Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Guide to the Greenwood: A Look at The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess et. all

"'Young man, I think you're dying.'" --Barbara Allen, The Book of Ballads

It's May! The Lusty Month of May! The first of May is a day to, appropriately, go "a-Maying," an activity that can involve anything from spending a lot of time outside, to having picnics, singing, gathering flowers, watching Camelot, performing a ritualisitc pagan sacrifice or participating in an orgy. As you do. Alas, since neither sacrifices nor orgies were going on in my local public park this year, I had to make do with simply sitting on a bench with a good book and taking in the delicious scenery.

I also watched Camelot. And you should too! It was lovely.

Ah, but be warned. May, though beautiful, can also be a mighty dangerous month--as if bomb scares, oil spills, flooding, and tornadoes weren't enough to clue you in to that fact. However, the dangers to be found here belong to a (mercifully) fantastic realm, well-famed in folklore and song, and brought to vivid life in The Book of Ballads, a wonderful graphic novel illustrated by Charles Vess which retells thirteen classic ballads.

Now as Glee taught us, a ballad is a "song that tells a story." However, unlike many of the songs used in that particular episode of Glee, the ballads that existed as a part of English, Scottish, and Irish folklore for centuries actually tell stories. Stories like: hero meets villain, struggle ensues, magical forces intervene, love is denied, all live happily ever after....or maybe not. They have a lot in common with fairy tales: their evolution in the oral tradition, their staying power (many of the ballads in this book are still recorded by popular musicians), and their elements of magic, the macabre, and the just plain bizarre. They even have fairies...but again, be wary. These are not your Pixie Hollow fairies. These are fairies as God and the collective unconscious intended: downright cruel sociopaths who steal human beings of all ages and treat them like personal playthings. You do NOT want to go to Fairyland. Unless of course, you're rescuing your kidnapped sister. In that case, kill everybody you speak to and do NOT eat the food. Bonus points if you can guess which fairy tale I'm referencing.

(Answer: Childe Rowland)

Anyway, such is the world of The Book of Ballads. A world where cleverness, sacrifice, will-power, repetition, and rhyme might be the only things that can save you from untold pain and destruction, and where stupidity is punished. Harshly. Vess's illustrations are beautiful, layered, and nuanced. He manages to convey worlds of emotion in his characters' eyes. Some of his illustrations also add elements that aren't in the text, adding a dimension all his own to the stories. Many of them are also genuinely terrifying. If the Devil or demons frighten you, you probably won't enjoy this. Again you have been warned.

Some of the biggest names in contemporary fantasy contributed their own versions of these ballads for Vess to illustrate. Some of these are straight forward retellings (Neil Gaiman's "The False Knight on the Road"), some are modern-day transfers (Charles de Lint's "Twa Corbies"), and some are refreshing revisions with details added to explain and/or enrich them. For example, Jane Yolen turns the king of "King Henry" into Henry VIII, spinning a semi-historical tale about the English people's hatred of Anne Boleyn and the many urban legends that arose about her as a result (and played no small part in leading to her death). Only Elaine Lee's "Tam-Lin" disappointed me. I found the changes unnecessary and ultimately confusing. If it ain't broke etc. In fairness to Lee, however, I thought "Tam-Lin" was a version of "The Elf Knight" and it isn't. But what can you do? A version of the actual ballad follows each retelling in verse form sans illustrations, allowing for convenient comparison.

My favorite story in the book was Midori Snyder's take on "Barbara Allen." Of all the ballads in the book, I was most familiar with this one going in. I studied it in high school and college and it plays a prominent role in the 1951 Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol, which I have seen many times, but despite all this, I never thought to be bewildered by the very strange story it tells. This story concerns a fair maid, the Barbara Allen of the title, who is called to the deathbed of the man, Sweet William, dying of unrequited love for her (as you do in ballads). However, the only comfort she can give him is the cold statement, "Young man, I think you're dying" even though she reveals after his death that she did actually love him. The tragic story ends in mystery. What was the relationship between these two? Why did he die of love for her? Why did she refuse to reciprocate if she felt the same? Snyder provides answers and the result is so perfect, it made me love and appreciate the song in a way I never did before.

I highly recommend The Book of Ballads. It fanned my ever-growing love for graphic novels and allowed me to indulge my constant passion for folklore. It also provides solutions to important dilemmas that can creep in and disrupt even the calmest life. What are you supposed to do, for example, when you meet the demon who killed your father on your way to school? Or when your fiancé of many years ago, supposedly long dead, knocks on your door and asks you to abandon your husband and child and run away with him? Or when the local witch is determined to make you her lover? Or when Satan shows up and...well, does Satan really need to do anything besides show up? Isn't just showing up enough? The answers to these and many more burning questions can all be found in The Book of Ballads. Get thee to your local library. May is a dangerous month and the Greenwood is a scary place. Go now and don't say I didn't warn you.

But first. Just for kicks and wiggles. My favorite movie May Day....