In the 1970s, while musicians were rediscovering and reinventing the genre of folk music, writers were rediscovering and reinventing the genre of fantasy fiction. The audience for both of these things overlapped, and it’s not hard to understand why. Fantasy writers often work with themes that hark back to the oral tradition -- to folktales, myths, and sagas steeped in the lore of our folk heritage. A number of writers who came to the fantasy field in the late '70s and throughout the '80s -- which is when fantasy solidified as a publishing genre -- were also folk musicians or singers (Ellen Kushner, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Jane Yolen, etc.); and music permeated their books. Charles de Lint’s The Little Country, for example, is set among folk musicians in Cornwall; Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks concerns folk-rock musicians in ’80s-era Minneapolis; Jane Yolen wove original ballads into Sister Light, Sister Dark and its sequels; and Ellen Kushner retold a classic ballad in her novel Thomas the Rhymer, and created an anthology of magical stories about music, The Horns of Elfland. Other writers, too, turned to folk music and ballads for inspiration, fleshing out the bare bones of song narratives to turn them into stories and novels.
One need only dip at random into the pages of Francis James Childs' The English and Scottish Popular Ballads to discover why this material would appeal to writers of magical fiction. There you’ll find stories like “Kemp Owyne,” in which a young woman is turned into a loathsome dragon. Knight after knight comes to slay the beast. The dragon kills them all in turn, with tears of regret on her scaly cheeks. It is only when a knight puts down his sword and kisses her horrible face that the spell is broken and the dragon turns back into a beautiful maiden.
In “The Elfin Knight,” a girl hears fairy music and longs for a supernatural lover. The elf knight appears at her request, but gives her one look and tells her she’s too young. The song becomes a riddling song (similar to “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”) -- though this is a riddling match that is charged with distinctly sexual overtones.
In “Reynardine,” a mysterious man seduces a woman as she walks among the hills. The man is a shapechanger, a were-fox. We don’t know what he will do to her in the castle where he steals her away, but our last image of Reynardine is of his sharp teeth gleaming brightly in the twilight.
In “Clark Sanders,” seven brothers stand over their sleeping sister and her lover, discussing what they should do to this knight who has stained the family honor. Six of them agree that they should leave the couple alone, but the seventh takes out his sword and runs it through the sleeping man’s heart. When the young woman wakes, she finds her love is a bloody corpse beside her. She goes mad with grief, the song ends . . . and then the story is taken up again in another ballad, called “Sweet William’s Ghost.” The spirit of the murdered man returns to the girl’s window. She begs him to kiss her, but he will not: “My mouth it is full cold, Margaret, / It has the smell now of the ground; / And if I kiss thy comely mouth, / Thy days will not be long.”
This idea that the dead may not touch the living is echoed in “The Unquiet Grave.” A maiden sits in a cemetery for twelve months, mourning her lover. Finally the spirit appears and asks, in a rather irritated manner, “Who sits here crying and will not let me sleep?” The maiden begs it for one kiss, but she is refused by the revenant: “O lily, lily are my lips; / My breath comes earthy strong, / If you have one kiss of my clay-cold mouth, / Your time will not be long.”
Not all ballads in the British folk tradition concern magic, Faerie, or the supernatural. Other common themes are love (usually tragic), death (usually gruesome), and family troubles that make the soap operas of our own age pale by comparison: “What is that blood on your sword, my son, what is that blood, my dear-o? It’s the blood of my sister, Mother, who I have killed in the greenwood-o. . . .” (In this song, the brother is trying to avoid discovery of the fact that he’s made his sister pregnant.)
“What I like best about ballads,” says fantasist Delia Sherman, “is that they’re plots with all the motivations left out. Why did Young Randall’s stepmother want to poison him? Why choose eels? Why did Randall eat them (especially if they were green and yellow)? There’s a novel there, or at least a short story. Ballads give you classic human situations, and also some decidedly unclassic ones, exploring relationships between lovers, parents, and children, between friends, masters, and servants. Many of them deal with power and powerlessness, which is one of the central themes of fairy tales, too; but it seems to me that ballads are more pragmatic, more realistic, in their denouements. Not every villain gets his/her just deserts. I can imagine a ballad variant of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in which Beauty comes too late and sings a plaintive last verse over the Beast’s body, about how she will sew him a shroud of the linen fine and sit barefoot in the dark all her days, for the love of him she loved too late.”
Of all of the ballads recounted by Child, “Tam Lin” has captured the imagination of more fiction writers than any other single ballad, perhaps because of its sensual theme and unusual hero: an independent, courageous, stubborn young woman, pregnant with her woodland lover’s child, determined to save him from the Fairy Queen and the unearthly Fairy Court.
Elizabeth Marie Pope’s lovely novel The Perilous Gard places Tam Lin's story in Elizabethan Scotland, while Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin turns the ballad into a remarkable coming-of-age saga unfolding on an American university campus. Alan Garner’s Red Shift -- a subtle, powerful, unforgettable reworking of the ballad’s themes -- roots the tale in Cheshire, England during three historical periods: the Roman era, the Civil War, and the present day. Patricia A. McKillip's “Tam Lin” novel, Winter Rose, is an exquisite adult fairy tale set Once Upon a Time, mixed with elements from a second Scottish fairy ballad: "Thomas the Rhymer." Diana Wynne Jones also combines the two ballads in her brilliant YA novel Fire and Hemlock, about young musicians in modern-day England -- following in the footsteps of Catherine Storr's too-little-known "Tam Lin" novel, Thursday, published in 1972, which was one of the first to bring fairy lore into the modern world. Dahlov Ipcar makes interesting use of "Tam Lin" in her short novel for children, A Dark Horn Blowing; Janet McNauthton takes "Tam Lin" and a second ballad, "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," to 12th century Scotland in An Earthly Knight; and Lucy Sussex weaves the transformational aspects of "Tam Lin" into her deeply enchanting novel Deersnake.
Liz Lochhead’s long, wry poem “Tam Lin’s Lady” (from her collection Dreaming Frankenstein) is well worth seeking out, as are these fine short story renditions: "Tam Lin" by Joan Vinge (from the anthology Imaginary Lands), "Cotillion" by Delia Sherman (from the anthology Firebirds), "Tiend" by Sonya Taaffe (from Strange Horizons magazine, October 2007), "The Lady and the Fox" by Kelly Link (from the anthology My True Love Gave to Me), and Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass by Alice Munro (from her collection Friends of My Youth). I also recommend two lovely picture book versions: Jane Yolen’s Tam Lin, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak, and Susan Cooper's Tam Lin, illustrated by Warwick Hutton.
"Thomas the Rhymer" -- the story of a Scottish harper who kisses the Queen of Elfland and then is bound to her service for seven long years -- is another popular tale among fantasy writers and readers. In addition to the Patricia McKillip and Diana Wynne Jones books listed above, the ballad inspired Bruce Glassco’s unusual short story “True Thomas” (from the anthology Black Swan, White Raven), and is splendidly retold in Ellen Kushner’s award-winning novel Thomas the Rhymer.
"I had to do Thomas," Ellen recalls, "because, like every other writer, I knew Thomas was my story. He holds the mythic power of King Arthur in the hearts of poets: the artist who is literally seduced by his muse, comes closer to her than any human should to the source of his art, and is profoundly changed. He can never be at home in this world again, and yet he must continue to live in it. That’s how every writer feels, I think. Many writer friends had talked about writing a Thomas story someday, kind of like an actor playing King Lear: it’s a Great Subject that probably should not be tackled in one’s youth. I still feel a little humble about it. I don’t think I’ve written the definitive Thomas; I’ve just written my Thomas, the Thomas who addressed issues that were upon me in those years. Twenty years from now, I might like to do him again."
Ellen’s Thomas the Rhymer also drew upon the Child ballads “The Trees They Do Grow High” and “The Famous Flower of Serving Men.” The latter is the story of a woman whose husband, a knight, is murdered by her own mother. The heroine dons men’s clothes and goes to court, where the king soon falls in love with her -- while the murdered knight returns as a white dove shedding blood-red tears through the forest. Delia Sherman used this ballad as the basis of her gender-bending novel Through a Brazen Mirror -- a very fine work of adult fantasy that really ought to be much better known.
“I heard Martin Carthy’s version of ‘Famous Flower,’ ” says Delia, “and it haunted me with questions. If a mother so hated her child, why not just kill her and be done? Perhaps there was more to it than simple hatred. Another question prompted by the ballad had to do with the role of cross-dressing in a medieval culture. A third question could be stated as this: In all these ballads with girls dressed as boys, the man falls in love with the boy, not the girl. What would happen if he wasn’t relieved to discover his beloved’s true sex? In short, ‘Famous Flower’ gave me a beautiful, mysterious narrative framework upon which to hang all my favorite concerns: gender confusion, different kinds of love, the single-mindedness of the mad, foundlings and their origins.”
Patricia C. Wrede’s “Cruel Sisters” (from her collection Book of Enchantments) and Gregory Frost’s “The Harp That Sang” (from the anthology Swan Sister) are both memorable tales based on “Cruel Sister” (a.k.a. “Twa Sisters”), the ghostly story of a murdered girl and a harp made out of bone. “Alison Gross” by Midori Snyder (from the urban fantasy anthology Life on the Border) is based on the ballad of that title: the story of a man changed into a worm (or wyrm, a dragon) when he spurns the kisses of a witch. A number of works are inspired by “The Grey Selchie,” a poignant ballad of love, seals, and shape-shifting, including Jane Yolen’s “The Grey Selchie” (from her collection Neptune Rising), Laurie J. Marks’s “How the Ocean Loved Margie” (from The Journal of Mythic Arts, 2004), and Paul Brandon’s evocative, music-filled novel Swim the Moon. Sharyn McCrumb's Ghostriders, The Songcatcher, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, The Rosewood Casket, She Walks These Hills, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and If I Never Return Pretty Peggy-o are magical mystery novels steeped in the themes of traditional ballads from the south-eastern mountains of America, as are the "Songkiller" books of Elizabeth Ann Scarborough: Phantom Banjo, Picking the Ballad's Bones, and Strum Again. Greer Ilene Gilman’s Moonwise is a fever-dream of a book brimming with Celtic balladry from every corner of the British Isles; Gilman has an extensive knowledge of the folk tradition and she works with it here to unique effect.
Artist Charles Vess has listened to and loved old ballads for more than thirty-five years. “They are great stories,” he says, “filled with exactly the things I love to draw best: magic, adventure, romance, suspense, historical settings, the lands of Faerie, and supernatural creatures that range from beautiful to hideous.”
In 1994, Charles conceived the idea of illustrating a series of comics based on traditional folk ballads. He spoke with a number of ballad-loving writers who promised him scripts for the new series, which began with a story by Charles de Lint retelling “Sovay.” The series was first published by Green Man Press, and then collected into a beautiful Tor Books edition, along with four additional tales, making thirteen ballad retellings in all -- by Neil Gaiman, Sharyn McCrumb, Midori Snyder, Lee Smith, Elaine Lee, Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint, Jeff Smith, and Emma Bull, plus two retellings by Jane Yolen, and one by Charles Vess himself. The Book of Ballads provides an excellent introduction to traditional ballads for readers not yet familiar with them, and a I highly recommend it.
In an article on Francis James Child published in Sing Out! magazine, Scott Alarik asked folk musician Martin Carthy (one of the greatest modern interpreters of Child ballads) why people should still be singing these ancient ballads today. For the same reasons they sang them long ago, Carthy answers. “Because they’re fabulous stories; because they tell you immense amounts about people and how they treat each other, trick each other, cheat and chisel and love each other. There’s an extraordinary understanding of humanity in them.”
"You do have to sometimes kick the buggers into life," Carthy continues, "find them a tune, give the lyrics a kick here and there. And they can take it; they’re fabulously resilient. I really do believe there’s nothing you can do to these songs that will hurt them—except for not singing them.”
Contemporary folk musicians have been doing a fine job of “kicking the buggers into life,” and so have writers of fantasy fiction for children and adults.
Credits & copyrights:
The artwork in this essay, Parts I & II, is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to read them.) All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.