I’m very much into shapeshifting tales, particularly where the lover does not realise (at first, at least) that his lady is one of the Faer. Crazy Man Michael is such a one and, like most of them, very sad in all sorts of ways.
The concept of “crazy man” amongst cunning folk and awenyddion is of the shaman, magician, sorcerer … not our modern idea of someone with metal problems. The way the song begins, “Within the fire and out upon the sea Crazy Man Michael was walking” is about journeying; it’s the mixing of fire and water – two elements that cannot combine in our everyday reality – that always mark the magic-worker. Michael meets a raven on his journey through fire and water who offers to tell him his future.
Ravens are one of the ancient totems of Britain and a very long-lived bird in the everyday world that mates for life. Young ravens are very playful of bird and have been seen sliding down snowbanks, purely for fun; they even engage in games with other species, such as playing catch-me-if-you-can with wolves, otters and dogs. Ravens are known for spectacular aerobatics displays, such as flying in loops or interlocking talons with each other in flight. They also make their own toys, breaking off twigs to play with.
Michael forgets all he knows about ravens in his fury at the telling of his fortune; as the song tells us, his “his mad mind had trapped him with a kiss-oh“. Shamans and cunning folk can be trapped by the mind just as an ordinary folk; something we all need to be awake to notice. He is so angry he kills the raven with his ” dagger of fire and of steel” – note again the magical elements.
The sky spins and the earth wonders and startles at his rash and foolish deed … and the shift happens; there on the ground is the dead body of his truelove, no longer in raven form. he has accused the raven of “You speak with an evil, you speak with a hate
You speak for the devil that haunts me“; now he realises that those were qualities in him, not in the raven.
He wanders through the land, talking to the night and the day but he is not mad. Michael is cursed for following his personal-ego wants rather than listening to the wise words of his soul. He has allowed his mad-mind to trap him. He asks the wild woods for their pardon and now he must pay the price, “For his true love is flown into every flower grown
And he must be keeper of the garden“.
This is so beautiful … and so sad. The understanding that all life is one, that to hate one part because it says things your mind doesn’t want to hear will break that oneness. Then, at the end of all, to know that you cannot give up, that you must go on … because you are the keeper of the garden.
Our old stories and songs tell the lore like this … we have to go far deeper than the “cute” and “romantic” folk-song, deep into the spirit of the song itself.
These are Sandy Denny’s words from the beautiful recording by Fairport Convention which, IMO, cannot be beaten. I use the same tune when I sing it … wish I had her voice. A friend of mine, Tamsin Powell who sings with Ghost of s Dog, has an amazing voice and does the song proud too.
Within the fire and out upon the sea
Crazy Man Michael was walking
He met with a raven with eyes black as coals
And shortly they were a-talking
“Your future, your future, I would tell to you
Your future, you often have asked me
Your true love will die by your own right hand
And Crazy Man Michael will cursed be”
Michael he ranted and Michael he raved
And beat at the four winds with his fists-oh
He laughed and he cried, he shouted and he swore
For his mad mind had trapped him with a kiss-oh
“You speak with an evil, you speak with a hate
You speak for the devil that haunts me
For is she not the fairest in all the broad land?
Your sorcerer’s words are to taunt me”
He took out his dagger of fire and of steel
And struck down the raven through the heart-oh
The bird fluttered long and the sky it did spin
And the cold earth did wonder and start-oh
“Oh, where is the raven that I struck down dead
That here’d lie on the ground-oh?
I see but my true love with a wound so red”
Her lover’s heart it did pound-oh
Crazy Man Michael, he wanders and walks
And talks to the night and the day-oh
But his eyes they are sane and his speech it is clear
And he longs to be far away-oh
Michael he whistles the simplest of tunes
And asks the wild woods their pardon
For his true love is flown into every flower grown
And he must be keeper of the garden