Essay: For Countless Years the Dragon Roared: a new carol
By Dr. Mark Reagan
First published in Digressio Express, Christmas 2021.
The sea shanty is everywhere it seems, even in Christmas carols like this new one, For Countless Years the Dragon Roared. COVID-19 lockdowns apparently helped this folk genre swell to a new peak. People, sequestered at home, apparently hankering for the company of their mates and raising a glass, suddenly united in song. And so came about the TikTok Wellerman phenomenon you may have heard about.
We are proud to say the shanty resurgence crested in Moscow, Idaho a good six months before it did in other quarters. Perhaps you have seen the videos or have sung Ever and Aye or To the Word. The impetus of these songs was to give Christians something to sing in the commonplace of household chores—a Christian work song, if you will.
Shanties were work songs for sailors, helping them coordinate their movements in hoisting cargo and weighing anchor. The Christian home is a bustling place, with lots of daily work to be done. If God desires we glorify Him even in the mundane activities of eating and drinking, why not accompany our domestic activity with something we already know he likes? Singing. Thus the sacred shanty was born.
One advantage of the shanty style, its quintessential feature, really, is that these are songs sung by men. And part of their jaunty appeal comes from their masculinity. They tend to be in minor keys, for one thing. Their rhythmic component is bodily, earthy, rather than smooth or other-worldly. They are songs that accompany movement.
Reading over Christiana Hale’s verses and considering what music would best suit her text, it seemed that these qualities (the masculine, the earthy) were the natural fit. As a Christmas song, the topic is the incarnation and therefore the earthy is well in bounds. Many Christmas carols embody a visceral quality, especially old Latin ones like Gaudete Christus est natus, Personant hodie, and Puer natus in Bethlehem. If you don’t know these carols, look them up. They’re a lot of fun and worth knowing. In the new carol, the tenor melody supplies the masculine aspect. (Yes, the tune is in the soprano part too, but the sopranos are following the tenors, not the other way around.)
Hale’s text is a classic retelling of Redemption history. It borrows from myth—stories like Beowulf and the The Faerie Queene, stories of merry knights and sulfur-spewing dragons. To match the ancient grandeur of these tales, a quasi-medieval music is devised.
What stands out in this text, something I really like, is the fight between Christ and Satan—a topic atypical of Christmas songs. Some carols are fixated merely on the events of Christ’s birth, songs like God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen or When Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night, great songs, don’t get me wrong. Meanwhile, others like Silent Night or Away in a Manger are somewhat quaint, focusing on the child Jesus. (Sweet infant indeed He was, though His nativity is ensconced in mystery, awe, and wonder!)
Hale in fact does some of both. Like the gospel accounts, her text reads like a history, but comes to focus not on shepherds, a manger, and a star but on that “strange and dreadful strife/ When life and death contended” (Martin Luther, Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands). Furthermore, the sweetness of a child’s Christmas, the “sleep in heavenly peace,” is there too, but not in sweet sentimentality. No, those icicle lights hanging from the eaves of your house are actually trophies of war. Even the foolishness of Ol’ Saint Nick and his multitude of elves, hammers tap-tapping, in some way declares Christ’s triumph and pokes fun the defeated dragon.
Enjoy trying out this new carol. Sing it making your cookies, trimming the tree, tidying up for house guests. Or sing it mixed in with other carols that we enjoy just for the kick of singing them. And girls, get your brothers and dads to join it. This song was written with guys in mind. Merry Christmas!