Interpreting the Ballad
Disclaimer: These interpretations are based on my own understanding and may be flawed in general or not hold true for different versions of the ballad. If you have anything to add to this page, please feel free to write to me.
Reading the text alone doesn't explain everything that's going on in the ballad. There are some symbols that would have been well known in the times and places the versions were recorded, but are either uncommon outside of those settings or have been forgotten by much of modern culture. Here's some explanation into what's behind some of the less familiar phrasings, and what might be behind some of the other descriptions and choices.
A good deal of this is speculation, so please feel free to send corrections, and be certain to do more research rather than take any of this as definite proof.
Toll or Wad
There's nane that gaes by Carterhaugh
But they leave him a wad,
Either their rings, or green mantles,
Or else their maidenhead.
The Fairies were the owners of the green wood, and a capricious lot. It was considered rude at least and dangerous at worst to intrude on their realm without asking permissions or giving something in return for what you might take. It was considered forbidden to take anything from areas strongly protected by the fairies, and even in those areas not directly under their protection, it was usually considered wise to at least ask permission first.
Tam Lin's specific demands were of particular significance. A ring was likely to be a sign of allegiance, such as a king might give a vassal or a husband to a wife. A mantle might symbolise kinship and protection, either by the specific colors present or by the symbolic covering they afforded (see covering with mantle, below). Gold was symbolic of wealth, particularly the wealth of nobility and aristocracy.
In another sense, all of these items are symbolically linked to the final demand he might make, a maiden's virginity. A stolen ring, like a broken circle, symbolizes the breaking of the hymen, and is also tied to notions of virginity through association with marriage and fidelity. A mantle is a cover that protects a woman's modesty, and gold as virginity was sometimes referred to as "maiden' wealth"
Plucking a Rose
She had na pu'd a double rose,
A rose but only twa,
Till upon then started young Tam Lin,
Says, Lady, thou's pu nae mae.
Roses are one of the most symbolically imbued items in mythology. They represent everything from passion and lust to the ideals of purity. In this story, roses are depicted as one of the flowers protected by faeries, and thus Janet's defiance in traveling to the forbidden wood is compounded by her plucking of a forbidden flower. By plucking it she has entered the world of magic and mystery. In another sense, by seizing a flower associated with romance, she initiates her interaction with Tam Lin by claiming the flower for her own, foreshadowing her coming 'deflowerment'. More specifically, the tightly folded petals of an opening rose are often used as symbols of a woman's sexual anatomy, a symbolism that goes back at least as far as "The Romance of the Rose". Finally, she is a maiden, and roses are the symbolic flower of the Virgin Mary in Catholic mythology. Mary was known as the "rose without thorns", and therefore the virgin Janet's seizing of the rose may be interpreted as laying claim to a saving grace.
Getting the Child's Name
"If that I gae wi child, father,
Mysel maun bear the blame,
There's neer a laird about your ha,
Shall get the bairn's name.
When Janet confirms she is pregnant, the reaction from the other members of the hall is less than favorable. Often, someone speaks of someone getting the blame, and Janet says that she'll not give the child's name to any lord there. There is more going on than simple disapproval of an out of wedlock pregnancy. Janet is the daughter of a high ranking lord, and she is heiress to some of his lands. As a virgin, she would be valuable to marry for reasons of wealth or political alliance, but after being deflowered and impregnated, her position in life is in jeopardy. Her chances of having an honorable marriage are slim when she is pregnant by someone else. This helps explain why some members of her family in some versions counsel abortion despite the moral and physical risks involved.
I feel I should make note that this is a vastly oversimplified view on virginity and marriage in The Past, which is vastly more complicated and can be both better and worse.
To the better- In theory, western culture at that time and place expected a woman to be a virgin at time of marriage, but in actual practice, a fairly high percentage (twenty percent or higher is about normal) of women were already pregnant when they married, to go by the simple math of ‘had a surviving child less than six months after the marriage’. Being pregnant at the time of marriage was no huge scandal, so long as the parties involved were married in time to claim the child was merely born a little early. Scotland in particular had a somewhat more lax view on the topic, as the traditional law include the ability to legitimize a child born out of wedlock if the parents eventually married and there was no reason why the couple couldn’t have been married at the time the child was born. So Janet’s child with Tam Lin is legitimate even in the versions where she gives birth the day after the rescue, regardless of when they actually marry.
Now for the worse- There was what was once known as 'stealing' an heiress, that is, raping a female heir and then forcing her into marriage as she would no longer be fit for marriage to any other man. While hardly common, it is nonetheless true that if a man made enough noise about having been a woman’s sexual partner (willing or not), she might very well have to marry him in order to preserve her own reputation.
The exchange at her father's hall where a knight says that all the men will be in trouble now and Janet's response that she'll give none of them her child's name means that while she acknowledges her pregnancy, she refuses to allow herself to be forced into a marriage to retain some semblance of honor. Her further defiance in stating that she has taken a Faerie, a creature outside the bounds of the mortal realm and laws, not to mention unmarryable (in much folklore, faeries were afraid of the church, so no wedding could take place), is truly stunning, and both underscores the strength of her character and gives an additional motivation to undergo the trials involved in winning Tam Lin away from the faeries. Tam Lin's disclosure that he is not only a mortal but one of some rank is another saving grace in Janet's situation, and while he was the cause of her problems, by saving him she also saves herself.
Halloween and Human Sacrifice
"And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I'm feard it be mysel.
"But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday,
Then win me, win me, an ye will,
For weel I wat ye may.
Halloween, the Christian celebration of the eve of all saint's day, was originally the Celtic celebration of new year, Samhain, midway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. This is why Tam Lin refers to the night of Halloween as the end of seven years.
In the Celtic mythos it was a time to prepare for the coming winter, a festival to celebrate the completion on the year, and a magical night when the barriers between the realms of the living mortals, the past dead, and future unborn weakened, allowing transitions and change. It was considered the night that the dead were most likely to visit those still living, and when fortunes could be told of the coming year. Many cultures retain some of this belief in the "day of the dead" celebrations, which include feasts and visiting of gravesites to honor departed ancestors. In many Celtic cultures it was traditional to put out gifts of milk and barley for any wandering spirits, both as thanks and for good luck, which may tie in to the stand of milk Janet sometimes takes with her to Miles Cross.
In Christian imagery, Halloween is the night when the ghouls and demons have one last run at the world before being driven off on the morning of All Saints. Many of the pagan or pre-christian beliefs were demonized or taken over by Christianity, and most likely the notion of the old power of the faeries being linked to hell arises from this view on the old Celtic beliefs. This Christian viewpoint would tie into the idea that the night of demons and ghouls was a time of sacrifices to hell.
The degree to which human sacrifice may have played a part in any pre-Christian Scottish culture is debatable; both early Roman invaders and later Christian ones accused the locals of it, but as both were also very prone to sensational propaganda, neither is a reliable source. Some areas of Scotland did have ritual slaughters of cattle near Halloween, but this served the practical purpose of reducing the herd size before winter as much as anything else.
As an additional note on the timing of events in Tam Lin by the solar calendar, several versions of Tam Lin have Janet returning to her family after her initial encounter with Tam Lin, and sometime thereafter showing what can be presumed to be the signs of morning sickness and early pregnancy (pale and wan, green as grass). If one presumes that the onset of morning sickness is usually several weeks after conception, it would place the timing of their initial encounter around the vernal equinox.
The faeries perform their sacrifice every seven years. Why seven?
In Christian mythology, it took seven days for God to create the world (six days plus a rest on the Sabbath), and it is therefore often taken as the number to complete a cycle in a lot of resulting imagery. It's also considered a lucky number in a lot of western superstition.
In English law, seven years was often the standard period for a legal sentence of transportation ("For seven long years I'm transported") or the period a time a person had to have been missing before they could be declared legally dead, allowing their spouse to remarry. In areas and colonies were indentured servitude was legal, seven years was a standard maximum length of contract.
Additionally, seven years was the standard time period an apprentice would serve under a master before they could be said to have learned their craft.
According to some, seven years was the length of rule of a Sacred King (see below).
For any number there is likely to be a large number of possible associated meanings and folklore, but the meanings above seem to be the most relevant and likely connected to the story of Tam Lin: seven years completes the cycle, seven years ends the indenture, breaks his bond with his mortal family, ends his separation from home, and risks his death
Tam Lin as a harvest figure
There are stories from pre-history and mythology of Sacred Kings and Year Kings. In these stories, the Queen or Goddess of the land would pick a consort in the spring. For the spring, summer, and early fall, the man would be given riches, the favor of the people, and share the Queen's bed. At the time of harvest, in fall, he would be sacrificed. He was symbolic of the fertility of the land, and his death was meant to ensure that the spring would return again after the winter was done. In some versions, the Sacred King ruled for a period of several years as a ruler in his own right.
The Sacred King stories are ofte attributed to pre-Hellenic Greece. Additionally, a number of cultures do have mythologies which include harvest gods who die and return. Before their death, they are usually crop and fertility gods, then they die and travel to the underworld. In the underworld they gain some special knowledge and return to the land of the living to benefit their people. Osiris in Egyptian mythology follows this pattern, as does Inanna in Sumerian. The Greeks had the tale of Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess Ceres, who marries the god of the underworld Hades. In one Native American tale, a warrior on a quest battles a stranger who dressed in gold and green. When the stranger dies after several days of wrestling, the warrior buries him, and a year later finds the first corn growing on the grave. Ireland has the tales of John Barleycorn, the straw man whose figure is burned in celebration of the harvest at the equinox.
One of the traditional explanation for the stories and legends about the faeries is that they are remnants of tales about and from the succession of invaders to the northern British Isles, such as Norse, Picts, and others. However, it is not an unreasonable supposition that the faerie mythology is also partly mixed with old fertility figure worship, as the faeries are also often portrayed as capricious creatures of old knowledge who may bless of curse mortals at their whim. The faerie land is described as green and fertile, the faeries as youthful and beautiful, and they are to be found in the deep woods. While the reasons for Tam lin's abduction is never positively stated in the telling of the tale, overtones of sexual activity run through many stories regarding faerie abduction. If Tam Lin was taken by the faeries to be the Queen's lover and he is being sacrificed in the fall, does he then represent a harvest figure? The faeries do not state why they must pay a tithe to hell, but if Tam Lin is a harvest figure then that situation provides an explanation.
Faerie horse: color and bells
"O first let pass the black, lady,
And syne let pass the brown,
But quickly run to the milk-white steed,
Pu ye his rider down.
"For I'll ride on the milk-white steed,
And ay nearest the town,
Because I was an earthly knight
They gie me that renown.
There is clearly levels of status in the faerie troop, usually denoted by color of either the horses (such as in Tam Lin) or by the faeries themselves (such as in The Fairy Oak of Corriewater) with humans set aside as different. The faerie troop has black and brown horses for the knights and the musicians, but a white horse for Tam Lin. This is sometimes explained as a sign of honor, and sometimes unexplained. The white horse may also be meant to symbolize purity, either Tam Lin's human purity in contrast to the demonic image given of the faeries, or the purity of the individual chosen for sacrifice. Horses figure prominently in pre-Christian Celtic mythology as well, as some Goddesses were said to take the form of horses. Epona, worshipped in th British isles, was said to take the form of a white horse, and was considered a fertility goddess, which would tie in to the harvest imagery in this story.
In Russian folklore, a procession of colored horses from black to white indicates progress towards a goal, as if from nighttime to daylight (thank you to Cat - ed)
The faerie horses may also have bells on the bridles, possibly meant to warn humans of the presence of the fey as they posed some danger to those humans caught unaware. These elements can also be seen in "Thomas the Rhymer". One version of Tam Lin depicts him as wearing bells about his middle in much the same way as the Queen of Faeries does in Thomas Rhymer.
As a last note on horses in the ballad, when Janet goes to rescue Tam Lin, she must find him among the faerie troop and grab a hold of him. Most versions describe him as the rider of a white horse, often with hair down, a hat, one hand gloved and one hand bare, and other signals of his identity. However, several versions not only omit these specific identifiers, but leave it unclear as to whether Janet is throwing her arms around Tam Lin's neck or the neck of the horse.
"And they'll change me then, and it's all in your arms
to many's the beasts wild
You must hold me tight, you must fear me not
I'm the father of your child,
you know that I'm the father of your child."
Janet must hold on to Tam Lin as he is transformed into a number of strange and frightening objects. Most of the objects are either frightening, dangerous, hard to hold, or all of these. The first level of this test is that it is simply a test of Janet's bravery and strength, like any hero who is facing down a challenge. On another level, it is a test of her devotion and love for Tam Lin. Throughout the story his identity and his relationship to her are in question. Through the trials she is presented with a number of false images meant to frighten her away, and she can only win him if she is certain of what she is truly holding. The trial requires great courage and great love.
In addition, Janet is usually presented as the heir to Carterhaugh woods, but is forbidden to enter because the fairies claim ownership of the land. The battle over Tam Lin is also a battle over the magic in the woods, and whose claim was greater. If Janet wants to own the woods, she must be willing to face down the monster that dwell within it.
It can also be seen as a fight for Tam Lin's soul, which the faeries are presumably offering to hell. The outside physical appearance was considered to reflect inner being, but Tam Lin's soul was to some extent captured by the faeries. The Queen has command of him, and by slating him for sacrifice, disposal as well. The transformation into animals and inanimate objects (none of which were generally considered by christians to have souls) until he emerges from the water a naked man sound as if Janet must hold onto Tam Lin until his second baptism of sorts restores his soul to safety and to his own control.
The image of beasts and the faerie procession may originate in the celebration of Samhain, when (according to some) the Celts would dress in costume to celebrate the end of the harvest and the coming of winter. It is this tradition on which Halloween costumes are also based, and both play with the idea of disguising a persons identity (and thus their soul) for ritual purposes.
One of the most commonly named creatures in the transformation is a snake or an adder. This images has sexual overtones that would tie into Janet's need to conquer the earlier imagery of sexual indiscretion (and in some versions, even non-consensual sex). Additionally, the snake has strong religious imagery. The christian notion of snakes as sinful not withstanding, snakes are commonly viewed as being powerful beings of a mysterious and immortal nature due to their ability to shed their skin. In combination, these symbols behind Janet's struggle with the snake suggest that she is struggling with the primordial forces of nature. This is strengthened by the fact that this scene (as well as her earlier meetings with Tam Lin) occur in the forest rather than a civilized setting. The woods themselves may represent sexuality and/or the primordial forces also represented by the faeries. By struggling with beasts in the forest held by the old races in order to achieve her goal, Janet is struggling with the forces she needs to master in order to control her own destiny as a mature and sexual woman.
In many versions of Tam Lin, Janet is pregnant at the time of her rescue of Tam Lin. It may not be enough that she is brave, or that she loves him, but that she must also be with child. The transformation he goes through are varied and strange, but many end with Tam Lin in her arms, naked, perhaps after a baptism, at least symbolically reborn. Most versions also instruct her to cover him in her mantle, and while this is traditionally a sign of protection, it can also be seen as a swaddling of sorts. At least one version has Tam Lin completing his transformations by passing through Janet's dress and coming out at the lower hem. One visitor to this site has compared the last transformation, into a burning object, to the sensation experienced by a woman when a baby's head passes through the vagina. A few authors have suggested that Tam Lin is not so much being rescued by Janet as being born by her.
Green Mantle and Kirtle
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.
Both the mantle and its color are symbolic in important ways to the story. Green is the faerie color and it is considered unlucky for mortals to wear it in an place where the faeries might see them (see Alice Brand for an example of this ). Likewise, Janet refers to Tam Lin as "elfin grey" when speaking of him, since the root word for both colors was the same.
Green has other symbolic meanings though. One is that a woman who dresses in green is supposed to be sexually promiscuous, since green hides grass stains. The other is that a woman dressed in green has left or been left by her lover, a 'grass widow', from the days back before divorce was a possibility for most folks.
Janet specifically wears green into Carterhaugh woods despite the knowledge that faeries dwell there, which supports the earlier notion that she originally went there as an act of defiance, but it is noteworthy that Tam Lin specifically instructs her to wear the mantle when she comes to rescue him.
Apart from the need to provide cover for a wet and naked man in the woods during late fall, mantles (like the greek Aegis) were signs of protection, so Janet casting her mantle over Tam Lin makes sense as the final act of recovering him from the faeries. It is a statement that he is now her own and under her protection, but the choice of color is interesting. Possibly the color is either meant to confuse the faerie magic when she battles them, or as implied by Tam Lin's further command to 'hide me out of sight', simply as a means of camouflage in the green woods.
"And then I'll be your ain true-love,
I'll turn a naked knight,
Then cover me wi your green mantle,
And hide me out o sight."
The Threats of the Queen of Faeries
Meant as threats as to how the Queen would have altered his body had she known he was going to escape, specifically that she would have replaced his eyes with wood and his heart with stone.
"But had I kend, Tam Lin," said she,
"What now this night I see,
I wad hae taen out thy twa grey een,
And put in twa een o tree."
Oh had I known, Tam-Lin, she says
Before ye came from home,
I would ta'en your heart o' flesh,
Put in a heart o' stone.
Had I but the wit yestereen
That I have bought today--
I'd pay my tiend seven times to hell
Ere you'd been won away
While the reference to replacing his heart with one of stone clearly implies that the Queen would have taken away his ability to betray her by loving or attracting the love of another, there are two possible reasons that she threatens to remove his eyes. One is that, like his heart, she would have prevented him from escaping, but the other is that by leaving his eyes intact he was able to leave the realm of faeries with the knowledge he had learned there. In many tales those who travel to faerie lands are blindfolded, or those who return from faerie lands with the gift of faerie sight (sometimes obtained after rubbing a salve on their eyes) later have their eyes plucked out when the faeries learn the mortal can still see them. By leaving with his eyes intact, Tam Lin is able to leave the fairy world with valuable knowledge that the fairies would much prefer he did not have.
Tam Lin is a "border ballad". This does not mean, as one might assume, that it is a story about the borders between this world and the one of the faeries.The term atually refered to human borders, specifically between Scotland and England. The border between Scotland and England was a dangerous place to live for quite a few centuries, as the two countries were often at war with each other, or fighting battles between factions and clans within their own borders. Along the border country, many groups only nominally made their living by farming, and engaged rather a lot in the particular Scottish form of raiding and theft known as reiving (this pre-dates Joss Weadon's use of the term by several centuries). There was even a reiving season, starting in late summer and running until early spring (when the nights were long). Cattle were the most often stolen items, and it was standard practice to get all of your local kin together to go out reiving to steal cattle from your enemy, who would then get all of their kin together to steal it back. When armies would march through your town and burn down the crops on a regular basis, living on the move and providing for your family by stealing from your enemy made perfect sense. The practice was also a way of winning honour and fame, as ballads were written about some of the best known reivers.
Seeing as this was at least a well-known practice in the areas that gave rise to the ballad of Tam Lin, the question becomes how does the ballad of Tam Lin tie into the tradition of reiving ballads? Now in Tam Lin, our male character can be viewed as the equivalent to the cattle in this story (see human sacrifice section for more on this). The faerie troop would be the equivalent of a reiving band who captured Tam Lin when he strayed too near the border between their world and his. There were areas of Scotland that did perform sacrifices of cattle at the New Year (see above), and that was the traditional time to thin down the herd for winter. Janet, therefore, is engaging in reiving herself, waiting at a border (the crossroads) to steal back what the other side has stolen from her.