The Lyricist: The Lion and the Wolf

Music is important. This much we can all agree upon. But lyrics? That tends to be a matter of great debate. Staff writer Brennan is here to argue that lyrics can and should be valuable to all appreciators of music, not just teenage girls and hippies obsessed with Bob Dylan. To that end, and at the risk of exposing his nerdy obsession with words, Brennan will be using our new feature, The Lyricist, to illuminate some of the hidden gems and epic failures of the modern art of lyricism. First up: ‘The Lion and the Wolf’ from Thrice’s The Alchemy Index, Vol. IV: Earth.

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When Thrice released the four volumes of The Alchemy Index, much was made of their attempt to embody classical tropes – namely the four classical elements – with music. Less discussed, but equally important to the success of the project, was lyricist Dustin Kensrue’s ability to approach a number of old and profound literary themes and subject with his lyrics, and perhaps no song from the entire Alchemy catalog is more heavily steeped in classic lore than ‘The Lion and the Wolf.’ If you haven’t heard it yet, check out the song and lyrics below.

The lion’s outside of your door, the wolf’s in your bed.

The lion’s claws are sharpened for war, the wolf’s teeth are red.

And what a monstrous sight he makes, mocking man’s best friend.

And both the wolf and lion crave the same thing in the end.

The lion’s outside of your door, the wolf’s in your bed.

The wolf he howls, the lion does roar, the wolf lets him in.

The lion runs in through the door, the real fun begins

as they both rush upon you and rip open your flesh.

The lion eats his fill and then the wolf cleans up the rest.

The lion’s outside of your door, the wolf’s in your bed.

The lion’s outside of your door, the wolf’s in your bed.

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The surface value of the song seems simple – and hardcore – enough: images of a lion (ferocious!) and a wolf (badass!) just tearing a dude up because…well because that’s a fairly hardcore thing to sing about, that’s why. But, of course, this would be a pretty pointless article if that was all that was going on here. Which, of course, is not the case: Kensrue’s no lyrical slouch and he doesn’t disappoint with ‘The Lion and the Wolf.’ The song is more of an interplay between symbols than a story, but we have to take a trip in the Wayback Machine to figure out the meaning of Kensrue’s imagery.In the early 14th century (see, I wasn’t kidding when I said we’d have to go way back), Dante Alighieri penned his epic poem The Divine Comedy about the soul’s journey towards God. The poem is divided into three parts, Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven), each one describing the poet’s journeys through the domains of the afterlife and the recognition, repentance, and cleansing of his sins through the grace of God. It is a powerful story in its own right, and it presents a potent allegory that hinges on extensive use of classical and Medieval symbolism. Importantly for our purposes, Dante’s protagonist encounters three beasts at the outset of the poem: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. Though there is some debate over the exact meaning of the beasts, one of the most widely accepted theories is that the leopard represents fraud, the lion represents violence, and the wolf represents lust or desire.

Which brings us back to ‘The Lion and the Wolf.’ When the first verse sings, “the lion’s claws are sharpened for war, the wolf’s teeth are red,” it’s clear that this is the symbolism that Kensrue is using. A mention of war obviously points toward the violence of the lion, but the description of the wolf’s teeth as red is more subtle. The surface representation is blood, but the meaning that I think Kensrue is hinting at is one of lust or desire, traits classically associated with the color red. Since this symbolism is fairly common in modern culture (think of the Girl-in-the-Red-Dress from The Matrix), it doesn’t require much in the way of explanation, though I will point out that red was considered an especially scandalous color in the classical tradition that The Alchemy Index often references. More importantly for our purposes, and in direct relation to Kensrue’s lyricism, red presents a symbolism he’s used in the past: in ‘I Knew You Before‘ from Kensrue’s excellent solo record Please Come Home, he sings of a girl in the throes of lust and describes her as “driv[ing] fast foreign cars, the color of your sin.” I think we can be pretty sure what color sports car he had in mind. So, now that we know what Kensrue is talking about, what does he have to say on the subject?

As it turns out, the song’s first line, which repeats in a refrain throughout, is a central one: “The lion’s outside of your door, the wolf is in your bed.” First, Kensrue is stating the external nature of violence. Long before the social sciences of the modern age, the classical idea of violence was exclusively one of war and physical brutality, of the crimes that men would leave their homes, their towns, and their countries to commit. Violence, the lion, is outside of your door. But the classical idea of lust – of desire – that’s another matter. It grows in our hearts, festers in our minds, and poisons our souls. It is the most intimate of sins and it breeds in the most intimate of places. Desire, the wolf, is in your bed.

A part of the great classical depiction of desire, though, is its propensity to disguise itself as love (as any teenager can attest, it’s not always easy to tell the difference). Kensrue has us covered here, too. When he notes that the wolf is “mocking man’s best friend” the surface connection obviously implies the dog-like nature of the wolf, but metaphorically? It’s love. The devoutly Christian Kensrue goes so far as to give us a primer earlier in this very album when ‘Moving Mountains‘ references an oft-repeated passage from the Book of Corinthians. Man’s best friend, the greatest companion we can have in this life, is a symbol of true companionship, of love. And desire, the wolf, mocks that bond, because while love builds us up into something more than ourselves, desire tears us down and burns us away. It is internal violence. It is, like war, a path to our destruction. As Kensrue aptly notes, both the wolf and lion want the same thing in the end.

Perhaps Kensrue’s most salient point is contained in the opening line of the second verse. By stating that it is the wolf (desire) that lets the lion (violence) into our homes, Kensrue is isolating one of mankind’s most deeply set character flaws – that our desires lead us to violence. This is as true now, in a world where countries fight for control of the oil they so covetously desire, as it was in the time of classical myth, when Paris and Menelaus each desired Helen of Troy with such virulent passion that the decade long Trojan War was born of it. It is our desires that lead us to violence, Kensrue warns, and both will devour us until there is nothing left.

In a short song, with only a handful of lines, Kensrue has done a remarkable job of elucidating some profound concepts that have been debated and discussed throughout the entire history of literature. His violent and haunting lyrical prose does a masterful job of warning against violence and greed in what amounts to a plea for peace and love. It’s truly a remarkable work, one that’s worth reading just as much as it is worth hearing.


Banner image received from www.shanaweb.net

This post originally appeared on Type In Stereo.

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