Shapeshifting in Faerie: The Ballad of Tam Lin

One fall day, when I was a college sophomore, I was boiling water for coffee in my off-campus apartment, getting ready to leave for a 9:00am class.  A clock radio on the counter was tuned to the local progressive rock station, but I wasn’t really listening, until a driving tempo opened a song with a strong, urgent, woman’s voice singing what was clearly a piece of folklore:

I forbid you maidens all,
that wear gold in your hair,
to travel to Carterhaugh,
for young Tam Lin is there.

I turned up the volume…

Them that go to Carterhaugh,
but they leave him a pledge,
either their mantles of green,
or else their maidenhead.

I was hooked by then, all my attention on this music.

Janet tied her kirtle green,
a bit above her knee,
and she’s gone to Carterhaugh,
as fast as go can she.

The group was Fairport Convention, the vocalist, an amazing singer named Sandy Denny who died in a tragic accident a few years later.  The song was, Tam Lin.

Fairport Convention

At the end of the day, I came home with the album, Liege and Lief tucked under my arm, and a backpack full of books like Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads. You could say the passion that music ignited is with me to the present day:  it launched me into fantasy literature, shaped twenty years of storytelling, and this particular ballad is an important source for the fictional world I am building now for a heroine who wrestles with her fairy/mortal ancestry.

The ballad

Tam Lin comes from the Scottish border country and was first transcribed in 1549.  Francis James Child published 14 variants in his collection of English and Scottish ballads.  A mortal woman falls in love and conceives a child by a man who had been a mortal knight, until he was captured and somehow enchanted by the fairy queen.  In the Fairport lyrics:

Tell to me, Tam Lin, she said,
why came you here to dwell,
The queen of fairies caught me,
when from my horse I fell.

At the end of seven years,
she pays a tithe to hell,
I so fair and full of flesh,
am feared it be myself.

To disenchant her lover, Janet must hide at midnight on Halloween, at Miles Crossing, pull Tam from his horse, and hold on for dear life as the queen transforms him into a series of hideous and frightening shapes (I said this involved shapeshifting).  The queen turns Tam Lin into a snake, a newt, a bear, a lion, red-hot iron, and finally burning lead, at which point Janet does as instructed and throws him into a well, from which he emerges in his human form.  The queen is furious, and says if she had known of Janet’s loyalty, she’d have plucked out her eyes.  The real fairies of folklore are not nice people and are known to blind mortals who can see them.

Carterhaugh in 2005. You can still visit Tam Lin's well

Such renowned fantasy authors as Susan Cooper, Pamela Dean, Diana Wynn Jones, and Patricia McKillip have written novels based on Tam Lin’s story.  In 1970, Roddy McDowall directed a movie version staring Ava Gardner.  Countless individuals and groups have covered the ballad and there is at least one website devoted to nothing but exploration and creative elaboration of this song.  (see all these links here:

What about the Shapeshifting?

Though Tam Lin is local to Scotland, the motif of disenchanting someone by holding on through countless frightening transformations is common to folklore throughout Europe.  This tale of shapeshifting is really quite different from Barth’s Menelaiad, discussed in the previous post.

There is a youthful, hopeful quality in this story of a heroic young woman who knows what she wants with such a fierce determination that nothing can thwart her, not even all the illusions and false paths that waylay most people’s dreams.

There is a quality of angst in Barth’s story question:  how can we ever sort out what is true from what is illusion?  I recall that after his campus visit, several sophomores proclaimed the death of literature as we know it.  Janet and Tam have no time for that – if this be illusion, play on, they would say (to badly misquote the bard).

Tam Lin explores the illusions of young lovers, while the Menelaiad does the same for a middle-aged and war-weary king.

Our final story of shapeshifting comes from India, and is several millenia old.  It sits somehwhere between the optimism and pessimism of the first two tales.  Yes, it affirms, life is a series of dreams, where dreams of joy transform into nightmares and back again endlessly – but imagine the joy of waking up.  That awakening, according to this tale, is nearer than we think.

Meanwhile here – as timeless as any fairy artifact – is Fairport Convention’s version of the Ballad of Tam Lin:

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