"Tam Lin"

Hello, and welcome to the May 2022 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. Please allow me to begin by thanking Wylie Beckert, the artist who painted the stunning Tam Lin work of art in this month's social media cards, for permitting me to use her painting. Isn't it gorgeous? You'll find her online at wyliebeckert.com and patreon.com/wyliebeckert.

I first encountered "Tam Lin" on a mixtape given to me by a friend in the early 1990s, which was loaded with songs from Fairport Convention's 1969 album Liege and Lief. It's an ancient, well-loved ballad with so many historical and contemporary versions addressed by so much folkloristic scholarship and public research it would be impossible to offer a thorough treatment of the material here. However, it's also a great follow-up to January's "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" and April's "Molly Whuppie" for reasons which will soon become apparent, and it provides us with the opportunity to look at an area of storytelling I've lectured about as a guest at science fiction conventions but haven't addressed much here; namely, world-building.

I'll begin as I always do with English ballads, by performing a version of "Tam Lin" for you. This version is collected in Bertrand Harris Bronson's The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads and is titled "Tam Lane." Bronson writes that it was found in Dorothy Scarborough's 1937 book A Song Catcher in Southern Mountains: American Folk Songs of British Ancestry and was sung to Scarborough by a woman named Margaret Widdemer in 1932.1 It's my great pleasure to sing this Appalachian version of the ballad, which is a bit closer to my roots than the fine English versions in the "Tam Lin" playlist I've compiled for patrons this month. Patrons will also find the sheet music and an associated .wav file in their inboxes.


May Margery sat in her castle tower
Sewing her silken seam;
She looked from out the high window
And she saw the leaves growing green,
My love,
And she saw the leaves growing green.

She's let the seam drop to her foot,
The needle to her toe,
And she's away to Cartershay
As fast as she can go,
My love,
As fast as she can go.

She hadna pulled a red, red rose,
A rose but barely three,
When up there started a wee, wee man,
Says, Let the roses be,
My love,
Says, Let the roses be.

"Oh, I will pull the bush," she says,
"And I will pull the tree,
And I will be at Cartershay
And ask no leave of thee,
My love,
And ask no leave of thee."

He took her by the milk-white hand,
Among the leaves so green,
And what they did I darena say,
The leaves were atween,
My love,
The leaves were atween.

"Now tell to me the truth, Tam Lane,
A truth we will na lee,
If ever you were a human man
And sained in Chrisendy,
My love,
And sained in Chrisendy?"

"Oh, I will tell the truth, Margaret,
A truth I willna lee.
It's truth I have been in a holy chapel
And sained as well as thee,
My love,
And sained as well as thee;

But once it fell upon a day
As hunting I did ride,
As I rode east and I rode west,
Strange chance did me betide,
My love,
Strange chance did me betide.

There blew a drowsy, drowsy wind,
Dead sleep upon me fell,
The Queen o'Fairies she was there
And she took me to herself,
My love,
She took me to herself.

And never would I tire, Margaret,
In fairyland to dwell,
But aye at every seven years,
They pay the teind to hell,
My love,
And I fear 'twill be myself.

The night is Hallowe'en, Margaret,
When the fairy folk will ride
And if you would your true love win,
At Miles Cross you must bide,
My love,
At Miles Cross you must bide."

"But how shall I thee ken, Tam Lane,
And how shall I thee know,
Among so many unearthly knights
The like I never saw,
My love,
The like I never saw?"

"Oh, first let by the black, black steed,
And then let by the brown,
But grip you to the milk-white steed
And pull the rider down,
My love,
And pull the rider down.

For I'll be on the milk-white steed,
With a gold star in my crown,
Because I was a christened knight
They gave me that renown,
My love,
They gave me that renown."

Gloomy, gloomy was the night
And eerie was the way
When Margaret in her green mantel
To Miles Cross she did gae,
My love,
To Miles Cross she did gae.

And first went by the black, black steed,
And then went by the brown,
And syne she gripped the milk-white steed
And pulled the rider down,
My love,
And pulled the rider down.

Up then spoke the Queen o'Fairies,
Out of a bush of broom,
"She that has gotten young Tam Lane
Has gotten a stately groom,
My love,
Has gotten a stately groom."

Up then spoke the Queen o'Fairies
Out of a bush of rye,
"She's taken away the bonniest knight
In all my company,
My love,
In all my company.

If I had but kent yestreen, Tam Lane,
A lady would borrow thee,
I'd taken out thy two grey een
Put in two of tree,
My love,
Put in two of tree.

If I had kenned, Tam Lane, she says,
Before we came from home,
I'd taken out your heart of flesh
And put in a heart of stone,
My love,
And put in a heart of stone.

If I had but half the wit yestreen
That I have bought today
I'd paid my tiend seven times to hell
Ere ye'd been won away,
My love,
Ere ye'd been won away."2


"Tam Lin" is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index at #35, where there are 71 records of ballad variations,3 while Francis James Child provides 9 variations of "Tam Lin" at #39 of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The shortest of these is incomplete at 10 verses, while the longest is a 59-verse balladeer's marathon.4 Child writes that "Tam Lin's" earliest known appearance in folk tradition is in 1549 under the title "The Tayl of the Young Tamlene," making my 1932 Appalachian version a Jenny-come-lately, to be sure. Tam Lin himself may be called by many names; Tam Lane, Tam-a-lin, and Thomas, among others, while Margery or Margaret is more often called Janet. Carterhaugh is the most common name for her destination, but it might also be called Kertonha, Chaster's Wood, or Cartershay. Of note, Carterhaugh is a real place, near the confluence of the Ettrick and Yarrow rivers near Selkirk in Scotland, and another real place called Tamlane's Well can be found in the woods there.56

Our exploration of the motifs in "Tam Lin" comes from two folkloristic places this month. Let's begin with the ballad's corresponding entry in The Motif Index of the Child Corpus, which offers a good summary of the plot and motifs together:

Child 39, "TAM LIN"
Janet's father has forbidden her any contact with Tam Lin, who is evidently well known for his effect on women. She nevertheless goes into the forest to meet him. [...] At home it soon becomes obvious that she is pregnant, but she fends off reproaches by maintaining that it is her concern only. While in the forest picking herbs for an abortion she meets Tam Lin again. He tells her not to abort the child, and she asks if he is a Christian. He then gives her an account of his life: one day while out hunting he fell from his horse, and the queen of the elves abducted and bewitched him and held him prisoner. Every seven years, at Halloween, a tribute must be paid to the devil, but there is also an opportunity for her to release him from fairyland. Janet succeeds in following his instructions, and so brings her bewitched lover back to the realm of mortals despite the fairies' magical attempts to prevent his release.

love against family's wishes
longing (for lover)
meeting (of lovers; in --> greenwood; secret)
pregnancy (as indication of secret love)
abortion (prevented)
abduction (by --> otherworldly being (elf-queen))
captivity (of man; at hands of otherworldly being)
devil, pact with
magic (--> bewitchment (of man by otherworldly being))
magic (--> spell, breaking of (by unconditional fulfilment of wishes)) / help (--> rescue (of bewitched man))7

The same text also associates "Tam Lin" with these entries from The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature:

D 610 - bewitchment
F 302.3.2. - otherworldly being
T 572.2.2. - pregnancy; abortion8

Finally, while Martha P. Hixon might disapprove of "fantasy authors who borrow folkloric motifs willy-nilly in creating works of fantasy fiction," her excellent examination of "Tam Lin" offers three additional motifs for use in storytelling, as she writes that "This ballad's kinship with the fairy tale can be seen in its incorporation of three of the motifs listed in Stith Thompson's Motif Index of Folk Literature: girl summons fairy lover by plucking flowers (F301.1.1.2), fairies carry people away to fairyland (R112.3), and disenchantment by holding fast to the enchanted person through successive transformations (D757)."9 Hixon also helpfully decodes much of the metaphorical language about Janet. She has golden hair, which signifies virginity. However, she goes to Carterhaugh wearing a braid, which signifies her interest in sexual assignation, and the plucking of roses is a metaphor for sex itself. She wears green, a colour associated with fairy magic, and she is "green as glass" after meeting Tam Lin, which is a pregnancy metaphor having to do with fecundity and morning sickness.10

Janet chooses her first sexual experience, chooses her partner, refuses to marry one of her father's knights when her pregnancy is discovered, and faces down the Queen of Fairies to win back the father of her child. It's a monumental feat of strength for anyone, let alone the heroine of a traditional English ballad, but Janet's strength might be more akin to Molly Whuppie's self-preservation than to The Maid Freed from the Gallows' true love. In Child #39 F, Margaret's sister is angry about the pregnancy, and their mother tells her where to find an herb "That will scathe the babe away."11 In Child #39 G, Margaret's brother "meant to do her harm" after finding out about the pregnancy, and in this variation he mentions the abortifacient.12 The suggestion that a knight in her father's hall will bear the blame for her condition or marry her to make the baby legitimate further entrenches the idea that Janet's/Margaret's social transgression is substantial, however well she navigates it in the end.13 With this in mind, her rescue of Tam Lin is less about love and more about the need to set matters to rights, for herself and her child.

What interests me most about this motivation is that Janet has the opportunity to make the effort at all. Remember that The Maid Freed from the Gallows also chooses her first sexual experience and partner, but her family believes she is worthless without an intact hymen and comes to see her hanged for sexual indiscretion.14 Hixon writes that "Janet, as the daughter of a nobleman, has much more to lose by being pregnant now than simply her good reputation: virgin daughters of noblemen had value as bargaining chips for their families in marriage contracts, and typically had large dowries or inheritances, all of which would have been lost once a young woman is proven to be with child before a marriage is arranged."15 I would agree, but I would also argue that as the daughter of a nobleman, Janet is less likely to suffer the same fate as The Maid. Yes, her sister is angry. Yes, her brother wants to her harm. But she might abort the child or marry a knight and live. Perhaps her pregnancy slows whatever retribution she might have suffered, or perhaps the daughters of noblemen fared better on the whole in these circumstances.

Folk Narrative and Storytelling

"Tam Lin" takes place in an environment of competing magic systems. There is the magic of the fairies, embodied by their queen, who travels between the otherworld, our world, and hell and who transforms Tam Lin several times in an effort to keep him. There is also the magic of humanity, embodied by Janet, who holds fast to her beloved through those transformations, tosses him in a liquid (well water, milk, or both), and covers him in her mantle. In some versions, her rescue is preceded by an act of Christian magic:

You may go into the Miles Moss,
Between twelve hours and one;
Take holy water in your hand,
And cast a compass round.16

In both cases, the magic systems have specific adepts and students. The Queen of Fairies is an adept of magics rooted in travel and transformation, while Janet is a student of magics rooted in sanctification, baptism, and protection. The magic systems also have rules. The Queen of Fairies can travel the worlds and change Tam Lin from one state to another, but she cannot snatch him out of Janet's arms. For her part, Janet can set the stage for a rescue by sanctifying Miles Moss, she can cast Tam Lin into well water or milk to finalize his transformation into an earthly knight,17 and she can protect him with her mantle. However, she must first disrupt the Queen of Fairies' travel magic by pulling him from the horse, and she cannot immediately change him into an earthly knight by herself:

'And last they'll turn me in your arms
Into the burning gleed;
Then throw me into well water,
O throw me in wi speed.

'And then I'll be your ain true-love,
I'll turn a naked knight;
Then cover me wi your green mantle,
And cover me out o sight.'18

It's clear then, that these magic systems also have benefits and limitations. The Queen's magic is powerful and dangerous, but it comes from the otherworld and can be challenged with human religious rituals, human nourishments, and the protection of a tenacious human woman. Janet's magic is powerful too, but only in response to a fairy threat. She cannot travel the worlds or transform Tam Lin and the Queen with it. So may be said, from a storyteller's point of view, that fairy magic in "Tam Lin" is offensive, while human magic is defensive.

Magic systems in contemporary fantasy fiction are similar:

  1. They have adepts and students. Sometimes they're born with a magical gift, and sometimes they learn a magical skill, but in both cases the magic shapes their lives, personalities, and responses in specific ways.
  2. They have rules. They must follow a set of rules or they run the risk of becoming the solution to every problem (thus invalidating story conflicts) and self-contradictory (thus confusing the reader).
  3. They have benefits and limitations. Because they have specific users and specific rules, magic systems also have benefits and limitations based upon them.

I don't often assign an exercise anymore, but I think this month it might be helpful to get you a bit further down the road with these ideas. So pop a bowl of popcorn, grab a notebook, and watch a season of The WitcherThe Wheel of Time, Star Trek (yes, Star Trek science is a magic system), or some other speculative fiction program you like. As you do, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who are the adepts and students using this magic system? How did they come to be adepts and students?
  2. What are the rules of magic in this system? Does the show ever break them? How?
  3. What are the benefits and limitations of this magic system? What impacts do these have on the story?

This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents over twenty hours of research, writing, and production. If you found it helpful, I hope you'll consider supporting the Folklore & Fiction project on Patreon. That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for the Summer Solstice dispatch and podcast, which are devoted to folkloric elements in my own work. Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.


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  • 1. Bertrand Harris Bronson, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Volume I, Annotated Edition. (Loomis House Press, 2009), 330.
  • 2. Bronson, 330.
  • 3. English Folk Dance and Song Society, “Vaughan Williams Memorial Library,” accessed February 10, 2022, https://www.vwml.org/roudnumber/35.
  • 4. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume I (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003), 335-360.
  • 5. “Tamlane’s Well,” Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment, accessed February 10, 2022, https://canmore.org.uk/site/54304/tamlanes-well.
  • 6. The Faery Folklorist visited this well and its environs in 2011, took photos, and wrote a great blog entry about the journey here: http://faeryfolklorist.blogspot.com/2011/06/tam-lin-carterhaugh.html
  • 7. Natascha Würzbach and Simone M. Salz, Motif Index of the Child Corpus (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1995), 90.
  • 8. Würzbach and Salz, 248.
  • 9. Martha P. Hixon, “Tam Lin, Fair Janet, and the Sexual Revolution: Traditional Ballads, Fairy Tales, and Twentieth-Century Children’s Literature.,” Marvels & Tales 18, no. 1 (January 2004): 71.
  • 10. Hixon, 72-73.
  • 11. Child, 348.
  • 12. Child, 350.
  • 13. Hixon, 76.
  • 14. Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran, “The Maid Freed from the Gallows,” Folklore & Fiction, accessed February 11, 2022, https://csmaccath.com/blog/maid-freed-gallows.
  • 15. Hixon, 76.
  • 16. Child, 346.
  • 17. Child, 338.
  • 18. Child, 342.