Tam Lin Balladry

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Essay: Is Tam Lin a Rape Story?

Yes, Maybe, and No


There are many versions of Tam Lin. Even the longer versions of the ballad contain only so many verses, with much of the activity presented in either snapshot or symbolic fashion, so determining what is and isn't going on in the narrative can often be a matter of interpretation. One of the important interpretive issues is whether the initial sexual encounter between Janet and Tam Lin is consensual or not.

This is a difficult topic. Tam Lin is a story that can be read as a romance, as well as a story that centers around the actions of an headstrong and brave female character. It is deeply beloved by many people and has been retold in many formats. Readers may come to the ballad from any number of paths, with a variety of expectations. They are therefore often dismayed or disgusted to read versions of the original ballad that depict the sexual encounter between Janet and Tam Lin as non-consensual, and this detracts from the ability of the reader to enjoy and embrace the story. Janet is an unusually bold and fearless female character for traditional literature, and having her cast in the role of rape victim is a serious hurdle to overcome. Having the titular Tam Lin depicted as a rapist can make it difficult for readers to invest in his rescue. It is worthwhile to examine the troubling aspects of the story surrounding sex in order to understand why they are present, and more importantly, to understand to what extent they are truly integral to the story and how we can understand the story without them.

Does Tam Lin rape Janet? If so, what purpose is served by presenting the sex as non-consensual? Are there other potential interpretations of the encounter? How does the way the ballad frames the interaction between Janet and Tam Lin change the presentation of Janet and Tam Lin's characters? What changes in the interpretation of the story when we change our understanding of this interaction? How can the modern reader love the ballad of Tam Lin without perpetuating the rape culture[1]aspects that seem to permeate some versions?


First disclaimer: This essay will be discuss interpretations of sex and consent in a sixteenth century ballad, including attempts to understand in a historical and narrative context the beliefs about sex, consent, and rape that underlie the story. Many of these beliefs will be offensive from a modern perspective. The examination of these beliefs does not constitute an endorsement of them or condone the behaviors they lead to. Neither does the examination or criticism of these beliefs constitute an attack on the ballad or disparagement of those who love it. We have to examine our stories critically and honestly in order to understand them. Striving for understanding is, itself, a form of love.

I am writing under the assumption that the reader will be able to distinguish the identification of reasons for which rape may occur in the ballad from real-world victim-blaming or excuse-making and appreciates that ballads recorded in the sixteenth century about faeries who sacrifice people to hell are unlikely to constitute a reasonable guide to viewpoints on sexuality or societally responsible frameworks of behavior.

Second disclaimer: I am an obsessive fan of the ballad, not a historian, folklorist, student of comparative literature, or academic in any other field or background directly relevant to the examination of folk ballads. The following is not intended to be an exhaustive examination of the topic, nor is it an academic article with references for every assertion. Correction, clarification, and addition from others, however, is welcome and encouraged, because more information is better.

Third disclaimer: This essay discusses only the presentation of the sex in old versions of the ballad in an attempt to understand the origins and meanings of aspects of the story. Modern reworkings of the ballad and all prose retellings are out of scope, as the later versions build on the foundation of the earlier ones and not the other way around. The purpose of Janet's pregnancy in the story or purpose of establishing a specifically sexual relationship between Janet and Tam Lin is also beyond the scope of this essay. This actually is a large enough topic that I'm only going to scratch at the surface even with those limitations.


He’s taen her by the milk-white hand,
And by the grass-green sleeve,
And laid her low on gude green wood,
At her he spierd nae leave.

When he had got his wills of her,
His wills as he had taen,
He’s taen her by the middle sma,
Set her to feet again.

She turnd her right and round about,
To spier her true-love’s name,
But naething heard she, nor naething saw,
As a’ the woods grew dim.

- "Tam Lin" version Child[2] 39G

The first answer here is yes. Tam Lin is a rape story. Sex without an enthusiastic yes is an assault, and quite a few versions of Tam Lin are fairly straight forward about Tam Lin not seeking consent. It would be dishonest to say that what is going on in some versions of the ballad is not rape. Tam Lin has sex with Janet without her consent, therefore this event is rape, therefore Tam Lin is a rape story.

Having established that, the next question is why? What purpose is served by having the sex be non-consensual? What narrative purpose is served by this act? There are a number of narrative tropes surrounding rape in stories, and several of them apply or can be applied to Tam Lin as a rape story.

Punitive or corrective rape is rape as punishment for a transgression. In the ballad, maidens are warned not to go to Carterhaugh. Janet disobeys this command, disobeys the cultural edict to not take material from a faerie wood without asking permission, and does not apologize when confronted. Because she has transgressed these laws and standards, she is raped as a punishment. Historically, in stories which involve punitive rape, the woman's later pairing with the rapist may be presented as a humbling of the woman, who is then subjugated to the man's stronger will and brought back into line with the dictates of the culture by obedience to him thereafter. Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, for example, falls into this category.

Symbolic rape is rape as part of an act of sympathetic magic. Janet has plucked flowers from the woods, 'deflowering' the tree. She is therefore herself deflowered in return. While the initial verses of the ballad indicate that Tam Lin may take other forms of payment for entry to his woods (rings, green mantles), these alternatives are never presented as options for Janet. She may be seen to have invoked this particular response by her wording of 'ask no leave of thee', causing Tam Lin to ask no leave of her in return. While it is difficult to have much sympathy for someone who applies this logic to rape in the real world, in the ballad world it is within the realm of possibility that Tam Lin is bound by the magic of faerie in such a way that he has no choice in his actions, and may be required to respond to her actions with an assault. There are plenty of stories from the same period which do not hold their protagonists responsible for violent actions committed while under enchantment (those transformed into dragons for example). Because they are bound by magic, their actions tend to be seen as involuntary. Regardless of Tam Lin's choice in the matter, it is possible to view symbolic parallels between her actions and his.

In cultures that prize a woman's pre-marital virginity, a woman who has engaged in sex before marriage may be considered unsuitable for marriage afterwards. One of the ways of addressing this transgression was to force the woman to marry the man with whom she had sex, whether consensually or not, thus making a man's rape of a virgin into a way to 'steal' a wife. This notion of forcible marriage to protect against a perception of pre-marital sex has extended, in some cultures, to include situations where a woman may be forced or coerced into marriage with a man who has abducted her, regardless of whether or not sex occurred. In this context the term 'rape' may be used to signify situations of forcible sexual intercourse as well as to situations of abduction of women to obtain a wife (The Rape of the Sabine Women[3], for example). In this framework, Tam Lin's 'theft' of Janet's virginity (rape as sex act) could be seen as a symbolic prelude to her later 'theft' of him from the Faerie Queen so that Janet may marry him (rape as abduction).

Seductive rape is rape as a means of romance, in which the rape is intended to cause the woman to fall in love with her rapist. A man who rapes a woman has asserted his sexuality over hers, effectively claiming her for his own; stories may depict his overwhelming passion inspiring a similar passion in her, a forceful sexual awakening. In cultures that do not value a woman's sexual agency, seductive rape can be used as a means of 'permitting' a woman to have sex without violating the culturally imposed stigma of seeking out sex. However distasteful, it is nonetheless true that some cultures would prefer stories where a woman falls in love with her rapist to stories where she chooses to seek a sexual relationship of her own free will.

The distinctions presented above- between punitive, symbolic, and seductive rape- may be partially false when applied to the ballad of Tam Lin, as elements of several or all of them may be present. Tam Lin's rape of Janet may be a symbolic act triggered by plucking flowers, but also a humbling for being defiant, and a seduction that leads her to love Tam Lin.

Some versions involve more suffering on Janet's part than others; Janet may be left alone afterwards to wander in a darkened forest, sometimes for days. She may be left shamed by Tam Lin's actions, or frowning, though the emotional response is not generally depicted as any more negative than that. She may appear unfazed and start planning how to bring him home immediately. Or she may return home disheveled, and while the ballad's lines about her looking pale and wan are usually taken as indications of pregnancy, they may also be signs of emotional distress following a trauma.

Regardless of the reason or combination of reasons for the rape in Tam Lin, Janet is generally portrayed as defending Tam Lin to her family, referring to him as her true love, and hesitating little in committing to his rescue. He suffers no ill consequence for the nonconsensual act. In the versions of the ballad where the sex is depicted as non-consensual, the assault is not seen as a barrier to later romance and devotion between Janet and Tam Lin.

While not a viewpoint likely to appeal to modern sensibilities, historical stories may very well promote a view of sexuality, and women's sexuality in particular, in which it is more acceptable for a woman to be raped and a man to commit a rape than it is to promote a story where a woman violates cultural taboos, particularly with regards to sex and chastity, and still be portrayed as an admirable character. This also frames Janet as primarily reactive rather than active; rather than initiating her own story, she must save Tam Lin in order to provide herself with a suitable marriage partner for herself after a rape, rather than have her actions reflect her own choices.


Consider the following verses that frequently start out versions of Tam Lin:

O all you ladies young and gay,
Who are so sweet and fair,
Do not go into Chaster's wood,
For Tomlin will be there.

Fair Margret sat in her bonny bower,
Sewing her silken seam,
And wished to be in Chaster's wood,
Among the leaves so green.

She let her seam fall to her foot,
The needle to her toe,
And she has gone to Chaster's wood,
As fast as she could go.

When she began to pull the flowers,
She puud both red and green;
Then by did come, and by did go,
Said, Fair maid, let aleene.

- "Tam Lin" version Child 39D

Now, the opening to another ballad:

Queen Jane sat at her window one day
A sewing a silken seam
She looked out at the merry green woods
And saw the green nut tree
And saw the green nut tree

She dropped her thimble at her heal
And her needle at her toe
And away she ran to the merry green woods
To gather nuts and so
To gather nuts and so

She scarce had reached the merry green woods
Scarce had pulled nuts two or three
When a proud forester came striding by
Saying, "Fair maid, let those be"
Saying, "Fair maid, let those be"

"Why do you pull the nuts," he said
"And why do you break the tree?
And why do you come to this merry green wood
Without the leave of me?
Without the leave of me?"

"Oh, I will pull the nuts," she said
"And I will break the tree
And I will come to this merry green wood
I'll ask no leave of thee
I'll ask no leave of thee"

He took her by the middle so small
And he gently laid her down
And when he took what he longed for
He raised her from the ground
He raised her from the ground

- "The King's Daughter Jane"[4]


O may she comes, and may she goes,
Down by yon gardens green,
And there she spied a gallant squire
As squire had ever been.

And may she comes, and may she goes,
Down by yon hollin tree,
And there she spied a brisk young squire,
And a brisk young squire was he.

"Give me your green manteel, fair maid,
Give me your maidenhead;
Gif ye winna gie me your green manteel,
Gi me your maidenhead.'

He has taen her by the milk-white hand,
And softly laid her down,
And when he's lifted her up again
Given her a silver kaim.

- "The Bonny Hind"[5]

These latter two ballads, for all of their initial similarity to Tam Lin, are much more closely related to each other than either is to the faerie ballad. Neither contains any supernatural elements, and both are stories where a young woman, gathering objects in the King's woods, is raped by a man who then turns out to be her long lost brother.

In "The King's Daughter Jane", the woman responds to the rape by wishing she were dead; in "The Bonny Hind", she does kill herself, causing her brother to bury her body secretly and claim, upon coming home covered in blood, that he'd been out hunting deer (hence the 'hind'). Both stories are unambiguously rape stories, with little to the tale other than the set up for the rape, the rape itself, and the consequences after. While Tam Lin can certainly be viewed as a rape ballad, with the notable exception of Child's 39L, there is generally at least some substance to the story beyond the rape, for what little redemption that offers. These stories do not even have that level of complexity.

(As an aside, it's horrific that these ballads assign the consequences of the rape entirely to the women, while the men are presented as having no regrets beyond having raped the 'wrong' woman. Don't rape unknown women because you might be related to them is a pretty lousy message.)

In her 1970 paper titled "The Opening of "Tam Lin"", E. B. Lyle (6) describes these verses - presenting the woods, the longing woman, and the desire to run off to pluck flower or nuts- as originating in the other ballads, not in "Tam Lin", and having been grafted onto the latter as part of the combinative process that is common to folklore. Lyle uses the wonderful phrase of "vigorous parasitic growth" to describe the intrusion of these verses into the ballad, where they are then perpetuate at the expense of the overall story, and I highly recommend the article.

Based on Lyle's argument, one could suggest that the similar verses in Tam Lin constitute an imposition of rape onto the story in which there was not originally a rape present. If these parasitic verses have distorted the story, and the stories from which they originate are unambiguously rape stories, then it is reasonable to deduce that their major effect is to push the initial sexual encounter between Janet and Tam Lin towards an interpretation of rape.

This is not a conclusive statement; it's entirely possible that whatever verses originally opened Tam Lin before these verses were added were no better; claiming otherwise is necessarily speculation. It's also not quite honest to claim that verses that can be shown to have originated elsewhere aren't really part of the story; cross-contamination is as common in ballads as bacteria, and any particular version of a story that is told often enough becomes a legitimate version of that story, distasteful or not. We cannot disavow versions merely because we dislike them.

However, if we proceed under the assumption that the existence of these verses independent of Tam Lin are evidence that the ballad did not initially include such explicit indications of rape in the initial encounter, the ballad can be re-examined to see what other interpretations are available.

(Lyle takes the position that the parasitic versions are entirely an addition, rather than a replacement, and would start Tam Lin with the observation of Janet's pregnancy. I'm opposed to this interpretation, as I think it both unlikely for a story to start with the protagonist inexplicably pregnant, and because I think the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy do matter in understanding the interactions between Tam Lin and Janet.)


Janet has kilted her green kirtle
A little aboon her knee,
And she has broded her yellow hair
A little aboon her bree,
And she's awa to Carterhaugh
As fast as she can hie.

When she came to Carterhaugh
Tam Lin was at the well,
And there she fand his steed standing,
But away was himsel.

- "Tam Lin" version Child 39A

If the scenario where the woman who goes to Carterhaugh seeking only flowers is raped is a result of the intrusion of rape ballads into the story, what other interpretations of Janet and Tam Lin's encounter are supported by the ballad, outside of those verses?

One of the more obvious possible interpretations is that Janet goes to Carterhaugh specifically to seek out Tam Lin, and even more specifically, to seek a sexual encounter with him. It is not quite a stretch to conjecture that there was some similarity between this lost opening and the imposed structure of the rape ballads that allowed the latter to supplant the former- a woman travels to a wood and meets with a young man there, although the nature of their meeting can now be called into question and potentially reframed.

The setting of Carterhaugh woods itself is an important clue to this interpretation; while the rape ballads are set in a generic King's Woods or unnamed forest, Tam Lin places the story specifically in Carterhaugh, a location invoked in several other faerie stories. It is the site for faerie sightings in The Wee Wee Man[7], and only a few miles away from the Eildon Hills, where the Queen of Elfland meets and carries away Thomas the Rhymer[8]. In other words, Carterhaugh woods is a location already established as liminal and inhabited by faeries, and anyone travelling there deliberately can be presumed to be aware of its nature.

It is also worth noting that Janet wears a green kirtle to Carterhaugh; green is symbolic of fertility and growth, and is a color considered unlucky to wear in the presence of faeries, likely to get their attention ("The fairies' fatal green" in Alice Brand[9]). Green is also a color associated with sexual liberty, as seen in some ballads where a woman, upon leaving or being left by her lover, puts on a coat of green; see also the tradition of 'grass widows', a term applied for women who were never formally married to their partners, or never formally divorced from an absent partner (the 'grass' may derive from the idea of illicit trysts in the fields).

Janet is often depicted as performing other acts of grooming, such as braiding her hair, an action more in line with a person anticipating an interaction than someone engaging in solitary flower or nut harvesting.

More importantly, in some versions of the ballad Janet is not going to Carterhaugh in general, but going specifically to a place where Tam Lin is likely to be present- near the location of a holy well (areas further associated with faeries or enchantment[10]), or even near where his horse is standing. These verses, unlike the parastic rape ballad verses, are unique to Tam Lin, and they may be vestiges of an older introduction.

Under the terms of this scenario, Janet is not encountering Tam Lin by accident or as a faerie reprisal, but attempting to locate him. Her plucking of the roses could now be seen as a deliberate provocation, and her challenge to him when he appears to her is not insolence but invitation: I am your equal, and I am making a choice. She has donned clothing meant to evoke fertility, and summoned what she believes to be a faerie knight in an enchanted wood.

Since the scene that follows in the more complete versions of the ballad involves the observation by Janet's family of her pregnancy (some versions omit this), we can guess at what happened without needing the explanatory and unpleasant verses removing consent from their encounter. In this context, however, Janet's praise of Tam Lin and defense of him to her family appear in a much better light, as further evidence that she thinks well of him and has voluntarily chosen him.

"If my love were an earthly knight,
As he's an elfin grey,
I wad na gie my ain true-love
For nae lord that ye hae.

- "Tam Lin" version Child 39A

Later, when Tam Lin and Janet meet again, when she is seeking herbs to induce a miscarriage, he may greet her with phrasing such as:

O why pou ye the pile, Margaret,
The pile o the gravil green,
For to destroy the bonny bairn
That we got us between?"

- "Tam Lin" version Child 39G


"How daur ye wauk alane," he said.
"Amang your father's tries
For spoiling o the bonnie babe
That we gat merrilie?"

- "Tam Lin" version Crawfurd 99[11]

Tam Lin's tone may not be cheerful, but his characterization of the pregnancy as a mutual accomplishment, and their earlier encounter as something merry (another common variant is 'play'), suggests that he is recounting a consensual act that both parties found enjoyable, participated in equally, and look back upon with fondness. Janet's response once again identifies Tam Lin as a lover:

'If my luve were an earthly
As he's an elfin rae,
I coud gang bound, love, for your sake,
A twalmonth and a day.

- "Tam Lin" version Child 39G

or she makes an enquiry about his eligibility as a partner:

"O tell me, tell me, Tam Lin," she says,
"For's sake that died on tree,
If eer ye was in holy chapel,
Or christendom did see?"

- "Tam Lin" version Child 39A

Earlier in this essay I touched on these elements as potentially part of the rape culture aspects of Tam Lin. Perhaps, I suggested, the ballad portrays a rape without acknowledging the trauma of rape. I am including these elements again here in fuller detail to make the opposite argument, as I feel that they more strongly support the opposite assertion: that Tam Lin was not originally a rape ballad at all, but the story of a woman who has voluntarily sought out and fallen in love with a man and has had consensual sex with him. She does not object to interaction with Tam Lin, or renounce his right to interest in the pregnancy, but objects solely to his inability to join her in the mortal world. If Janet and Tam Lin are acting in the latter parts of the ballad as if the rape had never happened, then the simplest explanation is that it didn't.

Janet's seeking out of Tam Lin in the later verses of the ballad, when she goes to rescue him from the Fairie Queen, may very well parallel earlier, now lost, verses where she sought him out in Carterhaugh initially. Tam Lin is Janet's lover, to whom she is devoted, and who she had chosen for herself, for her own desire and her own purpose. This sort of parallel repeated structure is common in ballads, and Janet seeking out Tam Lin initially is a greater reinforcement of her seeking him out on Halloween than an accidental initial meeting would have been. Both journeys are acts of defiance, expressions of self-determination, and acts of love. Tam Lin as a story of two lovers is more in keeping with the ballad's characterization of Janet, the later language between them, and the narrative's overall themes.

Given how strongly the rest of the ballad presents Janet as a woman who is defined by bravery and defiance, the decision to initially depicting her as a pliant victim of a sexual assault does her a disservice. Rape culture, and therefore rape ballads, perpetuate narrow, confining options for the expression of women's sexuality, and functions, at least partially, to limit women's sexual freedom and expression. To my mind it is likely that some earlier, ancestral version of Tam Lin had Janet deliberately seeking out her lover in the woods. Later culture, in order to make the story conform to a more narrow, restrictive, and punitive view of women's sexual agency introduced the rape ballad aspects to 'correct' the immorality of a woman deliberately seeking sex outside of marriage, and with a man considered unnatural and unholy.

Janet is undeniably the center of the story, and therefore interpretations of her tend to reflect the morals of the culture that continue the ballad, even if the story is distorted in the process. To a culture that does not allow for a heroic female character to seek out premarital sex, it is preferable to depict the sex as non-consensual rather than endorse behavior that was known to be immoral. A Janet who is raped (whether punitive, symbolic, or seductive) and must rescue her rapist as a form of penance is preferable to one who is sexual, willful, and self-determined. We can recognize that this sort of thinking is abhorrent to modern readers, and we can stop perpetuating it.

In short, the transformation of Tam Lin into a rape ballad is itself a form of punitive rape of the story.

The story is stronger and more loving when Janet retains her agency, her active sexuality, and her willfulness. The Janet who faces down knights in the hall who try to shame her, who faces down the Faerie Queen, and who faces down every horror she must embrace at the crossroads at midnight deserves a better interpretation than that of passivity and conformity. She should not be cast as merely reactive, responding only to the directives placed on her by others, but guided by her own wishes and desires. While earlier times may have tried to make the story into one of a woman who is forced into her role, we can remove that distortion.

Final note: While I believe the arguments I have outlined here are true, and I hope that they are persuasive to the reader, I am certain that "Tam Lin" is a living ballad, and that living ballads change. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the presented conclusions about the past history of the ballad, we, as storytellers and readers, retain the ability to interpret and shape the story as we carry it forward into the future. We can refrain from perpetuating the harmful tropes that I have argued are an artificial intrusion of rape into the story, regardless of whether or not we agree that they are artificial. There is nothing in the story that relies on their presence, and a good deal that contradicts their message. Both the story and readers of it are better off without the rape aspects of the ballad. As we love the story, we can hold on to what is real and true.


  1. "What Is Rape Culture?" WAVAW Women Against Violence Against Women. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. http://www.wavaw.ca/what-is-rape-culture/.
  2. "Tam Lin." The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Francis James Child.
  3. "The Rape of the Sabine Women." Ancient Origins. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history/rape-sabine-women-002636.
  4. "The King's Daughter Jane" The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Francis James Child.
  5. "The Bonny Hind" The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Francis James Child.
  6. Lyle, E.B. The Opening of "Tam Lin". The Journal of American Folklore. 1970 Jan-Mar;83(327):33-43
  7. "The Wee Wee Man" The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Francis James Child.
  8. "Thomas the Rhymer" The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Francis James Child.
  9. Scott, Sir Walter. “Alice Brand” in The Lady of the Lake 1810
  10. "Holyandhealingwells." Holyandhealingwells. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/category/scotland/.
  11. "Janet and Tam Blain" Crawfurd, Andrew; Lyle, E.B. (ed) Collection of Ballads and Songs, Volume 2, 1996



Added to site March 2015. Thank you to my incredible beta readers/editors, Sonya Taaffe and Christine Hoff Kraemer, without whom this essay would have been much less focused and much more riddled with errors. Any remaining inconsistencies or typos are mine and not theirs.