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Book Review

The Book of Ballads and Sagas
by Charles Vess (artist) and various writers
reviewed by Alan Irvine

One of the top fantasy artists around, Charles Vess is particularly well known for his beautiful depictions of the world of Faerie. With his latest project, a six issue comic book series entitled The Book of Ballads and Sagas, Vess shifts his attention from literature derived from traditional lore to the original tales themselves. The stories resulting from this attention provide delightful reading for all devotees of folk tales, songs, or ballads.

Vess recruited some of today's top fantasy writers as his collaborators on the project, allowing each writer to pick any one of the Childe Ballads they wished to adapt into a comics story, with Vess doing the story's art. The resulting collaborations come at the tales from a variety of directions. In "Thomas the Rhymer," for example, writer Sharyn McCrumb condenses the ballad into a relatively straight-forward tale, essentially rewriting the ballad into a story, while retaining the flavor and some of the phrases of the original. McCrumb also extends the tale somewhat to hightlight the romance between True Thomas and the Queen of Elfland. In the same issue (issue #1), however, Neil Gaiman uses the full text of "The False Knight on the Road," adding a final stanza and a framing sequence to the original text to suggest an explanation for the cryptic tale, an explanation that enhances the chilling, sinister tone of the ballad. (It is worth noting that the last time Gaiman and Vess collaborated on a story it went on to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story that year. It is also worth noting that future issues of The Book of Ballads and Sagas will feature writers of comparable stature, including Charles DeLint and Jane Yolen.) In both stories, Vess adapts his drawings to fit the style and mood of the story. Clean, sharp lines for the mortal world in "Thomas the Rhymer," stipling and shading for the indistinct nature of Elfland. The more sinister "The False Knight on the Road" gets darker, denser art.

These renderings of the tales cast new light on what we sometimes dismiss as simply old, quaint songs. Vess's approach reclaims the story at the heart of these ballads, opening up that story to new consideration and interpretation. Vess and his collaborators provide new insights into the tales, while still keeping the original essence intact. Storytellers can thus find the series a valuable, enlightening, even exciting guide into a treasure trove of half-forgotten tales ripe for the telling.

Each issue of this series will contain adaptations of several ballads, along with a piece of a serialized tale from the Norse sagas. The text of the original ballad accompanies each adaptation. Articles, bibliographies, even discographies concerning folk songs, tales, and ballads fill out the rest of each issue.

You should be able to find The Book of Ballads and Sagas at any good comic book store ($2.95 per issue). If a store does not stock the series, they should be able to order it for you. If you can not find it or order it locally, you can also order directly from Vess at:
Green Man Press
10518 Rich Valley Road
Bristol, VA 24202
($20.00 for all 6 issues, $3.95 for single issues.)
However you do it, make sure you get a hold of these stories.

—published Winter 1996


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