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Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Tam Lin" from Her Royal Orangeness

“Tam Lin” is an ancient Scottish ballad that tells the story of how Tam Lin is rescued from the Queen of the Fairies by his true love, Janet. The first recorded version of the song appears in the 1549 book "The Complaynt of Scotland.”

Tam Lin abides in the Forest of Carterhaugh, where he collects either a possession or the virginity of any maidens who pass through the wood. One of these girls, Janet, discovers she is pregnant after her encounter with Tam Lin, and returns to the Forest of Carterhaugh. Tam Lin explains to her that he is bound to the Queen of the Fairies, and he fears for his life, because every seven years a tithe to hell must be paid to appease the Queen. Only Janet can rescue Tam Lin from this fate.

In Pamela Dean’s modern retelling of the Scottish ballad, Janet is a student at Blackstock College in Minnesota. Much of the book chronicles her life as a university student and all the requisite complicated relationships with roommates, first loves, and professors.

There are hints that there is something strange going on at Blackstock - an eerie professor, a bizarre group of Classics majors, a ghost who tosses books from a window, and a midnight horse ride that takes place every Halloween. These elements are all almost background, though, and seem secondary to the plot of everyday college life.

This portion of the book is somewhat interesting, in a voyeuristic sort of way, as all the intricate details of the lives and relationships of Janet, her roommates, and their boyfriends are shared in all their day-by-day happenings. It does get a bit tedious, however, especially things like lengthy expositions of plays they attend, or their habit of speaking to each other using quotes from literature.

Only in the last 50 pages of the book do the parallels with the ballad begin to occur, and with these happenings, the previous mysteries are all explained. As in the ballad, Janet begins a relationship with Thomas Lane (same initials as Tam Lin) and becomes pregnant during an encounter in Charter Hall (sounds like the Carterhaugh, the forest in the ballad)). She then must rescue him from the Queen of the Fairies, who is the eerie professor. It all ties together in a nice neat conclusion, but the rapidity with which it
occurs is rather jarring.

“Tam Lin” is well written (aside from the author’s obsessive use of the semi-colon). It was a compelling read that I got through quickly, even though the book is just over 400 pages. As a fairytale retelling, though, I found it rather disappointing. Overall, I would rate “Tam Lin” 3 Stars. If the fairytale elements had been introduced earlier in the story, and if there had been a bit more mysticism, I would have given it 4 Stars.

~ Her Royal Orangeness


  1. I've never heard of this one. So I take it, it's a book based off of a fairy tale that was originally a song? Or did I get that completely wrong? It sounds rather interesting though! It would probably bug me a tad that the fairy tale doesn't play in until the end but I'd still give it a try!

  2. I think I heard of this book in passing, but I never read it, not sure if I'll read it later or not but thanks for the review :)


  3. It was originally a fairy tale in song form. This book takes those fairy tale lyrics and expands it into a contemporary story.


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