Sunday, October 12, 2008

Obscure Fairy Tale: Tam Lin

I adore Tam Lin. Kick-butt heroine. Awesome big confrontation scene. Lots of plaid. I suppose it doesn't qualify as a fairy tale since it's a ballad and you don't normally sing fairy tales. (Imagine "Twelve Dancing Princesses" to the tune of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." Doesn't work. But "Tam Lin" can be sung to the tune of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Click here for lyrics.)

You can find a collection of the various versions of this Scottish ballad here. I also love the version by Jane Yolen and the retelling by Pamela Dean. But here's the basic tale:

Tam Lin (from Francis James Child's ballads)

Everyone is warned, "Don't go to Carterhaugh. Yeah, it was once a pretty house, but it's owned by Faeries now. You don't mess with Faeries-with-an-E."

You see, all faeries started out with an "e." But when prissy goody-two-shoes faeries like Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether took jobs in Disney World, they changed their name to "fairies" with an extra "i" so that they could dot the "i"s with hearts.

But Janet, rightful heir to Carterhaugh, goes anyway.

She's not going to simply be ornery; she wants to reclaim her rightful property. I think that's awesome. I also think she should have come prepared. Perhaps a weapon or two. Or a magic spell to banish faeries. Or, you know, any kind of plan at all. Just sayin'.

She plucks a rose, and a handsome man appears.

Wonder which came first: this rose or the rose in Beauty and the Beast. Also wonder where one could buy man-summoning rose seeds...

They talk. He tells her his name is Tam Lin, and he was captured by the faeries decades ago when he fell off his horse. She tells him that she's Janet and she's taking the house back. He thinks that's kind of cool.

I know I've said this before, but I love tales where the hero and heroine get to know each other before we're supposed to buy the "true love" thing. Sleeping Beauty, she's asleep. Snow White, comatose. Even Cinderella... while they do have one date, their conversation is so shallow that it doesn't even include, "Hey, what's your name?" But both Beauty and Janet have a nice chat with their boy wonders before saving their lives.

She returns home, and her dad notices that she's pregnant. He says, "I told you not to go to Carterhaugh. You're grounded."

Okay, perhaps they did more than chat.

Back in Carterhaugh, Janet confronts Tam Lin, who trumps her news by telling her that he's going to die on Halloween.

Yeah, that's a conversation-stopper.

Every seven years, the faeries kill a human captive as a tithe to Hell. Prior years, the queen loved Tam Lin best and spared him. But this year, she loves another and has chosen him as the sacrifice.

Talk about a bad break-up. Sheesh.

Janet declares she'll save him, and he tells her how to do it.

I think this is quite decent of her. After all, he's just revealed that he's recently come out of a long-term relationship. And that his taste in women leans toward the evil side.

On Hallow's Eve, she returns to Caterhaugh with faerie-queen butt-kicking equipment: holy water and earth.

Yay, a plan!

She hides and waits. Soon, horses gallop by. Following Tam Lin's instructions, she lets the black horse pass then the brown horse. When she sees the white horse, she leaps from her hiding place and pulls Tam Lin off the horse.

I'm totally not coordinated enough to do that.

The faery queen and her retinue encircle her, and the faery queen says, "That's not Tam Lin you hold." And she transforms Tam Lin into a snake. Janet holds tight.

I think this is the most romantic scene in all folklore. I'm not saying I want my next night-out with my husband to involve snakes and super-scary amoral women with supernatural powers. I just like the scene.

The queen changes him into a lion. Janet holds tight. The queen changes him into red-hot iron. Janet dumps him into a well.

Sensible and brave. Go, Janet! Such an improvement over your standard idiot-heroine like Snow White. (In one of the earlier tales, an old peddler woman nearly kills her twice yet she STILL eats the poisoned apple.) Or Little Red Riding Hood (though I'm open to the argument that she's not dumb; she just needs glasses).

She then pours holy water on him and spreads earth in a protective circle around them. Tam Lin transforms back into a (naked) man.

Most versions of Tam Lin specify that he's nude. Kind of cracks me up that this is a detail that gets preserved. Also, I like imagining the conversation at home when Janet brings back her naked boyfriend... Awkward.

The faery queen says lots of impolite things, but her power is broken. She rides away with the dawn, and Janet and Tam Lin live happily ever after in Carterhaugh.

Sigh. A real happy ending. I have nothing to say here except I love this tale. And really, someone should sell man-summoning roses...

For more obscure fairy tales (with commentary), check out the Obscure Fairy Tales page of my website, where I've gathered links to all my prior fairy tale posts.

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21 Comments:

At 1:06 AM, Blogger SavyLeartist said...

I hate fairys. Disney's ruined a lot of magical things *sigh* But the animation is just so good!!! *weeps*

I want Rose Growing Men Seed Things...

He comes out nude...nice-and this is for children? (not that I mind xD)

 
At 6:01 AM, Blogger TadMack said...

Y'know, because I'd heard the Tam Lin SONG (and cannot abide "The Devil Went Down To Georgia,") I've never paid as much attention to this one as I should. They talk! There are man-summoning roses! There's... a nude guy on the ground!

Definite favored faerie status here!

 
At 9:40 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

SavyLeartist: I have to admit that every time I see fairy wings in the Disney Store, I totally want to buy them. Not that I have any place to wear them. (But really, who does?)

I'm thinking Tam Lin isn't so much for kids... There are versions that are much more, um, interesting than the one I retold...

TadMack: I don't think I've ever heard it sung. Is there one specific tune for it, or do people make up their own?

 
At 4:01 PM, Blogger SavyLeartist said...

I'd just wear them any where to be honest xDDD At Faeire*Con I saw these beautiful wings, but they went up to about 100 dollars

 
At 4:05 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

SavyLeartist: At 100 dollars, I'd want them to be completely functional. :)

 
At 5:16 PM, Blogger Q said...

Oh! Have you read Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones?

 
At 6:48 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Q: I haven't, but I really should. I adore her other books. I think Homeward Bounders is brilliant, and Howl's Moving Castle is one of my all-time favorites. Did you like Fire and Hemlock?

 
At 9:02 PM, Blogger Q said...

I am secretly in love with Howl. It's a pity I like Sophie so much.

It took me two readthroughs to really understand it, but I wasn't familiar with the ballad. Once I did get it, I thought it was prety good. Not as good as the Chrestomanci books or Howl, but very interesting.

 
At 12:56 AM, Anonymous Brenna said...

That is one of the reasons Beauty and the Beast is my favorite fairy tale--'cuz it's not love at first sight. No offense to the other classic fairy tales (and, really, I love them despite this failing, hehe), but I have a hard time buying into true, deep, forever love for a guy you've only seen once.

 
At 3:53 PM, Blogger Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

I *love* this story! (But I've though for a while now that 'Byrd Janet' looks way cooler than it actually sounds).

About the "nude" man: I've read several versions where among J's instructions is to throw her cloak around him to claim him.

My favorite Tam Lin "retelling" (Spin-off?) is _The Perilous Gard_ by E. Pope. Very imaginative and well-done for the younger end of the YA (my favorite).

I think it's funny how the old tales are so often assumed to be for Children-- as if the old stuff isn't good enough for us "mature" forward-thinking adults...

Sorry. I'll avoid the "good-enough-for-children" soapbox.

Great exposure for a great tale.

And I, for one would love to hear someone record the Devil-went-down with the Tam Lin lyrics.

I'm game to sing it if someone else wants to offer the killer violin...

 
At 4:22 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Q: Howl is fabulous, but I adore the fire-demon. I was so happy when he made a reappearance in House of Many Ways.

Brenna: I agree with you 100%. Beauty and the Beast is my favorite for exactly that reason! Have you read Beauty by Robin McKinley? I love that retelling.

Amy Jane: Perilous Gard is also on my to-read list. I've heard good things about it.

I think the problem with Tam Lin and related ballads is that people often refer to them as "Child's ballads" because the collector's last name was Child. But that's a totally misleading name -- you can't tell that's a capital-C when it's spoken out loud... It confused me for, like, a decade until I saw it written down.

 
At 11:20 PM, Blogger AnnaDee said...

wow!
that sounds great! go janet! she seems like someone you'd want on your side in a fight.
one of my things, is i hate that 'fairys' are good, while 'faeries' are NOT.
i'm writting a fantasy novle, for my own fun. i happend to think that 'fairys' are too...well, they are considered big, or all that human like. faeries on the other hand, cand have all sorts of intresting stuff. so i came up with an idea- isolation. 5 nice faeries, living alone, thus why they do not hate all mortals and go to earth to save mortals, while getting all the kick butt magic of fearies!

 
At 8:56 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

AnnaDee: Totally agree with you about Janet. She's one of my favorite heroines. Best of luck to you with your novel!!

 
At 6:15 PM, Blogger Andra-Rossana said...

Oh,I am so happy to have discovered this Blog. I am obsessed with fairy-tales and I'm always on the look-out for new ones, but your comments make the experience twice as pleasant! Thank you.

I have to admit my favorite story is Beauty and the Beast as well, and that I first realized what love means (well,at least to me) while watching the Disney version (specifically the wolf-attack,when Beast protects her). Though sometimes I believe I take these stories too seriously and have greater expectations than I should from reality, they are such a big part of me it would be like amputating a limb to give them up :).I bet you know a little about that.
Thank you again and keep discovering!

 
At 9:24 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Andra-Rossana: Glad you found my blog! Nice to meet you! I'm a firm believer in fairy-tale true love (at least the kind that isn't based on shoe size). After all, I married my Prince Charming. :)

 
At 8:35 PM, Blogger Gary Whitaker the Storyman said...

I am a lover of folk and faery tales of all kinds. I found your remarks concerning TamLin quite interesting. I think it worth while to note that Tamlin is probably a bit of a scuzz himself. 'He fell of his horse one day while riding through the woods' ..hmmmm . Sounds as if he was the rotten apple of the family and got caught with the goods. Then he goes and knocks up Janet in hopes that he can save himself from being tossed to the devil by the Faery Queen who is tired of him. Still Janet saves his sorry but thinking that she can change him. Heard that story before. I am a professional storyteller and have studied many of the versions of this great tale many a times. Thanks for your insights

 
At 3:48 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Gary: Good point about Tam Lin. I've always pictured him as one of the rare males-in-distress, but he does kind of use her... And I like your comment about thinking she can change him, given that the climax scene involves all those literal transformations...

 
At 12:34 AM, Blogger Gary Whitaker the Storyman said...

Sara just thought I would pass on to you that through your comments and blog concerning TamLin I was finally able to write a storytelling version of this old ballad that I am happy with. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights

 
At 8:57 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Gary: Yay! That's wonderful!

 
At 2:35 PM, Anonymous Lucas B. said...

Funny commentary.

[She returns home, and her dad notices that she's pregnant. He says, "I told you not to go to Carterhaugh. You're grounded."

Okay, perhaps they did more than chat.]


My fave part. Funniest thing there, escpecially considering in the original version of this Janet falls in love with Tam, even though he sweet-talks, seduces, and knocks up all the girls that come by.

 
At 8:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this one. So awesome and romantic. You know, lot of heroines in fairy tales got guy by chatting with him, but that gets dropped from modern verdions. Sleeping Beauty? Visited guy in sleep and only reason why her castle awoke is fact that she and prince talked with each other for four days loudly and people got up to tell them to shut up (and there is later part when SB has to fight against cannibalistic mother-in-law). Snow White? They knew each other as children and he even proposed her in woods before sleep (Also, in original she was seven when she escaped from mom,not stepmom,explains naivety and awoke from apple when she was 17). Cinderella? They run from church together and talked about books they loved,even at ball,but she didn't give him name because she feared what steps will do when she goes home). Rapunzel is same, even with baby part. In older versions, Janet doesn't have earth or holy water, since it doesn't originally work on faeryes,only iron does and with age or power they can fight it off, and Queen is omnipotent. I am however scared for what will happen to them, as in some versions, queens last words, after telling Tam Lin that she should have turned his eyes in wood and heart in stone is cursing Janet to die "ill death". Consider that fae see Wild Hunt and killing off all of people's resources to survive as prank, I really fear for her. Let's see, woman scorned,his dissapereance could pull fae and demons at war,he violated contract,cheated,was in her debt,life debt at top of that,fae hold that important in their culture,it's implied she is Unseelie (who are bad even by fae standards,passionate and crazy), Queen whose reputation and possibly status in always scheming Courts are in danger now, and she is probablyy strong as God, not to mention how fae always repay all slights against them equally (and debt grows with every passing second) and she is very intelligent. So yeah, their life is to be fucked. I always imagined that child will go off with fae (preferably girl and will fall in love with true fey, not human knight, but Seelie, more benevolent aka you have chances of continuing to exist).

 

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