Ben Howard: Battles with Wolves

Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide.

- William Blake, "To the Evening Star"

If you've seen the impressive video of Scottish cyclist Danny Macaskill doing tricks in an abandoned ironworks (above), you've also heard an early recording of British singer-songwriter Ben Howard's "The Wolves" (final album version here).

"The Wolves" is the second single from Howard's debut studio album Every Kingdomwhich showcases Howard's unique sound - something like David Gray introducing Damien Rice to Mumford & Sons - as well as some insightful lyrics that raise important philosophical questions.

While other songs ("Everything," "The Fear") allude to it, "The Wolves" is a complete expression of the sorrow, emptiness, and displacement that arise in the gradual - or sudden - loss of security and peace:

Falling from high places, falling through lost spaces
Now that we're lonely, now that there's nowhere to go
Watching from both sides, these clock towers burning up
I lost my time here, I lost my patience with it all
And we lost faith, in the arms of love

But what love has the singer lost faith in? His album Every Kingdom is saturated with songs about his "darling" - is "The Wolves" just about a bad romance?

The chorus reveals that this is indeed a "breakup" song, but from a spurned collective to its absent leader:

Where you been hiding lately?
Where you been hiding from the news?
Cause we've been fighting lately
We've been fighting with the wolves

There's no reason to assume that this "you" is God; that is, until the second verse, when Howard sings: "I lost my mind here, I lost my patience with the lord." This reading holds weight: the news is brimming with chaos, violence, injustice, selfishness, and a host of other ravenous "wolves" we see all over the place. God, on the other hand, is defined as the essence and origin of all order, peace, justice, and love. The song suggests that a God that lets us battle wolves - a God that stays hidden and silent when we need him most - must not exist.

Here, "The Wolves" nose-dives into the idea of the "hidden God," which is the convergence point of atheism and faith - a place where doubt and desire cross paths and even strengthen each other. God (whether you believe in or him or not) is properly defined here. He isn't some petulant bearded guy in the sky who throws thunderbolts at you if you sin; instead, he is the "ground of being" and "being itself," an obscure reality that all too often seems to let the good suffer and the bad prosper, saying and doing nothing about it. This God is much more troubling to the human mind than an anthropomorphic genie - more inaccessible. It's here that many of us, like Howard, get overwhelmed, are are "converted" to atheism.

After all, to the atheist, God's "hiddenness" is easily explained - God seems to "hide" from us because there is nothing there to hide; he isn't real.

But they aren't quite off the hook. Atheist Albert Camus argued that everyone, even atheists, hungers for salvation and meaning; that life is "absurd" because we're wired to desire that a non-existent God to show us his face. (Christopher Hitchens will admit that he desires "transcendence" or "the numinous" - but these seem to be poorly disguised euphemisms for divinity.) Thus the true atheist's doubt is always plagued by desire.

Likewise, the true believer's desire is forever plagued by doubt. God feels absent, even (and especially) to those who believe in him most. Mother TheresaJohn of the Cross, Dostoevsky, and Job all at one point cried out words from the Psalms: "Why hide from me your face?...My only friend is darkness." Even God himself, GK Chesterton argued, momentarily became an atheist on the cross; even God once cried out to God, "Why have you forsaken me?"

Soren Kierkegaard captures this agony of God's hiddenness in a private journal entry, with imagery very reminiscent of the desolate ironworks in the video above:

"Great is my distress, unlimited. No one knows it but God in heaven and he will not comfort me...[this is] the suffering of one who...must now, exhausted and faint, begin a retreat through ruined lands and ravaged regions, surrounded on all sides by the abomination of destruction, by gutted cities and the smoking ruins of disappointed hopes, by prosperity trampled down and strength brought low... interrupted monotonously by the constantly repeated plaint:
'These days give me no pleasure.'"

Kierkegaard was a man of great faith - but in reading this, and in contemplating the frequent convergence of belief and unbelief, we can't help but ask ourselves: what is faith, that it can be so close to doubt and despair? Is this really the faith that's supposed to "move mountains"? Or is it, like Macaskill above, just a colorful dot rolling rebelliously across the silence of "gutted cities" and the grayness of "smoking ruins"?

Or are the two really the same thing?


  1. Here's a different take on the lyrics: Being minor philosophers we tend to place God in our personal sylogisms choosing to examine Him and not our personal consciences. How can we lose faith in the arms of love is the question posed. In John Paul's "Theology of the Body", The inner state of the man of concupiscence, answers the question: "Suffocating the voice of conscience, the outer man suffers from a passion which brings an inner restlessness of the body and senses." (evolving into an angst, often indescrible except for the most insightful). "What gave me the most excruciating pain was the habit of satisfying an insatiable concupisence." Confessions St. Augustine. What I found to be most enlightening, however, was John Paul II's commentary that the man whose will is occupied with satisfying the senses consumes himself. "Passion aims at satisfaction, hence it blunts the voice of conscience, and thus, since it has no principle of indestructibility, it wears itself out." Worn out, looking at the world through those lenses, gives the world a bleak and meaningless terrain. Finding examples of meaningless and desolation is not hard to find. Putting things in the perspective of faith is the more difficult endeavor. Being no expert on T.S. Elliot, you have to go no further than to examine his transition from "The Wasteland" to "The Four Quartets". (after his conversion, 8 years later, he wrote the Four Quartets) Parenthetically, I could only begin to understand the later through Thomas Howards' Dove Descending and only understand the gist of the former through a superficial reading.
    Pertaining to the baying of wolves, George Steiner once referenced philosophical geniuses who created a language of death, pointing to the animalistic, preditorial,inhuman ways of mankind. Perhaps that is all that is left in a world with Christ and nothing, claiming not to be able to experience faith.

  2. @Anonymous Bravo! A very compelling and insightful take - thank you!

    I think the TS Eliot example is particularly relevant. Authentic faith, more often than not, has run the gauntlet. Otherwise, it's too subject to flimsiness and superstition - even JPII wrote that. And, as you said, in "The Wasteland" it's clear that a sickness is present - but what is health? What's the cure? It's more complex. Sicknesses are easier to get (and see) than perfect cures. Faith is not so two-dimensional as we imagine - something like "The Four Quartets" bears witness to that struggle of pressing forth in the midst of doubts (so evident in the Kierkgaard journal entry). Doubt, in that sense, is a function of faith - it strengthens it. Similarly, if the atheist is to go on doubting, he has to combat the desire for God Camus said is hard-wired into all our hearts. I think Hitchens is probably undergoing that battle right now.

    Speaking of Kierkegaard, your first few quotes also remind me of Kierkegaard's notion of the "aesthetic sphere" of existence - the first sphere, in which music, drink, poetry, love, and all sensual and imminent realities keeps us leaping from pleasure to pleasure like, say, a cat, leaping up a tree from branch to branch with a carelessness. Suddenly (and inevitably) we look down and realize that we're stuck, and can't go further and can't retrace our steps - there we see only the abyss below us, and the despair within us. The next branch loses its allure. As a Kierkegaard scholar said: "The aesthetic sphere bears within itself the germ of its own destruction." (An idea very similar to the quotes from JP II and Augustine). This despair, for Kierkegaard, finally pushes man into the ethical - and after the ethical, the religious, the "leap of faith." Too many associate this with a squishy sentimentality, and think that that "leap" means forsaking reason and doubt - but even if it is suprarational (not irrational), I think faith has to court doubt and rationality if it's to grow. "Gold is tested in fire" - and faith, in the crucible of doubt.

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  5. Hello Matthew.
    I have just discovered Ben Howard as an artist a few nights ago and was looking at the different ways of song and meaning interpretations and thought I have failed until I stumbled upon your Blog spot. Having a love of music, literature, philosophy and the likes, I fear I have no additional intelligent input other than the fact that your post on such matters has enriched me with information and such thoughts I have not come across while listening to Ben Howard's "The Wolves" that has not been mentioned.
    You have just earned yourself a new follower!

    1. Hey Hayley,

      Thank you so much - so glad you've enjoyed our blog! Ben Howard's album was really a pleasant surprise - I also love the tracks "Keep Your Head Up," "Everything," and "Promise." I'm looking forward to hearing what he has in store.

      Please comment again, we'd love to hear your thoughts!

  6. Thought your interpritation of Howards motives were brilliant. Being a fellow atheist, I too have become disillusioned with faith in God, or a lack there of. Howard just summed up what I could never put so eloquently

  7. "Even God himself, GK Chesterton argued, momentarily became an atheist on the cross; even God once cried out to God, "Why have you forsaken me?""

    --> The one that was crucified is Jesus, not God... Jesus isn't God... So it's a 'little' wrongly formulated...

    Here's the quote:

    Anyway, just saying

    1. Ben, GK Chesterton in Orthodoxy, from where that quote was lifted, was writing not only from a Christian perspective, but a Roman Catholic one. The majority of all Christians believe Jesus' claims to divinity, and these claims are evident throughout all four gospels. Though these claims are most explicit in the Gospel of John, which was written some time after the others, many biblical scholars have argued that the authority with which Jesus acts is the others is with the authority of the one true God. In Matthew he is called numerous times 'The Son of God,' a term which is tinged with an uncertain ambiguity, for it is believed that the Christians at the time were still struggling to figure out for themselves who exactly this man was.

    2. I know some stuff from GK and he seems like a solid oke, but i am rather suspicious of the quote above in saying that Jesus/God was momentarily an atheist. When Jesus cries out "why have you forsaken me", he is in actual fact confirming that there is a God who forsook. When God stops believing in Himself, then He was never God to begin with.

  8. wow this is a really amazing webpage, i love this topic it makes you wonder so much thank you for posting it:)

    1. You're welcome! We post articles every week, if you're interested. Thanks for coming through!

  9. I think we really need to find out whether Ben Howard has a faith or not! Does anyone know??

  10. This is a nice literary interpretation, but there is a more accurate and specific intepretation that fits better, and it is more historical.

    This song is written in the voice of the awakened, and written for the unawakened.
    These contrasting terms are not meant to carry any measure of pomposity or condescension, they are merely identifiers for two general groups - those that have accepted the truth and at least begun the grief process, and those that have not.

    The key line is "Watching from both sides, these towers been tumbling down". Howard is speaking here of a factual (though misunderstood) event, which precipitated a global existential crisis, and in turn caused us as a species to lose "our faith, in the arms of love".

    This faith can be restored by accepting the truth and beginning the grief process, as hard as that may seem. There are many of us who once hid from "the news", but have now joined the fight against "the wolves", whether actively like Anonymous or Richard Gage, or just emotionally and intellectually (which is valuable in its own right).

    This is not a message about faith, don't get it twisted. This is a message about the evil that lurks amongst us, and the utter urgency of the situation -- if you have been hiding from the news, now is the time to listen, and join us in the fight! We are running out of time...

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