|Townes Van Zandt – Silver Ships of Andilar Lyrics||2 years ago|
1) The song uses a reference from Tolkien (of which, later); but it works well even without that reference. It can be read as a fable about old age, where sickness and loneliness force people to review the worth of their entire existence, making them first question, and then affirm, the naive overblown hopes of their younger years. Silly, unrealistic, and doomed. But we'd do it all over again. It's who we are.
2) The Tolkienian legend of Valinor serves TVZ in this song in the same way that Mexican history serves him in Pancho and Lefty: as a platform for his own thinking.
In Tolkien, Valinor was the realm of the gods and immortals. It was attacked by a human fleet sailing from Numenor under the corrupting influence of Sauron and ended in catastrophe for the attackers. The story is an echo of the Tree of knowledge or Tower of Babel myths: people try to do the impossible, leading to their inevitable demise. Pride and fall. There are also traces of Prometheus or the misunderstood Satan of Milton's Paradise lost.
TVZ leaves most of the story out, with the name Valinor used as an anchor to place the reader in context. The armada sets sail with great hope, but gradually dwindles and peters out before it reaches it destination, with the speaker a last and probably dying survivor.
The sting is when the speaker leaves the stage with this message: 'Arise young men fine ships to build; And set them north for Valinor neath standards proud as fire'. He'd do it all over again. Note the 'pride' in the line: for all the punishment, the sin is worth it.
Why? There is a hint in the description of Valinor as 'lifeless'. This seems to contradict Tolkien's idea of Valinor as the home of the immortals. But it doesn't. Tolkien himself describes immortal beings, such as elves, as in a way inferior to mortal humans for the very fact of their immortality: theirs is the life of a perennial plant. It has no known end, and therefore no sense of a mission that has to be carried out within limited time. It is meaningless, vegetable-like. Mortality is a gift, as it endows humans with urgency and purpose. The realm of the immortals is 'lifeless' precisely because they are immortal and therefore devoid of the purpose humans have.
So TVZ's message can be read as an affirmation of life, not despite its pains and inevitable failure, but because of them. We live, we suffer, we are always defeated; if not objectively, then by the impossible standard set by our early expectations. This is what makes us human; this is the edge we have over mute creation.
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