Once in the empty guardbox we’re taken out of time to a land that belongs to troubadours. A place we somehow know from ballad, myth, folklore, allegory. A place of towers and fountains and palaces and marketplaces. A powerful folktale takes beauty and violence into consideration and nature here is lovely and ravaged: there are sweet meadows and mountain laurel as well as ditches of destruction following the battle in the first verse. Roads here are endless, befitting a hero’s ordeal.
The structures are archetypal. The marketplace is necessarily corrupt with thieves and greedy merchants. The tower and fountain are necessarily settings for ritual and allegory. There is a haunted palace of empty rooms and mirrors. But all palaces are mirrors. All palaces are built on reflection, vanity, surveillance, and the multiplication of power. Dylan breaks the Tarot-inflected dream by placing the reflection–ghosts, memories–of dog soldiers in this palace. This image of men who defended with ferocious tenacity and sacrifice the land they had occupied for time out of mind against, well, merchants and thieves hungry for power, breaks open a rich and complicated vein of specific warfare and specifically ravaged landscapes into what feels like a mythologized personal ordeal. In and around this abandoned palace are the sounds of death and hope and harmony, but deeply wrong. The chimes wail, an impossible and gruesome image. And the angels whisper only to “the souls of previous times;” they comfort only the dead.
In the 8th, and next-to-last verse, the landscape ends. With the announcement of Eden’s burning, we cease to be anywhere grounded. We end up bound to a wheel of fire, in an awful vision of wild and comfortless peace where Death is conquered without, it seems, judgment, reckoning, and paradise.
And what of the people in this distorted place? They step out of ballads and out of history and out of scripture and out of the occult. There are the merchants and thieves battening upon the captain’s failure and loss and also bravery as he steps forward to meet them. (More on our hero later.) There are the dog soldiers whose actual courage and actual relation to ravaged land and lived rituals and symbols disrupt the song’s artful allegories.
And the women–or woman, I leave that question to people who are captivated by it–are ideals, stately players in strange tableaux, inaccessible and lost to the captain one way or another, except for one. One woman is sweet as a meadow itself, born far from the marketplace,born propitiously on midsummer’s eve, born near a tower–a stronghold or battlement or place of wizardry. The one he sees on the stairs, after the messenger arrives–he can only watch her. And there is the beloved maid whose ebony face is more than complexion. She is sphinx-like, beyond all communication, which seems far more silent than being beyond contact or understanding. I’m not myself comfortable with any specific decoding of shaved heads–I see an ominous and ambiguous ritual in this and in the lifted veil.
The one woman who is not inaccessible, not an idol, who may reach and touch the captain is frightened and dependent. She clutches the captain’s hair and demands to know how they will escape, how he will defend them.
The captain must run a gauntlet. Renegade priests betray their holy calling and unite with pagan sorceresses to betray human feeling by distributing the tokens of the captain’s love. The captain politely addresses his bosses, apparently decorous gentlemen who can order both deceit and miracles from their subordinates.
I want to get out of the empty guardbox and it’s almost as hard for me as it is for the singer/captain, and for the same reason. There’s no map to lead me out and no bird’s eye view to let me see the lay of the land. I see things I recognize and can read, but they don’t fit with other things. It’s not a world ungoverned–it’s a world governed by too much. It’s a man’s world, military and hierarchical, where women are silent or helpless. It’s not an unholy world, but a world where the sacred is corrupted or grieving or in flames or useless to mortals. Rituals and symbols are loaded with meaning that is hidden from us. The strange occult Tarot game of fate and chance, doom and toss-up, is also at work here. There is the Buddhist Wheel, the fixed law of impermanence.
This is spiritual chaos and not syncretism. The only constant in the empty guardbox is the singer/captain’s sense that this world belongs to him. He’s bound to the women, he knows what goes on in the haunted palace, he survives the destruction in the ditches, he boldly refuses to serve the Organization, and he prophesies a peace without reward. And he is not quite whole, is he–he has, after all, endured the replacement of his own heart with a tattoo of one.
We do have another mythic world of veils and shrines to compare to this empty guardbox. In The Golden Loom, we find ourselves also among wildflowers, with suggestive rituals, and an unattainable veiled woman. There is a lion who unferociously trembles and has a hopeful symbol of rebirth in place of a tail–quite different from a heart-shaped tattoo replacing a beating human heart. Although this is not an idyll, as the light is “dismal” here, and clouds are “hungry,” and there is a “bitter taste” as “tears roll down,” the land of The Golden Loom is a place to dally and sigh and suffer dreamily. It is no portal to a vision of moral urgency and spiritual disorder. You leave the land of the golden loom with haunting and rather luscious memories. You fight your way through the empty guardbox perhaps without even leaving it.
Not able to stay or leave or be entirely sure where we are, we’ll just stop now. Not even having yet considered the sound of this place.