A Ship Trapped in Ice, a Ghost Ship, and the Power of Nature: the Curse of the Albatross

Only a few things are as strongly linked to a specific element of British literature as is the albatross. “Having an albatross around one’s neck” is another way of saying that one faces public shame, guilt, and the certainty of fault. This all goes back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s rather longish poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1797-1798) – a story about guilt, punishment, redemption, and the greatness of nature. If I would have to come up with a morale as to be found in this poem, I would say: “Treat nature and its animals with care.” Or, probably, “Be veggie”. At least this is the message our narrator, the ancient mariner, is forced to spread as part of his punishment. Be cruel to animals and you will have to do public relations for animals’ rights. And don’t think we do not watch you. For, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is most of all linked to one thing, the supernatural. This world is populated by strange beings no-one really understands, be it strange shapes in the water, demonic spectres to follow a ship or super powers deciding about the fate of humans. And yet all these powers are somehow connected to nature. The Artic and Antarctic regions, dominated by snow and ice, as deadly as they are beautiful, were unknown and exotic and thus a perfect backdrop for such a story which might be something of an equivalent to our genre of fantasy, were it not for pantheism, the idea that the divine dwells in all nature. If you are scratching your head now because that does not sound like the Maiden song (which has omitted the “The” in the title: “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Powerslave, 1984), I agree with you. As it is so often the case for Maiden adaptations, original and adaptation differ in focus and underlaying message. I want to shed further light on the differences and how the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is and is not an adaptation of Coleridge.

Where It All Began: the Curse of the Albatross

“(The) Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, both versions, have a frame-story, an old man holding up a wedding guest telling him his story. What may look like an ordinary event is actually part of his punishment. As said before, he is cursed to spread his message as much as possible. Where does this curse come from? A ship sails to Antarctic seas and just as the crew is about to lose hope that they might be lost in the Antarctic, they find a sign of hope – a bird. A bird needs to land someplace and most likely it will land someplace where there is fresh water. So, easily put, follow the bird and you find your way to safety. This bird of course also echoes the pigeon carrying a branch of an olive tree appearing to Noah on his arch – symbolising here too that land is near at hand (that branch must come from somewhere).  So, the appearance of the bird is a good sign, but, the mariner kills it for sport. He has not only bereaved himself and his whole crew of the chance of finding the land the albatross has come from, but he has just killed an innocent animal for the sake of killing it. This disrespectful behaviour not only against the animal itself, but also against nature as a whole – nature sends a sign of hope, of peace, so to say, and this man just discards it – brings about the revenge of the albatross and the punishment of nature. The dead albatross is hang about the neck of the mariner, as a symbol of his guilt. We know what happens next: first comes the thirst, then appears a ghost ship that can move in a calm, its passengers throw dice for the crew, Life in Death wins, the crew dies except for the mariner. His punishment is to live. And to learn.

The Poem: a Lesson to Be Learned and a Battle of Good and Evil

It is here where poem and song part ways. First of all, the ship in the poem ends up in the Antarctic by accident; they are blown there by a violent storm – a force of nature. The ship is trapped, probably even frozen solid within the ice. (Meaning that the ship is fixed within the ice. If you want to see pictures of this, google Admiral Tegetthoff, the ship of the Austrian Payer-Weyprecht expedition. As far as I know the ship is still stuck in ice). A ship in this condition is not only unable to move but under the constant threat of ice thrusts. Ice thrusts can easily smash a wooden sailing ship to splinters. This was long before the first icebreaker ever cruised these seas. The description of noises befits the howling of ice thrusts: “The ice was here, the ice was there / The ice was all around: / It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, / Like noises in a swound!” (5). The albatross is here clearly an element of rescue and redemption: as soon as it appears, the ice splits and gives the ship free. They can sail North, driven by a strong wind from the South, followed and greeted daily by their new companion the albatross. The albatross seems to be a protective spirit or a helper of some kind, because as soon as the albatross dies, so does the wind. The crew is thus much more at the mercy of nature as they are in the song. First they are brought into the Antarctic by a storm, then they find themselves in a death trap of solid ice and finally they are miraculously freed. None of this is their doing; they cannot influence any of these events. The only thing they can influence is shooting the albatross. While humans are completely at the mercy of nature they still dare to kill an animal for sport.

But, who or what is “nature” in this poem? Here, the mariner is haunted by much more entities than just Life in Death. First, the ship is followed by a Spirit who turns the sea into weird colours, makes “death fires danc[e] at night” (8), and causes that “slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea” (8). He even makes sure that the crew knows about him: “And some in dreams assuréd were / Of the Spirit that plagued us so” (8). The explanation as to what this spirit may be comes in a side-note (and yes, these explanatory side-notes are indeed part of the poem – wish Blake had added some of them to his works, too): “one of the invisible habitants of his planet, neither departed souls or angels, concerning whom the learned Jew […] may be consulted. They are very numerous, and there is no climate and element without one or more” (8). “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is much more esoteric, so to say, as is the song.

The ancient mariner is forced to live among the dead bodies of his fellow crewmen – not only cruelty in the meaning that he has to face their dead faces knowing that it was his fault they had to die for, but also in the context of loneliness. He grows so lonely, indeed, that he enjoys the presence of sea-snakes. This is the turning point of the story. After he has so carelessly shot his last friend “the bird that loved the man / Who shot him with his bow” (18) he has finally learned to appreciate animals.  An angelic troop appears and takes over the bodies of the dead crew to bring the mariner home. He has learned his lesson: “love animals, too”, and is allowed to go home.

Almost. The spirit of the South-Pole is not content with the decision of the angels. So now several parties start to argue over the fate of the mariner, including two demonic spirits, the angelic troop, and the spirit. The mariner has to shortly suffer from a spell of penalty again only to be released afterwards of his supernatural, ghastly visions: “I viewed the ocean green, / And looked far forth, yet little saw / Of what else had been seen – ” (20). The penalty is finally over.

Yet, the poor man seems to suffer now from something which sounds like the song “Fear o the Dark” (“Fear of the Dark”, Fear of the Dark, 1992): “Like one, that on a lonesome road / Does walk in fear and dread, / And having once turned round walks on, / And turns no more his head; / Because he knows, a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread” (20). That is why he keeps on spreading his story as a warning to others.

The Song: the Threat of the Supernatural

The story-line has a different impact in the song as the epic battle between good and evil forces has been erased. Now, the mariner has his moment of revelation that animals are God’s creatures, too, but his penalty starts anew without discernible motivation. The song thus becomes scarier and leans more into the Gothic. Humans are not punished by a powerful nature anymore, but by supernatural spirits whose motivations remain hidden.  The events are way less connected and lay thus more emphasis on the elements of horror, the unknown, and the uncontrollable.

Is “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”?

Yes and no. The story arch is all there, surely enough. Yet, it still tells another story. Whereas in Coleridge’s poem “the Albatross begins to be avenged” (7), the bird avenges itself in the song. Whereas the animal is avenged by the spirit of the South-Pole in the poem, something which might evoke sympathy, it avenges itself in the song which is a much scarier scenario. In sum, I’d say that the song puts more emphasis on horror instead of pedagogy; a complicated interaction between natural spirits has been reduced to a more solid, understandable version of the same plot-line. The reduction of the elements of pantheism, which are more or less defining elements of the Romantic period, may hint at a modern, contemporary adaptation. The song recounts the story as it is more befitting our own understanding and thinking. It is a modernised version, told from a nowadays perspective, befitting a contemporary audience. And thus, the curse of the albatross continues.

Sources

  • Harris, Steve. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Iron Maiden, Powerslave, EMI, 1984.
  • Coleridge, Samuel, Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Other Poems, Collins Classics, 2016.
  • Harris, Steve. “Fear of the Dark”. Iron Maiden, Fear of the Dark. EMI, 1992

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