In a previous post I mentioned pieces of Court of Midnight and Deception were inspired by the story of Tam Lin, so I thought today we’d go over the original ballad.
For those of you who are new to the community, it’s become a bit of a tradition for our community and have me
sarcastically and badly retell the story with editorial notes from yours truly. But! It’s important to note that most fairy tales have layers of morals to them and history/concepts we don’t understand today. (ie: In Rumpelstiltskin the king demands the heroine spin straw into gold–which is impossible on several levels because straw can’t be woven into anything since it doesn’t have the fibers needed to spin thread/yarn/anything) This is about 5,000 times more true in the case of Tam Lin, more so than a lot of the traditional stories we’ve gone through. Story telling was a different kind of art back when the ballad of Tam Lin was being sung and there’s a lot of cultural stuff, and some events I’ll never touch and will skip over. Even so, I’m still going to skewer it, because this is just for laughs, and to give everyone a rough background of the original story.
To start out, when I say my trilogy was inspired by Tam Lin that’s kind of confusing because there are about a dozen variations of the story of Tam Lin. (That’s pretty common for fairy tales.)
But out of all the variations, I settled on covering the Tam Lin Child 39A version. The story is actually a Scottish ballad, so if you want to read the original you probably want a translation guide for help. (I found this website extremely helpful!)
Our not-creepy-at-all (ahhh the sarcasm begins) Tam Lin Child 39A version of the ballad opens with an instruction to maidens not to go to Caterhaugh–an area in Scotland–because Tam Lin lives there. In the woods. I’m not saying Tam Lin is about as useful as Cinderella’s prince (which is to say not at all) but the guy lives in the woods and possibly creeps on girls. Things do not look good.
Our heroine is Janet–a young maiden with blonde hair, a green dress, and questionable intelligence because she runs to Caterhaugh. While running around this woods she finds Tam Lin’s horse. (Sadly no description is given about this animal, but it’s presumably fae given its owners issues, which we’ll talk about shortly. Just sayin’ I would have way preferred a description about a fae horse than seeing Tam Lin lecture Janet.)
Tam Lin isn’t around, but Janet decides to start picking flowers. She plucks a rose, and out pops Tam Lin demanding to know why she’s in Caterhaugh without his permission. Janet responds that Caterhaugh is hers (What?) and that her Father gave it to her. (Debatable on whether it’s true since the song doesn’t confirm it. But if it’s hers, why, then, would she run there by foot? At worst, if her father did give it to her, he was a terrible parent given the ballad’s opening line!)
So…I decided to cover the Tam Lin Child 39A version because everything stays PG. But there are variations that take a much…darker tone that puts Tam Lin the wood-creeper as being on par with the Sleeping Beauty’s “prince” from the original fairy tale, and is definitely not kid safe. But the Child 39A version skips all of that and time travels with an abrupt change in scenery.
The ballad now finds Janet at her father’s hall, and remarks that twenty four ladies play with a ball and Janet is the fairest of them all. These twenty four ladies then play chess (We’ve got some smart and active ladies here–I approve!) and what do you know, Janet looks green and sick.
What’s wrong with our bonnie Janet? She’s got morning sickness! Janet and one of her father’s old knights get involved in a shouting match when everyone figures out she’s pregnant. Her father asks her who the baby’s dad is, which inspires Janet to start reciting poetry about Tam Lin the wood-creeper, who somehow went from “eccentric keeper of the forest who pops out to yell at people that pick flowers” to “My true love is a fae knight with the most spectacular horse that’s lighter than wind.” (Good on you, Janet, for giving us that important horse description! I just might like you by the end of this.)
Janet displays her independence by heading back to Caterhaugh. She again finds the (majestic) fae horse but Tam Lin isn’t around–until she plucks a rose again. Tam Lin appears and asks why she’s plucking flowers and endangering their baby. Janet then asks for confirmation that he’s been in a chapel–aka “Are you human?” since it was believed fae couldn’t stand chapels or symbols of Christianity. (I think. That’s me reading between the lines of some translations.)
Tam Lin assures her that he’s actually the grandson of a lord, but when he was out with his grandfather he fell from his horse and the fae queen caught him. He explains that it’s pleasant in fairy land, but they have to pay a tithe to hades every seven years (Yeah, that’s straight from the ballad. These fae don’t mess around!) and Tam Lin the wood-creeper is pretty sure he’s the next tithe.
But! Good news! Tam Lin the wood-creeper is also pretty sure Janet can win him from the fairies the night he’s supposed to be sacrificed, if she finds the procession at midnight. Janet then asks (with her own mouth hole!!) How will I recognize you–the father of my child–among all these unfamiliar knights? (…For real? Janet, HE’LL BE THE ONLY ONE YOU RECOGNIZE!)
But apparently the fairy knights will all be wearing armor or something, because Tam Lin does not tell her the obvious (That she can look at his FACE to figure out who he is!!) and instead tells her to let the knights on the black horses and brown horses pass, and then he’ll come on a milk-white horse. He tells her she needs to yank him off the horse, and that she can be extra sure it’s him because he’ll wear a glove on his right hand but not left, his hair will be combed, and his hat will be cocked up. (Wait, scratch the armor part. She’s just that much of an idiot, apparently, that she’ can’t recognize Tam Lin when he’s standing with anyone.)
Tam Lin warns her that the fairies will turn him into a lizard or snake when she holds onto him after yanking him off the horse, but even if they turn him into a bear or lion she needs to keep holding on and fear not, because he’s the father of her baby. (Aka, don’t wig out, it’s still me!) He also warns her that after the animal shape shifting they’ll then turn him into a hot iron rod (…okay…) and then into a burning coal, and when that happens she needs to chuck him down the well, which will transform him into a naked knight. (A very important distinction. Thank you, Tam Lin. I 100% needed to know that you’re no longer wearing your hat or your one glove.) He finishes his long-winded instructions by telling her that then she’ll need to cover him with her green mantle, and then he’ll be free.
Spunky-but-apparently-bad-eye-sighted Janet does exactly what Tam Lin tells her to, and she crashes the fae procession the night they’re going to sacrifice Tam Lin. She lets the horses pass her until she sees the milk-white horse. She barrels up to the knight and yanks him off. The poem sums up the whole “animal/fire transformation” scene by just saying “She did what he said and won Tam Lin.” (Such great tension. I was on the edge of my seat.)
The Queen of the Fairies pops out of a bush and she is furious. She yells at Janet for taking the best knight out of her company (Lady, if that’s true why the heck were you going to sacrifice him?!) and curses her with an “ill death may she die.” The angry queen then tells Tam Lin if she had known she would have taken out his eyes and put wood in instead. Another variation of the ballad adds that she would have taken out his heart and put in a stone instead, too. The heart of stone threat meant that then he wouldn’t have been able to love Janet, but an example of cultural knowledge of the time–which is no longer common knowledge–was that humans didn’t know how to get into the fairy land. They were usually blindfolded, or had their eyes plucked out after they left. But since Tam Lin was “won” by Janet, they could no longer touch him, which meant he got to sashay off with Janet with the knowledge of how to get in and out of the fairy lands as they couldn’t do anything to his eyes.
Annnnnd that’s it. The ballad ends on the incredibly cheerful note of the queen threatening Janet and gnashing her teeth over Tam Lin. How romantic!
With this sarcastic retelling, you can probably see the aspects I borrowed from this ballad had very little to do with the actual story, and more with the details about the fae. The fairies have a queen AND a fairy land that only they have access to, there’s an entire government with fairy knights, bargains and the like are die hard rules set in stone as seen by the way the angry queen lets Janet and Tam Lin go, the night mares’ importance was more than a little inspired by all the horse imagery–including that they are faster than the wind–even all the tricky outsmarting of the fae is prevalent through the Court of Midnight and Deception trilogy.
But I would say my most clever tip of the hat to Tam Lin, was when Rigel and Leila kiss and Leila notes that it feels like fire. (Just like when Janet had to hold onto Tam Lin when he turned into a burning coal.)
If you want to read a true-blue retelling of Tam Lin, the best one I know of is called “Perilous Guard,” and it’s so fantastic, I 100% recommend it. Way better than the original, somewhat creepy version. Five stars!
Thanks for reading, Champions; I hope you found this sarcastic retelling entertaining. Until next time!