The Book of Ballads
by Charles Vess
New York : TOR, 2004
A review by
Colleen R. Cahill
I am a fan of old English ballads, like Thomas the Rhymer and Tam-Lin, which are full of wonder, magic and imagination. From demons to devils, ugly witches to gullible farmers, and lovers both good and bad, these songs have zest, some combined with a supernatural touch. And now, Charles Vess gives us a new view of these narrative tunes with the help of authors such as Emma Bull, Charles de Lint and Sharyn McCrumb in The Book of Ballads. This truly beautiful collection of graphic short stories is a delight for music lovers, art lovers and story devotees.
The introduction by Terri Windling and the superb discography notes compiled by Ken Roseman make clear that these are inspired by not only the old ballads themselves, but also their numerous musical interpreters, from Joan Baez to Fairport Convention to Steeleye Span, who fused these traditional songs with rock, jazz and so much more. Borrowing from this base, Vess and his collaborates bring us a visual treat, adding texture to the pictures the songs evoke. The rich black and white illustrations bring new light and shadows to these thirteen tales, creating a kind of music for the eyes.
This is a powerhouse work, both from the ballads, Vess’ detailed art and the distinguished authors, all of who definitely have a feel for the old songs. Dark magic and defiance comes forth when Vess and Neil Gaiman present “The False Knight on the Road”. The choice between love and money gets a grim show when Lee Smith joins with Vess to interpret “The Three Lovers”. In a similar vein is “The Demon Lover”, to which Debra Sherman and Vess bring deep shadows for this warning to be cautious in your choice of lovers. A lighter vein is tapped with Jeff Smith and Vess’ retelling of “The Galtee Farmer”, where a country bumpkin learns the price of being swayed by looks.
Don’t expect a simple illustrated telling of the tales, as these often show different edges of the ballads. Those who are familiar with “King Henry” will find the additional touches by Jane Yolen and Vess intriguing, adding a historic dark shadow to this testing of love. If you don’t know any of these songs, you’re not left out, as the text of the original ballad is after each story. Be aware that these are songs for a mature audience and you should not consider them as fairy tales for the young. They are bawdy, rowdy, full of love, death, pain and joy; all the things of life.
This work is for any fan of old ballads and it is a great way to introduce someone to these lively stories. But as is to be expected, it is the artwork that defines the book, taking us to places the song or text cannot do alone. For the reader, the graphic novel fan, and the music enthusiast, this is a must have book.