In order to better understand the actions, fears, and motivations of pre-modern people it is crucial not to underestimate belief in the supernatural. Several hundred years ago we began to understand our world as a collection of mechanical processes obeying immutable natural laws. Before that, people – no less curious about the world around them – saw things in more human terms. A raging storm meant God was angry. A tumor might be cosmic justice for a crime you committed. Mischievous spirits played tricks on children.
The Puritans, for instance, were perhaps the best educated people of their time – some of the first to instate compulsory education and founders of the best universities in the world today (Harvard, Yale). But in the 1600s you’d be hard pressed to find any of them, high or low, who didn’t believe unicorns ranged the hills of Massachusetts and mermaids swam off Cape Cod.
We might scoff at these antiquated beliefs but we’d be fooling ourselves to deny there’s an allure to them. That fascination with mythology, fantasy, and fairy tales helps explain the enduring popularity of “Tam Lin”, one of the best known of the Child Ballads.
The story is centered around a young maiden who is warned against venturing into the woods of Carterhaugh (a real place in Scotland). The woods are guarded by the mysterious Tam Lin. As spirited as any Scottish heroine, she defies the warning, enters the woods, and is at once accosted by Tam Lin, a magical elf, who forcefully takes her virginity and makes her pregnant. Afterwards, she interrogates him and learns he was once a man but has become enslaved by the Queen of Fairies.
Now here is one of the more difficult parts for a modern audience to understand. Rape is a common occurrence in border balladry but the crime is not so much that it involves violence but sex with no intention of marriage. The solution is therefore the same as it was for consensual extra-marital sex – a forced marriage. Strangely, the woman is usually the one who attempts to force this, sometimes by going to the King who declares that if her assailant is married he shall be hanged, and if he is single they shall be wed. Both were seen as her receiving justice.
“Tam Lin” follows this same plot line but instead of Tam Lin not wishing to marry because of general male wantonness, he is held by a magic spell which the heroine must break. He informs her that the Queen of Fairies makes a tithe or sacrifice to Hell every seven years and he is worried that this time it will be him. The ritual is to take place on Halloween, believed to be an especially important day in paganism and devil-worship.
When the day arrives, the young woman hides where Tam Lin told her he would be. The Queen and her troupe arrive, at which point the heroine grabs Tam Lin and rides off with him. The Fairy Queen turns Tam Lin into a variety of objects from a snake to a wolf to a fiery coal but she clings to him until he is finally turned into a naked man and the spell is broken. The ballad ends with the Queen of Fairies mourning her loss.
I’ve always found it a curious choice to end on a note of loss instead of triumph. The Queen of Fairies is undoubtedly meant to be the villain of the piece but her distress at the end almost humanizes her. I say almost because her words about what she should have done are pretty creepy.
‘Had I kend [known], Thomas,’ she says,
‘A lady wad hae borrowd thee,
I wad hae taen [taken] out thy twa [two] grey een [eyes],
Put in twa een o tree [“eyes of tree” or tree knots].
‘Had I but kend, Thomas,’ she says,
‘Before I came frae hame [home],
I had taen out that heart o flesh,
Put in a heart o stane [stone].’
The wish to have replaced his eyes with wooden knots is probably, according to Child, to prevent Tam Lin from being able to recognize fairy folk. Humans were not supposed to be able to see them but Tam Lin had probably been granted this gift when he was abducted.
My favorite rendition of this ballad is by Steeleye Span, a folk-rock group that was an important part of the British folk revival scene in the 60s and 70s. Their take on the song contains three sections, each with its own beautiful melody.
Perhaps what I love most about this ballad is its melding of real issues with fantasy. Assault and rape were and continue to be frustratingly common. Cults and human sacrifice may not be so common but falling in with wicked people and feeling trapped is as human as it gets. Entwining these issues with the supernatural, I think, can give us a way to process our fears and emotions – a sort of catharsis. In the songs we can be heroic and outwit those who would do us harm even if it doesn’t always turn out like that in reality.
My Favorite Recordings
Steeleye Span – YouTube | Spotify
Moira Craig – YouTube | Spotify
Holly Tannen – YouTube | Spotify