyl had set out at break of day will no longer be sufficient for him when surrounded by the doubt, despair and uncertainty represented by the archaic forest. One mistake people often make about the “enlightenment” and the age of rationalism is that they think this was the time in which “reason was discovered,” or in which people in the Western hemisphere discovered that some things can actually be explained by human reasoning. This is a very widespread explanation of rationalism, and it is very wrong. What rationalism actually did was a reduction rather than an addition: This was the first time ever that men thought that everything in the world could be explained by reason alone. Far from being the discovery of reason, the “enlightenment” was the period in which people first thought reason was everything they would ever need. And this is what Descartes/Dé-kaat represents in this tale. The bearded teacher, on the other hand, also represents reason, but infused with a deeper kind of wisdom: He knows enough to know that he does not know everything. In other words, reason has sent Dé-nyl on his path, but mere rationalism will not get him far. Dé-nyl’s bearded teacher has sent him off, being rational enough not to be a rationalist. If you want to know more about the “enlightenment” as seen by one of the few contemporary philosophers who dared not to blend into his rationalistic surroundings (namely Blaise Pascal), I recommend the book Christianity for Modern Pagans – Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined and Explained by Peter Kreeft.
But now let’s get on with the lyrics.
Index (including song titles in parentheses):
- Part 1: A Pool of Water (“In Exordium”)
- Part 2: The Ancient Invades the Old (“Song of the Ancient”)
- Part 3: Reason Alone Cannot Suffice (“I Am Not Alive”)
- Part 4: Removed of the Grave (“The Grave, My Soul”)
- Part 5: Into the Soil (“Gone Is My Former Resolve”)
- Part 6: Far from the Sky (“Of My Darkest Hour”)
- Part 7: A Song of Life and Fire (“Darkness Dies”)