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The Book Of Ballads
Charles Vess, with Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, Jane Yolen and others
Tor artbook $14.95

review by Steve Sneyd

This book, which expands an earlier Green Man Press edition with four extra ballads, gives graphic poem (i.e. comic strip) treatments to 13 traditional ballads, some very well known, like Barbara Alien, others much less familiar to other than specialists, like King Henry. In each case the treatment has the added interest that one or another of a variety of contemporary fantasy writers, including big names like Jane Yolen, has in effect collaborated across time with the anonymous ancient ballad creator to expand or reframe the text.

To begin with the art (interior is black and white: the rather unappealing cover design is full colour), my response is mixed. Charles Vess can be powerful - scenes where a person or entity suddenly grows to monstrous size seem to particularly appeal to his pen, and, where he uses shading, his images are genuinely gripping (this is especially so in The Demon Lover and King Henry, both featuring figures giantising). On the other hand, where he uses line only, without shading, this exposes a tendency, to my taste, to overfiddliness, a cluttering with twiddly detail of a sub-pre-Raphaelite kind, which reaches its nadir, perhaps, in the depiction of the three roads - to Heaven, Hell, and Faerie - in the treatment of Tarn Lin. His settings can be simplistic, almost Disneyesque, too - I felt this particularly in the Three Lovers, where the dwellings, whether pastorally crude or identikit oriental, irritate by their clumsiness, although, in fairness, it should be added that, since this ballad is treated as if it were a stage show, he is depicting stage sets rather than suspend-disbelief-seeking 'ballad reality'. He also seems to go out of his way to render all the women as un-alluring as possible (not just the ogresses, where it would be un-defendable, but also those the ballads feature as love-magnets), at least to my taste - I will resist the temptation of straying into speculation as to possible psychological subtexts underlying the phenomenon!

The modern writers' input varies considerably in extent (helpfully, each ballad is accompanied by an untouched original version, for those who prefer to go to the source or wish to compare what has been done with it contemporanly). Some, as if daunted by the stark power of the source, add or change almost nothing. Others change structure or form considerably, or add a whole enriching context, giving character and personality to the bare bones. Two particularly interesting treatments of this kind are Jane Yolen's. She not only focuses King Henry, where in the ballad the king's specifying number is not given, specifically as being Henry VIII, but moreover conflates the demonic witch woman, transformed from hag to beauty by the king's brave courtesy, with Ann Boleyn (herself historically accused of witchcraft), beginning the story movingly with the child Elizabeth's overhearing of a startling account of her mother's execution at her father's orders. For Sute Skerry, Yolen provides convincing detail of a marginal coastal society, its economy based on exploitation of women, an exploitation moderated only by sisterly solidarity.

Charles de Lint builds round the brief Twa Corbies an account of the death of a modern urban tramp whose misery has been ameliorated by Mitty-ish fantasies of life as an exiled knight in a Camelot-ish world of chivalry - tinged with sentimentality the treatment may be, but intriguing in the degree of its extrapolation from a brusquely grim original. In his other treatment, of Sovay, a ballad quite new to me, of a woman who disguises herself as a highwayman to test her lover's fidelity, de Lint's added bits of 'plot business' work well to advance the story and round out the woman's character by illustrating her quick-witted resourcefulness, without detracting from the potential for almost monomaniac ruthlessness the original implies in her.

Midori Snyder's recasting of Barbara Alien is dramatic, making of William an un-dead revenant, and of Barbara's rejection not the whim of a spoilt girl but a painful sacrifice necessary to William's salvation.

As with The Three Lovers, Tarn Lin is recast, by Elaine Lee, into play form, providing the protagonists with prose poem-ish speeches with a 19th century decadent flavour, which for me cut against the grain of the original, although the experiment is a brave one. Another ballad of a visitor to Faerie, Thomas The Rhymer, is presented effectively unchanged, with only minor dialogue additions - including a (possibly unintentionally) amusing contradiction - having been told that he must not speak after arrival in Faerie, Thomas says his last pre-Elfland words will be, to the kidnapper-Queen, "you are beautiful," then in later frames says several more things before reaching the destination, reminding me of the way Hollywood death scenes used to be interminably prolonged!

Also little changed, in fact identical to the original text-wise as far as I could spot, is The Galtee Farmer, an amusing rural tale of horse fair chicanery, where I assume writer Jeff Smith's input lay in suggestions as to frames to illustrate.

Alison Goss, in which Vess has no collaborator, is developed beyond its source mainly in post-ballad wordless frames of the Faerie court's subsequent adoption of the protagonist, once it has liberated him from the witch's transformation into a worm-monster (ingeniously drawn with still human face, although the witch's tower, by contrast, is unconvincing architecturally, and repetitively shown from the same angle as if Vess could not be bothered to vary its aspect).

Finally, a mention for The Black Fox, with an intriguing story in real life behind its inclusion - Vess had thought this ballad traditional, used it on that basis, but later discovered accidentally via the Internet that its is in fact as recent as the 1970s, having been written, based on a Yorkshire folktale, by folksinger Graham Pratt, who fortunately was willing to permit the adaptation. Emma Bull, her input not changing the words but clearly recasting the theme, has caused Vess to metamorphose this song of a tricksy fox outwitting its hunters into a manifestation alike of pagan belief system - the fox at length rising to tree-topping stature as an avatar of the horned god - and as a depiction of female power: the patronised woman among the fox hunters proves not only to come the nearest to catching the fox, once the male riders are all downed and bested, but at the last the only one to face its demonic giant incarnation undaunted and win His respect. In his art, Vess here shows intriguing versatility, moving almost seamlessly from a Punch-ish cartoony style for the early stages of the hunt to a darker seriousness for the dénouement.

In addition to the ballad treatments themselves, the reader gets a number of valuable extras text-wise in this book. Terri Windling's introduction, as well as general background about the origins of such ballads (with an appended list of sources for further reading), gives information on major collectors in Britain, and in America's Appalachia where, often curiously changed, many lost in their country of origin had, marvellously, survived. These men, who ensured the survival of ballads into our time, including Percy, Francis Child, and Cecil Sharp, in turn made possible their adoption by the singers of the folk revival from the 1950s on, and in an appendix here Ken Roseman has compiled an extensive discography of such material from a wide variety of individuals and groups, by names little-known as well as those every folkie knows. That musical revival of interest in ballads in turn led many modern fantasy writers to them: Windling also discusses their appeal to such writers, and the use they made of them, with a wealth of examples including novels and short stories. These signposts to listening and reading are a particularly worthwhile feature of a book, which, although variable in verbal and visual quality in its treatments of the ballads, is never less than intriguing, and should appeal alike to those already having knowledge of the field and those coming fresh to our ballad heritage, for whom it would be a helpfully accessible introduction.
Book of Ballads

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