In this article:
- Tam Lin is the name of a Scottish folk ballad involving traditional Celtic folklore themes such as woodlands and fae creatures. Despite its title, however, Tam Lin‘s real main character isn’t Tam Lin himself but the lead female character.
- Aside from name variations, the exact details of the ballad change wildly from version to version, leaving you wondering whether Tam Lin is an empowering tale about female agency…or a story where a woman is punished for her own sexual assault.
- Newer versions of the Tam Lin ballad retell the tale in a more straightforward way that suits modern sensibilities.
Folkloric traditions are packed with dashing heroes saving maidens and mysterious spirits of the land who either help them or get in the way of their romance. Because of how pervasive these general themes are, it’s honestly a surprise to find tales that incorporate yet subvert these tropes in some way.
Tam Lin is among those tales. Unlike the myth stories you might be familiar with already, Tam Lin is a Scottish ballad that’s sung along to an instrument, usually a fiddle or some other string instrument.
But there’s something more special that sets Tam Lin apart and that’s the fact that it isn’t really about the titular Tam Lin but rather the female lead character who takes on the most active roles in the story.
What Is the Tam Lin and What Is It About?
Tam Lin is a folktale originating from Scotland. Like many folktales, there’s no clear “beginning” for Tam Lin. The earliest mentions of the song date back to around 1549 with the publication of The Complaynt of Scotland, a Scottish propaganda book published during the war of the Rough Wooing against the English crown.
The book was a statement of Scotland’s political and national identity that slyly derided England’s use of the prophecies of Merlin — yes, that Merlin —as justification for colonizing Scotland.
At the same time, the book contained many stories that served to show that Scotland had its own cultural heritage and identity distinct from the English. Among these many stories was the then-called The Tale of the Young Tamelene. He’s also been called Tamlin, Tam Lyn, Tam Lane, etc. due to a lack of spelling standardization at the time.
Along with spelling variations came detail variations. Though the general events of the story remain the same, some details vary from version to version in this centuries-long game of telephone.
Whichever it is, Tam Lin is always associated with Fae beings. Some versions of the story imagine him as a vassal of Oberon, the king of the fairies, or a lover/pet of the queen of the fairies. Almost always, though, he is halfway between the world of men and the world of the fae. There’s a push and pull in Tam Lin’s nature.
He’s been with the fae for so long that he has begun to act like them and forgotten how to be a person. At the same time, he seems to recall what it was like to be human and live in the world of men.
Tam Lin is the damsel in distress here. Sometimes he fits the mold even better and is portrayed as a nobleman’s son who has been spirited away by the queen of the fairies. Ballads Weird and Wonderful lists him as the son of Earl Murray and the female character (who’s called Janet in this version) as the daughter of Earl March.
There are even similarities in this version with the Beauty and the Beast story. Tamlane finds Janet picking roses at Carterhaugh and asks why she didn’t ask him for permission. Janet says she’s the owner of Carterhaugh because her father gave it to her, thereby implying that Tamlane has been gone for a really long time despite him saying he remembers her.
Some versions of the story say Tam Lin has been missing for seven years, which is rather odd since many versions involve Janet/Margaret (depending on how the story chooses to name her) asking Tam Lin whether he is a human or a faerie.
Whichever it is, the female character goes to Carterhaugh, picks flowers, meets Tam Lin, and ends up saving him from the queen of the fairies after he explains his situation to her. For a story that’s likely been around even before it was first put to paper, it is super progressive. There are stories today that wouldn’t be able to pass the Bechdel test as well as this Scottish ballad has.
What Makes the Tam Lin Surprisingly Progressive?
The ballad of Tam Lin is a progressive tale in many senses of the word, especially when you consider the time period it originated from. That said, the story is only as progressive and suited to modern sensibilities in so far as we look at newer versions.
A 2016 article published by Vox goes over the pro-choice and progressive elements of the story only. It’s this version that has made Tam Lin a beloved tale with multiple modern retellings.
A Folktale Where the Leading Lady Has a Choice
The female character is introduced in the story at the moment she decides to leave for Carterhaugh. She’s depicted as a lady performing the stereotypically lady-like activity of sewing as she looks out from the “high window.”
You get the mental image of a lady in a tower, sheltered from the world and kept in a traditional womanly role before she suddenly decides to leave for Carterhaugh which we readers presume is what she saw from her window.
We aren’t told why she decides to leave, but in other versions, she’s depicted as a more daring maiden who defies others’ restrictions on her.
Sure, they’re concerned for her safety and social status because fae Tam Lin is known to sexually assault young maidens who go to Carterhaugh, but she decides that’s really no way to live.
“I’ll wager, I’ll wager, I’ll wager wi you
five hunder merk and ten,
I’ll maid gang to Carterhaugh
And maid return again.”
The story gets even more scandalous when you realize that some versions say the female character leaves in a green dress. If you’ve heard the Tudor song Greensleeves before, you may recall something about a woman having green sleeves (duh). This isn’t just a random description but a subtle way of saying a young woman has been, ahem, tumbling in the grass with men. Hence the green stains on her clothes.
And wouldn’t you know it, many versions of Tam Lin depict him having sex with the female lead outdoors.
The Strong Female Lead Saves the Guy
Regardless of whether Tam Lin went to the woods to pick herbs so that she can abort the baby she conceived with Tam Lin or whether it’s because she just had something the prove, the encounter between them in Carterhaugh results in Janet/Margaret wanting to save Tam Lin from the queen of the fairies.
She’s sure she loves this guy, whether he’s a human or not, and immediately hatches a plan with him to intercept the fairies as they pass a road near Carterhaugh. Tam Lin tells her that she has to grab him and hold him down no matter what creature the fairy queen turns him into so that she can take him away from the world of the fae.
Tam Lin is turned into all sorts of wild animals meant to terrify Janet/Margaret into letting go of him such as an eagle, a snake, and even a burning chunk of iron.
But there are also other ways to read the Tam Lin story that aren’t typically thought of as “politically correct” but nonetheless affirm Janet/Margaret’s agency as a woman.
Appreciating Tam Lin and Its Heroine in the Context of Its Time
There’s a scene in Game of Thrones that takes place just after Renly’s death. In it, Brienne of Tarth asks Catelyn if she can be her knight because Brienne is confident that, like her, Catelyn is brave. “You have courage. Not battle courage, perhaps, but a woman’s kind of courage.“
When we think of strong, independent female characters today, we tend to imagine them in masculine roles such as that of a fighter or a leader. But for most of history, those paths to showing personal freedom and power weren’t available to women.
As much as it would be nice to read the Tam Lin ballad as just a story of a woman plucking up the courage to break all the rules of conduct her society places on women, the truth is that many versions of Tam Lin portray Janet/Margaret being raped by Tam Lin.
After Janet/Margaret enters the fae-controlled lands of Charterhaugh and plucks herbs/roses from it without asking Tam Lin for permission or offering him anything in return, she becomes subject to the rules of the fae.
Our heroine has literally deflowered Charterhaugh and so Tam Lin takes something from her. It establishes a magical give-and-take relationship between them that opens the door for Janet/Margaret to later abduct him back to the human world from the queen of the fairies.
Think of it as working on a supernatural/folkloric logic similar to that in the tale of Persephone and Hades where the Rape of Persephone is implied to not be as nonconsensual as it seems.
By willingly choosing to put themselves in a position where they can be “taken”, both Persephone and Janet/Margaret are able to break free from the restrictions imposed by their family and become women with more agency than the girls they used to be.
This is echoed again when Janet/Margaret saves Tam Lin from the queen of the fairies by grabbing hold of him tightly no matter how much his beastly forms fight against her.
Regardless of how the events proceed, the ending of the tale is always a happy one for Tam Lin and our heroine. So is it a rape story where the victim is forced to save her own abuser so that she can avoid the shame of having a child without a father? Or is it a tale of a heroine carving her own path against social norms?
So much of the language between them, especially Tam Lin mentioning that they had known each other before and the fact that the heroine purposefully dresses in green to go to Charterhaugh, points to them being lovers.
Maybe it’s not the most “progressive” way to tell a story about a heroine saving a dude in distress, but for the 1500s (and possibly older) we’ll take it.
Of course, traditional tellings aren’t for everybody and it’s always great to read a fresh, updated take on an old tale. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin places Janet and Tam Lin in the early 1970s.
Janet is a university student who falls in love with Thomas Lane and has to deal with the stigma of being a young, unmarried mother in a world that, in some ways, isn’t all that different from the original setting of the tale.
You can get Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin here.