A With Both Hands Mini-review
Silver John, or John the Balladeer, is Manly Wade Wellman's Southern folk hero. John tramps the ridges and hollows of Appalachia, bringing song and the Gospel wherever he goes.
John is a poor and humble man. He places his trust in the Lord, and in the hospitality of the mountain folk, for food and shelter on his wanderings. In return, John protects the people from witches, devils, and haunts, which abound in the lonely and forgotten hollows.
Most of the stories follow the same structure. John walks into town, and either finds someone in trouble or finds a notorious sinner in need of redemption, or stumbles onto some fae thing in the woods somewhere. John then finds some way to rectify the situation using his wits, his guitar, and his endless faith. I finished the book over a couple of weeks. As each story is so similar, I think they would blend together a bit if you read too many in a sitting.
I'm not from Appalachia myself, but those are who are say that Wellman did a good job capturing the feel of both the people and the folklore of this somewhat neglected part of America. I think you might be able to get a sense of this from the songs in the book, which are real folk songs still played today.
When I wrote my D&D pieces on clerics, Clerics in Fantastic Literature and D&D Clerics: Misunderstood and Improperly Played, Silver John was consistently brought up by commenters as a good example of a literary archetype of what the D&D cleric class is supposed to be. Now that I've read some of his stories, I whole-heartedly agree.
This is a uniquely American translation of the archetype of an itinerant holy warrior. While not actually being from the region himself, Wellman was able to take the folklore and ghost stories of Appalachia, the simple but deeply felt Presbyterianism the Scotch-Irish brought, and blend them with the mythic resonances of crusading knights.
Silver John wields a guitar instead of a sword, but his reliance on faith and a steadfast and true heart links him to knight-errantry. I don't think it would be amiss to see something of the Celtic bard in Silver John too, although strictly speaking the Scotch-Irish who settled those mountains are not a Celtic people, so that is likely an addition that simply nicked with the existing musical culture.
Wellman was likely able to do this so well because of the range of his writing. Wellman wrote all across genre fiction for decades. Wellman even once edged out William Faulkner in the inaugural Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine short story contest in 1946 for the Reader's Choice award. Wellman knew the people of Appalachia well, but he had seen a good bit of the rest of the world too.
This volume of Wellman's Silver John short stories is from Valancourt Press. For some reason, while Wellman is brought up by aficionados of the American fantasy tradition regularly, his works seem to cycle in and out of print often, making it hard to find a reasonably priced physical book. I'm not quite sure I would call this a reasonably priced book, but it is a solid little hardcover, and the cover is absolutely stellar.
I'll absolutely read the Silver John novels when I get a chance, and seeing how solid this collection was, I'll keep an eye out for Wellman's other work too.