The Ballad of Tam Lin

The Ballad of Tam Lin

20 November 2012
They'll turn me in your arms, lady,
Into an esk and adder,
But hold me fast, and fear me not,
I am your bairn's father.

Yes, the Scots' view of romance is grimmer than most. But the ballad of "Tam Lin" is at once so indefinable and so universal in its appeal, that people have attached mystical significance to it for centuries. And yet why should people be so attracted to a story that revolves around a possible rape, pregnancy, a planned abortion, and human sacrifice, as Tam Lin does?

Obviously, one answer is that such themes are primal, stretching all the way back to the Greek myths, if not beyond. And, indeed, Francis Child, the nineteenth-century dean of ballad collectors, traces its roots to a Greek tale in which the hero is forced to hold onto the nymph he loves as she goes through a series of horrible transformations. Similarly, the heroine of "Tam Lin" defies the strictures of civilization in order to venture into the same rough world of nature and sexuality that the nymph represents. All maidens have been forbidden to venture into Tam Lin's bower by the Lord of Carterhagh, who only too well understands the dangers that the fairy knight guards against. But Janet's willfulness leads her not only to venture into the wilderness, but also to quite literally pluck the flower of her own virginity. And that willfulness gives the ballad its unique appeal. For in the Greek story, it's up the male to repress and regulate nature, but in the ballad, a woman defies civilization in order to confront nature on her own terms.

In many versions of the ballad, that confrontation results in a sexual encounter that is nothing short of a rape, a violation that is only intensified by the fact that, in those same versions, Janet returns to the bower to rid herself of the resulting pregnancy, only to instead be instructed by Tam Lin on how to break his Otherworldly taboo as a way of legitimizing her child. And it is this response that moves the story from the material world of Carterhagh, where rape and unwanted pregnancy are all-too-real dangers, into the mythology of the fairy realm, in which Tam Lin is a changeling, a human child snatched by the fairies and destined to be sacrificed to Hell in order to preserve their youth and beauty.

The resulting contrast between the real world of birth, aging and death, and the unnatural eternal youth of the fairies not only highlights the desperate stakes of Janet's quest to find a father for her baby. It also elevates that quest to the level of another Greek myth, that of Orpheus, the lover who braves the torments of Hell to save his beloved. And that, in turn provides the clue to the myth's timeless appeal. For by her kidnapping her lover back from the fairies and then enduring the illusion of his horrible transformation, Janet demonstrates her control over the realm of myth and imagination as well as over the harsh realities of her own life.

Perhaps for that reason, the ballad of "Tam Lin" remains a staple of the folk repertory. A classic recording is A. L. Lloyd - Tamlyn (Young Tambling) on An Evening with A.L. Lloyd, or Mike Waterson's performance on his self-titled album. Furthermore, several contemporary authors, including Jane Yolen, Diane Wynne-Jones, and Elizabeth Hand, have retold the story from various perspectives. Somewhat more campily, Roddy McDowell directed a film of the story, featuring prime time stalwarts Stephanie Beacham (The Colbys) as Janet and Ian McShane as Tam Lin, along with Ava Gardner as The Queen of the Fairies.

More information and recordings of "Tam Lin" are available from a variety of sources. Perhaps the most comprehensive place to begin to explore this fascinating myth is the Tam Lin Pages, at www.tam-lin.org and www.tamlinmusic.org.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird