Procol Harum

the Pale

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Millers and prostitutes

Miika Kurtakko on AWSoP

I read the fascinating interpretations of  AWSoP that others have come up with and just wanted to share mine. See, I wanted to translate the piece into Finnish (yeah, you guessed it, I'm actually Finnish) and hence, I had to put a lot of effort in trying to understand what the whole shebang meant. So here goes:

I found the overall concept of the lyric to be about a group of dancers or musicians (or both) that are closing on their performance. Therefore "skipping the light fandango" and tucking their gear ("the cartwheels cross the floor") out of the way. The reason for this is that the singer/storyteller is feeling sick, possibly from being a bit drunk ("feeling kind of seasick"). Not uncommon among performing artists, I've been informed...:-)

But as soon as the show is over, the storyteller resorts to some kind of intoxicating drink – probably plain old booze – to get better ("ordered another drink", this also refers to the fact the group had been drinking earlier). But by the compliments of the house, they get more than what they have ordered ("the waiter brought a tray"). So not just one drink (per person) but a bucketful of booze.

Which leads us to the chorus: once the drinks/trays are on the table, the serious boozing begins ("and so it was later..."). In the midst of heavy drinking, a tale is being told to a woman ("as the miller told his tale"). Obviously, the group has been joined by a fan or a member of the local community, plus there is either a female person in the group or there is also a female fan listening the tale ("that her face..."). The tale is frightening, as the lady turns all pale and beyond ("...turned a whiter shade of pale"). At this point we do not know who the lady is but it is revealed to us in the second verse.

The second verse starts with the lady reasoning to herself  ("She said 'there is no reason'") and that most probably she has been lied to ("and the truth is plain to see"). Now, what would the miller would like to lie about? And what is the lie that frightens the lady? The storyteller seems uninterested and/or indifferent in terms of the miller's tale at this point ("but I wandered through my playing cards"). However, he is more interested in the lady ("I would not let her be"). Why is that?

The grand showdown happens on the few lines, as the profession of the lady is being told. "One of sixteen Vestal virgins that were leaving for the coast" – this is the key to the mystery! Now, Vestal virgins were a key Roman concept. They were far from virgins (as we understand the English word virgin asvirgo intacta in Latin, i.e. a female with no sexual experience, especially who has not had an intercourse with a man). No, Vestal virgins were priestesses dedicated to uphold the sacred flame of Vesta, the Roman goddess of home and (cooking) fire. The way the Temple of Vesta financed its upkeep was to offer paid sexual services to all Roman men. The modern day term is a prostitute.

So, we have a prostitute who is about to embark on trip towards the coast. What lies on the coast? You're right, a port. So the lady is about to offer her services, among her colleagues, to eager sailors and other men populating the seaport. It is highly evident – although put in a very English way – that the lady, or prostitute as we know now, is far from being a sight to sore eyes ("although my eyes were wide open, they've might as well been closed"). I.e. she is downright ugly.

We are coming back to chorus then. We now know that we have a miller telling a tale to a prostitute, who is leaving for her business on the coast. The obvious conclusion is that the miller is telling something about the town/city port conditions to the prostitute, who refuses to believe what she has been told. It seems that the conditions are quite harsh and demanding for the prostitute. Hence, she is frightened to death.

It reminds me of the closing scenes in the film Breaking the Waves(with Emily Watson and Stellan Skärsgård), where the wife played by Emily Watson goes to offer her body to the group of overeager workers on an offshore oil rig. Subsequently, she dies after having had sex with dozens of them, who are far from gentle to her.

The last two unpublished verses simply confirm the facts. They are in fact at sea ("though in truth we were at sea") – which explains the earlier seasickness in the first verse. The  lady is now hesitant in getting to shore, as she has heard what awaits her ("she smiled at me so sadly"). 

The storyteller seems to be somewhat angry for the facts at hand, i.e. with her leaving shortly and leaving him empty handed. Also it is revealed that the prostitute has been working while on board ("you must be the mermaid who took Neptune for a ride"). Grim facts for the storyteller but he recuperates ("my anger died"). And decides to take advantage of the prostitute before she leaves.

He starts sweet talking ("my mouth then like cardboard seemed to slip straight through my head") and wastes no time. And the next thing we know, the couple is 'diving' on to one another ("we crash-dived straightaway quickly") and hits the bunk on the ship ("attacked the ocean bed") ie they go to bed together or to put it bluntly, they have 'a quickie'.

So we have a happy ending in the song, although we can guess that after the episode at sea the prostitute will get a hideous treatment by her customer once ashore. But is all in the editing, as we know from films like Pulp Fiction – one gets what one deserves.

Thanks, Miika

AWSoP page at BtP

Keith Reid's AWSoP manuscript

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