Book Review: The Story of Owen, Dragonslayer of Trondheim

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars_

Overall: *** (3/5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up.

I read The Story of Owen in the more restful hours of my recent trip to New York City, and while I had a fun time joining Owen and Siobhan on their dragon slaying adventures, much of the plot has since escaped from my memory. (It’s possible that too many oysters distracted me.) So this will be just a few notes on what I liked about The Story of Owen, what I didn’t love, and why I’ve recommended it to some young people I know even though they don’t all love dragons. (A disclaimer: I went through a big ol’ fiery dragon phase in my middle school years. So huzzah!)

This is not a book I came across during some aimless shelf browsing. I read The Book Smugglers’ review a while ago and ordered it immediately. (Local bookstores will order Canadian YA-Ballads about modern mythical creatures if you ask them nicely.) I have a lot of faith in those ladies’ reviews; even if I don’t form the same opinions in my own reading, they highlight some real treasures I might otherwise neglect. The hardcover languished in a pile at my childhood home for months, though, until it finally struck me as the perfect epic-but-fun pastime for the train ride to the city. Ana’s review goes into better depth than this in analyzing the story and characters, so do give it a read. While I’m not equally as enamored with the book, I did find it to be refreshingly unique, so thanks to them for bringing E.K. Johnston’s work to my attention.

In brief, the story is told by Siobhan, a fairly-average high school student living in a small, rural Canadian town. Her town didn’t have a dragon slayer – they tend to hang around the big cities where there are more carbon emissions, and therefore more dragons, so the pay and publicity are better. When Lottie Thorskard and her family move to town, people can’t stop talking about the famous retired dragon slayer and her legacy. It’s a family business, so while her brother Aodhan defends farms and small businesses from fiery doom, Lottie trains her nephew Owen to take up the sword of duty. Siobhan trains Owen in Algebra, which is less epic but also necessary, and he’s way worse at math than he is at stabbing a dragon in exactly the right place to avoid toxic death-spillage. When the Thorskgards learn that Siobhan is a talented musician, they decide to bring back the old Bard traditions from the olden days of dragon slaying, when a tale well-told and just the right song could turn a slayer’s deeds from action into legend. So begins a friendship and partnership between Owen and Siobhan that will give them strength to face the whirlwind of high school and, hopefully, the dangers of ravenous monsters. They need to get heroic fast, too, because the dragons are getting bolder, and one Thorskard isn’t going to be enough to defend the people of Trondheim. A noble tradition of millenia is getting shaken up with the modern times, and Siobhan might have to do more than write songs about it.

Things I liked:

– The narrative style is framed in the ballad format that Siobhan is learning as she stumbles through the motions of becoming Owen’s bard. I love the old sagas and oral histories, though they can get dry and plodding sometimes, so even the use of “Listen!” to begin a tale gave me a nerdy thrill. (For curious nerds: an article on how we may have misinterpreted the “hwæt!” as “listen!” in Beowulf.) Siobhan’s talent is music composition, not storytelling, so her conversational prose interspersed with dramatic retellings was appropriately awkward until she improved with practice. The use of music to convey a mood was a cool touch, too, though I’m not so good at imagining tunes and therefore felt a stronger connection to the old fashioned use of words. Listen!, indeed.

– The characters. All of them. And their interactions with each other. Siobhan and Owen, thrown together in the high school hallway, forge such a real friendship through tutoring sessions, near-death experiences, and indeed pizza cooked in a blacksmith’s forge. Lottie Thorskgard basically raises her nephew while training him to be a great dragon slayer like she was before her accident. It’s an unusual family, one I totally want to be a part of: Owen, Lottie, her wife Hannah, Aodhan, and Siobhan watching them all from the kitchen table. (There’s a really sweet scene about how happy Lottie and Hannah get whenever he refers to them as his parents.) Another example of good characterization: the teens’ classmates have hidden depths and defy the stereotypical roles they seem to fill at first. One girl decides to take Siobhan under her wing and teach her how to be socially popular, but her motives are much more interesting than one might expect. Then there’s a fun conspiracy nut and his daughter, who don’t give a crap about anyones’ opinions. These all felt like people I could easily meet in real life, if it weren’t for the fact that they kept talking about dragons.

– This isn’t necessarily a comedy, but there was lots of humor in the dialogue and Siobhan’s narration. That’s how I like my epic tales: full of sarcasm and stupid misunderstandings. Nothing lightens the tension of facing off against a creature that wants to eat your car like a well timed joke in a shaking voice.

Things I didn’t like so much:

– The bigger plot, the one about politics and geography and the history of dragons in our world, never really captured my full interest. In school and regular conversation, people learn about Oil Watch, and how industrialization has made the dragon problem even worse, but even though the stakes were high (whole cities get abandoned, and the outcomes of wars have hinged on dragon territories) the tension wasn’t nearly so compelling as the smaller personal story taking place amongst the residents of Trondheim. The characters and conversation were easily enough to keep me entertained while I read, but I didn’t get overly concerned about what might happen next, so this wasn’t one of those books that kept me in its thrall whenever I put it down.

– The dragons themselves weren’t as cool as they could have been. We get to learn about the different types and what makes them fearsome, but they just seemed like a general plague of beasts for the most part. This didn’t detract from the story at all, I just really like my dragons and would have happily witnessed some more prolonged interactions with them.

-There were these historical interludes in which famous badasses from history were entwined with Johnston’s new dragon mythology.  Despite the creativity, these incidents seemed a little gratuitous to me. I see how they could serve to guide the legendary style of Siobhan’s ballad-telling, but I was jarred out of the story whenever I had to stop and puzzle out how figures such as Dracula and Abelard might get re-written as dragon slayers.

Why I’m recommending The Story Of Owen:

– A kind of nerdy main character who is unapologetic about her talents, unsure what she wants from her future, fond of her family, and honest with her friends. Siobhan is a wonderfully real narrator, one who I think lots of teenage readers could like and admire. The other characters are also flawed and good-hearted; you love them even when you want to give them a shake. It would be so excellent if we could all emulate this, if we could remember to embrace our insecurities and admit that we’re still learning.

– Music geekery for all those band nerds who want better imaginary soundtracks to their every day (and epic) battles.

– A friendship between genders that isn’t romantic! (I may get spoiler-y here if you’re the sort of reader who cares deeply about a will-they-won’t-they plotline. But that’s so not the point of this book) Owen and Siobhan are able to look frankly at their relationship, wonder if any feelings are getting in the way, recognize that no there isn’t any sexual turmoil and move on to killing scaly beasts! Will they get together in the future? Who knows or cares! Owen might date one of the many girls who like their men like they like their coffee: wielding a broadsword. (Or am I the only one with that morning routine?) Siobhan might date, or she might be asexual, or she might get burned to a crisp. Whatever. I’m just happy that the lack of teen romantic drama in this book never once took away from the emotional resonance of the characters’ relationships. Friendship, family, and long-standing love can be just as motivating, and it’s about time we saw more of those loves take center stage. When a younger teen expressed trepidation about trying out some older YA because of all the gross romantic subjects, I was very happy to suggest The Story Of Owen.

Even though the plot and draconian action failed to hold me riveted, I liked taking a peep into a dragon-infested world for a while. Siobhan, Owen, Lottie, and all the good people of Trondheim made up such a welcoming community, I could easily understand the Thorskard’s desire to protect them. Centuries and an ocean away from ye olde peasants and great wyrms of yore, the bravery and sacrifice of dragon slayers still remains the stuff of stories. Now they just have to do history homework on the side.

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The Darkest Part Of The Forest is out today! Here’s why I love it.

I am a foolish mortal.*  When I read (and re-read) the galley of The Darkest Part Of The Forest a couple of months ago, I was full to bursting with things to say about it.  The effort it took to not wildly bang my keyboard with exclamation point and dreadful heart symbols may have caused me to physically shake.  Holly Black has a new modern tale of Faerie out!  She’s returned – triumphant as a queen – to the genre that first ensnared me to worship her work when I was but a wee sprite!  Exclamation point!  Heart symbol!  ❤  But, alas, I never got around to rhapsodizing in print, and now the book is out in the wilderness of fine bookstores across the country (independent bookshops, please).

Rather than rushing through a full review and spoiling my chance to go into wayyyy too much detail about Faerie ballads and woodland settings and promises in folklore, allow me to shout a few more not-so-subtle votes of recommendation into the Void That Is The Internet.  Then I can write a more balanced critical review later.  With way more talk about old ballads and symbolic plants.

If I were to start talking about the plot, you’d be reading for days.  Have a quick summary, snagged from the back cover of the galley:

Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice.  Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves.  A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil.  She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold, where humans and fae exist side by side.  The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them.  Or she did, before.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods.  It rests right on the ground, and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointy as knives.  Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children.  The boy has slept there fore generations, never waking.

Until one day, he does…

As the world turns upside down and a hero is needed to save them all, Hazel tries to remember her years spent pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?  (Quoted from the cover of the advance reading copy.  Little, Brown.)

So, a list.  Reasons I Am Beyond Overjoyed That Holly Black Has Written Another Faerie Book:

  • Beautiful writing It’s mature while still retaining the sharp perspective of teenaged main characters. Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside were wonderful books.  They are single-handedly responsible for my early love of urban fantasy and fantasy stories with rougher, modern, teenaged characters.  That said, they are very clearly the early work of a writer who has access to a well of folkloric knowledge going fathoms deep.  The stories are great but the prose occasionally stumbled.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest contains even better writing.  The plot is delicately knotted but never tangles, and there’s barley any clunky mythological exposition.  Events flow, characters join and leave the story’s dance with logical ease, and even the magic that alters reality follows rules that seem as natural as the moon’s cycles.
  • The characters are complex.  Even the bad faeries.  Even the humans! How tired am I of YA fantasy books that portray non-magical teenagers as vapid peasants who only care about their phones?  Pretty darn tired.  Early on in this book, Hazel attends a party around the glass coffin where the sleeping faerie boy is entombed.   These parties seem to be a generally accepted part of high school life; Hazel sees people she knows – some whom she likes, and some she would rather avoid. Our heroine doesn’t hold herself to be a higher species than her classmates and friends, though.  In fact, she’s got a reputation for kissing an awful lot of people, and has no shame in acting upon it. (Something I also liked about The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.)  The town’s football star has a changeling brother, and is totally not a meat-head about it.  And the Folk who mingle with the population of Fairfold and make the town into some border between the worlds; they’ve got complex motivations too.  Who could blame a mother for protecting her child at any cost – even if humans have to suffer for it?  Why shouldn’t a brother defend his sister’s choice even if it invites the wrath of a cruel king?  And yet, the king’s cruelty isn’t one-dimensional, either.  No matter how badly faeries or humans behave, nobody’s evil just because the story needs a villain.  And the heroes are sometimes the most selfish of all.
  • Strong sibling and family bonds!  There’s nothing that sticks a barb through my heart quite like family members struggling to protect one another.  Hazel and Ben mostly raised themselves when they were younger, thanks to their well-meaning but ill-equipped parents largely neglecting to behave like proper adults.  This is how their roles as knight and bard came to be such a huge part of each sibling’s personality.  Their loyalty to one another – this us-against-the-world mentality – keeps all the supernatural drama feeling very close to home.  Likewise, there are some families in Fairfold who are half-in and half-out of the human world.  When the Folk become a dangerous presence instead of just a novelty attraction, some townspeople get a might uppity.  It’s in those moments that family strengths are tested, and the book makes quite an emotional impact.  The local faerie court has its own share of familial discord.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest reminds us to be very grateful that our parents aren’t faerie tyrants, but also drives home how important it is to stand up for your siblings no matter the cost.
  • Faerie systems that are completely new to the genre.  When you’ve got a story about a half magical town; changelings; and disappearances to which people willingly turn a blind eye, there’s a big risk of recycling old material through a slightly different point of view.  I dig re-told legends, as you may have noticed.  (See my Thoughts On Tam Lin post from the spring for way too much legend-digging.)  The Darkest Part Of The Forest has some elements from oft-adapted ballads and tales woven throughout, but Black is a confident enough writer that she creates a faerie court that could only exist around her fictional town.  The setting and the magic grow as part of one another, with individual characters contributing hugely to the unusual environment.  Complicated curses and tricky rules are important to the action, as they usually are in faerie tales. But in this case I couldn’t predict exactly which twist of a promise would set things into motion.  Black strikes just the right balance between recognizable emblems of traditional faerie-lore and innovative modern fantasy in her newest book.  Not that I would expect anything else.
  • Speaking of things I couldn’t predict: this book had several interesting romantic storylines!  What??  That’s right, not only did I find myself unexpectedly intent upon some of the tentative couples that formed during the course of this adventure, but the development of dreaded feelings didn’t seem to pop up out of the fictional blue without invitation.  Just because a boy and a girl meet in a charged and life-changing situation, it doesn’t mean they’re fated for one another (or a boy and the boy, in some cases).  Characters can want to help one another for reasons that go beyond their hormones, but the hormones aren’t completely ignored.  Trust, friendship, and shared experiences are more effective at bringing young people together than fate or insta-attraction. Huzzah!
  • Wild and dizzying faerie revels.  They’re important to me. (See my review of Thorn Jack, which was an awkward book at times but had great fay parties.) This book did not disappoint.  Time spent with the Folk makes people bloodthirsty, fearsome, brave, and foolish.  That’s the faerie land I know and love.  More, please, Holly Black!  Your books keep getting better and better.

Do you like faerie stories?  Buy this book.  Do you like unapologetic and morally complex teen characters?  Buy this book.  Want to spend hours making notes about every reference to ballads and folklore you see?  Buy a pad of paper, and then buy this book.  Want to just tear through a fun and electrifying story to take your mind off of mundane woes?  Head to your bookstore and then settle down with this book.  THIS BOOK, FOLKS.  I’m so excited that it’s out in the world.

Five very obvious stars.

*Definitely foolish.  Other parts of that statement are under debate.

Book Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin is part of the “Fairy Tale Series” created by Terri Windling.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing : *** (3 stars)

Overall: ** (2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 + (Mostly because the academic subject matter might be boring to many younger readers, not due to any particular graphic unpleasantness.)

I was so excited to finally read this book. It’s been on my shelf for so long, but I forced myself to wait until spring to start reading. Tam Lin is my favorite legend of all time (I guess it’s technically a ballad), and the story has inspired a whole bunch of really excellent novels and re-tellings. Was Pamela Dean’s version of the story worth the anticipation? Not entirely.

I know several different versions of the song, but they all follow the same general theme, which I have summarized here, for anyone who doesn’t know it. I discussed the characters and themes of the original ballads in a separate post from this one, because I already had way too much to say about this one book. Read that first if you aren’t familiar with the legend.  (Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings)

"Tam Lin - The Faery Host" by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

“Tam Lin – The Faery Host” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

 

In Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, the ballad’s general theme and storyline has been brought to a college campus in the 1970s. Janet starts her undergraduate studies, and she quickly makes friends with an arcane group of fellow students. The three boys she and her room-mates start to date, and the boys’ acquaintances, behave in a fashion which might be mysteriously esoteric and might just be pretentiously self-impressed. They are college freshmen and theatrical types, after all. In the midst of academic over-ambition; qualms about birth control; and relationship issues, Janet’s started to notice that things aren’t quite normal on campus. The Classics department has a habit of riding horses through the woods every Hallowe’en night to the sound of bagpipes. Nick, Robin, and Thomas are more comfortable arguing over Elizabethan plays than they are going on dates or discussing modern novels. The rumored ghost in Janet’s dorm building has been throwing books out the window, unless it’s someone playing a prank no one can quite understand. The boys are strangely beholden to one Professor Medeous, who is head of Classics – brilliant and manipulative – and a complete mystery. As Janet tries to puzzle over the anomalies on campus, she uncovers clues to a much older and more dangerous cycle of events which seems straight out of a fairy-tale. Her friends’ lives may be in danger, but to help them she’ll need to work out what happened at Blackstock in the previous century. On top of that serious mission, she’s got essays to write and Shakespeare to study!

The book is a long one. It describes Janet’s entire time at Blackstock college; four years of and then she took a class about poetry, and, the five of them sat around discussing Ancient Greek for a solid hour in the dining hall. (These are not direct quotes, because the real descriptions of class schedules and homework assignments sometimes feel like they go on for many pages.) Tam Lin is obviously, and unashamedly, an extensive love-letter to Pamela Dean’s college experience. I didn’t always see the point in the heavy focus on campus life, but I will say that her descriptions did make me feel as though I were right there with Janet in her dorm room, or puzzling over some text in the library, or taking the long way to the bridge to meet some troublesome lad. The thing is, I don’t think the fairy-tale elements of this novel quite justified the hundreds of pages about campus life. It was just too imbalanced for me.

To clarify: Pamela Dean obviously knows her ballads and legends like an absolute wizard. There are several subtle references to medieval British folklore sprinkled throughout the otherwise-mundane chapters of the novel. From the wreaths of symbolic flowers on Janet’s mysterious academic advisor’s door, to the prevalence of green clothing whenever something faintly magical gets suggested, I was always happy to notice a little nod to the old stories which the novel meant to emulate. There are probably a hundred references which I wasn’t sharp enough to catch, too, because in the game of How Many Obscure Literary/Academic/Classical References Can We Hide In One Text?, Tam Lin rivals T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”. (Janet even first meets Nick over a shared love of that poem, and that just sets the stage for a bazillion other oh aren’t we a clever crew moments.) But unless you’re easily satisfied with minor hints of fairy activity, these occasional moments of mystical intrigue won’t be enough to keep you entirely engaged. The most otherworldly and exciting scenes took place whenever Janet and her friends went ghost hunting, or exploring at night to chase down the sound of bagpipes and spy on the Hallowe’en hunt. Alas, the unusual events they witness don’t nudge the plot into any truly spooky atmosphere.

It’s not until the book’s final hundred pages that the vague hints and scattered references draw together for a supernatural showdown. By that point, the story’s momentum is too bogged down in tedious information, and the action seemed to come from nowhere. A great many threads and plot lines get pulled into the novel: fairy-tale; ghost story; campus drama; literary tribute; coming-of-age story, but none of these aspects gets developed enough. Instead, we have to slog through too many pages of self-indulgent cleverness to get to the legend at the story’s heart. It’s all well and good for the story to be anchored in a fresh, modern setting – those re-tellings are usually my favorites – but if the readers get bored of homework and gratuitous scholarly musings before they even reach the story’s fantasy elements, they could miss the magical moments all together.

When adapting a folktale or legend, it’s really important that the characters retain the qualities which make them so memorable. In this case, Janet (or whomever her counterpart may be) needs to start out obstinate and entitled, but she should turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by the time she faces the Fairy Queen. Dean’s Janet starts out unbearably smug and never gets much better. She does improve a little, recognizing her faults and follies over the course of four years, but she doesn’t change enough to make us truly root for her. The ballad itself isn’t always terribly long, but in five minutes of singing the character of Janet can undergo a better transformation than she did in all four hundred pages of this novel. Also, for someone who wants to research and understand everything (Janet’s like a Hermione who never stops being a know-it-all), she manages to completely overlook all the signs that Fairyland might be at work in her University. Time traveling crosses her mind, and she’s happily inquisitive about ghosts, so it’s a little hard to believe that she’d never heard Fairport Convention’s version of the song, which had been popular only a few years before the story starts. In fairness to our heroine, Dean does make use of the fairy magic confuses mortals trick, and while this slows the plot to a snail’s pace it does, at least, fit nicely with the genre. Janet’s good qualities – her inquisitive nature, her steadfast determination, and her wits – were completely over-shadowed, for me, by her constant need to be the smartest person in the room and the slight brattishness which never really turns into bravery.

Thomas –the Tam Lin of this version – is actually a fairly good character, both in his own right and in conjunction with the ballad. He doesn’t exactly stand around guarding a forest all day, but the mortal trapped by fairies vibe is right on target once the plot finally gets to work. He can’t seem to graduate, distrusts his friends, and has trouble saying what he means. Dean describes his despair and his enthrallment very well. Thomas’s scenes gave me hope that the parallels between the novel’s namesake and the events unfolding would get clearer. Unfortunately, they did not.

In my opinion, the Fairy Queen should be the coolest character in the story. In the ballads, her scene is my absolute favorite. She can start out as a complete mystery, as the stunning but volatile Classics professor does in the novel, but she absolutely must have a strong personality and embody the traits which are inherent to the legacy of her character. I tend to judge re-tellings by their Fairy Queen, and this one fell disastrously short on that account. We very rarely see the Fairy Queen figure, so her role in the story is largely sustained by other characters’ conversations about her. I know that’s how we learn about her in the ballad, too, but two lines in the song manage to convey an aura of power and dread more distinctly than all the prose-y conversations in this book. Maybe the stakes just weren’t high enough, or the action built up far too quickly out of nothing to create the necessary aura of unearthly menace. Even when delivering my favorite lines, it felt like the character was simply reciting from a hasty script. There is always a scripted nature to any re-telling – a formula the author chooses to follow to a certain degree – but since Pamela Dean ignored most of that formula until the end, when it took over the plot rather too conveniently, I see no reason why the Queen couldn’t have been suitably impressive.

Most minor characters were fairly realistic and reasonably likable, but it just felt like I was eavesdropping on some overzealous undergraduates in a Harvard Square cafe. Janet’s family is delightful – (what a relief, since I really like the kind father part of the ballad) – and her scenes at home do manage to provide her character with some redeeming qualities. The twist at the end makes up for some muddled personalities, keeping in mind that we see everything from Janet’s point-of-view so when she’s confused, we’re confused. The characters who had some connection to the ghost were far more intriguing than those with fey-like qualities, but that’s the opposite of what I’d prefer. Fairyland’s denizens can be inscrutable puzzles and still keep the reader enthralled, but the eldritch members of Blackwood’s faculty and students just seemed wooden and shallow. I didn’t care enough about any of them besides Thomas and, sometimes, his friends.

Maybe my disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations. I would love to know how the book feels to someone who wasn’t in love with the original ballad before they started reading. As a coming-of-age campus novel and nothing more, Tam Lin would still have issues with pacing and character development. But the descriptions of college life in the 1970s – the issues of sexual awakening, scholarly ambitions, and young people on their own for the first time – could possibly interest some readers enough to justify the imbalance between so many mundane details and the underdeveloped supernatural elements. Terri Windling’s introduction and especially the Author’s Note at the end of the book do provide some explanations about the story’s peculiar direction, and I appreciated Dean’s choices a little more after learning what inspired her. Anyone who tries the novel should make sure to read those, as well. These notes won’t entirely excuse the bad pacing and unlikable characters, but they do provide some context and several interesting observations about the ballad itself.

Tam Lin wasn’t a terrible book, despite all my complaints. I did read all the way to the end, and the subtle mysteries building around Blackstock were interesting enough that I cared to find out what Janet would discover. I liked solving bits of the puzzle before she did – recognizing symbols from the ballad – and I liked the twist at the end. Ultimately, though, I spent most of my time reading the book white-knuckled from frustration rather than suspense. There are better books out there which have covered the two main styles of Tam Lin. If you want a thoughtful; twisting; incredibly well-researched modern adaption of the ballad, read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire & Hemlock. That’s got a billion and twelve folklore references in it, too, but both the magic and the real world are far more intriguing. For anyone after a twisted and highbrow story of undergrad Classics students in way over their heads, read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tam Lin is a heavy-handed combination of the two genres, and while I would recommend it to devout fans of either genre and/or the 1970s, the novel just doesn’t live up to the legacy of its title.

Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings

“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.

tam lin

Tam Lin – The Faery Host by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

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

souce: goodreads

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

source: goodreads

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

source: wikipedia

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.

Archived Review: Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on January 16, 2013

Star Ratings
Characters: ***** (5 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: ***** (5 Stars)
Writing: **** (4 Stars)
Overall: ***** (5 Stars)
Age range recommendation: 13 +

This is the sort of novel I want to read all day, every day. This is the sort of book I want to write, except Lindsey Barraclough has already written it. And I’m so very glad she did.  Long Lankin falls into my very favorite tradition of modern literature: haunting stories inspired by unsettling British legends and faery stories, usually featuring young children and strange settings, but always grounded somewhat in our own realm and history. Other books I put in that category are Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones and The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea.

Inspired one of my favorite creepy old folk songs (of the same title), Long Lankin follows young Cora and her toddler sister Mimi from London to Guerdon Hall in the countryside in the decade following World War Two. Cora’s mother has been driven periodically insane by some dark memory from her childhood and their father can not take care of them, so they must stay with their less-than-maternal and wildly mysterious Great-aunt Ida on the ancient and decaying family estate. Guerdon Hall makes a perfect setting for this dark and haunting story: there are strange claw marks on the door, latin wards of protection on the gate, and Aunt Ida is vehement that no doors or windows are to be opened under any circumstances, and that they must never go into the yard when the nearby tide is out. Cora makes friends with a local boy, Roger, and his pack of comically English siblings, and soon enough the children break a few rules in pursuit of adventure in the small town. Unfortunately, their adventures in the forbidden church near the estate and their curiosity about the history of Cora’s ancestors prove to be more dangerous than they expected, and the twisted spirit of Long Lankin from the town’s old legend returns to continue his hunt for innocent blood.

The novel uses the general narrative of the folk song as background to the story we read: generations ago in Guerdon Hall a false nurse let Long Lankin in so that they could kill the baby and the mother when the lord of the estate was gone. In fact, the song lyrics make a ghostly appearance when Cora explores the forbidden attic centuries after the fabled murder, thus combining the real legend and Barraclough’s own invention almost seamlessly. She creates an origin for the song as well as a thrilling continuation of its nightmarish characters. While this appealed to me as a fan of the legend, it’s described well enough to be understood by a reader learning about the story for the first time, too. I loved reading little lines here and there which came directly from the song, and yet my prior knowledge in no way spoiled the novel’s plot or its ending. The plot has a traditional feel, but it was actually quite unpredictable and – to my eternal relief – there was no awkward and totally out-of-the-blue plot twist halfway through to ruin the ghostly atmosphere which Barraclough builds so well in the beginning.  In short, the pacing of Long Lankin is superb: a well balanced mix of spirited childish adventure and bone-chilling supernatural suspense.

Several aspects of Long Lankin help it stand out from the other “Young Adult Adventure” books which were its neighbors on Barnes and Noble’s shelf. For one thing, the main characters are a young girl and a young boy, but they are childish enough that their friendship never develops into one of those overwrought romances which weigh down so many other stories. Their determined innocence fits well with the setting of post-war England, and the drama of Long Lankin comes almost entirely from the horrifying imagery and the mysteries which surround Cora’s family. It was a blessed relief to read an entire book without one moment of tragic teenage romantic agony. The writing and story crafting skills which Barraclough demonstrates captured my interest on their own, and I hope that young adults who read this book appreciate that scary stories can be gripping without any real romance at all.

There is true evil in Long Lankin – and that evil is terrifying – but even the good characters have depth and faults. Cora and Mimi are likeable and sympathetic, but they can be brats at times (as children are). Their Aunt Ida wants to do the right thing and protect them, but she also desires peace and solitude and does not have the patience to raise children. Roger and his brothers try to be dutiful sons, yet their adventurous spirits get them into trouble and the natural selfishness which comes with childhood blinds them to their parents’ struggles. These characters all grow and learn as they fight against the shadows of evil – and sometimes each other – but the children never quite lose the power of their innocence. The character development is good but never contrived, another way in which Long Lankin is better than most books I’ve read for the same age group.

I’ve mentioned how frightening the book can be, and I want to make it clear that I am a twenty-two year old girl who has loved ghost stories and scary monster tales since I was a child. Consider yourselves warned, therefore, when I say that this book gave me chills. It’s a little bloody and very suspenseful, but nothing to make you slam the book shut in disgust. Instead, the creepy foreboding mood which starts early on just builds and builds until the very last page of the book.  Eerie dread which comes out of nowhere, the stomach dropping realizations that something is terribly wrong, and the paralyzing sight of a half-dead creature crawling outside your window: the book is full of these moments which would wake us up screaming if we dreamed them ourselves.

I would not recommend that anyone under the age of twelve start reading Long Lankin, despite the young age of its protagonists, unless those children have uncommonly obliging parents who do not mind waking up in the middle of the night to check windows. It’s scary stuff, even for me, and I’m a scary little person. Read Long Lankin if you love grim folktales, if you appreciate the charm of the English countryside and embrace the horrific past which so often accompanies that setting, and if you have several hours of uninterrupted reading time ahead of you. Once you start reading Long Lankin, you’ll be desperate to finish before you have to go to sleep.