Iron Maiden History Lessons: Songs About War, Religion and More
Iron Maiden are one of the best teachers a rock fan can have.
You'll find a dozen songs below by the world's wisest metal band on subjects like the arts, history and religion. Whether you're a student or simply looking to broaden your horizons, think of these tracks as CliffsNotes — only with kick-ass guitar solos and Bruce Dickinson screaming stanzas of poetry, the dates of ancient battles and existential conundrums.
Poetry: “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Your high-school English teacher might disagree, but Romantic poetry and heavy metal make for an ideal pair — the drama, the overwrought bombast, the virtuosity poured into subjects both sublime and silly. The ultimate example of this pairing is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1797 poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a 626-line epic about a sailor’s curse and narrow escape from death. Bassist Steve Harris Maidenized the piece on 1984’s Powerslave. Nearly 14 minutes long, the metal symphony sums up the poem better than any scholar could. Harris echoes the work’s aesthetic (the dark, dreamy midsection evokes the feeling of being trapped on a windless sea) and sometimes lifts whole passages for Dickinson to sing (“Day after day, day after day / We stuck nor breath nor motion / As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean / Water, water everywhere and all the boards did shrink / Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”). Dickinson dipped back into the Romantic era on his 1998 solo album, The Chemical Wedding, finding inspiration in Coleridge contemporary William Blake. But nothing compares to Maiden’s take on the 18th-century masterpiece.
Listen to Iron Maiden's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner'
Prose: “Murders in the Rue Morgue”
Most Maiden members have dug into fiction for inspiration, but Harris leaves them all behind. He wrote “To Tame a Land” in homage to Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi book Dune and based “Sign of the Cross” on part of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose. "Lord of the Flies," written with guitarist Janick Gers, got its title from the William Golding novel of the same name. But “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” from 1981's Killers, is Harris' best literary adaptation. Often called the first detective story, the Edgar Allan Poe tale follows C. Auguste Dupin as he solves the mystery of two brutally murdered Parisian women. It's a nuanced affair, a meditation on the powers of the mind pitted against the force of the fist. But the song it inspired positively gallops. Forget subtlety — it mixes the fury of early thrash with the punch of punk. It’s the kind of thing Maiden did so well when Paul Di'Anno fronted the band in its early years.
Listen to Iron Maiden's 'Murders in the Rue Morgue'
Greek Mythology: “Flight of Icarus”
It’s surprising Iron Maiden didn’t record a whole album about Greek mythology. The Greeks had all of the band’s favorite subjects — war, magic, monsters, the evil that men do — but Maiden delivered only one truly transcendent song from the stories of Mount Olympus: “Flight of Icarus” from 1983's Piece of Mind. But don't use the song as a study guide for your mythology midterm: Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith took plenty of liberties with the story of Icarus and his father Daedalus using wax and feathers to fashion wings in an attempt to escape imprisonment in Crete. However, both tales do end with youthful arrogance leading to their protagonists' fatal errors. Bonus cut: Dickinson traveled 1,000 miles south of Greece and a couple of centuries back in time for a nice dive into Egyptology on Powerslave's title track.
Watch the Video for Iron Maiden's 'Flight of Icarus'
Ancient History: “Alexander the Great”
It’s shocking how much you can learn about Alexander the Great in eight and a half minutes. "Alexander the Great" starts with a quote from the ruler's father, Philip of Macedon, lamenting that he hadn’t conquered enough of the world for his son to inherit. Then it draws a detailed biography of the conqueror, complete with specific dates, names of battles and a couple massive guitar solos. On the Somewhere in Time closer, Harris outlines how Alex defeated the armies of Persia and the Scythians while giving rise to the Hellenic age; he also explains how Alexander figured out the Gordian Knot. Maiden documented plenty of tales from ancient history, from human’s “Quest for Fire” to “Genghis Khan,” but none of those equal “Alexander the Great.”
Listen to Iron Maiden's 'Alexander the Great'
Medieval History: “Montsegur”
Iron Maiden love history, particularly the bits filled with blood and death. While the obvious song to celebrate is “Invaders” - where Harris recalls the axes, severed limbs, bloody corpses, rape and burning flesh left behind after Viking raids - the grand sweep of “Montsegur” can’t be denied. Based on the 1243-44 siege and fall of the titular citadel, the track documents the Catholic crusade to destroy the Cathars begun decades earlier by Pope Innocent III, who deemed them heretics. To match the age's mayhem, Dickinson, Harris and Gers created a six-minute war horse on 2003’s Dance of Death full of intricate parts and dramatic stylistic shifts. Bonus cut: Inspired by the late-13th century Scottish warrior William Wallace, “The Clansman” begins with some wonderful guitar work that recalls Mark Knopfler.
Listen to Iron Maiden's 'Montsegur'
British History: “The Trooper”
Throughout their history, Iron Maiden have revisited England’s wartime victories and defeats ("Aces High," “Where Eagles Dare,” “Tailgunner,” “Paschendale,” "The Longest Day”). But nothing conjures panic, fear and chaos like “The Trooper.” Harris based the marquee Maiden track on the 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War's Battle of Balaclava, which resulted in approximately 270 British soldiers killed or wounded. The song doesn’t waste time wading into the horrors of war, opening with Dickinson screaming, “You’ll take my life, but I'll take yours too / You’ll fire your musket, but I'll run you through.” The battle was immortalized in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, so it's a lesson in both history and poetry.
Watch the Video for Iron Maiden's 'The Trooper'
American History: “Run to the Hills”
Although Iron Maiden haven’t covered U.S. history with as much zeal as their native land, the band has still touched on America — from the Mayflower to the Gulf War. One of the standouts on 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death, “The Pilgrim” recounts the emotions and spiritual turmoil of a 1620 transatlantic voyage. Released right after the Gulf War, Fear of the Dark’s “Afraid to Shoot Strangers” curses politicians forcing people to kill one another. But nothing matches the fury and cruelty of “Run to the Hills” from The Number of the Beast. Many consider this story of Native American genocide to be Iron Maiden’s greatest accomplishment. Harris’ look at colonization and westward expansion is unflinching in its damnation: “White man came across the sea / He brought us pain and misery / He killed our tribes, he killed our creed.”
Watch the Video for Iron Maiden's 'Run to the Hills'
Psychology: “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”
While fans can learn loads of history and literature from Iron Maiden, you probably shouldn't take too much advice from the band. Delving into the minds of Maiden characters is looking inside the ridiculous, wild and weird. But those examinations can still be a hell of a lot of fun, like on “Fear of the Dark,” Harris’ examination of nyctophobia — the clinical term for the condition — and “Can I Play With Madness.” However, the band’s smartest take on psychology is probably Harris’ “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” which looks at an obsession to compete and win that also features a genius guitar duet by Smith and Dave Murray.
Listen to Iron Maiden's 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner'
Sports: “Flash of the Blade”
Thanks to Dickinson’s obsession and skill with a foil, Maiden have some sharp tracks about fencing. The singer's “Flash of the Blade” tells a tale of steel, death and vengeance anchored by hooks, riffs and crossing guitar lines that feel like Murray and Smith slashing at each other. Bonus cut: “The Duelists” — curiously, Maiden’s second-best song about lunging, feinting and parrying comes from Harris and follows “Flash of the Blade” on Powerslave.
Listen to Iron Maiden's 'Flash of the Blade'
Cinema: “The Prisoner”
If Harris wasn’t reading dusty old books to find inspiration, he was watching classic war and horror movies. And he mined these films for some killer stuff: Maiden’s chief songwriter pulled from 1958’s Run Silent, Run Deep, 1960’s Village of the Damned, 1964’s Children of the Damned, 1968’s Where Eagles Dare, 1973’s The Wicker Man, various versions of Phantom of the Opera and half a dozen more. But the small screen pushed Harris, with help from Smith, to write the triumphant “The Prisoner.” A standout on an album of standouts, the Number of the Beast cut features an intro pulled straight from dialogue in the British TV show of the same name and a huge, triumphant chorus. The song follows the story of Patrick McGoohan as he attempts to escape from … okay, no spoilers. Just trust us: It's one of the coolest shows ever. So cool Iron Maiden wrote another song based on the series, “Back in the Village,” for Powerslave.
Listen to Iron Maiden's 'The Prisoner'
Religion: “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and “Infinite Dreams”
A master’s thesis could be written about Maiden’s songs on the occult. “The Number of the Beast” alone could justify a score of pages. Once the thesis is done, a PhD dissertation on the band’s complex views about organized religion is in order — while there are so many songs connected to this subject (“For the Greater Good of God,” “Holy Smoke,” “Starblind”), Dickinson’s “Revelations” is a thorny, complex and bizarre look at religion. However, Maiden’s earnest introspections on life, death and purpose completely captivate. “Hallowed Be Thy Name” ponders the idea of believing in salvation only when one must. Reincarnation, existentialism, infinity and a glorious time signature shift exalt “Infinite Dreams.”
Listen to Iron Maiden's 'Hallowed Be Thy Name'
Listen to Iron Maiden's 'Infinite Dreams'