It takes more than words or pictures to make a book. Binding, paper quality, type, design and printing all add their flavor to the finished product, occasionally creating a book with a sensual appeal beyond its contents. "The Unbroken Web" is such a book, a pleasure to the touch as well as to the eye and ear.
In something of a departure from his previous work (which includes "Watership Down" and "The Girl in a Swing"), Richard Admas has put together a collection of 19 folk tales from around the world, beautifully illustrated with color paintings by Yvonne Gilbert and drawings by Jennifer Campbell. The "unbroken web" of the title represents Adams' vision of the veil of collective dreams and experience, transcending time and distance, in which man lives out his history and from which he draws the substance of his stories and tales.
This veil, or unbroken web, is one way of accounting for the baffling ubiquity of certain tales: the uncanny existence of a Cinderella tale among the Algonquin Indians before the European invasion, for example, or the tale of Joseph and his brothers among the Polynesians before the arrival of Christian missionaries. (Idries Shah, in his "World Tales," records innumerable such recurring "incarnations" of similar stories in widely disparate cultures.)
One of the difficulties of collecting and printing folk tales is that the tales evolved as inextricable patterns in the great "web" of oral tradition. Wherever they came from, whoever invented them, they are, like songs, ephemeral, evoked by a particular circumstance and performed spontaneously for its participants. They are as well as sort of cumulative record of human fears and aspirations, a self-revising index or reference point for shifting human affairs. To record them in a book is to tear them from the context of their telling, rendering them as flat and lifeless as half-notes on paper or butterflies pinned to velvet. They become whimsical oddities, preserved in isolation from the passions and lives that spawned them.
Adams has attempted to restore some elements of that oral context by presenting each of his tales through a narrator addressng an audience: a tour guide speaking to a tourist, a teacher to his students, a harassed parent to his child, etc. The technique is not new. The "Arabian Nights" were set down as tales told by Scheherazade to defer her execution; the "Canterbury Tales" were exchanged by pilgrims to entertain each other on their journey, and the Sanskrit "Parrot Tales" were a parrot's invention to amuse his lonely mistress. In these old collections, the tales are linked by a common theme or purpose. In "The Unbroken Web," however, each tale is offered by a different narrator, and the result can be somewhat disconcerting, for in some cases the narrator's situation is more compelling than the tale he tells and becomes in fact a tale in itself, tantalizingly brief and inconclusive; in others, the narrator's irrelevant chatter, removed from its untold drama, can be intrusive, even irritating.
This is a minor criticism of a handsome and thoroughly enjoyable book. The tales themselves are delightful, and Adams revels in the lively idiom and inventive syntax of his narrators, giving the most exotic tales a fresh, colloquial tone. His stories come from China and Wales, Tahiti, North America, Europe and Africa. Some, like "Mice in the Corn" (from the Mabinogion), or "Stan Bolovan and the Dragon" (a version of "Jack the Giant-Killer," or the "Little Tailor"), are familiar, but most are mysteriously new and foreign. "The Iron Wolf," from the Caucasus, and "The Moddey Dhoo," from the Isle of Man, are as creepy and lurid as any Dracula fan could wish. "The Blind Boy and His Dog," from China, is a touching story reminiscent of the old "Dog of Pompeii." "Crab" -- whose portrait bears a charming resemblance to Alec Guinness -- is the epitome of the crafty peasant well rewarded for his guile. The tales range from fable to extravagant fairy tale, some being no more than the extended "shaggy-dog story," which almost every culture, it seems, delights in spinning.
The illustrations in "The Unbroken Web," both color and black and white, are finely detailed and uncommonly beautiful. Although Adams' vivid writing begs no illustration, the paintings and drawings aptly embellish the tales and add an extra touch of brilliance to an already fine book. For humor, wit, fantasy and sheer delight in language, this is by far the most enjoyable of Adams' books. To read it aloud invites the sort of melodramatic performace that is great for any audience.