Jun 7, 2007

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a very free retelling of the old Scottish ballad of the same name. Perhaps because of the title, I expected it to be closer to the original story. This is in fact a modernized version; however, the novel is none the worse for it.

This book is part of Terri Windling’s Fairy Tales series, and this edition has an introduction by the wonderful Windling herself. In it, she explains that even though Tam Lin is a ballad and not a fairy tale, it has quite a few fairy tale elements, and was adapted into a fairy tale by Joseph Jacob. She also gives us information about the old tales and traditions surrounding All Hallow’s Eve, and recommends other modern retellings of this story (including my beloved “Fire & Hemlock”), and also musical performances of the ballad (including one by Fairport Convention that I absolutely must hear).

Tam Lim is, without giving too much away to those not familiar with it, a story about a woman, her lover, and the Queen of Faerie. And the word “faerie” is used here in the oldest possible sense – not miniature creatures with butterfly wings, but the ancient, tall, frightening beings of pagan times. I love how this edition of the book contains the original ballad itself printed at the end. I had read it online before, but it’s nice to have it in book form.

Pamela Dean’s novel is set in the 1970’s, and at a college campus in Minnesota. The book is, on the surface, completely realistic. Janet, the protagonist, is 18 years old when the story starts, and has just moved into a dorm for her first year of college. The story focuses on Janet, her roommates, her courses, her friends, her love life, the literature she so much loves, the theatre, her growing pains, everything that is part of crossing the threshold into adulthood.

But just bellow the surface, there are many strange little things that hint at the subtle presence of the supernatural in the background. Some of these are easier to pick up if you're familiar with the ballad. What I found so ingenious about this book is that Janet herself doesn’t make too much out of these strange occurrences, except in rare moments of clarity. The book perfectly mimics the confusion that, according to the old folk tales, any mortal is bond to feel in the presence of Faerie.

The most obvious strange thing about Blackstock College is the rumoured presence of the ghost of a young woman who killed herself there in the late nineteenth century. This ghost makes its presence known by throwing books out of the window of the room where she put an end to her life. But these are just rumours, after all, pieces of college folklore. The sense of strangeness, however, increases as the book progresses, and finally all the pieces of the puzzle come together.

One of the first things I noticed about this novel - it becomes obvious in the very first chapter - is that it mentions a lot of books. Janet is an English Major, and literature is her passion. When the story opens, she is unpacking the three boxes of books she brought with her to college. These include The Wind in the Willows, Lewis' 'Til We Have Faces and The Children of Llyr, among others. She takes an immediate dislike to one of her roommates because she declares, “These are children’s books!”, and also because she says she found Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time silly.

Other authors and books mentioned include The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, The Iliad, Keats, Pope, T. S. Eliot, Dr. Johnson, and Shakespeare - a lot of Shakespeare. Pamela Dean quotes extensively from many of these author’s works, and the book is full of literary references, some of which I have no doubt missed. This is a perfect book for book lovers – one cannot help but to smile when a favourite is mentioned. But even those who are not obsessive readers or aren’t familiar with many of the works mentioned or quoted are bond to be moved by Janet’s passion for literature.

Like I said, Shakespeare is all over the book, and this put me in the right mood to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and finish the Once Upon a Time challenge.

If I have one complaint, it's that the last quarter of the book was a little rushed compared to the first three. Janet's first year at college is described in great detail; the other three, not so much. It’s in her fourth year that events culminate, and I wish there had been more details, and that the pace of the action had been slower. But the fact that I wanted even more details in a novel that is over 450 pages long goes to show how engaging I found this story.

Other Blog Reviews:
Books & Other Thoughts
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Jenny's Books
Dog Ear Diary


  1. Nearing the home stretch! I'm simply amazed by the number of books you read for the challenge and the quality of reviews you did on all of them. I've come across so many interesting titles by reading your posts.

  2. I second what Kim said. You have really read a lot of folklore, fantasy and myth selections. I'll bet you've learned tons and had a great time doing it.

    I'm making a note of several of the books you've reviewed and adding them to my TBR list.

  3. I've heard of Tam Lin, but only the actual name, I suppose I could go look it up online, couldn't I? :)

  4. Kim and booklogged, thank you :) Reading this many books was not very difficult to me because fantasy (and myth and folklore) is my "natural element", so to speak. It's what I read the most to begin with, so the challenge gave me direction and extra motivation to accomplish what I'd already like to be doing.

    I do feel that I learned a lot. The more I explore the world of myth and lore, the more I want to know.

    Fence - this site is very useful, as it has several versions of the ballad and a lot of information. I should have thought of linking to it in my review.

  5. This is one of my favorite books of all times!

  6. Well, Nymeth, I just answered my own question I asked you in the Fire & Hemlock post - you have read this book, and I'm glad to see you liked it! It has really stayed with me over the years. Okay, here's another one - have you read Sorcery & Cecelia by Patrica Wrede & Caroline Stevermer? It's fun!

  7. Darla: I haven't no, but I'll look for it. Considering that our taste seems to be similar, I think it's likely that I'll enjoy it :)

    Thank you for dropping by!

  8. This is one of my favorite books; I just found your post about it as I was writing mine! Funny, I read Fire and Hemlock several years ago and I knew it was based on some kind of fairy tale, but couldn't figure out which one! It frustrated me. I suppose it's because I wasn't too familiar with the ballad before. I'll have to go back and read F&H again, now that I have the references in mind.

  9. Hey, I just came back to give you the link to my review. :)


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