The Mariner’s Revenge Song: An Analysis

“The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is a sea shanty by the Decemberists that tells the story of a young man who spends his whole life hunting down the man who cheated and destroyed his recently-widowed mother. The story is told achronologically, with the beginning of the song taking place in the present (the hunter and the hunted both trapped in the belly of a whale). For most of the rest of the song, the hunter explains to the hunted (and the audience) how the hunted ruined his life and the life of his mother by wooing her after the death of her husband and then abandoning her to take the blame for his debts. This act destroyed the woman and she died not long after, her son promising to hunt down the man that ruined him. The boy grew up in the streets as an orphan, until he learned that the hunted was a captain of a ship and known for “wanton cruelty.” The hunter, now a young man, joins with a privateer to find him, and just as the hunted’s ship is in their sights, both ships are swallowed by a whale. Only the hunter and the hunted survive, and the hunter gleefully exclaims that it was good fortune that they did, because now the hunter could kill the hunted himself.

Good fortune is relative. It is better fortune than he’s had for most of his life, sure, but his fortune never cracks good, only sort of an inverse bell curve. There’s also the issue with the fact that his only goal in life was murder: even if the man he was hunting was bad, and he seems to be, it makes it clear that the ending of this story is bittersweet. He got what he wanted, his victim was dead by his hand, but he never got what he needed. He still presumably died in the whale, and he was never able to move past his mother’s death and the man that took her from him. He didn’t live his own life, everything seemed to be in service of the goal of revenge. He never had the chance to be anything other than an instrument in the avenging of his mother, so despite him achieving his goal, the song and the story it tells is a tragedy, and the irony is that everyone except the narrator realizes it.

The medium of the song worked pretty well, although there were a few moments of questionable lyric writing with words that didn’t quite fit the space they were allotted. The music added to the air of pirates and seas and the lawlessness and danger that accompanies that theme. The fact that for the longest time you could die at sea and your family would never know means that for centuries, the ocean was a threatening void that you may never return from, and the narrator takes advantage of that. Rather than confront his victim on land, he takes him on the sea where there were no witnesses.

The tragedy of the song is really the most important part, because as far as the narrator’s concerned, he got what he wanted. I really like the story this tells and how it serves as a cautionary tale (just like any good sea shanty does) about letting your desire cloud what you need. Unlike most modern stories (Pixar is really known for this) that give their characters what they need and withhold what they want, this story gives the character what he wants and it is his downfall. It makes it more tragic than if he just didn’t get to kill his victim, because he thinks he won, and we know better.

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