Study Guide

John the Balladeer

by Manly Wade Wellman

John the Balladeer Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Much of the power of these stories comes from the Southern folklore Manly Wade Wellman used. There are remarkable creatures such as the Flat, which resembles a malevolent moving rug; the Culverin, which spits pebbles; and the Behinder, which almost no one ever sees because it always comes up behind its victims, killing them instantly. John sees it when it kills Yandro and finds it so indescribably awful in appearance that it is just as well that almost no one ever sees it.

Wellman mixed genuine folklore with his inventions, to the point at which even he may not have been sure where one ended and the other began. Certainly, others have been fooled; the Gardinel, a giant carnivorous plant that can disguise itself as a house to fool people into entering it, has appeared in books of authentic North Carolina folklore, but it was a Wellman invention. These bits of lore are cleverly used. Readers are told in an early story of the folk belief that Jesus was the only man exactly six feet tall, and early in “On the Hills and Everywhere” that is mentioned as the height of the mysterious carpenter.

In the face of all the witchcraft and wizardry, John maintains a devout and orthodox Christian viewpoint. For example, he does not fear to use the Doppler effect because he knows that Dopplers first name was Christian.

In his long career, Wellman wrote hundreds of stories and many novels, mostly fantasy and science fiction. The tales of John are generally considered his best and most important work. Late in his career, he wrote five novels about John: The Old Gods Waken (1979), After Dark (1980), The Lost and the Lurking (1981), The Hanging Stones (1982), and The Voice of the Mountain (1984). Published by Doubleday as “Silver John” novels (a name Wellman never used for the character), these read like extended John the Balladeer short stories in which John faces down a single menace. In The Old Gods Waken, for example, there are druids who wish to revive the old custom of human sacrifice. Wellman himself preferred the short stories, and his admirers tend to agree.