Bob Dylan and Geoffrey Chaucer: Thunder on the Mountain

Bob Dylan And Geoffrey Chaucer: Thunder On The Mountain

By Larry Fyffe

Though it has roots in blues music, Bob Dylan’s song ‘Thunder On The Mountain” tells the story of the singer/songwriter’s pilgrimage through life. The mythological God of Thunder is looking down, and Dylan knows he has to serve someone, and that is Zeus’ sun-son Apollo. To the mythological God of Music, with the aid of female Muses from Mount Ida, Dylan is a servant both night and day:

Thunder on the mountain, rolling like a drum
Gonna sleep over there, that’s where the music coming from
I don’t need any guide, I already know the way
Remember this, I’m your servant both night and day’
((Bob Dyan: Thunder On The Mountain)

As Scott Warmuth has pointed out in regard to this particular song , Dylan takes inspiration from the words of Geoffrey Chaucer’s narrative poem, The Canterbury Tales, which speaks, in one of its tales, about a messenger:

‘My lady, the Queen, has borne a child
The whole kingdom will rejoice
See here is a sealed letter containing the news
Which I bear to my King, as fast as possible
If you wish to send anything to the King
I’m your servant both day a night’
(Geoffrey Chaucer: The Sergeant-At-Law Tale)

As far as the pilgrim Dylan is concerned, God has commanded that his King be Art, and as a Knight he has sworn an oath of allegiance to stand by his calling:

Thunder on the mountain, rolling on the ground
Gonna get up in the morning, walk the hard road down
Some sweet day, I’ll stand beside my King
I wouldn’t betray your love or any other thing
(Bob Dylan: Thunder On The Mountain)

That ‘s not always easy as Chaucer notes. Venus on the half-shell, the sexy daughter of Zeus, can be a threat to blood-sworn oaths:

Sworn full deep, as thou to me, that never
Though we die under torture, either of us
Should hinder the other in love, or in any other course
Dear brother, till death shall part us two
(Geoffrey Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale)

Because of Bob Dylan’s Romantic ideals, the singer/songwriter finds organized religion to be another threat to his true calling. Of structured religion Dylan, as expressed through his persona, is skeptical, although, in real life, he’s given it a try:

Everybody’s going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with some one new
I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again
(Bob Dylan: Thunder On The Mountain)

The hypocrisy of organized religion, with leaders just in it for money, Chaucer condemns:

‘But show me your complete confession’
‘No’, said the sick man, ‘By St. Simon
I have been shivered today by my curate
I have told him of my condition
There is no further need to speak of it’
(Geoffrey Chaucer: The Summoners Tale)

A modern-day matured chivalrous Knight, singer Bob Dylan, again through his persona, though it be a tough haul, prefers not to rely on the mercy of others:

Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I’ll plant and I’ll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammers on the table, the pitchforks on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself
(Bob Dylan: Thunder On The Mountain)

In The Canterbury Tales, the young son of the Knight envisions women as speaking to him like a goddess with a heart filled with pity for those in physical or mental discomfort:

For the love of God, show yourself some mercy
Or what may advantage you?
For never ere now saw I in this world
Beast or bird that fared himself so piteously
To sooth, ye slay me with your sorrow
I have such pity for you
(Geoffrey Chaucer: The Squire’s Tale)

The listener can hear that Dylan is inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in his antiwar songs:

I saw a new-born baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
(Bob Dylan: Hard Rain Gonna Fall)

Dylan’s somewhat modernized images of the horrors of war are similar to those of Chaucer:

There saw I first the dark imaginings of felony ….
The stables burning in black smoke
The treachery of the murder in the bed
Open war with wounds all bleeding
Strife with bloody blade and sharp threat ….
Men slain in the thousands
The tyrant with his prey reft by force
The town destroyed
Yet again I saw the burned speedy ships
The hunter strangled by the wild bears
The sow devouring her child even in the cradle
(Geoffrey Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale)

In Dylan’s lyrics, we find grand Mother Earth with her Chaucer-like pity and mercy towards men. Dylan juxtaposes her offspring with the Whore of Babylon, a biblical symbol that blames the woes of the world on the female sex, including Eve’s curiosity in the Garden of Eden:

Now you stand with your thief, you’re on his parole
With your holy medallion which your fingertips fold
And your saint-like face and your ghost-like soul
Oh, who among them do you think could destroy you
(Bob Dylan: Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)

Part two of this article is published as

What else is on the site

  • 1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
  • 2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.
  • 3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.
  • 4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 
  • 5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
  • 6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by others.

 

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17 Responses to Bob Dylan and Geoffrey Chaucer: Thunder on the Mountain

  1. Wonderful article. I enjoyed it. Thanks.

  2. DeGaulle says:

    A complete load of cobblers. The writer is reading his own fantasies into both Dylan and Chaucer, with the intention, in my opinion, to disprove Dylan’s Christianity. I don’t believe a word of it.

    And Dylan didn’t write ‘anti-war’ songs-his views were far more nuanced than that.

  3. Michael says:

    I agree with DeGaulle.

    Another, out of the many attempts I have read for decades now, to disprove Dylan’s faith in the Messiah.

    Suggesting Dylan is serving the god Apollo. Really?

    Concerning ‘anti’war’ songs, Joan Baez said years later she could never persuade him to go to any anti-war protests.

  4. Kieran says:

    This is just poorly thought out. I like the Chaucer connection, but seriously, Dylan serves Apollo? Also, the sophomoric jibes at religion are more expressive of Larry’s views (I assume), than having anything to do with Bob Dylan’s songs…

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylan’s persona presents a double-edged view that takes into account the God of Thunder and Chaucer’s Christian God in the lyrics of the song.

    What Dylan’s personal religious views actually are is not the contention of this article.

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    That Dylan, or at least his singing persona, presents poetic anti-war images of the horrors of warfare in his lyrics is a matter of fact.

    His personal views on the morality of war is another matter of which I am not privy to although who among us would deny that the Nazis had to be stopped.

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    Apollo symbolizes Music.

  8. What about it if ‘Thunder on the mountains’ refers to the revelation of God to Moses and the people of Israel on Mount Sinaï? (Ex. 19:16) which I regard much more likely. “Fie is on the moon” is another Biblical apocalyptic image. In my opini0n the essence of this analysis does not make sense, no matter how many references to Chaucer you may find in it.

  9. Sorry I meant: “Fire on the moon” is another Biblical image.

  10. Michael says:

    Larry, thanks for your clarification. I see the Chaucer connection.

    I agree the Nazis had to be stopped. It was a just war.

    In a USA interview Dylan said this on “Masters of War”, “It’s not an anti-war song. It’s speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex as he was making his exit from the presidency. That spirit was in the air, and I picked it up.”

    Dylan, is a pacifist at heart; It is the ideal, but he does understand, at times, war is necessary to fight evil and survive.

    “Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized
    Old women condemned him, said he should apologize.
    Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad
    The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad
    He’s the neighborhood bully”

  11. Larry Fyffe says:

    Graf -Chaucer is a Christian, and Dylan has a Jewish background, so I see no problem in connecting the images
    of Chaucer, who refers to Greek and Roman mythology, with images from the ‘Old’ Testament.

    If his work is taken as a whole, a characteristic of Dylan’s art to mix up things becomes evident.

  12. Larry Fyffe says:

    Bob Dylan’s individualistic spiritualism is a mixture of Judaism and Christianity…..Jesus he does not present as a “Messiah” nor does he say that he is ‘ born again’.

    Dylan can’t be pinned down that easily as he considers organized dogmatic religion not to be compatible with free artistic expression. Many of his lyrics indicate this; the Bible he takes as metaphorical rather than

  13. Larry Fyffe says:

    literal. It’s a wonderful source of imagery.

  14. Larry Fyffe says:

    It is de Graaf who imposes his personal religious views on Dylan if one looks at his own postings; better that he criticize himself in that regard.

  15. Larry Fyffe says:

    De Graaf, upon reading his blog, would have it that he, and he alone is capable of coming the closest to the ‘correct’ interpretation of Dylan’s lyrics when the singer/ songwriter deliberately leaves enough room for the listener to become involved in what the rather concise, yet ambigious, lyrics might mean; in fact De Graaf often overides and smothers the actual lyrics with a very long explanation that make a theologian, who is convinced his sect is the only one that knows the true path to salvation, look like a free thinker.

  16. Larry Fyffe says:

    Lyrics that do no easily fit the mould De Graaf has constructed for Dylan, he pays little attention to. The two knights in Chaucer above not only remind one of Alice and the Looking Glass but also the song ‘Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum’ by Dylan. And ‘Which side are you on?’ in ‘Desolation Row’.

    Of course, religious themes can be interpreted therefrom,
    but, even then, whether there is a literal ‘Christian’ afterlife, Dylan leaves as an open question in many of his lyrics; it is difficult to nail him down on a cross when he shifts points of view in a single song, let alone in different songs.

  17. Larry Fyffe says:

    Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
    Everybody’s shouting ‘Which side are you on?”
    (Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

    Neptune, the God of the Sea, a force of Nature, at times might be on your side, other times against you; nor does it matter to the Sea which side of the ship you are on, the whole ship’s going under. And morality be damned, it’s taking both the good and the bad down with it (‘Tempest”).

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