Melissa and I sit, wrapped in our coats, in Miss Cox’s garden. We are not waiting for anyone. Melissa asked to come here to see the approaching spring. The crocuses have come up and faded, but both the daffodils and the tulips are pushing up from the earth. Miss Cox has set out a pot of jasmine tea, protected by a cozy.
My friend sips from a steaming cup while I say, “I am thinking of reading Tam Lin to Thalia. It’s an old Scottish ballad actually, about the heroine, Janet, rescuing her lover from the fairy queen.”
Melissa swirls around the tea in her cup. “I know it well. I wouldn’t read it to her.”
“Hmmm,” I say, “Too much sexual content?”
“Oh, no, not that.” Melissa sets down her cup. “There is lots of implied sex in the fairy tales. Every king and queen has either a beautiful daughter or three sons. The tales do not state, on a regular basis, that these children come from under cabbage leaves. I don’t think children are discomforted by fairy-tale characters themselves having children.”
“But,” I consider, “The ballad of Tam Lin deals directly with a pregnancy. That is a bit more graphic.”
I take a sip of my jasmine tea as Melissa takes up her cup again, saying, “It’s the language and the longing that will stop Thalia from understanding the story.”
“Language? It has been awhile since I read this story, but I don’t recall any bad language.”
“Not bad language,” Melissa smiles, “Difficult language.” Melissa composes herself then recites:
Janet has kilted her green kirtle
A little aboon her knee,
And she has broded her yellow hair
A little aboon her bree,
And she’s awa to Carterhaugh
As fast as she can hie.
Of course she has memorized it. “I see what you mean,” I say. “I suppose I could find an updated version.” My own suggestion makes me uncomfortable. “But then we begin to lose the sound of it, don’t we?”
Melissa nods. “That would be like updating Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, turning,
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March’s drought to the root and all.”
“What about the longing part? You are saying Thalia does not understand longing?”
“Hopefully, she hasn’t experienced it at her tender age. Certainly she loves you and loves her teddy. Certainly children have emotions, but the longing of love comes about somewhat later. If Thalia has not experienced longing’s fear of emptiness, she may well not understand why our heroine, Janet, does what she does.”
I hear caution in my voice as I say, “If Thalia cannot identify with Janet on the level of shared experience, can she not empathize with her on a romantic level? I am guessing Thalia has absorbed an uncurious sense of German Romanticism via her reading Grimm.”
Melissa sips the last, cold dregs of her jasmine tea. “I am not sure we can equate romanticism with the darkness of an old Scottish ballad. In Tam Lin there is something of the uncanny that goes beyond the naturalism of the romantics.”
My tea has grown cold as well.
Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2016 Tam Lin – Part Two
When I think of Augustus, I see him in the context of a cloud of tobacco smoke. If I met him on the quad, in the fresh air, I’m not sure I’d recognize him. We sit together in his testing room, happily fouling the air around us.
“Tam Lin you say,” puffs Augustus. “You are referring, of course, to Francis Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.”
“Of course,” I say, feeling a little snobbish that I know the reference.
“Which one of the nine versions that he presents will you pick?”
“Oh, are there that many? I think . . . I forgot that.”
Augustus rises and returns with volume I in his hand. “Let’s see, ballad #39. Yes, usually people use version A or B—the more modest versions. I have a slight preference for version B; the fairy queen wants to turn Tam Lin’s eyes to wood, and his heart to stone. Version A only has the first threat.”
“Oh, that’s pleasant,” I say, blowing a smoke ring.
“Now, a number of the other versions are much more explicit about the rape of Janet.”
“Version A or B remain attractive to me for my purpose,” I say, but Augustus continues.
“”Version I is a little coy about the rape:
He’s taen her by the milk-white hand,
Among the leaves sae green,
And what they did I cannot say,
The green leaves were between.”
“That’s not going to help me,” I repeat.
“Version G is interesting.” He’s on a roll. “Besides being changed to Lady Margaret, after Tam Lin rapes her, she is left to wander through a sunless, moonless realm for seven days.”
“Interesting,” I agree, “but no—not for Thalia.”
“Oh, right, Thalia. Then I vote for version B. All the versions have the Wild Ride on Halloween night; Janet (or Margaret) always pulls Tam Lin from the white steed as they pass by, and, in rapid succession, the fairy queen turns Tam Lin into a snake, or black dog, even a silken thread, and usually a red-hot iron, a series of these in any case, trying to get her to let him go. In all the versions the fairy queen fails, leaving behind only her empty threats.”
“But, Augustus, should I be telling her this ballad at all?”
Smoke appears to clear between Augustus and me. “Well,” he muses, “should age make a difference?”
“Isn’t this story a bit over her head? I know it was my notion to tell it to her, but it’s begun to makes me uncomfortable the more I think about it.”
“Yes, it makes you uncomfortable and if you tell her the story in that state she will pick up on your mood and be uncomfortable too. I believe you need to come to terms with the tale.”
“But, if I bowdlerize the story until I am comfortable, I will have changed the story, perhaps gutted it.”
“No, no, you can’t do that. I am saying, ‘stiff upper lip,’ present the story for what it is, and let it stand on its own.”
Why is this so difficult?
Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2016 Tam Lin – Part Three
Peter Nicolai Arbo
Perhaps my troubles over this old ballad I take too closely to heart, but being a person of a retiring nature, I have nothing more with which to plague myself. I take shelter in my study in front of my fireplace, still feeling a little chilled by Melissa and my visit to the garden, and despite the warmth of Augustus’s company earlier this evening.
Upon my first reading of Tam Lin, The Wild Hunt grabbed me—the very term coined by Jacob Grimm in his study of mythology and legends, Deutsche Mythologie. He considered the Wild Hunt to be a remnant of Germanic pagan tradition and that the god Woden (and on occasion his wife) led in its forefront.
Over time and place, the cast of this furious ride in the night changed. King Arthur took his turn in the lead, along with other historical kings, and biblical figures such as Cain, Gabriel, and, not the least, the Devil had their moments. The purpose of their chase was not always clear; it could precede catastrophe, with willing and unwilling souls getting swept up into the procession.
When the Wild Ride appears in Scotland, the participants are diminished –fairies rather than a god or goddess. However, unique to Scotland is the story of one of the riders being pulled from the saddle and rescued from hell by a lover. Francis Child knew of no other example than Tam Lin.
Staring into the flames, I recall my introduction to Tam Lin. As a student—a library science major—my professor for reference studies gave me and my fellow students a list of possible library patron questions, plus a list of likely reference sources that we could use to answer the questions. Put more simply, he assigned us a treasure hunt.
One of the possible sources on the list was Francis Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. I forget the actual question that led me to this work, but I do remember being in the university’s new library, under florescent lights, breathing sanitized air, sitting in one of the Naugahyde-covered chairs around a low table, and being plummeted down a thousand years into a world of earthy smells and course textures. I crouched beside Janet at Miles Cross waiting to hear the jingling of the bridle bells as the Wild Hunt approached. The tale thrust me into a world of magic where I have dwelt ever since.
Thalia’s fairy flitters into the study and settles close to the hearth. She would never be one of the fairies of the Wild Hunt; those would be the larger fairies. Fairies are as variable in shape and appearance as claims of honesty among politicians. Our house fairy would fit into the company of Trooping Fairies, those that dance in fairy rings, luring mortals to dance with them for an evening, only to find on morrow that a hundred years has passed.
Nonetheless, our fairy serves as warning to me that Thalia is on her way to the study for a story. It will not be this story. Tam Lin will come to Thalia, as he came to Janet, when it is time, and not with my interference.