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Literature / Tam Lin

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"Burd Janet waits for the Fairy Ride"
(Vernon Hill illustration from Ballads Weird
and Wonderful
, 1912)

"If my love were an earthly knight,
As he's an elfin grey,
I wad na gie my ain true-love
For nae lord that ye hae."

"Tam Lin" is Child Ballad #39, stemming from Oral Tradition, and one of the most popular ballads, both as a song and as a source for literature. It is from southern Scotland; the oldest known version was printed in 1549.

In a nutshell: Janet, a headstrong young woman, learns that the mysterious Tam Lin has forbidden all maidens to go to the wood called Carterhaugh (a real place; it's near Selkirk), on pain of... how shall we put this... no longer being maidens. So she declares that she will go to Carterhaugh, but she has no sooner picked a rosenote  than Tam Lin himself shows up...note 

Sometime later, a knight at Janet's father's court remarks that Janet looks knocked up.note  Janet agrees, but states that the baby's father is not any of the men at her father's court. Then she returns to Carterhaugh and speaks to Tam Lin.

Tam Lin tells Janet that he was once mortal, but was captured by the Queen of the Fairies. The fairy folk must make a sacrifice to Hell every seven years, and Tam Lin fears he's going to be offered.note  Janet can save him, he explains, if she waits by Miles Cross until midnight on Halloween. That's when the fairy folk will ride by, and Tam Lin will be on a white horse. She must pull him down off his horse and hold on to him throughout his transformations. Janet does this, and the Queen of the Fairies is obliged to let Tam Lin go. Tam Lin and Janet get married.

Joseph Jacobs rewrote the ballad into a prose fairy tale, "Tamlane", published in his 1894 More English Fairy Tales. In "Tamlane", Burd Janet and Tamlane are lovers and engaged to begin with, but Tamlane disappears mysteriously (i.e. is kidnapped by the elves) before the wedding (thus getting rid of the whole knocking-up business).

The numerous variants collected by Francis Child can be found here.

Joseph Jacobs' "Tamlane" can be read here, here and here.

The song or songs inspired by it have been recorded by numerous artists, including Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Current 93, and The Decemberists (the latter a loose adaptation of it as The Hazards of Love with a Downer Ending).

Tropes featured in the ballad:

  • Distressed Dude: Tam Lin is held captive by the elves with magic, and needs Burd Janet to rescue him.
  • Eye Scream: The Fairy Queen says she should have done this to Tam Lin after Janet rescues him.
    And adieu Tam Lin, but had I known
    the secrets in your mind,
    I would have picked out your two fine eyes
    and left you beggar-blind!
  • The Fair Folk:
    • The main antagonists and the titular character. Tam Lin himself seems to be an adult changeling if anything, having been a human who was taken and turned into a fairy. Lucky for him, he seems to have been afflicted with a curse that can be cured.
    • However, in some versions, the Fairy Queen is completely omitted, and it's Tam Lin himself who is the fairy. In this version, Tam Lin states that he will gladly marry Janet if she's able to hold him while he turns into a wolf, a wild bear, a lion bold, and finally himself but naked. Janet does, throws her cloak over him, and Tam Lin returns home with Janet.
  • Forced Transformation: The fairy queen turns Tam Lin into various animals after Janet pulls him off the horse. In some versions, she also says she should have turned him into a tree instead of taking him along on the hunt.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: In some versions, Janet, while she states that she does want to keep the baby, she isn't about to be an unmarried mother, and tells Tam Lin off for acting horrified when he's in no position to fix that. But, of course, she rescues him, so she ends up keeping their baby.
  • Halloween Episode: Janet must wait until midnight that night to save Tam Lin on account of it being when the Fair Folk will ride.
  • Human Sacrifice: Tam Lin knows the fairies pay a tithe to hell and thinks it'll be him.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: As is common in ballads and stories, unmarried noblewoman Janet—the last person who can afford to risk sex before marriage—gets pregnant pretty much instantly.
  • Liminal Time: Save him between Halloween and All Saints' Day.
  • Magical Abortion: In some versions this is why Janet goes back to Carterhaugh, for a "poison rose" or herb which will end her pregnancy.
  • Muggle in Mage Custody: Tam Lin is a mortal who had been captured by the Fairy Queen, and lived with her in her world ever since then. Janet manages to rescue him.
  • Narrative Poem: One of the most well known.
  • Plucky Girl: Rather than scream and run from the Fairy who everyone is terrified of, she mouths off to him that she can come and go as she pleases, it being her kingdom and all. Then she faces down the Fairy Queen for him.
  • Pregnant Badass: Janet singlehandly saves her elven boyfriend from the Queen of the Fairies while pregnant with his child.
  • Rebellious Princess: Janet was explicitly told not to go to Carterhaugh; it doesn't stop her.
  • Sapping the Shapeshifter: In many versions of the story, the only way Janet can save the eponymous character from The Fair Folk is by dragging him off his horse and keeping hold of him until she can break the curse that was placed upon him. The moment she's able to dismount him, Tam Lin begins unwillingly shapeshifting into a wide variety of forms meant to break Janet's hold, from snakes to toads, but Janet refuses to let go. This ends with Tam Lin becoming a red-hot coal - whereupon Janet throws him into a well, breaking the curse and restoring him to human form.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Inverted, Tam Lin tells Janet how to save him and then the poem goes into detail about her actually doing it and it goes off without a hitch.
  • White Stallion: In some versions, Tam Lin claims that he was given this honor in the wild hunt because he was once a human knight.
  • The Wild Hunt: What the fairies are doing when Janet rescues Tam Lin.

Works derived from this ballad:

  • Charles de Lint's short story "The Butter Spirit's Tithe."
  • Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock
  • Elizabeth Bear's Blood & Iron
  • Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard
  • In Discworld, both Magrat's rescue of Verence in Lords and Ladies and Tiffany's rescue of Roland in The Wee Free Men have elements of Tam Lin. Magrat is even inspired by hearing the ballad, despite Shawn's insistence that real life isn't like folk songs.
  • Janet McNaughton's An Earthly Knight
  • John Myers Myers's Silverlock contained a Shout-Out chapter.
  • Pamela Dean's Tam Lin
  • Tam Lin has shown up on several occasions in the Shin Megami Tensei series.
  • While not a direct reference, there's a character called Tam Lin in Nancy Farmer's House of the Scorpion.
  • Patricia A. McKillip's Winter Rose.
  • Mercedes Lackey's Home from the Sea is strongly based off of this tale. To the point that the main character has to do the shapeshifting hold—with the twist that she also has to shapeshift to keep hold of her love.
  • In the Dresden Files series' 14th book, Cold Days, it is revealed that Tam Lin once served the Winter Court as Winter Knight, was one of the few Knights to call the Winter Court to task for their treatment of humans before Harry took up the position, and is implied to have been more or less the only one to have escaped it by any means other than dying. Pretty much every element of the story is compatible with the mechanics of the Dresden Files too.
  • In An Artificial Night from Seanan McGuire's October Daye series, October gets taken by the Blind Michael, who heads The Wild Hunt. The Luidaeg and Toby's friends retrieve her the way Janet rescued Tam Lin, and the ballad itself is referenced several times. In Night and Silence it is revealed that Janet herself is both real and Toby's grandmother.
  • A chapter in Phil Foglio's XXXenophile has a character do this to rescue her love. It's a bit more explicit naturally, as she has to have in a "lover's clasp" throughout the transformations. Naturally, this series being what it is, you don't have to guess what that entails.
  • Sarah J. Maas has a character named Tamlin in A Court of Thorns and Roses; both the character and the plot of the first book are loosely based on the ballad; mostly Tamlin being faerie royalty who has been placed under a curse and threatened with enslavement by an evil faerie queen, with his lover - a young mortal woman - being the one who rescues him.
  • The Night and Nothing trilogy by Katherine Harbour (Thorn Jack, Briar Queen, and Nettle King). The author has indicated that Fairport Convention's recording was an influence.
  • British neo-folk/world music band The Imagined Village did a hip-hop Setting Update of this ballad called Tam Lyn Retold. Janet is a modern British woman who seduces Tam, a foreign refugee, in a dance club on May Day. When she finds out she's pregnant, she meets him again and he informs her he will soon be deported to his war-torn homeland. She helps defend him in court after he transforms into a variety of negative stereotypes about refugees (presumably how the court, and society by extension views him) before they finally see him as he really is: just another person. Tam is allowed to stay and settles down with Janet, starting a family with her.
  • Meg Baird's version of "Willie O'Winsbury" seems to borrow elements from Tam Lin (despite being another Child Ballad and having multiple folk song adaptations itself).
  • The short story "Let Pass the Horses Black" by Ursula Vernon. In this version, Tam Lin is Janet's brother who was kidnapped by fairies. However, he isn't the one she's ultimately trying to rescue.
  • In The Books of Magic, protagonist Tim Hunter is apparently the illegitimate son of Queen Titania and her human falconer Tamlin, raised by mortal parents. At least at first. Then Auberon says that Tim has no faerie blood and it seems he's the illegitimate son of Tamlin and Mary Hunter, and the changeling son of Titania and Tamlin is his half-brother whose fate is unknown. But it's never completely certain. A third possibility raised is that Mary Hunter was a faerie nursemaid under a glamour who smuggled Tim out of Faerie at Titania's request to hide the fact that Her Majesty was a human sorceress under a glamour and the baby, having been fathered by Tamlin, was fully human. So the only thing really certain is that Tamlin is Tim's biological father and William Hunter isn't.

Alternative Title(s): Tamlane