Book of Ballads and Sagas

Book of Ballads and Sagas, by Charles Vess (and Co.)

Back in the 1990s, Charles Vess did a series of comics/graphic novels in which he collaborated with various writers to produce versions of old ballads (plus one Norse myth story, thus the 'sagas').   Featured authors included Charles de Lint, Jane Yolen, and Neil Gaiman -- your standard 90s list of up-and-coming fantasy writers, in fact!   Now, those comics have been collected and reissued in a nice hardback edition, and if you were bookish in the 90s, this is guaranteed to give you some flashbacks.

So here we have (quick count) 13 ballads, surely a lucky number.  Most of them are reasonably well-known to anybody with a passing knowledge of ballads; there is Thomas the Rhymer, Barbara Allen, The Demon Lover, The Twa Corbies, and Tam Lin.  They're frequently given extra detail -- I was rather tickled to see that in "The Demon Lover," the girl runs off with James Harris -- or considerably more backstory.   and sometimes the stories are transposed to a different setting.  In "The Twa Corbies," a modern young woman in a big city observes as the corbies speak with the ghost of a dead homeless man.  "The Black Fox" features an Edwardian foxhunt.

"Barbara Allen" is enlarged to include a story explaining Barbara's coldheartedness, which is in fact to save her lover.  I don't know if the ballad usually ends with a rose growing from her grave and a briar from his -- as far as I can tell, it's an ending that has shown up in more than one song.  Reading that ending, however, rang a distant bell in my mind and I had to do some serious digging into my memory; once upon a time when I did a lot of camping with the Girl Scouts, a story about a rose and a briar was a favorite fireside song.  It took me quite a while to dig it up, because I was remembering the end, which doesn't match the rest of the song at all.  It's actually a parody of the ballad, sung in a weird pseudo-hillbilly style (!), but the way we sang it, it resolved into a plaintive last note.  It's barely visible on the wider internet -- I looked.  (Conclusion: the camp songs I learned were a strange mish-mash of all sorts of things saved almost at random, passed down through generations of girls who didn't know what they were singing.  I've also found out that one was a minstrel song, a couple were from obscure musicals, and one or two others were gospel songs.)

Other extras are included too, such as unfinished work that didn't get published, random cover art, and a very nice discography that lists many recordings of the ballads.  I spent a happy hour or so looking them up.  Evidently I should be somewhat embarrassed that I was unfamiliar with Steeleye Span, but if you aren't either, they're easy to find, and you can enjoy them too.

I enjoyed this book very much.  I'm always planning to learn more about old ballads, and I have both a compact Child and an Oxford Book of Ballads that I would like to read.  My trouble is mainly the same problem I have with poetry; you have to read just a few at a time, and I am bad at remembering to pick up the book for just a little while, but consistently.


  1. "It's barely visible on the wider internet -- I looked." Does that mean you did or didn't find it?

  2. I found a video of a guy singing it horribly badly on a river-rafting trip, and after much digging found a version of the words in a collection. Neither was the same as mine, but that's kind of to be expected when it comes to camp songs.

  3. I've had that experience with camp songs, too. Even other Girl Scouts don't know them because they seem to be regional -- in some cases, specific to that camp. A weird modern oral history phenomenon.


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