Fairy tales and folk stories were a huge part of my childhood and have continued to be so as I’ve become older. I had them read to me by my parents; I read them to myself; I listened to storytellers weaving their own versions of the tales sat around campfires and in tents; I watched them performed on the stage in ballets, pantomimes and plays; and I heard them sung. The ballad of Tam Lin was a story that I first encountered through the music of Steeleye Span (a nice video set to Steeleye Span singing Tam Lin can be found here for your entertainment), which made up a fair part of my parents’ record collection. I was entranced by the music and the stories and I haven’t stopped loving folk music or folk tales ever since then.
In the ballad, Tam Lin is a young man who lives in the forest of Carterhaugh and takes either a possession or the virginity of any girl who passes through. When Janet is caught by him plucking a rose there, she insists that she owns Carterhaugh as her father has given it to her. When she returns home, as is the way in folk tales, she soon discovers she is pregnant, but will only say that the father is an elf and will not reveal who he is. She goes back to Tam Lin who forbids her to terminate the pregnancy and tells her that he is in fact a human but was claimed by the Fairy Queen after he fell from his horse. Every seven years the fairy court pays a tithe to hell and he fears that this year he will be part of the sacrifice and only Janet can save him. That Halloween, Janet waits at the crossroads and watches as a procession of fairies ride past until finally Tam Lin comes by on a white horse. Janet pulls him from his mount and must keep hold of him as the Fairy Queen transforms him into a succession of different creatures in order to attempt to make Janet let go. Eventually, he is turned into a burning brand, upon which Janet plunges him into the well and he turns back into a man, she wraps him in her green mantle and he is hers.
The story is one that I’ve always found fascinating, not least because it features a woman rescuing her captured lover for a change, and so I was thrilled to learn that Pamela Dean had written a novel based on the ballad, also called Tam Lin. In Dean’s take on the story, Janet is an English student just starting out at Blackstock College. There she not only has to deal with the usual teenage anxieties of studying, getting along with her roommates and discovering sex, but also more mysterious concerns. What exactly is it about the strange and aloof Classics department that makes them stand apart from everyone else? Who is the ghost that haunts their dorm room throwing old books out of the window, and why did she kill herself? Who are the Classics boys who talk in verse and seem to have known each other forever and what makes them so different?
The more I think about this book, the more profoundly it irritates me. This is a book which has 33 five star reviews out of 48 on Amazon and is about a topic I love (clearly I’ve missed something), so I started reading with high hopes, turning the pages in eager anticipation of spotting a clever, subtle reference to the ballad. And I waited, and waited and waited. With the exception of a rather painfully direct midnight Halloween procession on horseback from the Classics department part way through the book, it isn’t until the final fifty pages (a hundred if I’m feeling generous) that the story of the ballad really starts to play a part; in a book which is supposedly based on the ballad, I expected it to have a little more influence than that. For that matter, I’m not sure why an author would spend so long creating a world which is totally different from that of the ballad only to insert large chunks of the original storyline exactly as they happen rather than subtly adapting it. This would have been less of an issue had it not been for the fact that, by the time the book finally got to this point, I couldn’t bring myself to care as the story beforehand had been so lacklustre.
Without the prevailing influence of the ballad of Tam Lin, Dean’s Tam Lin is mostly just a story of university life. We watch Janet study for exams, spend time in the library and go to classes all of which I unfortunately found rather dull. The characters were so very pretentious that I couldn’t sympathise with any of them and the relationships between them all felt shallow and unreal. There isn’t even any romance or desperation in Janet’s decision to pull Tom Lane (get it?) off his horse and save him (yes, it happens as obviously as that). As these relationships are the driving force behind the book I didn’t find much to enjoy, I’m afraid. In addition to the mundane university story, Dean has added a few of her own supernatural subplots, none of which tie in with the original ballad and none of which were explained to my satisfaction by the time the end of the novel rolled tediously round. It was a huge disappointment.
Not only did the characters have unbelievable relationships, they also had unbelievable conversations with one another. It seems that they hardly ever opened their mouths without uttering a line or five of a famous poem or making a clever literary, grammatical or historical pun and at times they speak more or less entirely in quotations from other works. Picked at random, here’s a typical interchange between two characters:
“Will you talk sense for once!” said Janet, losing all patience.
“Sir,” said Robin, in an uncanny imitation of the Korean actor who had played Hamlet a year ago, “I cannot. Cannot what, my lord?” he apostrophized himself sharply, as Rosencrantz had spoken to Hamlet. “Make you a wholesome answer,” he said mournfully, as Hamlet. “My wit’s diseased.” He reverted to his own expression, and looked hopefully at Janet.
“Oh, go away!” said Janet. “You’re enough to try the patience of a saint. Leave me alone. I’ll see you at supper. Don’t say it!” she added furiously, as Robin seemed about to add some of Hamlet’s observations about Polonius and the worms, which would, to a grasshopper mind like his, have been amply suggested by the word “supper”.
“I shan’t say it,” said Robin, getting up off the bed and bowing to her. “Nobody is dead yet.” He turned with considerable aplomb and shut the door with a dignified click that spoke volumes more than Thomas’s slam.
“We’re all mad here,” said Janet after a moment, and turned resolutely back to Pope. (p. 329)
Not only does making your eighteen year old characters speak like this make any form of realism impossible, it’s also incredibly abrasive. There were times when I wanted to strangle the next person to say “I cry you mercy” instead of just apologising.
Now, I’m all in favour of making clever literary allusions and judicious use of intertextuality: Chaucer and Shakespeare both did it to great effect, so it’s hard to argue that one. Dean, however, is not a Chaucer or a Shakespeare. They wrote works that are brilliant in their own right and the allusions and quotations to other texts serve to illuminate and expand upon the message of their own writing, whereas in this book the clever lines from other people are a substitute for the text doing anything clever itself. In fact, there’s no space for any original intelligence, so full is this book of thoughts, ideas and words borrowed from other sources. I felt that it uses other people’s brilliance to disguise its own lack thereof, and also as a way for the author to show of how many famous books she’s read. It all came across as rather self-indulgent and didn’t sit well with me.
It’s going to come as no surprise that this book will be searching for a new home soon. Why is it always the books with the prettiest cover art that are the most disappointing this year?
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. Published by Tor, 1992, pp. 468. Originally published in 1990.