Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Stuff of Legends!: Tam Lin.

First of all, I’d like to apologize for missing a couple of weeks.  I always try to post something during every calendar week, but I was so busy with work and other unrelated projects that it just got away from me.  This would have been my Halloween post.

That said, this story is one that I’ve been wanting to post about for a long time.  It’s been a favorite of mine since I heard Willy Claflin sing a variant of it at a local storytelling festival.  However, I was quite surprised to find that it would end up falling under the banner it did.  Yet, when I looked up a list of legendary characters, there was the name Tam Lin.  That’s right, apparently the Ballad of Tam Lin is in fact considered to be a legend.
I have noticed that ballads do tend to tell legends more than any other kind of story.  Also, more like a legend than a folk tale, this story is more explicit about names and places.  The names Janet and Tam Lin are rather clear, though there are some variants.  Also, Carterhaugh is apparently a real place (though, so is Bremen and no one ever considered “The Bremen Town Musicians” to be a legend).

The lovely woods at Carterhaugh
However, there’s just something about this story that seems to extend past the historical or pseudo-historical nature of the legend and go straight into the misty realms of the fairy tale.

First, some background.

The ballad of Tam Lin is native to the country of Scotland.  Though there are various variations, the basic story is about the same.  The ballad starts with a warning that any maiden who goes into the woods of Carterhaugh will lose either her possessions or her virginity.  A young woman named Janet goes into the woods to pick a double rose.  She encounters Tam Lin who asks her why she takes what is his (shades of “Beauty and the Beast”).  She states that she owns Carterhaugh because her father has given it to her.  She then goes home and soon finds that she is pregnant (whether she actually does the deed with Tam Lin or whether it’s some magical conception tends to change from version to version).  Her father then inquires about the child’s father.  Janet says that he is a fairy that she will not forsake.  She’s then told of a certain herb that she could take that will induce a miscarriage.  She returns to Carterhaugh to pick this herb and Tam Lin appears again.  He questions her actions and she questions whether he was ever human.  He reveals that he was a human knight who was caught by the Queen of Fairies when he fell from his horse.  He then gives her instructions.  He tells her that the Queen of the Fairies will ride out on Halloween night in order to deliver a tithe of souls to Hell.  Tam tells her that among the potential tributes riding with the Queen, he’ll be there recognizable by his white horse.  He tells her to pull him off his horse and grab hold of him.  Only the Queen will try to make her drop him by turning him into all manner of beasts but that she must keep hold of him (this part is reminiscent of various folk tales as well as the myth of Proteus).  It’s only when he turns into a burning coal she must throw him into a well at which point he will turn human again and be free.  On Halloween night, Janet rides out and catches up to the Fairy Queen’s procession at midnight.  She does as Tam Lin says and succeeds in winning her knightly beau.  The Fairy Queen is beaten and utters a curse as she disappears (usually something along the lines of “Tam Lin, if I had known I would have given you eyes of wood”).

The Fairy Queen
The story had numerous variants.  The name Tam Lin has various different names.  He’s been called Tamblin, Tom Line, Tomlin, Tom-a-line and Tamlane.  Janet’s name is sometimes given as Margaret.  Also, Tam Lin’s true lineage changes from ballad to ballad.  He’s been called the grandson of the Lauird of Roxburgh, the Laird of Foulis, the Earl of Murray and the Earl of Forbes.  This ballad is so widespread that Francis James Child collected fourteen different versions of it for his book The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.  The ballad also appears in our old friend Joseph Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales.

Yet, Tam Lin’s status as a legend is still rather puzzling. 

The story holds elements of folk tale and myth throughout.  The rose is reminiscent of “Beauty and the Beast” and Tam Lin himself is if not a beastly bridegroom, at least an unearthly one.  Janet’s struggle to hold him as he’s changed not only brings to mind various folk tales (for example, “Jamie Freel and the Lady of Dublin”) as well as the story of Proteus.

Yet, a legend is a story that’s supposedly based in historical happenings, right?  Well, actually . . .

The thing is that I may have been oversimplifying things when I said legends had a root in history.  It’s more like they have a root in being believed.  While many legends do focus on people who actually lived, there are also legends about characters who might have lived.  The defining trait of a legend is sometimes not so much being based on real events as the fact that the audience for the story is supposed to believe that it’s based on real events.  Ghost stories are a good example.  While we know that ghost stories are likely fiction, it’s often traditional or at least expected to tell them as if they’re real.

Nowadays it’s hard to believe that anyone would think a fantastical story like Tam Lin was real.  Any record of there being a real Tam or a real Janet have been lost in the sands of time.  However, we do know that people did believe in fairies for a good long time.  They would also be careful not to offend them so as to ward off their mischief.  Perhaps the ballad of Tam Lin served a purpose to those who believed in the fairy superstitions and showed that even a human being can defeat them if need be. 

Anyway, it’s still one of my favorites and I know it’s a favorite of others out there.  I’ll link to a few different musical versions HERE, HERE and HERE.  I love the sense of scary wild magic it has in it.  I love the fantastical transformations.  I really, really love that it’s also the story of a fair Lady rescuing a knight instead of the other way around.  And whatever its roots, I have no problem thinking of Janet and Tam Lin as The Stuff of Legends!


  1. Great post, I love this legend! I first heard it earlier this year at a folklore conference. It's interesting how Tam Lin has many names and there are different versions of the story. At the conference, the lady giving the talk explained that it's because this legend is common in the borderlands between England and Scotland, so it's hard to distinguish which version belongs to which country and so they've become entwined. Rather beautiful, how stories can define a landscape and mix like that.

  2. Here's another song version that I love-even live!