Retellings: Tam Lin

I’ve been fascinated by faeries since I was a child, when faeries weren’t cool–even among my elementary school peers. And by high school, forget about it–only the dorky outcasts were reading fantasy fiction. So I’ve read a lot of faery fiction, and I’m reading the new stuff too. I thought I’d do a series of posts on various faery themed works of fiction; I’m not sure if I’ll do them all in a row, or if they’ll be scattered around throughout other posts. Guess we’ll see!

So for the first installment, I thought I’d look at retellings of The Ballad of Tam Lin.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Ballad of Tam Lin, allow me to direct you to this excellent resource on the ballad, the Tam Lin Balladry website. Since the author of that site can tell you everything you need to know about the ballad in a much more organized and coherent manner than I can, I will just tell you that the ballad is the story of a young woman who must save the father of her unborn baby from a group of faeries who are going to sacrifice him to the devil on Halloween.

It’s a fascinating ballad, with an unusually proactive heroine, and it has captured the imagination of readers, writers, and musicians for many centuries. Here then, in no  particular order, is a list and some mini-reviews of versions of the ballad that I’m familiar with. This list is not exhaustive; it’s just the stuff I’ve read and listened to.

Before we talk books, we must talk music.  Tam Lin is, after all, a ballad, meaning it was originally delivered in song. There are a couple of fairly well known recorded versions of the ballad, including Fairport Convention’s version, and the version by Steeleye span. Go have a listen; they’re pretty fun. I’ll wait here.

Now on with the books! There are, of course, many novels that retell Tam Lin. And I’ve read several of them, because I’m a wee bit obsessed with the story. Here, then, I briefly review the versions I’ve read, for your reading pleasure.

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. From the back cover:

Polly has two sets of memories . . .

One is normal: school, home, friends. The other, stranger memories begin nine years ago, when she was ten and gate-crashed an odd funeral in the mansion near her grandmother’s house. Polly’s just beginning to recall the sometimes marvelous, sometimes frightening adventures she embarked on with Tom Lynn after that. And then she did something terrible, and everything changed.

But what did she do? Why can’t she remember? Polly must uncover the secret, or her true love–and perhaps Polly herself–will be lost.

There are some wonderful things about Jones’s retelling. The characters–especially Thomas Lynn and his fellow musicians–feel like real people to me. Polly, the main character, is a reader, and I love the way books and stories play an important role in the unfolding of the plot. But I have to confess, I feel sort of dim when I read it, because I really don’t quite understand the end. I think it has something to do with the rules of logic, which would explain my trouble with it. Maybe I’ll try re-reading it, and if I still don’t get it I’ll try to find someone to explain it to me. One thing to note, if you’re looking for YA books for kids, is that the pacing in this novel is pretty leisurely. I enjoyed reading it, but the Hubster and The Mad Scientist found it boring. It isn’t really action packed, so if you have a kid who likes fast-paced, death defying stories (or if YOU like those things) then this probably isn’t the book for you.

Rating: Nice.

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. From the back cover:

In 1558, while exiled by Queen Mary Tudor to a remote castle known as Perilous Gard, young Kate Sutton becomes involved in a series of mysterious events that lead her to an underground world peopled by Fairy Folk—whose customs are even older than the Druids” and include human sacrifice.

When I read this book as a kid I wasn’t familiar with Tam Lin at all, but I found the story compelling anyway. The underground fairy world is eerie and richly imagined, and the writing is excellent. The novel does not rehash the plot points of the ballad faithfully–it is, for example, quite chaste–but it’s an excellent exploration of the themes of love and salvation that are central to the ballad. Plus it’s kinda creepy, in a good way. Again, though, this book has a sedate pace and relies more on subtle tension than fast action, so it’s not for the action fan. But I loved it as a young reader.

Note: The book received a Newbury Honor (it wasn’t a winner of the metal, but was nominated) in 1975. It’s almost as old as I am!

Rating: Very Nice.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. From the back cover:

In the ancient Scottish ballad “Tam Lin,” headstrong Janet defies Tam Lin to walk in her own land of Carterhaugh . . . and then must battle the Queen of Faery for possession of her lover’s body and soul. In this version of “Tam Lin,” masterfully crafted by Pamela Dean, Janet is a college student, “Carterhaugh” is Carter Hall at the university where her father teaches, and Tam Lin is a boy named Thomas Lane. Set against the backdrop of the early 1970s, imbued with wit, poetry, romance, and magic, Tam Lin has become a cult classic—and once you begin reading, you’ll know why. This reissue features an updated introduction by the book’s original editor, the acclaimed Terri Windling.

Every time I read this novel, I want to go back to college. Only I suspect that my friends and I weren’t nearly as clever as Janet Carter and her friends, and I KNOW we didn’t have as much poetry and prose committed to memory. Still, this book really breathes for me. Most of the supernatural elements in the story float just beneath the surface, and  you get to see very little of what’s going on with the faery element. But you can feel the sinister otherness  hidden under an illusion of normalcy. And once again, the novel’s heroine feels real and complex and likeable, and I can’t help but enjoy hanging out in her head.

I’ve seen this version of Tam Lin on the Young Adult shelves, but I don’t know that I agree with that placement. The writing in it seems more suited to an adult audience to me, and I’m fairly certain that when it first came out it was marketed for adults.

Another interesting note; this novel is part of the Fairy Tales series edited by Terri Windling. All of the books in the series are worth reading, in my opinion. Gorgeously written, with fresh new elements brought to each tale. You can’t go wrong with any of them (but Fitcher’s Brides was creeeeeepy.)

Rating: Delicious.

Winter Roseby Patricia A. McKillip

Roaming wild and barefoot in the woods that border Lynn Hall, Rois Melior meets Corbet Lynn, who has returned to rebuild the estate of his murdered grandfather, and Rois becomes obsessed with Corbet’s secret past and the curse that haunts him.

I love Patricia McKillip’s writing style. I think her prose is gorgeous and dreamy, and Winter Rose iss one of her loveliest novels, in my opinion. I LOVED it even though it is “high fantasy” (my heart belongs to urban fantasy), and even though it does NOT have a Queen Latifah Ending. This version is another one that follows the theme of the story without sticking strictly to the events, and McKillip’s version has more magic than the original ballad.

Rating: Delicious

And there you have it. I know there are other Tam Lin retellings out there that I haven’t read yet, and if I do read them I’ll revisit the subject again. What’s your favorite version of Tam Lin?


4 thoughts on “Retellings: Tam Lin

  1. new version of the Tam Lin song. go to You Tube and plug in Tricky Pixie Tam Lin a wonderful version!
    i too am obsessed with tamlin.

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