Last summer I was approached by Kevan Manwaring to contribute to an anthology titled ‘Ballad Tales’. The premise was that people with a background in folk – be that as musicians, storytellers or enthusiasts, would re-write traditional ballads as short stories. I cheerfully dived in. So I can’t write you an unbiased review of this book! There are 19 stories, 18 authors. I knew most of the authors and most of the original material before I started reading.
The collection runs a broad range of interpretations. It opens with a faithful retelling of Tam Lin, from Fiona Eadie. Kevan Manwaring’s Thomas the Rhymer is largely faithful, but plays with the unreliable narrator in some inventive ways. Chantelle Smith takes on the Selkie of Sule Skerry. The Marriage of Gawain by Simon Heywood is also a largely familiar retelling.
Richard Selby places the song The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter in a landscape, and takes us into the realms of making these stories more specific. Ballads are often scant on details of time and place, and of course as soon as you pin them somewhere, that act of placing them in a time and location changes them. David Phelps has a version of a song I know as The Bonny Labouring Boy, which works in a similar way.
Pete Castle tackles some of the holes in ‘Willie’s Lady’ which I know as ‘King Willie’. Ballads often skate over the details of how we got into the crazy situation to begin with and what motivates characters who do strange, darkly magical things. Malcolm Green’s take on ‘The Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Heugh’ (Kemp Owen to me) also picks up these themes.
In The Droll of Ann Tremellan, Alan M Kent gives us a Cornish take on Barbara Allen – resplendent with Cornish language, which I loved. We also have a retelling of the ballad Barbara Allen by Mark Hassall which gives the story a contemporary setting. Both tackle the issues of how and why characters are on their deathbeds, one switches the genders around, and between them they demonstrate something of the scope for re-imagining every tale in multiple ways.
Eric Maddern’s take on ‘The Flying Cloud’ has a fascinating personal angle to it. There’s often an anonymity in ballad writing – obviously someone wrote an original and others have re-written songs down the years, so it’s interesting to get a song where there are also stories to tell about the authorship.
The aforementioned stories are either wholly faithful to the original, or mostly faithful, and largely concerned with the business of putting flesh on bones – Mark Hassal being the exception. Other stories in the collection have played fast and loose with the originals, re-imagining them into settings from the 20th century onwards, playing with themes, reinventing, subverting and so forth. These were without a doubt my favourites, but then, it’s also what I chose to do! As someone steeped in folk I found it more exciting encountering familiar stories in entirely unfamiliar forms.
The Ship Carpenter’s Love to a Merchant’s Daughter by Laura Kinnear sets the classic tale of a young lady following her beloved to sea in the twentieth century, demonstrating that some things never really change…
I was really excited by Karola Renard’s radical re-imagining of Sovay – I don’t want to say anything about it to avoid spoilers, but it manages to both hold the original and do something entirely unfamiliar with it all at the same time.
Kirsty Hartsiotis’s gangster ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men’ is a remarkable piece of writing, I think this is the most intense story in the book, heartbreaking and brilliant.
Mermaid in Aspic (best title, for my money) re-imagines the tale of the two sisters – there are many versions of this song, I sing one of them. Chrissy Derbyshire tackles the issue of taking out the supernatural whilst at the same time keeping the magic.
David Metcalfe’s interpretation of The Three Ravens/Twa Corbies is an inspired piece of crafting, and if you know the originals, you’ll read it with your heart in your mouth. Terrible, terrible dramatic irony, beautifully done.
Anthony Nanson’s future set King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid nearly made me cry – not because it’s tragic, but because there is an element of hope in it that seems so rare right now. It’s an incredible idea, pulled off with considerable style.
The collection finishes with the tale that can fairly be described as being furthest out, in all senses. Kevan Manwaring takes on the two magicians – a shapeshifting song that exists in several forms. An incredibly imaginative re-working, which keeps faith with the original whilst taking it in a really wild direction.
My own contribution is a mash up of Scarborough fair and the unquiet graves songs, told in first person and allowing me to play a bit with the sympathy and complicity a first person narrator can easily generate, in order to do terrible things!
You can buy the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ballad-Tales-Anthology-British-Ballads/dp/0750970553