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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Fairylore in the Ballad of Tam Lin: an overview


One of the most significant Scottish ballads, from a fairylore perspective, is undoubtedly Tam Lin, which can be found under variant names and versions dating back to 1549. As eminent folklorist Katherine Briggs puts it "It is perhaps the most important of all supernatural ballads because of the many fairy beliefs incorporated in it." (Briggs, 1976, p 449). An indication of the importance of the ballad may be its popularity over the centuries and its prolific nature. Indeed there are nearly 50 versions of the ballad that I am aware of, and probably more that I am not aware of, each with variations which can be minor or major in nature. However the wider theme of the ballad remains consistent: a young woman goes to a well in a wood that is rumored to be guarded by a fairy who takes a toll from all trespassers, she becomes pregnant by him, and returns to free him from the fairies on Halloween night.

Waterhouse, 'The Flower Picker', 1895 public domain

It is worth looking more closely at the themes and plot of Tam Lin, however it is beyond the scope of this particular article to compare all of the numerous versions. I do recommend reading Acland's 'Major Variations in Tam Lin' for a better understanding of some these if it interests you. What I will be doing here is looking at the most common and to the best of my knowledge the oldest version of the ballad Child's 39A from the book 'The English and Scottish Popular Ballads' and using this as a basis of discussion. I will also look at a few important variants and additions, but not a full comparison of every version.

Below I am going to include the version of the ballad from Child's collection, but I am updating the language slightly and translating the Doric words. The original unaltered can be found free online here.  I highly recommend reading the full original ballad before reading the discussion of it below. I will present the ballad followed by my commentary.

1. O I forbid you, maidens all,
That wear gold on your hair,
To come or go by Carterhaugh,
For young Tam Lin is there.

2. There's none that go by Carterhaugh
But they leave him a treasure,
Either their rings, or green mantles,
Or else their maidenhead.
3. Janet has tucked up her green skirt
A little above her knee,
And she has braided her yellow hair
A little above her eyebrow,
And she's away to Carterhaugh
As fast as she can go
4.When she came to Carterhaugh
Tam Lin was at the well,
 And there she found his steed standing,
But away was himself.
5. She had not pulled a double rose,
A rose but only two,
Till up then started young Tam Lin,
Says, Lady, you'll pull no more.
6. Why pull you the rose, Janet,
And why break you the stem?
Or why come you to Carterhaugh
Without my command?
7. "Carterhaugh, it is my own,
My daddy gave it to me,
I'll come and go by Carterhaugh,
And ask no leave of you."
8. Janet has tucked up her green skirt
A little above her knee,
And she has braided her yellow hair
A little above her eyebrow,
And she is to her father's house,
As fast as she can go.
9. Four and twenty ladies fair
Were playing at the ball,
And out then came the fair Janet,
The flower among them all.
10, Four and twenty ladies fair
Were playing at the chess,
And out then came the fair Janet,
As green as any glass.
11. Out then spoke an old grey knight,
Laying over the castle wall,
And says, Alas, fair Janet, for you,
But we'll be blamed all.
12. "Hold your tongue, you old faced knight,
Some ill death may you die!
Father my child on whom I will,
I'll father none on you."
13. Out then spoke her father dear,
And he spoke meek and mild,
"And ever alas, sweet Janet," he says,
"I think you go with child."
14. "If that I go with child, father,
Myself must bear the blame,
There's not a lord about your hall,
Shall get the child's name.
15. "If my love were an earthly knight,
As he's an elfin grey,
I would not give my own true-love
For any lord that you have.
16. "The steed that my true love rides on
Is lighter than the wind,
With silver he is shod before,
With burning gold behind."
17. Janet has tucked up her green skirt
A little above her knee,
And she has braided her yellow hair
A little above her eyebrow,
And she's away to Carterhaugh
As fast as she can go..
18. When she came to Carterhaugh,
Tam Lin was at the well,
And there she found his steed standing,
But away was himself.
19. She had not pulled a double rose,
A rose but only two,
Till up then started young Tam Lin,
Says, Lady, you'll pull no more.
20. "Why pull you the rose, Janet,
Among the groves so green,
And all to kill the bonny babe
That we got us between?"
21. "O tell me, tell me, Tam Lin," she says,
"For his sake that died on tree [i.e. Christ's sake],
If ever you were in holy chapel,
Or christendom did see?"
22. "Roxbrugh he was my grandfather,
Took me with him to stay
And once it fell upon a day
That woe did me betide.
23. "And once it fell upon a day
A cold day and windy,
When we were from the hunting come,
That from my horse I fell,
The Queen of Fairies she caught me,
In yonder green hill to dwell.
24. "And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Yes at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am so fair and full of flesh,
I'm afraid it will be myself.
25. "But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday,
Then win me, win me, if you will,
For well I know you may.
26. "Just at the dark and midnight hour
The fairy folk will ride,
And they that would their true-love win,
At Miles Cross they must bide."
27. "But how shall I know you, Tam Lin,
Or how my true-love know,
Among so many uncouth knights,
The like I never saw?"
28. "O first let pass the black, lady,
And soon let pass the brown,
But quickly run to the milk-white steed,
Pull you his rider down.
29."For I'll ride on the milk-white steed,
And yes nearest the town,
Because I was an earthly knight
They give me that renown.
30. "My right hand will be gloved, lady,
My left hand will be bare,
Tilted up shall my hat be,
And combed down shall my hair,
And that's the tokens I give you,
No doubt I will be there.
31."They'll turn me in your arms, lady,
Into a lizard and snake,
But hold me fast, and fear me not,
I am your child's father.
32. "They'll turn me to a bear so grim,
And then a lion bold,
But hold me fast, and fear me not,
And you shall love your child.
33. "Again they'll turn me in your arms
To a red hot rod of iron,
But hold me fast, and fear me not,
I'll do you no harm.
34. "And last they'll turn me in your arms
Into the burning coal,
Then throw me into well water,
O throw me in with speed.
35. "And then I'll be your own true-love,
I'll turn a naked knight,
Then cover me with your green mantle,
And hide me out o sight."
36. Gloomy, gloomy was the night,
And eerie was the way,
As fair Janet in her green mantle
To Miles Cross she did go.
37. At the dark and midnight hour
She heard the bridles sing,
She was as glad at that
As any earthly thing.
38. First she let the black pass by,
And soon she let the brown,
But quickly she ran to the milk-white steed,
And pulled the rider down.
39. So well she minded what he did say,
And young Tam Lin did win,
Soon covered him with her green mantle,
As happy as a bird in spring
40. Out then spoke the Queen of Fairies,
Out of a bush of broom,
"Them that has gotten young Tam Lin
Has gotten a stately-groom."
41. Out then spoke the Queen of Fairies,
And an angry woman was she,
"Shame betide her ill-fared face,
And an ill death may she die,
For she's taken away the handsomest  knight
In all my company.
42. "But had I known, Tam Lin," said she,
"What now this night I see,
I would have taken out your two grey eyes,
And put in two eyes of a tree."

There you have it, the most common version of the Ballad of Tam Lin. Let's take a closer look at the material.

The name Tam Lin, which elsewhere sometimes appears in variants as Tam-a-Line, Tam o the Lin and Tamlane is not a proper name but what we might understand as a nickname or name with epithet. Tam is a version of Tom. Lin, or Linn, has several meanings in Doric but the most likely here is a waterfall or pool of water; a Lane is a slow moving stream. Tam Lin may be read as Tom of the Pool or Tom of the Waterfall and Tamlane similarly as Tom of the stream, which of course makes perfect sense for a fairy who guards a well in the Carterhaugh woods. In some alternate versions the fairy knight is named as True Thomas, conflating this story with that other ballad of a Fairy Queen abducting a man, possibly due to both characters having similar names, Tam/Tom and Thomas. 

Tam Lin initially appears as a mysterious figure who controls the woods of Carterhaugh. He expects a toll from trespassers of something valuable which is listed here as either jewelry, green cloaks, or the virginity of maidens. The mention of green is interesting, as green is particularly a fairy color and was seen as an unlucky color for women to wear for this reason. The mention of it here may be the first hint of fairy involvement. Janet - given different names in some other versions - has heard the warning about Tam Lin and decided to go to Carterhaugh, in alternate versions such as we see in 39C going "By the only light of the moon". It should be noted here that Janet has been told that Tam Lin expects sex from maidens and is intentionally going there, which at least implies that she accepts this as a possibility. She has also dressed in a green skirt, which as was just mentioned is a fairy color normally not worn by women. I have always personally seen this as indicating that Janet knew exactly what she was doing and intended to go find herself a fairy lover.

Janet arrives in the Carterhaugh wood at the well that Tam Lin guards and finds Tam Lin's horse, but not Tam Lin himself. The verse states that Tam Lin is at the well however implying that although she may not see him he is nearby. It is possible that this is an allusion to fairy glamour or enchantment. Finding the fairy horse but not the guardian she was looking for she picks two roses, taking from the place that Tam Lin guards. This naturally, immediately, summons Tam Lin to her side. You have to admire Janet's directness here, as we see her intentionally invoking Tam Lin with her actions. I might suggest that this is not generally the wisest course of action, as usually disturbing or violating a place guarded by fairies results in retribution; in this case we see instead a conversation. 

The interaction between the two as related in the ballad doesn't include any sex, although we will find out later that occured but was not directly mentioned; in various alternate versions the sex is more obviously stated and is usually clearly consensual but not always so*. For example:
"He's taken her by the milk-white hand
Among the leaves so green
And what they did I cannot say
The leaves they were between
" (39I)
and 
"He took her by the milk-white hand
And gently laid her down,
Just in below some shady trees
Where the green leaves hung down.
" (39J)
What we do have in 39A however is Tam Lin challenging Janet over her trespassing on the place he guards and her pulling of the roses. Janet's response is to tell him that she is the one who owns Carterhaugh and so doesn't need his permission. Its pretty obvious at this point that Janet just doesn't back down from anyone, including Fairy Knights, which may be why - as we see later in the ballad - Tam Lin chooses her to save him from Fairy. 

As far as we can tell from the ballad Janet has no further contact with Tam Lin after returning home to her father's hall. It soon becomes obvious to those around her that she is pregnant and one of her father's knights accuses her of as much, worrying that she will get them in trouble. Here we see an illustration of why I like Janet so much in this version of the ballad. She has been publicly accused of a significant social transgression - sex out of wedlock and pregnancy from it - and her response is to yell back and tell the knight, effectively, to shut up and curse him with an ill death, that whoever she has a child with it won't be him. Now that it's been brought out in public her father also asks if she is pregnant, although we may note he speaks to her 'meek and mild'. She doesn't outright admit that she is, but says that if she is she will take the blame for it because no man in her father's hall is responsible. 

Janet then does admit that her lover is one of the Other Crowd, and despite having as far as we are aware only one tryst with Tam Lin she declares that he is her true love and that she will not give him up for any mortal lord. She then describes his horse, an interesting bit of lore from our perspective, as lighter than the wind and having silver horse shoes in front and gold in back. The horse shoes are interesting, although tangential, but give us an idea of what fairy horses may be shod with since iron is obviously not an option. Why the two different kinds of metal? It's hard to say but it could represent the animal's ability to travel between the two worlds. 

Janet immediately goes back to Carterhaugh after this and once again finding the horse at the well and not Tam Lin, pulls two roses to invoke him. He appears and tells her to stop but also asks her why she wants to abort the child she is carrying. Although in other versions of the ballad Janet is advised to take such an action or is pulling not roses but abortifacient herbs in this version there has been no mention of such implying that Tam Lin has some supernatural knowledge of her intentions. Janet questions him about whether he is truly one of the Gentry or is a mortal man and he tells her how he was claimed by the Fairy Queen after falling from his horse. It is quite likely that this is an analogy for dying, and reinforces the blurred lines between the fairies and the dead that is often seen throughout folklore. 

At this point in another version, 39I, we see the following passage which isn't present in 39A but is pertinent for our discussion here:
31. The Queen of Fairies kept me
In yonder green hill to dwell,
And I'm a fairy, lyth [joint] and limb,
Fair lady, view me well.
32."But we that live in Fairy-land
No sickness know nor pain;
I quit my body when I will,
And take to it again.
33.'I quit my body when I please,
Or unto it repair;
We can inhabit at our ease
In either earth or air.
34.'Our shapes and size we can convert
To either large or small;
An old nut-shell's the same to us
As is the lofty hall.
35.We sleep in rose-buds soft and sweet
We revel in the stream;
We wander lightly on the wind
Or glide on a sunbeam.
36.'And all our wants are well supplied
From every rich man's store,
Who thankless sins the gifts he gets,
And vainly grasps for more.'

I'm including this here, as it appears in Child's notes, because I feel that it offers some essential information about the nature of fairies. In this version Tamlane has just told Janet that he knew her as a child and that he was born a human son to the Earl of Murray before being taken by the Queen of Fairies. Yet he also explicitly tells her that he is 'a fairy, lyth [joint] and limb'. This confirms that the fairies may take a person and by some means transform that person into one of their own kind. He then goes on to describe to her what it is like to be a fairy, including the facts that they do not get sick or know pain, can leave their bodies or re-enter them, change their sizes, and exist as either physical beings or ethereal ones ('we can inhabit at our ease in either earth or air'). He finally references something mentioned by both rev. Kirk in the 17th century and Campbell in the 19th writing on fairies, that fairies will take the substance or produce of food if a person speaks ill of their own crops or stores and that it is one this that they live. 

He also expresses his concern over being given to Hell as part of the teind paid on All Hallows (I've discussed the fairies tithe to Hell previously in depth here) and tells her that she can rescue him if she is brave enough. What follows is a very specific method of rescuing a person during a fairy procession, although it is possible that this only works because Janet is very brave and because she is carrying Tam Lin's child. In other examples of this method being used the person doing it shared a blood relationship with the person they were trying to save, and I suspect that being related by blood in some manner is an essential factor, which may be why Tam Lin hadn't mentioned it earlier, although the timing of Halloween may also have played a part. In a similar story, The Faerie Oak of Corriewater, a woman tries and fails to save her brother in a similar situation, indicating that this method is certainly not fool proof and that Janet was indeed risking her life to save Tam Lin. 

Janet is advised to go to Miles Cross on Halloween and wait for the fairy procession to ride past at midnight, perhaps meaning that the timing of midnight on Halloween is essential, or perhaps merely referencing that this was the usual point that the fairy rade rode out. In some versions it is specifically mentioned that he is riding with the Seelie Court: 
"The night, the night is Halloween,
Our seely court maun ride,
Thro England and thro Ireland both,
And a' the warld wide
." 
- "A fragment of Young Tamlane," Hinloch MSS, V, 391(Child, 1898)

I feel it important to add that in an alternate version, 39D, the protagonist carries holy water and uses it to make a 'compass' or circle around herself before the fairies emerge from the mound. This can be seen as a protective gesture on her part and also perhaps explain why the fairies do not perceive her presence until she breaks the circle to grab Tam Lin down from his horse. 

It is mentioned that because of his renown Tam Lin will be riding on a white horse; the idea of white horses carrying people of significance in Fairy is something we see repeated often in different places but it is worth noting here. The Queen of Fairies herself is said to ride on a white horse in many stories, and white animals are often messengers of the Otherworld. In the few versions where he is not riding a white horse he is riding next to the Queen herself, mounted on a 'blood-red steed', with red also having significant - and far grimmer - Otherworldly meaning. Janet is alerted to the approach of the fairy rade by the sound of bridle bells, as the ballad says 'she heard the bridles sing' referencing the belief that fairies attached silver bells to their horses bridles and manes when they rode in processions.

Once she has pulled him from his horse we see the fairies turning Tam Lin into a variety of fearsome things, finally ending by turning him into a coal which Janet must throw into a well. From the water Tam Lin emerges as a naked man and Janet covers him with her green cloak, claiming him with this act. It is likely that there is great significance in his final forms being heated iron and a burning coal and that he must, in a fiery form, be thrust into well water. Tam Lin did himself guard a well and wells were often sacred and viewed as both powerful and healing. 

Having withstood these trials and won Tam Lin the fairies cannot take him back again, although its unclear whether he has regained his mortality or not. For her efforts Janet wins a bridegroom and a father for her child, but she is also cursed by the Fairy Queen, who wishes of her 'an ill death may she die'. Arguably Tam Lin is the truest winner here, having avoided being tithed to Hell, being returned to mortal earth, and getting a well-off wife and child into the bargain. The Queen's parting words imply that if she had foreseen these events the she could have prevented it by either literally blinding Tam Lin or, perhaps, by altering his sight less literally so that he wasn't moved by Janet's beauty, depending on how we choose to interpret her giving him the eyes of a tree. It is implied in some, and out righted stated in others, that the Fairy Queen loved Tam Lin herself, although it is ambiguous as to whether this was romantic love or more maternal, she having taken him in many versions when he was only a boy: 
"Out and spak the queen o fairies,
Out o a shot o wheat,
She that has gotten young Tamlane
Has gotten my heart's delight.
"
 - 'Tamlane,' " Scotch Ballads, Materials for Border Minstrelsy," No 96 a

What can we learn then from Tam Lin? It's a complicated question and a layered answer. Janet, arguably, goes out seeking a fairy lover and finds one. She does this by dressing in green and going to a well in a wood that is known to have a fairy guardian who takes a toll from trespassers, including having sex with them. She possibly goes at night, by the light of the moon, perhaps a full moon? She invokes him by picking forbidden flowers, the property of the fairies. The two talk and it is later implied (stated in other versions) they have a tryst which results in a pregnancy, putting Janet in  a difficult position with her family, so she goes back to Carterhaugh and invokes Tam Lin a second time. He then gives her a means to rescue him, something that may only work because the timing is right and Janet is stubborn, fearless, and carrying his child. We learn about how to invoke fairies, and what payments they may expect. We learn as well how a mortal might become one of the Good People, what that might mean, and how he might be rescued. We see that a fairy lover can be gained, and even won away from the fairies, if one is brave.

One is left wondering about Janet's fate though, since she has clearly earned the enmity of the Fairy Queen...


*In some later versions of the ballad the sexual encounter between Janet (by any name) and Tam Lin is clearly non-consensual. This requires an entire essay of its own to unpack and I highly recommend reading Acland's 'Is Tam Lin a Rape Story?'. I agree with all the author's points and tend to favor her third argument as it relates specifically to the original ballad of Tam Lin. 

References
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Child, F., (1898) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
Acland, A., (1997) Tam Lin
Acland, A., (2015). Is Tam Lin a Rape Story?

Copyright M. Daimler 2017

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