Jane Yolen’s Tam Lin
Book review by Monica Friedman
A Retelling of an Ancient Scottish Ballad, with Fairies and a Strong Heroic Girl
There is a gripping darkness to this fairy story, beginning with ruin, and offering the possibility of even greater ruin as the tale gallops on.
“Do not go down to Carterhaugh,” is the story’s opening refrain. There is “an awful smell,” “prickers, briars, and thorns,” “terrible shadows and odd, harsh cries,” near the old castle ruins, which adults warn the children against. But the true story of Carterhaugh is that, a hundred years ago, fairies stole away a handsome youth and took Carterhaugh for their own. Now, the MacKenzie clan, which rightfully should live in the once-wonderful estate, lives in the village, “And that is good enough for us,” say Jennet MacKenzie’s parents.
But it is not good enough for Jennet MacKenzie, the beautiful, brave heroine, who “always spoke what she thought.” She has no fear of the castle, stating, “MacKenzies should rule that land, and MacKenzie voices should fill the halls of that castle. When I am old enough, claim it I will.”
And when she is old enough, claim it she does. On the night of her sixteenth birthday, Jennet sneaks off to Carterhaugh, and by the plucking of a rose, summons up Tam Lin, the youth who was stolen away by the fairies so long ago, and has existed all this while in the “land of the Ever-Fair…the country of the Fey.” But Tam Lin is not to live forever, although he has not aged in all this time. This All-Hallows Eve, Tam Lin is to be sacrificed by the Faery Queen, who must make a tithe to Hell.
The fairy tale dynamic kicks into high gear. Is there no way that Tam Lin can be saved, Jennet wonders. No, Tam Lin says, for only his “own true human love” can save him, and “alas, all who love me are long dead, and the grass is growing over their graves.” At this dismal statement, Jennet instantly falls for him.
“Then I shall save you! …Or die as I try. If no one else in this human world loves you, then I must.”
And so brave Jennet must face down the faery queen, armed only with a green mantle, a bottle of holy water, and a pocketful of earth from her garden. The queen has magic and illusions in her bag of tricks, but Jennet has a steadfast heart, a strong grip, and a fast wit to answer the challenges that face her. Like a true heroine, even as her resolve is tested, her core faith never wavers, and she is able to overcome the magic to win her love and her birthright.
The structure of Tam Lin, it is pointed out in the author’s note at the end of the story, is similar to many old tales, but with a strong female protagonist rescuing a helpless male from certain death, it becomes a more enduring piece for modern readers. Follow your heart, this book promises young women, and you will receive far more than your heart ever dreamed to desire.
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