A bunch of different versions of this ballad can be found here. My favorite is this one.
I first came across this story when I was eleven, when I read a retelling called The Perilous Gard. It was a great book, although I probably appreciate it more now that I’m older. I realized it was based off of an actual ballad when I was about fourteen, so of course I had to look it up. And wow is it a strange story. Tam Lin is…Well. I’ll admit I mostly love this poem for Janet, who is very lovable. But anyway. The story.
Tam Lin is some loser fairy who is just living in Carterhaugh woods and creepily hitting on all the maidens who pass through there, because it’s not like fairies have anything better to do with their time. Whenever a woman passes through there, he demands they either leave him a gold ring, a green mantle, or their maidenhead.
…OKAY, YOU CREEP.
Janet, our heroine, just happens to own Carterhaugh, and decides to give this loser fairy a talk. Or perhaps she’s looking for an easy way to get a one-night stand. The story isn’t really clear, and knowing Janet, it really could be either one. But either way, she goes there and come to a well, where she sees his horse standing there, but Tam Lin is nowhere to be seen. She plucks a rose for…some reason, whereupon Tam Lin shows up and asks her why she has come to Carterhaugh without asking leave of him. She points out that she owns the place, which is reasonable enough.
There are kind of Beauty and the Beast parallels in that moment.
And then they start making out and end up sleeping together (there is also a version where he rapes her but WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THAT ONE). I am still not exactly sure how they got from having a property dispute to hardcore making out. That is worse than some YA.
The poem shifts scenes to Janet at home, wan and pale, who has just realized she is pregnant. One of her father’s knights accuses her of this, telling her she has shamed them, and Janet replies,
” Now hand your tongue, ye auld grey knight,
And an ill deid may ye die !
Father my bairn on whom I will,
I’ll father nane on thee.’ “
Can we all take a moment to admire Janet’s awesomeness.
Her father also asks her about it, much more politely, and she tells him that she didn’t sleep with any of his knights, but a fairy, and she calls Tam Lin her true love, which aww. I’m not sure how exactly she knew him long enough to make that statement, but whatever.
I do love this scene. Janet isn’t demonized for premarital sex, and the knight who tries to call her out is in fact criticized. Her father is understandably upset, considering the social repercussions of the time period, but he doesn’t blame Janet for it. Janet and her father obviously both love each other a lot. And good parental relationships can be hard to find in fairy tales, especially when they’re about topics like this.
Janet is considering aborting the baby, and she goes back to Carterhaugh to talk to Tam Lin about it. She picks another rose–Is that her way of summoning him or something?–and Tam Lin asks her not to kill the baby. He then regales her with his life story, telling her about how he was some random nobleman’s son, and he went out riding, and the fairy queen kidnapped him when he fell off his horse. So…I guess he’s human? But he literally says in the next stanza, ‘I am a fairy, lyth and limb.’ I am confused.
He tells her that he has been living there for seven years, and that he basically loves it. He wouldn’t mind staying there his whole life, except for the human sacrifice bit.
Yes, there’s a human sacrifice bit. Every seven years, the fairies have to pay a teind to hell on All Hallow’s Eve, and Tam Lin tells Janet he thinks he will be the sacrifice this year. Honestly, I kind of wonder if Tam Lin would want to leave if it had been some other poor bloke getting sacrificed. He doesn’t really seem to have as much a problem with the human sacrifice except insofar as it affects him. My impression of Tam Lin is that, whether he’s a fairy or not, he’s definitely operating on their same sense of ethics?
He tells her to be there at Miles Cross, and Janet asks how she will recognize him. He says that two companies will pass by, and he will be in the third one; and that she is to let the black horse and the brown horse pass by, and he will be on the milk-white steed. Because he is a christened knight, they will give him the honor of riding on the side nearest to town, which…Does this make sense in context of the time period, or…
Anyway, he tells her that she has to pull him down from the horse and warns her that the fairies will change him into various different dangerous animals and objects, but that she has to hold onto him if she wants to save him.
The scene shifts again, to Miles Cross. It is a gloomy and eerie night, basically a Gothic romance’s paradise. Janet is there, late at night, and she hears the horses’ bridles ringing. She waits until she sees Tam Lin, and she pulls him off his horse. He turns into a snake, a lump of red-hot coal (OW), and an eel, until finally he turns back into a man, and the fairies’ power over him is broken. The fairy queen threatens him, telling him that she would have turned his eyes into wood and his heart into stone if she’d known what he’d do. There is also a version where the fairy queen tells Janet, ‘ O wae worth ye ill woman & an ill dead may ye die, For ye had plenty of lovers at hame & I had nane but he.’ Interesting.
And that’s the end of the poem, and presumably they both got married and lived happily ever after. I think their life after the story would be kind of interesting to explore. Does Janet regret jumping into a relationship that quickly? Is Tam Lin happy in the human world, or can he not get used to the change? As a side note, I would love that plot line for a retelling in general, where the changeling is ‘rescued’ and they want nothing more than to go back to Fairyland. Fairyland is often portrayed in YA as being a horrible, dark place, but HELLO HAVE YOU SEEN THE HUMAN WORLD LATELY. In folktales, I’ve never interpreted Fairyland as being inherently awful, just different. Probably inherently an unfriendly place for humans to live in, yes, but see my above point about the human world. And frankly, Fairyland sounds kind of fun? Just my opinion?
I love Janet. She’s an active heroine who stands up for herself and saves her own boyfriend. A lot of times people think fairy tale heroines are all weak, and I’m just…Well, we clearly haven’t been reading the same fairy tales. Janet is amazing. Tam Lin is…Well, Tam Lin is a little strange, but I can see how he could be written so I like him.
This is such a bizarre story. I love it.
Do you love Scottish Ballads as much as I do? Does Tam Lin strike you as weird or do you like him? Is Janet the most amazing heroine of ever? (hint: the answer is yes.)
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