Heavy Metal Literature

Heavy Metal Literature

Some time ago an article circulated on Twitter about a university professor basing a course on the music of Iron Maiden. I instantly shared it with my husband, who is both a huge Iron Maiden fan and an English teacher. Ten years ago, if someone handed me a similar article, I would have rolled my eyes.

I can’t say exactly why, but I used to be one of those people who hated heavy metal. Granted, it’s not a music genre for everyone. A friend of mine can’t stand the heavy, fast drum beats (they give her anxiety). Even as a convert, there are some forms of metal I can’t stand. I don’t like death metal, or bands that feature solely deep growling voices or screeching. Perhaps I fell for the propaganda shoved down the throats of my generation that heavy metal was devil worship (and as a heavily Christian teenager, the idea scared the crap out of me). It doesn’t help heavy metal’s reputation that, in the days before the explosion of video game popularity, heavy metal bands were blamed for violent teenage crimes and suicide (such as the infamous Columbine shooting).

One summer as a teenager I visited my husband (then boyfriend) in Canada for the first time. As we drove around town, he played a tape of Iron Maiden songs he’d recorded for the car. I tried to ignore it; it wasn’t the kind of music I liked. But one song caught my attention every time it played. Eventually I started trying to decipher the lyrics. Later, when we moved in together, I finally asked what song it was and my husband played the CD track for me.

From that moment on I was hooked.

But the article caught my attention for other reasons, not just because Iron Maiden was the first metal band I fell in love with. The aforementioned song turned out to be inspired by a book. And falling in love with that song inspired me to read the book (funny how that works). And this isn’t a rare occurrence. Many heavy metal bands are inspired by novels, from the epic Lord of the Rings series to any number of classics. And because people are so wrapped up in the dark, heavy imagery of many metal songs, they miss the classic literary connection. Hence the birth of such a university class.

In the spirit of that conversion, I bring you a list of books I decided to read specifically because Iron Maiden wrote songs inspired by them.

The Song:Out of the Silent Planet (Album: Brave New World (2000))
The Book: The Cosmic Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, The Hideous Strength) by: CS Lewis

I begin with the very song that played in the car all those years ago. The first song by Iron Maiden I ever listened to from beginning to end. The first heavy metal song I fell in love with. Truth be told, the lyrics reminded me of the first Matrix movie (I’m dating myself aren’t I?).

Withered hands, withered bodies begging for salvation
Deserted by the hand of gods of their own creation
Nations cry underneath decaying skies above

The more I listened to it, the more I imagined scenes of the movie flashing to the music. It wasn’t until much later I realized the song was based on a book and that book was part of a trilogy. The book features a scientist named Ransom who is abducted and taken to the planet of Mars, where he learns the tragic story of Earth (known as the “silent planet”) and why it has become an exiled land.

The Song:Brave New World (Album: Brave New World (2000))
The Book:Brave New World by: Aldous Huxley

Brave New World was really the song that made the literary connection for me. I already knew it was a book, though I hadn’t read it. For a long time, Brave New World was the only Iron Maiden album I would listen to (because it contained the only heavy metal song I would admit to liking), so I ended up falling in love with most of the tracks. “Wickerman” was a fast favorite followed quickly by “Nomad” and “Ghost of the Navigator” (which reminded me of the Odysseus myth). The album’s title song caught my attention largely because of the strange juxtaposition between beauty and horror or death.

Dragon kings dying queens, where is salvation now?
Lost my life lost my dreams, rip the bones from my flesh
Silent screams laughing here, dying to tell you the truth

Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel is a classic science-fiction staple (ironically written partly to illustrate his fear of the Americanization of Europe at the time) which deals with the loss of individualization in a technologically advanced world. It was meant to poke a bit of fun at the stories of H.G. Wells since it took a decidedly less optimistic view of the future.

The Song:Stranger In a Strange Land (Album: Somewhere in Time (1986))
The Book:Stranger In a Strange Land by: Robert A. Hinlein

Another book I was aware of before my love affair with Iron Maiden (obviously I eventually started listening to their other albums without restraint), though I had no real desire to tackle the novel until after the aforementioned affair. Iron Maiden’s “Stranger In a Strange Land” may not actually be related to Robert A. Hinlein’s novel about a young man raised on Mars who later travels and adapts to life on Earth. The song instead seems to be about an arctic traveler frozen in ice, preserved and later thawed at some time in the far future. But the themes explored by each piece could easily said to be similar. And I include it on this list since, connected or not, the song is the reason I plan to read the book.

One hundred years have gone and men again
They came that way
To find the answer to the mystery
They found his body lying where it fell all that day
Preserved in time for all to see

The Song:Number of the Beast (Album: The Number of the Beast (1982))
The Book: Number of the Beast by: Robert A. Heinlein

This is one of the songs I avoided listening to for a long time because it, quite obviously, involves Satan. Even after I stopped believing in Satan, I had a hard time listening to songs like this. It’s not that I think the band is worshiping Satan or promoting the worship of Satan (I know for a fact they’re not and an aren’t). After my upbringing, however, a song involving the number ‘666’ and speaking of ‘Satan’ and ‘the beast’ made me very uncomfortable. I can’t say what it was that changed my mind about listening to the song. I don’t remember anymore. Probably repetition caused it to grow on me, like many of their other songs.

It wasn’t until recently I discovered that “The Number of the Beast” is actually a novel. Again by Robert A. Heinlein. After seeing (and loving) the movie John Carter, I decided to look into the novels (the first five of which you can get for Kindle for free off of Amazon!). Interestingly enough, it was while I was looking through related references to the characters in the Barsoom books (the books which inspired the John Carter movie) that I discovered the novel entitled “The Number of the Beast.” The main character also goes by John Carter and is accompanied by a Dejah Thoris Carter, who are apparently meant to be references, or perhaps an homage, to Robert A. Heinlein’s characters.

The story focuses around the main characters traveling in a spaceship equipped with the ability to travel between dimensions. The number 666 turns out not to be related to Satan at all, but rather is the number of universes to which the device can travel at the beginning of the story (more precisely (6^6)^6).

Now whether or not the Iron Maiden song is based on or inspired by the book, my research doesn’t tell me. The song does, after all, include the mention of Satan and sacrifice. But whether such a scene appears in the book, I won’t know until I get around to reading it.

Night was black
Was no use holding back
‘Cause I just had to see
Was someone watching me
In the mist
Dark figures move and twist

The Song:Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Album: Powerslave (1984))
The Poem: Rime of the Ancient Mariner by: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

As a bonus, here’s one more. Not a novel, but a poem (the entirety of which can be read online at the link above). We studied pieces of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner in school and I recall being bored. Probably because our teacher never took the time to explain the whole story. Instead we talked a lot about the style and meter in which the poem is written (yawn). It wasn’t until I listened to the song that I thought WHOA and quickly devoured the entire piece.

For anyone that doesn’t know, both the poem and the song center around an aged mariner who stops a wedding guest to tell his story. His tale revolves around his shooting an albatross while on a voyage at sea and the resulting punishment. I highly recommend watching a live performance of this song (try the above linked version from the Flight 666 tour). Iron Maiden never just stand there and play. The guitarists pretend to be zombies while the lead singer, decked out in costume, emerges from a shroud of mist. It’s amazing. To my mind, Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of Iron Maiden’s greatest masterpieces. It captures the heart and soul of the poem and it goes through each phase of the story, finally bringing you back to the original melody as the mariner wraps up his tale.

‘Day after day, day after day,
We stuck nor breath nor motion
As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean
Water, water everywhere and
All the boards did shrink
Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink.’

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