Saturday, 2 June 2012
The Fairy Queen
This weekend is the Queen's diamond jubilee. I've been reading and thinking a lot about fairy tales, fairies and queens recently, in particular about Tam Lin (also known as Tom Lin, Tamlane and various other spellings).
The ballad of Tam Lin is a very old story, and there are several versions. The one I will be referring to is the one in Alison Lurie's excellent Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales, where he is named Tomlin. Despite the ballad being named after Tam Lin, the main character is in fact Janet, a wilful young girl who visits Carterhaugh Wood alone (see photo above) despite being warned by her father, a Scottish lord, that young Tam Lin will extract a price, whether that is gold or jewels, or from young women, their virginity. One summer's day she braids up her yellow hair, hitches up her skirts and goes to Carterhaugh Wood. In a glade she finds a well with roses growing over it, and she picks one. Instantly Tam Lin asks her why she is picking a rose from his wood. She insists that the wood is hers; it belongs to her family, and her father has given it to her, and she would come and go as she pleased, without any man's permission. Tam Lin kisses her and lies her down, without her protest.
A few months later, Janet's father realises she's pregnant and demands to know the name of the knight responsible, but Janet refuses to name one. She braids up her hair, hitches up her skirt and goes to Carterhaugh Wood. She picks a rose, and up pops Tam Lin. She tells him that she's pregnant and that her father wants to marry her to one of his knights. Tam Lin tells her that he was once a human knight who was riding back from a hunt through the wood when he was spotted by the fairy queen. He was enchanted by her and carried off to fairy land, and though it is very pleasant there, he would like to be a human so he could marry Janet. He tells Janet that that night, Hallowe'en, the fairy hunt will ride by, the first fairy knights on black horses, a second group on brown, and the third, where Tam Lin will be riding next to the Fairy Queen, on milk white horses. Janet must pull him off his horse and hold him tight no matter what happens. At midnight, Janet does so, holding on to Tam Lin as he turns into a bear, a hawk, a snake, a block of ice and finally, a burning branch. Janet throws him into the river, whereupon he becomes a human man again. The fairy queen in fury says that if she had known that a human woman would rescue him, she would have changed Tam Lin's eyes to wood and his heart to stone.
Sally Gardner's I, Coriander is set in Puritan London. Coriander is given a pair of silver slippers, which she covets. Her mother forbids her from wearing them, but she disobeys and travels to fairyland. She returns, but shortly afterwards her mother dies. Her father remarries, a horrible widow with a daughter. Coriander's stepmother moves the sinister preacher Arise Fell into Coriander's house. As a punishment, Coriander is locked in a chest, which is a portal to Fairyland. There, Coriander learns that her mother was a fairy princess. Her mother's stepmother, Queen Rosemore, wishes to marry her daughter to handsome Prince Tycho. Coriander shows the courage and tenacity of Janet, defeating Rosemore and protecting Tycho in Fairyland, then defeating her stepmother and Arise in the mortal world.
Terry Pratchett uses the Tam Lin story twice. It is used in The Wee Free Men, where Tiffany Aching must defeat the Queen of the Fairies to rescue Roland, the son of the local baron, and her brother, both of whom have been kidnapped by the Queen of the Fairies. I wrote about the book here, but not specifically about the Tam Lin aspects of the story. Roland is riding a white horse and has been hunting when Tiffany meets him. He challenges her presence in "his" woods, as Tam Lin does. Furthermore, it is Tiffany's intelligence and courage that rescues him.
Pratchett's earlier (1992) adult Discworld novel, Lords and Ladies, also references Tam Lin (as well as a Midsummer Nights' Dream and another Scottish ballad, Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas). The Lancre witches, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, have just returned from Genua, when Magrat learns that King Verence of Lancre (with whom Magrat has an "understanding") has arranged their marriage. However, this is Lancre's Circle Time, where crops circles are forming, and a portal between Discworld and the land of the Elves has opened in the Stone Circle.
The Queen of the Elves has determined to marry Verence herself, and thereby rule Lancre and Elfland. After the Elves have hypnotised the residents of Lancre, Magrat must, with the help of Nanny and Granny, defeat the Elves and rescue Verence.
Another amazing book which echoes Tam Lin is Alan Garner's astonishing Red Shift. Charles Butler has written an excellent essay on this subject, so I will simply say: it is three interlocking stories across a timeslip, all set in Cheshire. The centre of each story is the relationship between a man and a woman and pregnancy. In all three stories there is something keeping the man and the woman apart. It's a book that I read as a teenager, but didn't really understand at the time I read it. But Garner is for a longer post and another time.
I would recommend I, Coriander to 8 or 9+, Lords and Ladies is an adult book but nothing in it is inappropriate for 12+ and Red Shift for 13+. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.