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: Headstrong young Janet hears 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. 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 upnote . Janet agrees but says the baby's father is not any of the men at her father's court. 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 that 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. 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:
- Baleful Polymorph: 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.
- 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 ommited, 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.
- Fantasy Contraception: In some versions this is why Janet goes back to Carterhaugh. A "poison rose" is mentioned (although it might just be called that because roses were important earlier in the song).
- Poison Rose is usually interpreted as being a reference to primrose which was historically brewed into teas and used to induce miscarriage.
- Good Girls Avoid Abortion: See above. In those 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.
- 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, doesn't stop her.
- Rescue Romance: Granted the rescue comes second, but it still fits.
- 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, and was one of the few Knights to call the Winter Court to task for their treatment of humans before Harry took up the position. Pretty much every element of the story is compatible with the mechanics of the Dresden Files too.
- In An Artificial Night from Seanan Maguire'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
- 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.