Conceptual metaphors in “The Majesty of the Nightsky” by Emperor

Hello there! The June post will not be a usual one. In the run-up to my birthday at the end of this month I decided to publish something very special and dear to me. For the first time the blog presents an investigation into a song, written by a non-native speaker of English. This article is the analysis of “The Majesty of the Nightsky” by my band No. 1 – Emperor (taken from the “In the Nightside Eclipse” LP, 1994). I put the lyrics below for you to get a taste of the beauty of Norwegian mysticism.

  1. Like the tide, shadows flow towards the shore of light.
  2. The night comes whirling like a maelstrom.
  3. Warring waves of crackling clouds embrace this nightside landscape.
  4. The heavens bleed, through open wounds, the dim light of the Moon.
  5. The winds are crying mournfully and tears fly with the gusts.
  6. They whip my clenched faces freezing skin with ice-cold burning cuts.
  7. Too long I have suffered the desert sands of time.
  8. But as I drown in darkness it will release the sign.
  9. My soul will leave this mortal coil of flesh and earthly life,
  10. To fly into the mist of night, into the nightside eclipse,
  11. And experience existence on the other side.
  12. As a stone of scorching enthusiasm
  13. I refract the reflecting surface of this unfathomable sea.
  14. Growing circles of grief and pain slides across the land
  15. As an omen of the horror yet to come.
  16. The strength of a thousand fire-breathing demons
  17. Breed in my infernal, sinking soul.
  18. And as I reach the surface once again
  19. These powers are under my control.
  20. Now I am one with the night sky majesty.

Even after the first glance at the narrative you have probably noticed that it is rich in image metaphors and similes. Moreover, we will see that it makes use of several metaphor manipulation techniques to convey a range of vivid images of the song’s mystic world. I have never conducted such a research, but maybe image metaphors are abundant in the songs/poems by non-native speakers of English in comparison to the native ones, who tend to subconsciously incline to structural conceptual metaphors when conveying imaginative worlds. Whatever. I have a feeling that in the course of my work with this text I will consult “More than cool reason” by Lakoff and Turner a lot.

As the Darkness creeps over the Northern mountains of Norway

Let us now take a closer look at the narrative. The first four lines are provided below for your convenience.

  1. Like the tide, shadows flow towards the shore of light.
  2. The night comes whirling like a maelstrom.
  3. Warring waves of crackling clouds embrace this nightside landscape.
  4. The heavens bleed, through open wounds, the dim light of the Moon.

As I have already said elsewhere, I consider all cases of overt comparison to be similes. On this premise lines 1 and 2 are not metaphors. However, if the lines are reformulated so that the comparison is gone, then they may be claimed to be metaphorical. In that case, the utterance “Shadows flow towards the shore of light” would be a dynamic image metaphor with the following set of mappings:

  • the image of the sun-lit space (Target Domain) is conceptualized as the shore (Source Domain)
  • the image of the darkness (TD) is conceptualized as the waves (SD)
  • The image (process) of the coming of the night (darkness covering more and more of a sun-lit space, TD) is conceptualized as the tidal waters, taking over the shore (SD).

The reformulated utterance “The night is a (whirling) maelstrom” still holds its strong comparative character, though not reflected overtly in the use of a respective preposition. But if treated metaphorically just for the sake of the experiment, it would also be an image metaphor, in which the darkness of the night is projected onto the image of maelstrom (big funnel-like movement of water masses, sucking in objects in its radius). If the verb “comes” is added, than the metaphor changes its nature to the dynamic one, because the image of the process of the night coming would be projected on the whirling maelstrom.

The last thing to point out is the utterance “The night comes”, which is the only conceptual metaphor in the first two lines. As you may have already guessed, it is the EVENTS ARE ACTIONS metaphor. The state of a night is a sort of event; if conceptualized as an action, than it necessarily involves an actor, thus the night is personified as an actor, who may come and go.

Line 3 – Warring waves of crackling clouds embrace this nightside landscape – is the epitome of metaphorical creativity. The entire noun phrase “warring waves of crackling clouds” is yet another image metaphor. It portrays the sky as the ocean with the respective set of mappings and entailments (e.g. clouds as waves, the movement of clouds across the sky is the movement of waves across the ocean, calm ocean (no waves) is clear sky (no clouds), waves covering the shore are clouds covering the landscape). The adjective “warring”, a pre-modifier of the NP head “waves”, is apparently derived from the noun “war”, thus having the initial meaning of “being in the state of armed conflict” and the secondary meaning of “discrepant, contradictory”, which is metaphorical, at least if looking diachronically. Hence, I believe it is still tenable to some extent to claim that “warring waves” may be a case of personification: violent waves are conceptualized as belligerent parties. This makes sense in the context of the entire line: the clouds (warring waves) covering the landscape are seen as the sides in a war conflict encircling the area. And the area itself (nightside landscape) is objectified as well. A nightside landscape cannot be embraced, encircled or engulfed simply because it does not possess any physical borders, separating it from non-nightside one. In order for the clouds in our context to embrace it, it must be objectified: it must acquire certain borders through an image schema of (supposedly) container (center – periphery, inside – outside). Now observe how the metaphorical composing works in this sentence. The NP head “waves” with its pre-modifier “warring” constitute an ontological metaphor. Then together with their complement “of crackling clouds” they create an image metaphor and, in the end, together with the predicative “embrace” they generate yet another ontological metaphor (nightside landscape objectification) through imposing an image schema of container onto the landscape at night. And this is not the end. If we take a step up and leave the phrases level to take a look at the sentence in its entirety, than everything said above falls within the frame of another metaphor, a sort of umbrella-metaphor for the entire line. It is the NIGHT IS A COVER metaphor. In simple terms, what is going on here is a simple thing: the night and clouds it brings are covering (embracing) the land.

Finally, line 4 “The heavens bleed, through open wounds, the dim light of the Moon” is – again – a dynamic image metaphor. It is not a personification of the heavens, as it may seem at the first glance or when taken out of context. This line tells about the coming of the night. Here, the image of a bleeding person is mapped onto the image of a red-colored sunset light, forcing its way to the Earth through the openings in the hovering clouds. So how does this work? If a human being is mapped onto the sky, the latter one possesses the attributes of a living person. As a human has a skin, covering the body, so does the sky (which is clouds in the third line). If a human skin is torn, there is an open wound. If the sky’s “skin” is torn, there are openings in the clouds, which cover the sky. In this way, the source domain image of the open wounds is mapped onto the target domain image of the openings in the sky clouds. As the open wound bleeds and the color of blood is red, so does the metaphorical sky “wound”: red light of the sunset (lines 1-3 depict the coming of the night) is flowing to the Earth through the openings in the sky. It is of vital importance to see here that the mapping transfers not the mere outer look or resemblance, but also all source domain properties with it – the conceptual information, which helps to reason and draw inferences. The latter is possible due to the Invariance Principle, which preserves the topology of the source domain in the target one:

  • the whole equals to the whole (sky as body),
  • outer cover to outer cover (clouds as skin),
  • inner substance to inner substance (light coming out to blood coming out)
  • properties to properties (red color of the sunset to red color of blood).

Isn’t this fantastic??!!

Into the night I wander

We continue to enjoy the Norwegian Dämmerung.

  1. The winds are crying mournfully and tears fly with the gusts.
  2. They whip my clenched faces freezing skin with ice-cold burning cuts.
  3. Too long I have suffered the desert sands of time.
  4. But as I drown in darkness it will release the sign.

Lines 5 and 6 are constructed on the personification of a weather phenomenon, namely, the wind. There is not much to say here, as far as I can see. However, the next line is a gem of this text chunk.

Line 7 – Too long I have suffered the desert sands of time – contains two metaphors, with one of them having been elaborated tastefully by the Mastermind Ihsahn (Vegard Sverre Tveitan, the founder, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist of Emperor).

The desert sands of time” is a more obvious metaphor. It is an elaborated version of the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor, where the journey path (the course of life) is a desert. This line is about a painful experience of life: life so distressing, that it can only be compared to existence in a desert or life as crossing a desert in our case. “Suffering” the sands of time (struggling through a painful life) gives a clue to the second metaphor, which is LIFE IS A BURDEN.

But as I drown in darkness it will release the sign” in line 8 is again an easy one. Darkness is a state. In order to be able to “drown” in it, it must be conceptualized as a bounded region in space. Hence, the STATES ARE CONTAINERS metaphor (same as in case I am in love with you). “To drown in darkness” is also the metaphorical expression of the DEATH IS DARKNESS metaphor (LIFE IS LIGHT). The line is arguably about dying. This surmise makes sense in the context of the text to follow.

  1. My soul will leave this mortal coil of flesh and earthly life,
  2. To fly into the mist of night, into the nightside eclipse,
  3. And experience existence on the other side.
  4. As a stone of scorching enthusiasm
  5. I refract the reflecting surface of this unfathomable sea.

Line 9 above, as far as I am concerned, has one case of metonymy. I argue that “my soul” stands in the part-whole metonymical relation to “I” (well, this particular metonymy is called a synecdoche, actually). Although the concept of “I” also includes the body, which the soul is about to leave, it is the soul, which is believed (at least by me) to be a repository of the personality. Hence, I claim this is metonymy.

This mortal coil of flesh and earthly life” is a re-written and extended expression of Shakespeare from “Hamlet” – “shuffle off this mortal coil”, which gave birth to the idiom “this mortal coil” (I think ‘’rat race’’ would be a more modern equivalent). In the play this expression is a part of Hamlet’s suicidal monologue, so I guess he was referring to his own body as “this mortal coil”. It is a metaphor, of course, though I am a bit confused as to which one. On the one hand, it may be a conceptualization of a body as a container, made of mortal flesh. On the other hand, it may relate to the Great Chain of Being metaphor. In this case, a human would be degraded to the level of animals, lacking all human qualities, and seen only as a mortal piece of flesh, guided by the instincts. Whatever it is, later on the expression must have evolved into an idiom for what we call now a rat race with the help of metonymy (one body – many bodies – society – life of society – vain life of society in the sense of ‘senseless’).

Therefore, my suggestion is that the author refers to his own body in our song as “this mortal coil of flesh and earthly life”. Re-written in this particular way, it seems to be the BODY IS A CONTAINER metaphor, where the body-container is the coil of flesh, filled with the earthly life and storing the soul. And because it carries a clearly traceable negative connotation, maybe, it is tenable to claim that the LIFE IS A BONDAGE metaphor underlines the entire line 9.

Line 10 “To fly into the mist of night, into the nightside eclipse” features three metaphors: DEATH IS NIGHT and twice STATES ARE CONTAINERS. I guess everyone understands that the previous line, telling us about the soul leaving the body, was about dying. There is a pair of very conventional conceptual metaphors, when talking about life and death: LIFETIME IS A DAY and DEATH IS NIGHT. Within the framework of this metaphor, sunrise is the birth, daytime is the life, sunset is the old age and night is death. “To fly into the mist of night, into the nightside eclipse” is nothing else as the realization of this very metaphor. Moreover, if looking at the phrasal level, the state of night/nightside eclipse is conceptualized as a container via STATES ARE CONTAINERS metaphor (notice to fly into… into…).

Line 11 “And experience existence on the other side” is also a tricky one for me. I have done some thinking on it and made up my mind to follow the simplest explanation, allowed here. Again, one of the most conventional ways of talking about death is using the DEATH IS GOING TO THE FINAL DESTINATION metaphor (part of the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor complex). In the line in focus, the metaphor is elaborated in such a way that the final destination, death, is the other side of existence and going to it is crossing the border between this and other sides. This elaboration is nothing new, however. Recall the myths of the Ancient Greece and the conceptions of dying and death there, for example.

Line 13. And here it is: the other side – the final destination – is “unfathomable sea”. Another elaboration of the metaphor above. Recall in this respect “drowning in darkness” from line 8, which was the first mentioning of dying. The pieces of the puzzle fit together: the final destination – death – is the sea and the darkness, so one can sink into it or drown in it.

With half of the text covered, I let my imagination fly and started to reflect on the work done so far. It occurred to me that the description of the night coming in the first lines may be metaphorical through and through. It may be that the lines all together, that is at the level higher than each line separately, are constructed on the DEATH IS NIGHT metaphor. Thus, the entire passage (lines 1 – 6) is one metaphor, describing the death coming to the world and engulfing it.

Into the Infinity of Darkness

The last piece to cut is served.

  1. Growing circles of grief and pain slides across the land
  2. As an omen of the horror yet to come.
  3. The strength of a thousand fire-breathing demons
  4. Breed in my infernal, sinking soul.
  5. And as I reach the surface once again
  6. These powers are under my control.
  7. Now I am one with the night sky majesty.

Line 14 “Growing circles of grief and pain slides across the land” allows for two ways of interpreting (by the way, there is a grammatical mistake here). The first is the out-of-context explanation, which says that there are two ontological metaphors here, namely, grief and pain are objectified. The in-context interpretation is a more sophisticated one. Our experiences tell us that death usually causes grief and pain, doesn’t it? If it is assumed that the coming of the night with crackling clouds at the beginning of the song is the coming of death to the world, than grief and pain are the effect of it. Again metonymy. This time a cause and effect one. Death is the cause and grief and pain are the effect. The line says, in other words, that the death slides across the land.

“As an omen of the horror yet to come” in line 15 is the TIME PASSING IS THE MOVING OBJECT metaphor. Recall that according to the TIME ORIENTATION metaphor the future lies ahead, the past is behind and the present is the place we are at now. The horrific-time, when conceptualized as an object, moves to us from the future to the past. We – the observer – are static in this case.

Lines 16-17 feature one more grammatical mistake in subject-predicate agreement of “The strength … breed in my … soul”, together with two metaphors: SOUL IS A CONTAINER (a lot of containment image schemas in this text) and – I could not come up with anything better – CHARACTER TRAITS ARE LIVING ORGANISMS, which is an ontological metaphor (personification). The latter is about strength, which must be bred (taken care of) in order to grow big and powerful. I must confess I have never encountered this metaphor in the literature before. However, if you give it a thought, you can come up with the examples, which justify the choice, e.g. He cultivates his generosity; this will just feed his egoism; he nurtures the good traits of this character and fights the bad ones etc.   

Sinking soul” in line 17 takes us back to the “unfathomable sea”, which is death. Hence, “reaching the surface” of the notorious sea in line 18 may be entailed as a resurrection of the protagonist. This is also true due to the LIFE IS UP and DEATH IS DOWN set of orientational metaphors (should I really explain the experiential basis of these two?). That is, the metaphorical sea is death; going down is metaphorical dying, going up to the surface, while being already dead (“drowning” and “sinking”) is entering the life again.

Epilogue and bragging rights

Is the “Now I am one with the night sky majesty” in the last line, actually, “Now I am one with the night sky Majesty” or not? Do you catch my drift? If yes, tell me what you think.

That’s it, folks. The song turned out to be a wonderful piece of writing for the analysis of the conceptual metaphors. It was written by two Norwegian teens in the early 1990s for their debut album “In the Nightside Eclipse”. This album of Emperor spawned the entire new style of metal – symphonic black metal – and quickly became one of the classics of the metal genre in general. With twenty-one years behind, it is still one of a kind, exotic and unforgettable musical experience.

Emperor is my favorite band of all out there. I own their entire discography, plus two t-shirts, and I have seen them performing on stage live. I have even talked to them and got my CDs signed. As for the “In the Nightside Eclipse”, I own two copies of it: the standard Russian edition with two bonus tracks (from Irond) and the 20-th anniversary 3-CD Candlelight edition. Both fully autographed.

The Emperor is dead – Long Live the Emperor.

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About Andriy Karamazov


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