“Tam Lin” is a Scottish ballad which has been adapted into a great many songs and stories. There are many different versions of the ballad, all of which follow the same general plot and central characters. My favorite musical recordings of the song are probably those by Fairport Convention and Tricky Pixie, though there are countless others out there for your Youtubing pleasure. If you want to look at a large selection of the ballad variations, have a scroll through this page. “Tam Lin” is Child Ballad #39, and the story is still well-known today. I’ve summarized the general story here, based on my own favorite versions.
The legend: Janet, daughter of the lord who owns the land, breaks the rule never to go to Carterhaugh and picks a forbidden rose there. The woods are off-limits because, as the song tells us at its opening, young Tam Lin guards the place and takes either the green mantles or maidenhead of any girl who trespasses. Tam Lin appears to Janet, demanding why she’s come to Carterhaugh without his permission, and she retorts (rather smarmily, in some versions) that she can come and go as she pleases because she was given Carterhaugh by her father.
The ballads usually gloss over the following events, but it seems that Tam Lin likes her defiant/entitled spirit, and she falls for him too (once he stops shouting at her about flowers, I assume). The point is: things get consummated in the woods. Probably a little mossy, and most certainly a bit surprised by the un-planned direction of her afternoon, Janet returns to her father’s hall. It quickly becomes obvious that she’s pregnant, but Janet refutes everyone’s curiosity about who the baby’s father might be by declaring that her lover was an Elfin knight, who she’d not trade for any knight of her father’s human court.
After nine months, our forthright and loyal lassie returns to Carterhaugh (sometimes she’s looking for an abortive herb at this stage), and asks Tam Lin how he got stuck guarding the forest in the first place. It turns out he was kidnapped by the Fairy Queen and has become a human member of her court; he haunts Carterhaugh at the Queen’s bidding. Tam Lin also tells Janet that every seven years the Queen must pay a tithe to Hell, sacrificing a member of her court. Being a human, handsome, and one of the Queen’s favorite knights, he is almost certain that the sacrifice this year will be himself. Janet’s not keen to let the Fairy Queen give her lover over to the fiends of Hell. When Tam Lin tells her that she might be able to save him if she yanks him from his horse as the Fairy Host rides through the woods on Hallowe’en, she gets all heroic despite the added inconvenience of being incredibly pregnant.
At Miles Cross, Janet waits on a stormy night to witness the court go riding by. As Tam Lin had instructed, she lets the black horses pass by, and then the brown, and when she sees the white horse at the end of the procession she pulls the rider down. The faeries turn Tam Lin into all sorts of horrible creatures in an attempt to force Janet to release her hold on him: lions, snakes, bears – it varies from song to song but they’re always mean and bite-y. But she was warned of this, too, and hangs on. Even when Tam Lin turns into a burning brand in her hands, she holds fast, and eventually he turns back into himself, naked and rather bedraggled, and she covers him with her green mantle. The end of this action is usually the end of the narrative.
The Fairy Queen almost always ends the song with some bitter and imperious line about how she would have turned Tam Lin’s heart to stone; or his body into a tree; or taken out his eyes, had she known what would transpire that night. We’re left to assume that Janet and Tam Lin limp off into the night to figure out their unnatural family dynamic in peace, while the Fairy court presumably has some last-minute alterations to make to their plan.
It’s a wonderful ballad, with several important symbols and elements which make it work out both as a piece of fairy-lore and as a compelling story. You need the forbidden woods to be mysterious, and their guardian Tam Lin to be both powerful and vulnerable: frightened for his own life while still in touch with Fairy land’s magic. Janet’s got to be youthfully hot-headed at the beginning, and turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by Hallowe’en. The ballad might be named after Tam Lin, but the story’s actually about Janet. I think that her behavior upon learning that she’s pregnant is incredibly important: Janet’s not going to be bullied by the expectations of stuffy old court traditions. She’s comfortable with herself and generally the sort of leading lady you want to cheer for.
Most importantly, in my opinion, the scene at Miles Cross needs to be dangerous and otherworldly, so that Janet’s bravery in the face of the Fairy Court can be properly appreciated. The Fairy Queen is one of my favorite characters out of every myth, legend, and ballad I’ve ever encountered. She doesn’t ascribe to mere human manners or morals, but there are folkloric conventions her character really ought to fulfill. The Queen of the Fairy Court – sometimes specified as the Unseelie Court – should be powerful, impatient, and utterly self-obsessed. (You see why we would get along.) The dangers of crossing this lady cannot be taken lightly, so her formidable presence highlights Tam Lin’s peril and Janet’s courage.
Finally, the rules and magical logic which apply to freeing a knight from the Fairy Court are steeped in tradition and very important. Various interpretations of the story change up the forms Tam Lin takes, but the point is that Janet holds on. She gets beaten, bitten, bruised, and burned, with whole host of immortal creatures watching her agony from horseback. But fairy stories are governed by tests and loopholes, so when she wins her love fairly, there’s naught the court can do. Names are always important in fairy stories. Promises are binding and when you’re forbidden from speaking or moving you’d better hold your tongue and stand very still. Just as characters in these songs and tales must follow the twisted rules which create their world, so should re-worked interpretations pay attention to the necessary patterns. A novel which draws on any folk ballad or legend can change all sorts of characters and plot points to its heart’s content, in my opinion, as long as the canon functions of Fairyland get their due respect. Sometimes authors bend the rules, and when it’s cleverly done those alterations are exciting. If bits and pieces of similar stories are wisely, cleverly sampled to form one big narrative, the results can be spectacular; Fire & Hemlock contains threads from “Tam Lin,” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” all twisted into one big ol’ gorgeous novel. It’s frustrating when an author ignores vital parts of the folkloric tradition just to suit their own convenience, especially when drawing inspiration from such a well-known ballad as “Tam Lin,” but any story with hints of Fairy’s sinister, timeless magic is worth investigating.
Below are some of books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I’ve read. There are so many different versions of the ballad itself, so certain themes are more prevalent in each authors’ writing style. Not everything inspired by the ballad is necessarily a faithful re-telling; some of these books just borrow from the plot or make use of the key elements. Tithes to Hell, forbidden woods, and angry Fairy Queens tend to make for an interesting story. Anyone with books to add to the list and opinions to share should speak up in the comments, because I’m always on the hunt for more to read on the subject.
Books I’ve Read:
Fire & Hemlock by Dianna Wynne Jones
One of my favorite fantasy novels, making a near-perfect use of all those mythical rules I went on about, and then twisting them in the best of ways. Even though the main character is a child for most of the book, it is (and should be) a favorite amongst adult fantasy enthusiasts. I love that Polly recognizes the similarities between her own adventure and the old ballads, and uses this to her advantage. Very highly recommended to anyone who likes their stories to be full of layered inferences to the old stories and songs.
Tithe by Holly Black
Again, a book which includes certain characters and plot points of the ballad without being a thorough re-telling. Good, gritty YA with a firm grasp on fairy lore. I loved Tithe as a pre-teen and still think it’s pretty great. The Fairy Courts (both Seelie and Unseelie) are described particularly well.
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
You can read my full rant and review here, in its own post. Pamela Dean’s book contains interesting allusions to the old folk stories and songs, which are fun to hunt for through the pages, but with a title so obviously referencing the ballad I was disappointed with the re-telling. The action of the ballad is set on a college campus in the 1970’s, over the course of Janet’s four years as an undergraduate. Rather than just borrowing from the legend, Tam Lin enticed me with the idea of a thorough re-telling with connections between nearly every character and plot point. Unfortunately, it felt imbalanced with too much homework and not enough of a magical atmosphere.
Added July 13, 2014: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour
I read Thorn Jack without so many expectations, after learning my lesson with Dean’s Tam Lin. Despite some immature writing and a bothersome romance, I really liked it. Goes to show that it’s better to read with an open mind. Thorn Jack borrows from the Tithe aspect of Tam Lin, and has a magnificent Faery Court disguised as wealthy young people. The plot twists away from the ballad’s original pattern, borrowing an awful lot from Celtic faery mythology to create a huge (and sometimes confusing) cast of minor characters. The references to Tam Lin are pretty good, and it was a fun book despite the clutter. My full review is here.
Books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I haven’t read yet include:
The Perilous Guard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip
The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson
Which of these should I read first? Suggestions? Opinions? Books I’ve not yet heard of that I need to track down ASAP? I’m always excited to read another take on my favorite fairy story – be it literary fiction or pulp fantasy or something in between – so please chime in with whatever comes to mind.
I feel like I’ve saturated the blog with fairytales and folklore this spring, so maybe it’s time for some other subjects, soon. I hope my unofficial Fairy Fest, 2014 hasn’t been too unbearable for those of you who prefer cutlasses to curses. Swashbuckling heroics and clever kid’s books are on the way, I promise. For now, I’ve just got to wait out this folklore virus and enjoy every page of it.