Mumford, Macbeth and the Long Walk Home

A Lenten reflection on "Roll Away Your Stone"

I don’t pretend to know what “Roll Away Your Stone” is about. Mumford & Sons, the writers and performers of the song, apparently don’t know what the song is about themselves. But when the tune rolled up on my Pandora station the other day, I found myself jerked out of my half-listening state to sudden alertness by this line: “Stars, hide your fires.” I had reason. I am currently teaching Macbeth to my college freshmen, and this line is lifted straight from Shakespeare’s tragedy.

The line occurs in Act 1, Scene 4, when Macbeth, his ambition roused by a prophecy that he will one day be king, reflects on the obstacles in his path. The Scotsman’s thoughts have already turned toward murder, and in an aside he says, “Stars, hide your fires;/ Let not light see my black and deep desires.”

Even before the explicit allusion, “Roll Away Your Stone” seems to be in similar territory. The opening stanza of the song establishes a spiritual framework for all the thoughts that follow: “Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine.” Clearly the speaker refers here to the resurrection of Jesus, when the stone rolled away from His tomb (Matthew 28:2, Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1). However, Mumford et al. seem to be using the rolling away of the stone as a metaphor for revealing the true self, a prospect which the speaker considers with some apprehension: “I’m afraid of what I will discover inside.

Both Mumford’s speaker and Macbeth are afraid of the sin, guilt and propensity for evil that they find within themselves. They respond to this fear, though, in different ways. Macbeth wants his “black and deep desires” realized in spite of his own admission that they scare him. Mumford’s speaker turns to grace, apparently at the advice of a mysterious “you”: “you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works.” Who is this “you”? A close friend? A spiritual advisor? God? Whoever the “you” is, the speaker addresses him or her with equal parts trust and ambivalence. The speaker heeds the “you’s” advice about grace and repentance while at the same time maintaining his position that darkness “dominates the things I see.

So what does the “you” say about grace? “It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart/ but the welcome I receive with the restart.” This line seems to me to have particular relevance to Lent. “The long walk home” recalls not only the Lenten journey of repentance but also the return of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). In both cases, the journey is not an end in itself. Guilt is not the point. Guilt is not redemptive. Rather, we sojourn through the landscape of our inner darkness so that we can reach the love and forgiveness of God, and so that our hearts can be transformed by that love.

In this way the speaker of Mumford’s song more closely resembles another character from The Scottish Play, Macbeth’s friend and rival Banquo. In Act II, Banquo says, “Merciful powers, restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature gives way to in repose.” Like Macbeth, Banquo has heard a prophecy that has whetted his ambition. Like Macbeth, Banquo is tempted. But unlike Macbeth, Banquo resists that temptation. Where Macbeth wants to keep his desires hidden from the heavens, Banquo invites the “merciful powers” to witness his own black and deep desires and thereby assist him in warding them off.

Here’s where things get tricky for me.

The song’s speaker makes the allusion: “Stars hide your fires.” Good. But look what follows:

“These here are my desires, and I won’t give them up to you this time around, and so I’ll be found,
with my stake stuck in this ground,
marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul.”

These proud and euphoric sentiments are pretty far removed from the furtiveness of the original quote. The jubilation of the music further distances Mumford’s allusion from its source. Maybe the speaker has shifted focus from his black and deep desires to desires of another sort, his desire to live an authentic and spiritually fulfilled life. Maybe the speaker has decided that the desires he had before were not so deep and dark after all and now embraces them. Certainly the lines indicate that the speaker has achieved a spiritual renewal such as we never see from Shakespeare’s emotionally anesthetized Scotsman.

Is the “you” here the same “you” he addressed earlier? In which case, has he decided that the “you” he appealed to for assistance earlier has encroached on his autonomy? Has he decided that he doesn’t need this “you’s” help after all? Or is this a new “you”? Is he now addressing his disordered desires and temptations, in effect saying “no” to the worst parts of himself and claiming the best parts for his own?

Perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate. The speaker of this song is still on that long walk home, and while he is clear in expressing his spiritual longing, he hasn’t arrived at a definite answer yet. A lot of us still wander that winding road. It’s good to know that we don’t wander alone — that a 400-year-old playwright and a contemporary Grammy winner have gone that way, too.