Songs behind stories

This started out as a blog about folk songs. It’s evolved since then into a more general blog about books and writing, but the songs are still there in the background to my work. The inspiration they provide is nothing like as direct as in Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, which is a fairly faithful version of Tam Lin in novel form, albeit a version with an admixture of Thomas the Rhymer. I’d no wish to rewrite or retell the stories from particular songs in either novel. Old songs, however, do set the mood for each book.

Like the Child Ballads, After the Ruin is full of revenge, love, betrayal and longing. Poetic grimdark, a good friend called it once, and that’s as good a summing up as any. Although each chapter of After the Ruin has its own epigraph, three particular songs underscore the book. These are The Unquiet Grave (Child Ballad no. 78, which is a dialogue between two lovers, one living, the other dead), The Bonnie House of Airlie (Child Ballad no. 199, an account of what happened when Lady Ogilvie defied the Campbells), and Tam Lin itself (Child Ballad no. 39; it’s hard to escape the pull of Tam Lin – it is perhaps the greatest of all the ballads).

The Crooked Path is rather different in mood from After the Ruin. It’s a lighter book, certainly for me as I was writing it and, I think, for a reader too; it’s less intense, a fairy tale rather than a high fantasy. This time there’s no particular set of songs to pick out as more influential than the rest, although again, when it was taking on something like its final form, I made the conscious decision to use verses as chapter epigraphs. Always, something of that song is reflected in the following text. Sometimes it’s an image, sometimes it’s a hint towards an aspect of the plot that hasn’t yet been made clear. This time the epigraphs tended to be taken from folk songs, such as Braw Sailin’ on the Sea or Cold, Hailey, Rainey Night.  Indeed, overall, the mood is of a folk song rather than a ballad; if there’s betrayal, it’s not followed, inevitably, by tragedy, and, if it’s poetic, it’s certainly not grimdark.

But for both novels, the epigraph verses offer a playlist and a possible approach to the story. I think of it as a form of intertextuality, and, if you’re minded to search out the songs from which they’re taken, you’ll get a fair idea of the mood I was aiming for as the story unfolds.

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This entry was posted in After the Ruin, Child Ballad, fantasy novel, folk music, folk song, The Crooked Path, thoughts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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