Lord Alfred Tennyson, the Union Jack, and the Question of Patriotism

One of Iron Maiden’s best-known and probably most sung titles is “The Trooper” (Piece of Mind, 1983). The just as well-known and almost always identical staging is an (anticipated) regular event during Maiden concerts. The traditional staging draws heavily on British national symbols. It involves a costume implying the “red-coats” next to a torn and stained Union Jack. The visual representation of the “trooper”, meaning Eddie now wearing the same apparel and carrying the Union Jack, is an icon of the band (e. g. the Wikipedia page of the Iron Maiden discography shows a picture of the band performing in front of the “trooper”). So it is a of little surprise that the “trooper” also covers the labels of the eponymous beer created by Bruce Dickinson. It all may seem like big fun, but having a closer look at the lyrics, one discovers that “The Trooper” has a sombre message. Despite its function as an recognisable icon of the band, the “trooper” always has another effect on me, too. It makes me wonder if the involvement of British national symbols evokes praise or criticism.

“The Trooper” goes back to British history and literature alike. The historical reference is a military operation during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. Due to a mistake in the chain of command, a group of riders was sent in front of canons – with a disastrous outcome. The literary reference is Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) in which he commemorated this event.¹

The Song Versus the Poem: One Event, Two Perspectives

Steve Harris has changed the perspective for his song, changing from a third person to a first person narrative. Whereas the poem lays emphasis on the “six hundred” by frequent repetition of this term, the song is close up and personal, concentrating on one soldier² (or, to do this in a posh fashion: One soldier functions as the focaliser.)

This gives the recipient a more intimate feeling and draws him closer to the horrors of the battle. When Tennyson concentrates on canons which surround the troops, Harris describes vividly the impact when horse and soldier are hit (yes, spoiler alert: our soldier will be among the casualties – a fact rather well hidden in the thriving music; nothing in the melody indicates a moment of death). When Tennyson describes the death of many in a kind of bird’s eye view,  Harris depicts one death, but one we witness immediately. Both texts have a different strategy to comment upon the many deaths, Tennyson by drawing attention to the large number of victims, Harris by bringing the mortal fear and last moments of one soldier to life.

By following the steps of one soldier, the song re-enacts the battle. He witnesses many horrors on his way, such as “we hurdle bodies that lay on the ground” hearing “the screams of pain as my comrades fall”. He knows that he “plunges on into certain death”. His dying moment is even worse: “as I lay forgotten and alone”. Tennyson’s praise at the end is exchanged for a lonely death that will soon be “forgotten”. Glory can only be given to the anonymous group by a distant narrator; the soldier who dies on the battle field knows nothing of it.

Harris has removed all glory and patriotism and replaced it with the horrors of war and a vivid description of death. A national event becomes a personal experience and individual death.

Does the Iconic “Trooper” Praise or Criticise the British Military?

First of all, the “trooper” looks intimidating enough. But then, he is Eddie and I cannot recall a depiction of Eddie in which he is not (at least) intimidating. Yet, this aggressive approach of a red-coat carrying a rather gigantic Union Jack always keeps me pondering. He does not look like someone who “plunges into certain death” to me. And, if he was the soldier from the song, as it has been claimed before,³ he would be on horseback and not afoot. Where has his horse gone? (This “trooper”, of course, features on the cover of Maiden England ’88.) So we must admit that we have two “troopers”, one afoot and one on horseback, and only one of them qualifies as visual depiction of the song. Who is the other chap then?

The iconic  “trooper”, the one afoot, may represent praise and criticism at the same time. The soldier advances aggressively,  which one could interpret as either praise or criticism, depending on one’s personal viewpoint. But, the “trooper” is followed by Death (in a dark cloak holding up his scythe). This seems to point back to the battle when so many soldiers had to die because of folly. Still, the horrors of war in particular and the horrors of violent death in general are not lost on this image, too. Eddie walks past a corpse; on the other side an injured or dying man tries to upright himself by clinging to a rock. Death is predominant. Considering these grim depictions, I am inclined to say that the “trooper” criticises war and the death it brings in general. Whether death’s victims are British or Russian is not of importance. Which brings us back to the song after all: “But on this battle field no-one wins”.

Despite the use of national symbols, “The Trooper” qualifies for as an anti-war song in my eyes. Not only the death of the Light Brigade is criticised, but that of their victims as well. “No-one wins”; nothing can be gained.

Why the Flag?

The flag is, as mentioned above, stained and torn. A stained and torn flag does not look like a symbol of patriotism to me. Why is it stained and torn? Because it is a prop of a battle which ended in disaster for the British. The stains and tears symbolise their defeat. And, in the end, who would choose a fatal loss for the British military to celebrate patriotism? No-one. The flag does not celebrate a military victory of the British. It commemorates a disaster and tells us of a dying soldier who lies “forgotten and alone”.

Sources

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