In this graphic novel, Charles Vess illustrates many traditional folk ballads that have been rewritten by some fairly popular fantasy artists like Neil Gaiman or Emma Bull.
I didn’t realize how many traditional ballads have negative interactions with strangers as their primary topic. According to these stories, any stranger is either a fairy or the devil. If it is a male, he’ll either kill you or impregnate you and then come later to take your kid back to whatever magical land he came from. If it is a female, she’ll either imprison you, change you into a snake, rape you, or take you away to fairyland. An alternate title for this book could be: Strangers are Bad- Don’t Talk to Strangers or Let Them In Your House or Have Sex with Them Unless You Want to Die.
But all joking aside, there are very few ballads that end either happily or well. It is unsettling reading them altogether, like delving into a book of short horror stories. From the introduction by Terri Windling: “Ballads, which are stories in narrative verse, are related to folktales, romances, and sagas, with which they sometimes share themes, plots, and characters (such as Robin Hood). No one knows how old the oldest are. It’s believed that they are ancient indeed…” pg 10 Which disturbs me even more when I consider that these stories were written for a reason. Can you imagine raising a kid in the dawn of time? ‘Don’t go talk to that stranger over there ’cause he might eat you. We don’t know about that exact dude, but seriously… it has happened. Remember how you used to have a sister?’
Take the ballad of Tam-Lin for instance: “O I forbid you, maidens a’, That wear gowd on your hair, To come or gae by Carterhaugh, For young Tam-Lin is there. There’s nane that gaes by Carterhaugh But they leave him a wad, Either their rings, or green mantles, Or else their maidenhead.” pg 92 In other words, don’t go over there or he’ll take your stuff or rape you.
Despite the depressing nature of the stories, the artwork is very pretty and it’s all in black and white which makes the stories even starker. My favorite of the bunch is The Great Selchie of Sule Skerry which was re-written by Jane Yolen. In it, a young maiden falls in love with a man from the sea. Guess how it ends?
Thanks for reading!