One of the oldest – if not the oldest – Halloween stories extant is also one of the best. Anyone who’s spent a lot of time hanging around the library fantasy section has probably had an indirect encounter with Tam Lin, because the story has been adapted and novelized so many times – Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, set on a seventies campus, has probably gotten the most attention but at least ten others have published on the subject. It’s easy to see why these writers wanted to use the story, and also why some wanted to modernize the setting. A song with rape (maybe), accidental pregnancy, attempted abortion (or was it?), fairies, and human sacrifice ending with a curse all in one supernatural Halloween is hard to resist. But inevitably something is lost in translation, and the original version is still the most powerful – or so I’d say if it were certain which was the original version! There are about fifty versions out there, five or six of which have genuine claims to being very old. You can read them, and a lot of other things, at this site which is a Tam Lin gold mine and to which I’m shamelessly linking for the text of Child Ballad 39A, tentatively supposed to be the oldest extant version. According to the website, it was recorded in 1729, and probably had been around for a few hundred years before that. And now that you’ve read it …
There are a lot of reasons I love this song (love of Halloween being prime among them) but one of the major ones is the character of Janet. She’d probably be hell to actually live with, but to read or hear about, she’s a revelation. Women in old ballads are seldom quite as passive as we sometimes think, but Janet is an exception even for them; laying claim to Carterhaugh, mouthing off to the knight while in a vulnerable position, defying the fairies. And, of course, going to Carterhaugh in the first place, in her green cloak. That detail isn’t random – green was traditionally the colour that would attract the fairies, and she was wearing it deliberately and knowing the place’s reputation. In other words, she was looking for trouble, and she got it.
This is a little uncomfortable to write – skimming rather close to “she was asking for it” – but I like the ambiguity of it. Like what follows, it’s never entirely clear what precisely she’s thinking; did she want all of this or did she get in over her head? Given her ability to control the rest of events throughout, I’m inclined towards the first option, but obviously it’s open to interpretation.
The interlude between her encounter with Tam Lin and her return is interesting – a lot of versions of the song, especially the performed ones, omit this interlude altogether to keep performance time under an hour. But others expand it – in some later versions, Janet’s brother, who “meant to do her harm” specifically urges her to take an abortifacient. “There grows an herb in Carterhaugh / Will twine you and the bairn.” This throws yet another dark twist into the story; it’s not hard to guess why Janet’s brother would mean “to do her harm” if property inheritance is in the offing.
The sacrifice – the “teind to Hell” – and the fact that the pivotal time is midnight suggests a lot of things. Primarily it’s a reminder of how people used to think of holidays and their eves; the eves were the time when evil spirits enjoyed one last romp before being banished by the dawn of the holy day. Christmas used to be thought of as one of those holidays – Christmas itself was a day for celebration, Christmas Eve was supposed to be a time for ghosts, fortunetelling, and possible supernatural abduction. So similarly with Halloween and All Saints on November 1st; what the fairies are doing in this song is enjoying the peak of their demonic powers before being temporarily driven away by the powerful virtue of the saints. Their transformation of Tam Lin into various false shapes is certainly quasi-demonic; they’re trying to deceive Janet into doing wrong by tricking her eyes into seeing what isn’t there.
And it’s on Tam Lin’s eyes that the Queen of Fairies speaks last, when cursing Janet and Tam Lin for escaping from her. “I wad hae taen out thy twa grey een / And put twa een o tree.” There are a lot of fairy stories wherein a human who can see fairies is blinded by them when that fact is incautiously revealed; it’s hard not to wonder how long the temporarily-safe Tam Lin (not to mention Janet) is actually going to keep his eyesight once All Saints has passed and Christmas Eve rolls around. Some later versions (including the Steeleye Span one which I have to play every Halloween) expand on this; not only would she have taken out his eyes, she would have “taken out his heart / Put in a heart of stone” and “Paid my tithe to Hell / Before you’d been won away.”
He has been “won away” (and except for a certain bit at the beginning, he was certainly one of the more passive characters in the story, for all it’s named after him) but it’s hard to finish the story and feel unequivocally happy about it. You have the sense that with fairies, nothing is finished until all is finished. Perhaps that’s why it feels more appropriate as a song for Halloween rather than for All Saints.
These thoughts are fairly jumbled; they’re the ones that come to mind most frequently when I read or think about this song. Any additional impressions? The song is so interpretable that I’m sure there are about ten thousand things I haven’t thought of (and which even the editor of the Tam Lin site might not have run across!) I’ve occasionally thought about taping little copies of the song to mini candy bars so that trick-or-treaters can get some cultural history along with their sugar, but it’s too long to make it practical – plus, the parents probably wouldn’t be very happy about the Explicit Content. Still, once the children are older, I hope they learn about it.