The Cave – Looking at the Philosophy Behind One of Mumford and Sons’ Best Songs

Some of you listen to songs and analyze their different parts, I let them wash over me in an uncritical bliss.  On the occasion that I enjoy a song enough to think about it, I’ll listen to the lyrics.  I’ll listen for the words, but I normally return to my pre-analytic, and slightly childish, joy of hearing without listening.

But with The Cave, it’s different.

Something about Mumford and Sons reaches into the depths of my psyche and messes around with things, so I wasn’t suprised when I was immediately struck by The Cave‘s philosophical, and possibly even theological, undertones.

Here is a link to the music video-

I had several thoughts about the metaphor in the song, but I curiously browsed some lyric forums to see other reactions.  Many people had different conclusions, some of them diametrically opposed to one another, featuring everything from God to zombies. Some people thought The Cave was mainly about holding onto unrequited love and others swore it spoke of overcoming drug addiction.

I initially laughed at some of these responses, even though I understand (to a degree) that the meaning of language is incomplete on its own, that meaning is a communal phenomenon which requires the presence of hearers as much as speakers.  I laughed anyway when I saw people’s immediate problems and ideas about the world dramatically shaping their interpretation of The Cave… then I realized that my ideas were probably products of the same thing.  I’m a seminary student who lives and works in one of the most affluent places in the world, constantly struggling with the integration of wealth and Christian mission.

So I hear two main metaphors and one primary idea.

Metaphor #1: Homer

So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears

(and later in the song)

So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say

This allusion is to Homer’s Greek epic, Odyssey.  In the poem, Odysseus and his band of sailors eventually came to the land of the Sirens; monsters known for singing such enticing songs that ships would crash among the rocks when sailors tried to follow them.  All of the men on the boat filled their ears with wax as they passed the islands, but Odysseus, the stud that he was, ordered the others to tie him to the mast; he wanted to hear the Sirens’ song.

Mumford and Sons, and us by extension, sing of a song to be resisted- a song sung by a world calling people to crash on its rocks.  What this song is, precisely, makes much more sense with the second metaphor.

Metaphor #2: Francis

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s land

I initially thought “coming out of your cave” was a reference to Plato.  The philosopher explains his idea of archetypes with an allegory in which prisoners were tied down from childhood in a cave, unable to move, and forced to stare at a wall.  On this wall were the shadows made by people coming in and out of the cave.  If these prisoners were released, Plato suggests, they would not understand the things they saw outside the cave; the shadows would continue to seem much more “real” to them.

I thought this might be Mumford and Sons calling us to see life for what it truly is.  That metaphor fits, but it doesn’t totally explain the “widows and orphans” or point to what this “reality” might be.

Then I came across a suggestion; their metaphor could reference the “cave” of Francis Assisi.

St. Francis was born in 12th century Assisi to a rich cloth merchant.  He joined the military and was at some point taken captive and eventually released, after which he faced a devastating illness that spurred a religious crisis.   Francis famously renounced his father, his wealth, and founded the Franciscan Order- a group of monks known for ministering to the poor, owning no personal property, and dedicating themselves to missional work.

And how does the life of Francis relate to Mumford and Sons? G.K. Chesterton.

G.K. Chesterton (an author the band is reportedly fond of) wrote that Francis spent some time in a prison, or dark cave, and eventually came out changed;

 The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead, as if he were a ghost or a blessed spirit. And the effects of this on his attitude towards the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them. He looked at the world as differently from other men as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands.[1]

St. Francis, an ex-soldier (like the ones in the video?) and son of a rich man, decides to renounce the lens of materialism and walks upside down in an attempt to see people for whom they are.  In The Cave we are tied to the post, listening to the Siren’s song, tempted to reduce humanity to consumption, and feeling our own propensity to follow that song to our deaths.

Even though we hear the Sirens, we continue to see “widows and orphans through [our] tears,”  catch glimpses of the “maker’s land,” and ultimately “know [our] call despite [our] faults and despite [our] growing fears.”

That’s how I hear it and that’s what I choose to carry with me.

How about you- what do you think about when you listen to The Cave?

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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  • Reducing humanity to consumption … That sounds familiar. It’s hard to force my eyes to see through the clutter.

  • I always assumed it was a Plato reference. I like the extra probing you did. Great thoughts!

  • I couldn’t agree more! Nice analysis of an amazing song!

  • matthew

    Right on the money, Marcus Mumford has a book club on Mumford and Sons web site and on of the books he did was “Outline of Sanity” by GKC. The Cave never made sense until I read what Chesterton wrote about Assissi, I hadn’t read that about Homer though, very good.

  • I can’t believe how similar your thoughts are to mine, particularly the first paragraph of this post. It’s seriously spooky. I just wrote a post for my blog and then discovered yours, which is admittedly much more eloquent. Check it out if you’d like:

    • Thank you for your kind words, I completely agree with your blog’s premise- they deserve some in depth reflection. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think 🙂

  • Pingback: Great Minds Think Alike « The Book of Mumford()

  • Alli

    I definitely caught the religious metaphor pretty quickly, and I definitely would agree with your interpretation of the song. Very typical of British songwriters. Interpreting songs is a total time-suck for me.

  • Just finished reading that chapter in St. Francis last week but did not make the connection until I read your post yesterday. So cool!

  • Anonymous

    i was excited to see your topic. since the song’s release, i’ve felt much the same about its thematic allusions and overall meaning.

    like keegan^, i always thought it was a plato reference, and appreciate your thoughts as well.

    however, i would like to stick with the plato reference/interpretation. that is, in terms of leading others to the outside world, to the light, to understanding. i’d like to keep my philosophy and theology separate (and not keep theology at all).

    though i have to admit (if all the gkc stuff is true), your interpretation of this particular song is probably more accurate (re: artist’s intent) than mine (i would prefer to remove the word “maker” from the song and continue with my life and this music as happily and as enlightened). you and the mumford gents likely have the same outlook. i still love the song, and love the discussion, thank you

  • Raelynn

    Actually, I believe the cave part is also about Homer’s Odyssey. When it talks about coming out of the cave upside down, it was making reference to the fact that Odysseus was tied to the underbelly of a sheep in order to escape the cyclopes.

  • This was really well written and well thought through. Thanks so much! I love the tune of this song but could never decide the message they were trying to communicate. Awesome work.

    • Now that I’ve let all these thoughts settle, it makes me like this song and respect Mumford & Sons even more than I did before.

  • Anonymous

    Micah 7 from the Bible!

  • Anonymous

    When he said “And I wont let you choke, on that noose around your neck.” I immediately assumed that it was about suicide. That’s what I thought ever since.

  • Zac

    To me, Mumford and Sons talk about spiritual awakening allot. For example, “Awake my Soul”. So to me, the Cave is a reference to religion. How people in religions always say that they believe in the truth and anything els is a lie and false. I believe they were referencing Plato’s allegory. “So come out of the cave walking on your hands”. To me that means after our soul awakens in our fleshly bodies, we see the world in a different light and we long to know the truth about a god or higher power. So we look for it and find it and come to realize that religion is just a way for people of power to control those beneath them and keep them in the dark. “And see the world hanging upside down”. After awakening, our perception of reality alters pretty drastically. We start to see the world and all that’s in it for what it truly is. “You can understand dependence when you know your makers land”. Christians are always talking about free will but contradict that by saying everything happens because God willed it to. But to those who are awakened we believe that the universe is the higher power/ God. It started from a point of origin and expanded in all directions and is still ever expanding. We will never fully understand it. To know that we are all one conscious being living life seperit from its self, the conscious being in question the universe/god, you understand that we are an extension of said higher power. “In our image, in our likeness”. As it’s said in the bible. This is just a very quick explanation.

  • Darian uwu


    So I was listening to The Cave and looked at the lyrics as well and am studying The Odyssey in school, and thought Of Polyphmeus the cyclops and how Odysseus blinded him and the sirens oooh thats cool owo

  • Brandon

    I read Chesterton’s St. Francis Bio, sometime after hearing “the cave” and the moment I read the word’s of Chesterton’s that you quoted i knew that Mumford must have read the book. And I took joy in feeling like i was let in on the secret of mumford’s socially acceptable plagiarism. “great artists steal” The post only conjured up the post of Christ’s Crucifixion, until reading your post.

    The keyword is DEPENDENCE. Francis after his “transformation” saw himself as dependent on God and God alone. And He saw a world of natural processes that were and are completely dependent on a creator.

    Thanks for the resonating post!