The Rotting Horse on the Deadly Ground

[image description: detail from “the lieutenant of the barad-dûr” by john howe. a grim armoured figure with horned helm and a face like a skull, bearing a lance and wearing a sword at his side, rides upon a hellish steed fitted with metal barding including chanfron and criniere, having demonic red glowing eyes and a greenish tint to its rotting hide (Fair Use)]

As my fifty-first birthday approaches I’ve been waxing nostalgic and so, at the suggestion of my sister, have laboured long and hard putting together a retrospective metal playlist to serve as a soundtrack for the coming celebrations. I wanted it to sort of tell the story of how I became a headbanger thirty-six years ago and also help me reminisce about metal’s profound impact on my life, so I arranged the tracks in order of what I was listening to at various times in my life, and ended up finding it necessary to include so many that I finally had to settle for it being only half evil by capping it at 333. A musical odyssey that spans from 1986 to 2001, though it certainly didn’t end there, it took me nearly a week to finish and will likely take a few days of partying for us to listen to the whole thing. Anyway, this playlist got me thinking about how I discovered one of my favourite bands, Summoning, especially since I just bought a back patch of what I and many other fans consider to be their seminal album, Minas Morgul, with the intention of making a new battle jacket for myself.

As I recall one early autumn back in the late 90s I was browsing in a small leather shop in Greenwich Village when I noticed on a shelf off to one side a cardboard box full of CDs for sale. Curious, I started flipping through them, and quickly realised that they were all black metal albums. By this time I had heard and liked a few tracks from Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, but I was mostly into thrash and death metal so I didn’t recognise nor was I particularly interested in any of the bands whose names were printed on the seemingly endless succession of amateurish album covers in barely readable fonts, so I can’t even tell you today what obscure and ancient treasures I might’ve passed over. But one CD in particular did catch my eye, mostly because of the artwork.

[image description: cover art for Summoning’s 1995 LP “Minas Morgul” (Fair Use)]

Its quaint fortified medieval city surrounded by high walls nestled between majestic soaring misty mountains was what got me, along with the implication of the title with its Gothic blackletter font–namely that this was the very citadel of Minas Morgul, the Tower of Sorcery from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As I flipped the CD over and perused the song titles on the back cover I was enticed by the following track listing, also printed in the same font:

Soul Wandering
The Passing of the Grey Company
Marching Homewards
Dagor Bragollach
Through the Forest of Dol-Guldur
The Legend of the Master-Ring
Dor Daedeloth

From this I surmised that, unlike those of many black metal bands and artists who assumed Tolkien-ish names, these songs were actually about and/or set in Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle-earth. So I bought it, brought it home, and listened to it… and my heart sank a little as the first song, “Soul Wandering” began electronically, turned out to be instrumental and without guitars, and then ended much the same way it began. It sounded like something one of my Goth friends might’ve produced in their basement using only an electronic keyboard and a mixing console, and I was immediately worried the whole album would turn out to be like that. Not that I don’t enjoy that kind of music now and then, it just wasn’t what I expected based on the packaging. But then the next song, “Lugburz” came on, with a freezing black rain of metal guitar and growling of orcish vocals, followed by the even better “The Passing of the Grey Company”, and I knew right then that I had discovered something special. The entire album sounded like a horde of orcs singing battle hymns as they marched off to war, to music that was at times slow and melodic, evoking the medieval, and at times fast and uproarious, like the most frenetic of black metal tracks, and at all times something I wouldn’t hesitate to use as background music for one of my D&D or MERP campaigns.

After that, Summoning, which turned out to be a duo from Austria, became my favourite band, and over the years I would collect every single one of their CD releases (except for their latest which I plan to order soon), including their debut album, Lugburz, which was more like traditional black metal in style. As each successive LP or EP came out, there seemed to be a progression, or evolution of their sound, and yet they always kept to that medieval/folkish style of their second LP, Minas Morgul, which has earned them the distinction of being labelled as “medieval atmospheric black metal”. Still, each new album was unique, and today if you ask eight different Summoning fans which is their fave you’re likely to get eight different answers. But best of all, I was right about their songs mostly being about Middle-earth, and in fact much of their lyrics are taken directly from Tolkien’s poetry. And they didn’t draw inspiration only from The Lord of the Rings, but The Book of Lost Tales and The Simarillion as well.

Now there are quite a few tracks from several different Summoning albums that I could pontificate about, but the one that’s been on my mind the most recently, partly due to certain current events, is the one that gives us the title of this blog entry. “The Rotting Horse on the Deadly Ground” is the sixth track off their 1999 LP Stronghold, and I won’t be talking about the music but rather the lyrics, because they’re the reason I’m finding the song particularly relevant today. But I’ll link to the song at the bottom of this post so you can appreciate the musical aspects as well.

[image description: screengrab of the lyrics entry on for summoning’s “the rotting horse on the deadly ground” (Fair Use)]

As depicted in the image above, the text of the song lyrics when centered forms the unmistakeable shape of a mushroom cloud, making this an instance of concrete poetry. In such poems, the shape the lines form is usually a clue revealing what the poem’s (usually unnamed) subject is, so I think it’s safe to say that this hidden feature of the song is letting us know what it’s actually about. The bulk of the lyrics themselves, as with many Summoning songs, is a composite of Tolkien’s poetry, but added to this is a refrain I believe to be all their own:

Take a ride on, ride on,
on your rotting horse
on that deadly ground
Take a ride, ride on,
on your rotting horse
with a pounding sound.

I remember when I first listened to this song I wondered what that part meant, but it wasn’t until I saw the lyrics centered as shown in the previous image that I at last began to understand. The lyrics taking the shape of a mushroom cloud are a clue that this song with its added refrain is about nuclear war, giving new meaning to the lines from Tolkien’s poetry which were by themselves simply about conventional war and the loss it brings:

Wars of great kings and clash of armouries
Whose swords no man could tell, whose spears
Were numerous as wheat field’s ears
Rolled over all the great lands, and seas
Were loud with navies, their devouring fires

Behind the armies burned both fields and towns
And sacked and crumbled or to flaming pyres
Were cities made, where treasuries and crowns
Kings and their folk, their wives and tender maids
Were all consumed. Now silent are those courts
Ruined the towers, whose old shape slowly fades
And no feet pass beneath their broken ports

I heed no call of clamant bell that rings
Iron tongued in the towers of earthly kings

Here on the stones and trees there lies a spell
Of unforgotten loss, of memories more blest
than mortal wealth.
Here undefeated dwell the folk immortal
under withered elms,
Alalminore once in ancient realms

Seen in this light, there are three explanations for the added refrain that I can come up with and they aren’t mutually exclusive. Firstly, as I touched upon in an earlier post, the horse is a symbol of the cavalry, which in medieval times were the noble knights who sought honour and glory in war. So one thing we might glean from it is the message that unlike with conventional warfare, there is no possibility of honour and glory in a nuclear war, only the senseless destruction of all life. Hence in this nuclear age the noble horse of chivalry is not only doomed to rot, but in a sense, already rotting.

Another take on it is that the rotting horse refers to the point of view some hold that we must have nuclear weapons in order to avoid getting nuked by others who have them, a well-known argument on which the military doctrine of “mutual assured destruction” is based. In other words, as the reasoning goes, the very fact that a nuclear war can have no winners should serve as a deterrent to the use of nuclear weapons on both sides. This is often used as a apology for the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, so the lyric may be a critique of that. The metaphor of a horse as someone’s point of view or political position is not such a stretch, given that we have such idioms as “beating a dead horse”, “come down off your high horse”, and “fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”

Lastly, what the lyric “rotting horse on that deadly ground” evokes for me most vehemently, especially in connection with that image of the mushroom cloud that the lyrics form when the text is centered, is this oft-quoted line from the Book of Revelation:

 And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

Revelation 6:8 (KJV)

Not long ago I finally got to see the film The Green Knight, which I found to be a beautiful if overly long and convoluted take on the 14th century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and now one scene comes to mind featuring a conversation about the colour green and how it can represent not only life, as with the verdancy of living and life-giving vegetation, but also death and decay. I mention this because the original Greek wording of Revelation 6:8 literally translated is not “pale horse”, but “green horse”. The word used for “green” in this case is chloros (χλωρός), whence comes our word “chlorophyll”, the pigment plants use for photosynthesis which gives them their green colour; as well as “chlorine”, named for its yellow-green hue. But in this context it refers to the sickly green or greenish-yellow of disease and putrefaction (and it is for this reason that in some more modern Biblical translations, the phrase in question is rendered as “a pale green horse”). The implication is therefore that Death rides upon a rotting horse, which of course makes perfect mythopoetic sense.

Yet my sense is that the speaker is not literally addressing Death, the actual figure who is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; though the metaphorical image is certainly of him riding his “rotting horse” over “that deadly ground”–an obvious reference to ground zero, being that long after a nuclear detonation the affected area remains deadly from radioactive fallout–“with a pounding sound”–which could also be a reference to the multiple detonations that a full-scale nuclear attack would entail, since one might imagine that from afar the successive explosions would resemble the pounding sound of hooves, as of some monstrous warhorse galloping across the land. Rather I think the target of this sardonic admonishment is altogether human.

Theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, after having witnessed the successful detonation of the first atomic bomb he helped to create, famously said that it brought to mind a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Perhaps Summoning had this in mind when they wrote the refrain of “The Rotting Horse on the Deadly Ground”, which to me only makes sense within the context of the rest of the lyrics if it is directed at those mere mortal scientists, politicians, and military officials who would themselves become Death, the destroyer of worlds, by continuing to engage in a foolish arms race which can only lead to our utter annihilation.

Anyway, here’s the song if you’d like to hear it:

Summoning – Stronghold – The Rotting Horse on the Deadly Ground

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

2 thoughts on “The Rotting Horse on the Deadly Ground

  1. Today is Rob Halford’s 71st birthday! I am not familiar with ‘Summoning’ but from your posts you might like these guys. They do medieval metal.

    And I hope you have a great birthday.

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