Smouldering Scottish Folk Tales
DAPHNE LEE has never believed in the tooth fairy and thinks Tinkerbell one of the most annoying characters in literature. She likes her fairyfolk tall—and handy with a bow and arrow, but thinks Tolkien’s elves could benefit from sessions of psychotherapy. She tells us why the Oriental-sounding Tam Lin, a character in Scottish folklore, has such sizzling sex appeal
THE IDEA FOR THIS PIECE came about when one of the editors of Quill and I were discussing “hot men of literature.”
I meant writers who got one hot under the collar, but she was thinking along the lines of Heathcliff, the moody bastard in Emily Bronte’s gothic romance Wuthering Heights. I am not a fan of either the novel or its hero. In fact, I have never lusted after any storybook character although I do still have a most innocent crush on Laurie in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. (I was outraged when someone recently suggested that he was gay.)
I am also rather intrigued by Bran, the white-haired boy in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. However, that was well and good when I was 18 and the character was about 14, but rather dodgy now that I’m 41.
Anyway, I jokingly said to the editor that if I had to pick someone out of literature to do the horizontal lambada with it’d have to be Tam Lin. “Who?” she’d asked. Was this someone from the classic Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber? No, despite the Oriental-sounding name, Tam Lin is not Chinese, but a character in Scottish folklore.
The editor was intrigued and Wiki’ed him. “How fascinating! Yes, do write something about how you’re in love with Tam Lin,” she said. I agreed despite not being in the least enamoured of him: I have feigned devotion to men of flesh-and-blood before so why not one of ink-and-paper? So long as it pays the bills, I say.
Ahh … Tam Lin. I first encountered the man when I was but a girl. Although his story is originally and traditionally told in the form of a ballad (or song), it has also been conveyed in rhyme and in folk tales. The Tale of Tam Lin and the Faeries was in a collection of British myths and legends that my mother read to me when I was around eight, but I’m sorry to say that he did not make much of an impression on me at that point. Then I was more infatuated with King Arthur. I wanted to be Guinevere, and I would be less foolish and faithless than she was. In fact, I thought Janet, who loved Tam Lin, would have suited Arthur more. She was certainly infinitely more interesting than Tam Lin who, as far as I could make out, did nothing but hang about the woods warning unfortunate girls off his rose bushes!
But I should perhaps tell the story of Tam Lin for the benefit of those not acquainted with it. Tam Lin, a knight, has a little accident while out riding one day. He is saved by the Queen of the Faeries and obliged to stay with the faeries in the woods of Carterhaugh, an estate belonging to a nobleman. This nobleman gives Carterhaugh to his only daughter Janet. One day, she goes flower-picking in the woods and encounters Tam Lin who demands payment for the roses she has picked. He asks for either her mantle (cloak) or her virginity. Janet surrenders the latter, which leads me to believe that one of the following must have been true: one, she really had her heart set on those roses; two, the mantel was a one-off Parisian model that she loathed to part with; or three, she fancied Tam Lin something rotten.
Anyway, so Janet’s cherry is duly popped and, wouldn’t you know it, the single encounter with Tam results in a bun in Janet’s oven. Janet’s poor old dad is naturally concerned and questions his daughter who reveals that the baby’s father might not even be human. Amazingly, Janet is not grounded. She doesn’t even get her wrists slapped. (Here, obviously, is one spoilt brat, but I rather admire her defiance.)
Of course, Tam Lin assures Janet that he is not a faerie and tells her how she might rescue him from the Queen. The faeries make a sacrifice to hell every seven years, on Halloween, and Tam Lin believes that because he is human they will sacrifice him next.
To win him, Janet must wait for the faeries to ride out on Halloween night. She must then pull Tam Lin from his horse and hold him tight. The Queen will try to make Janet loosen her grip by changing Tam Lin into a variety of ravenous, deadly and frightening beasts. Janet rises to the challenge and the Queen throws a hissy fit but is obliged to hand Tam Lin over in all his naked, manly glory. Cor blimey!
The story ends there so we don’t know if Tam Lin proved a good husband and father, or if he was a wife-beater and womaniser. Maybe he simply ignored his family and spent all his time tending his rose bushes and winning blue ribbons at horticultural fairs.
I never gave Tam Lin much thought after that brief childhood encounter. The next time he popped up was when I was in my 30s and it was in the English folk band Fairport Convention’s version of the traditional ballad. Sung beautifully and hauntingly by Sandy Denny, the lyrics stirred my imagination more than the brief telling in the children’s collection of folk tales had. Tam Lin, in the song, sounds like a mysterious young man, a shadowy figure who oozes charisma and sex appeal. If you examine the lyrics, you realise that he isn’t actually described in detail, but you do get the impression of a strong, silent yet persuasive type. Well, obviously he must be quite beguiling considering how readily Janet gives in to him!
Tam Lin, because so little is actually revealed about his physical appearance, is really only as sexy as Janet thinks he is. Her eagerness to be with him and willingness to endanger herself for his sake implies that she thinks he has something her father’s knights lack. When questioned by her father, she is quick to insist that “There’s neer a laird about your ha/ Shall get the bairn’s name.” That lyric is from one of the earliest (c. 1729) recorded (written) versions of the ballad. Translation, from the Fairport Convention version: “There’s not a knight in all your hall shall get the baby’s name.”
In a version of the tale, by E.H. Hopkinson, Tam Lin is described thus: “It was said that he was six feet tall with sparkling sea-grey eyes and a voice so sweet as to silence even the holy angels.” I think this is probably purely wishful thinking on Hopkinson’s part though, because I have gone through practically every version of the ballad available online and found none that mention Tam Lin’s height, hair or eye colour.
Pamela Dean’s young adult novel, Tam Lin, is based on the traditional ballad but set in a liberal arts college in the 1970s. Her Tam Lin, or Thomas Lane, is a tall, blonde, handsome theatre major who (wonders will never cease) is straight! But in Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock, Thomas Lynn is “tall and thin and walked in a way that stooped his round, colourless head between his shoulders, making his head look smaller than it really was—though some of that could have been distance: he was so tall that his head was a long way off from Polly. Like a very tall tortoise, Polly thought.”
Tortoise! Now, Diana Wynne Jones is probably my favourite fantasy writer but I haven’t quite forgiven her for turning Tam Lin into Tortoise-man. Whatever was she thinking! To make matters worse, Polly, the heroine of Fire and Hemlock, is about 10 when she first meets Thomas (Tam) who (heaven help us) is well into his 20s if not early 30s. They later fall in love—not until Polly is past the age of consent, mind you, but it still feels icky to me.
I prefer to return Tam Lin to his original setting—in the Scottish countryside, astride a white steed. (Even the pale doomed knight in John Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” in whose trance-like, feverish state Tam Lin might have ended up had Janet not rescued him, would be preferable to a besuited modern-day tortoise with a predilection for underage virgins.)
Love? Devotion? I would not (even with my electricity bill in mind) go so far. Tam Lin will have to be satisfied with lust. Getting jiggy with a strange, devastatingly good-looking man in a secluded 16th-century wood is the stuff of sexual high fantasy. And an enchanted knight among bluebells and roses is a much more attractive prospect surely than a pizza delivery boy on the kitchen floor.
Reproduced from the July-September 2008 issue of Quill magazine