Tam Lin Balladry

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Major Variations in Tam Lin

Events, Motives, and Explanations

Tracking Major Variations Across Versions

This version is intended to provide an overview of some of the major variations between versions in Tam Lin, such as scenes, character backgrounds, and explanations given for different parts of the story. For a complete listing of which variations occur in which versions, please see The Tam Lin storyline

Janet's reason for travelling to Carterhaugh

When Janet is first introduced in the story it is usually in preparation for travelling to Carterhaugh. The manner in which she is depicted is meant to convey her character. In some versions, Janet is occupied in the ladylike and mannered activilty of sitting calmly in a bower sewing when the thought of fresh roses sends her to the woods on impulse.

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

She's let the seams drop to her foot
The needle to her toe
And she's away to Carterhaugh
As fast as she can go

-- Digital Traditions verses 3-4

or along the same lines, in search of flowers for a decoration:

'Go saddle for me the black,' says Janet,
Go saddle for me the brown,
And I 'll away to Carterhaugh,
And flower mysell the gown.

Go saddle for me the brown,' says Janet,
'Go saddle for me the black,
And I'll away to Carterhaugh,
And flower mysel a hat.'

-- Child's 39H, verses 3-4

Other versions depict Janet as a more willful character, who, with warning of the dangers of the woods full in mind, sets off to explore or confront the haunted woods. It is more of a defiant act after hearing the warning concerning Tam Lin, and perhaps Janet takes the journey as a challenge:

Now gold rings ye may buy, maidens,
Green mantles ye may spin;
But, if you lose your maidenhead,
you'll ne'er get that again.

But up spoke her, fair Janet,
the fairest of all her kin;
I'll come and go to Carterhaugh,
and ask no leave of him.

-- Child's 39I, verse 3-4

or more explicitly:

I'll wager, I'll wager, I'll wager wi you
five hunder merk and ten,
I'll maid gang to Carterhaugh
And maid return again

-- Child's notes

A third scenario also exists, somewhere between the first two. Warned of the presence of Tam Lin, Janet dresses herself and does up her hair, evidently going to the forbidden woods to seek out an otherwordly lover. Further support for this notion is that the dress is often described as being green) and that she does not simply travel to Carterhaugh, but specifically seeks the area where she is most likely to find Tam Lin.

O I forbid you, maidens a',
That wear gowd on your hair,
To come or gae by Carterhaugh,
For young Tam Lin is there.

There's nane that gaes by Carterhaugh
But they leave him a wad,
Either their rings, or green mantles,
Or else their maidenhead.

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.

-- Child 39A verses 1-4

Some versions omit any mention of Janet's motivations, either being somewhat unclear on it themselves or simply due to fragmentation of the ballad over time.

The initial meeting of Janet and Tam Lin

Much as the versions disagree on why Janet travels to Carterhaugh, there's also a good degree of variability in how consensual the resulting sexual activity is, in the versions that include it. Some depict it as rape:

He's taken her by the milk-white hand
And there he's laid her down
And there he asked no leave of her
As she lay on the ground.

-- Steeleye Span, verse 8

While others imply a more consensual relationship:

He's taken her by the milk-white hand
Among the leaves so green
And what they did I cannot say
The leaves they were between

-- Child's 39I, verse 10

Both versions sometimes depicted Janet afterwards alone in the woods, though it seems to be more common with the darker interpretation, perhaps implying that a willful female had been "humbled".

Now since you've had your will of me
Come tell to me your name
But she nothing heard and nothing saw
And all the woods grew dim

-- Digital Traditions verse 9

Quite a number of versions skip any particular reference to contact between Janet and Tam Lin at all, though she still becomes pregnant, so we can probably assume it occurred none the less. Some of the most heavily fragmented versions have Janet apparently arriving pregnant at their first meeting.

note: For a more detailed analysis of this variation, see Tam Lin and Rape

Her and her family's reaction to her pregnancy

One of the major variations seen in the versions is the number of scenes in the ballad. Many of the version have only two scenes, Janet's encounter of Tam Lin and her subsequent rescuing of him. Other versions have Janet leaving Carterhaugh and travelling to her father's house, where it is discovered she is pregnant, and she subsequently returns to Carterhaugh and encounters Tam Lin again, where he instructs her how to rescue her. Versions lacking this middle scene may still refer to a pregnancy, although some versions omit the pregnancy aspect entirely.

Most versions have her father or other member of the household observing the early signs of pregnancy in Janet. Some versions portray the family's reaction as mostly somewhat dissappointed:

Out then spak her father dear,
And he spak meek and mild,
"And ever alas, sweet Janet," he says,
"I think thou gaest wi child."

-- Child 39A, verse 13

Other versions depict an angry or outraged family:

Up starts Lady Margeret's sister,
An angry woman was she:
If there ever was a woman wi child.
Margaret, you are wi!'

--Child 39F verse 4

And still others have a bystander treat Janet's pregnancy as somewhat shameful but not entirely shocking:

Up there spake one of them little girls
And on her face there was a smile
She says, "I think my lady's loved a little long
And now she goes with child, and with child
Aye, and now she goes with child."

--Watersons verse 10

Janet's own reaction is generally defiant rather than contrite:

"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.

"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.

-- Child's 39A, verses 14-15

While some versions have language implying that she fully intends to bear the child without any mind to the social stigma of out of wedlock pregnancy:.

And if I be with child, father,
'Twill prove a wondrous birth,
For I will swear I'm not with child
To any man on Earth.

-- Child's 39I, verse 20

Some, however, then go on to the suggestion that there are ways of dealing with the pregnancy other than marriage:

Then out it speaks her brither dear,
He meant to do her harm :
There is an herb in Charter wood
Will twine you an the bairn.'

-- Child's 39G, verse 15

or in a slightly different tone, her mother:

Out then spoke her mother dear
And ever alas, said she
I know an herb in the merry green wood
That will scathe thy babe from thee

-- Digital Traditions verse 20

In the versions where she receives this advice, when Janet returns to Carterhaugh, she does not go and once again "pu'd a double rose" but instead plucks a herb to be used in triggering a miscarriage (abortion):

"There grows a flower in Charters Woods,
it grows on gravel greay,
It cold destroy the boney young bern
That ye got in your pley.'

She's teen her mantle her about,
Her green glove on her hand,
And she's awa to Charters Woods,
As fest as she could gang.

She had no puld a pile, a pile,
O not a pile but one,
Up it startid True Thomas,
Said, Leady, let alean.

- Child 39K verses 9-11

Most of the other versions lacking the advice on triggering miscarriage are unclear on Janet's reasons for traveling to Carterhaugh again, though the implication seems to be that she wishes to speak with Tam Lin now that she knows she carries his child. One version states this clearly

She prinkd hersell and prinnd hersell,
By the ae light of the moon,
And she's away to Carterhaugh,
To speak wi young Tamlane.

-- Child's 39I, verse 22

Both versions usually include Tam Lin's question of "are to kill the bonny babe that we got us between?". His question might make more immediate sense if she is considering abortion, but in the versions where she has not received counsel on drugs to induce miscarriage, it may instead reflect his greater than mortal knowledge (similar to his knowledge of her name at first meeting).

In the versions missing the implication of abortion, her return to Carterhaugh and plucking of the rose she knows will summon Tam Lin may support her earlier intentions of continuing her romance with him. Her praise of him and refusal to claim any other as father is not (to me at least) inconsistent with a desire to terminate either the pregnancy or relationship. It may be an act of desperation given the shame attached to an out-of-wedlock birth, especially given the fact that the father is likely to be utterly unavailable. One version goes so far as to place her rescue of Tam Lin as occurring in her eighth month of pregnancy, a little late to be seeking abortive agents :

When she came to her father's court,
As fine as ony queen;
But when eight months were past and gane,
Got on the gown o' green

-- Child's 39G, verse 11

and just in time at that :

She borrowed her love at mirk midnight
Bare her young son ere day,
And though ye 'd search the warld wik
Ye'll nae fand sic a may.

-- Child's 39G, verse 59

Tam Lin and Janet's Lineage

While some of the versions imply that Tam Lin is considered by the local populace to be a faerie (and his guardianship of the woods supports this), some go on to have him tell how he was kidnapped as a young man by the Queen of Faeries and is in fact mortal. Those that do not include this description may or may not not be implying that he is a faerie, since the omission may simply mean that that aspect of the story has been lost in that version. It is not unheard of for a mortal to take a faerie as a mate though, and the trials Janet undergoes would not be inconsistent with this interpretation either, as the faeries were usually unwilling to give up one of their own easily. One version specifically states that Tam Lin is a faerie and not a mortal man:

'Full pleasant is the fairy land,
And happy there to dwell;
I am a fairy, lyth and limb,
Fair maiden, view me well.

-- Child's 39C, verse 4

For those versions in which he is human and include his explanations of how he came to live among the faeries, there is also a brief explanation of who his family is, most likely because the names would be familiar to either Janet or those hearing the story. Some have him as a member of the Roxbrugh family, or else Foulis, Kirk, Forbes or Murray. (see Scotland families for more on these names)

Some versions provide specific descriptions of how he came to live with the faeries, either by falling from his horse in a storm :

And ance it fell upon a day
A cauld day and a snell,
When we were frae the hunting come,
That frae my horse I fell,
The Queen o' Fairies she caught me,
In yon green hill do dwell.

-- Child's 39A, verse 23

or resulting from a deliberate act of treachery by the villain of so many stories, the evil step mother:

'When I was young, o three years old,
Muckle was made o me;
My stepmother put on my claithes,
An ill, ill sained she me.

'Ae fatal morning I went out,
Dreading nae injury,
And thinking lang, fell soun asleep,
Beneath an apple tree.

Then by it came the Elfin Queen,
And laid her hand on me;
And from that time since ever I mind.
I've been in her companie

-- Child's 39G, verses 25-27

This information is most likely given as a means to prove that Tam Lin, despite the rumors and his ungentlemanly behavior towards Janet, would make an appropriate husband for her. Janet herself is clearly of some higher station herself, as her father owns not only a "ha" (hall), but has knights and lords at his command :

Out then spake an auld grey knight,
Lay oer the castle wa,
And says, Alas, fair Janet, for thee,
But we'll be blamed a'.

-- Child's 39A, verse 11

one version even puts her as high as daughter to the king :

These news hae reachd thro a' Scotland
And far ayont the Tay,
That Lady Margaret, our king's daughter
That night had gaind her prey.

-- Child's 39G, verse 58

while almost all at least claim she is of high enough station to claim the Carterhaugh woods:

"Carterhaugh, it is my own,
My daddy gave it me,
I'll come and gang by Carterhaugh,
And ask nae leave at thee."

-- Child's 39A, verse 7

And while Tam Lin almost always claims authority over the woods as a guardian of the faeries, some versions also have him claiming ownership on the basis of his human heritage

I'm Earl Douglas's second son,
With the queen of fairies I dwell.

-- Child's 39J,verse 7

I'm the Earl o' Forbes' eldest son,
An heir ower a' his land.

-- Child's 39G, verse 24

Most versions seem to assume that Tam Lin and Janet met almost by accident and that he has been with the faeries for a long time.

"Is it to a man of might, Janet,
Or is it to a man o mean?
Or is it unto Young Tamlane
That's wi the fairies gane?

-- Child's notes

While one version states that Tam Lin has not been gone so long, and in fact knew Janet when she was a child.

Randolph, Earl Murray, was my sire,
Dunbar, Earl March, is thine;
We loved when we were children small
Which yet you well may mind.

-- Child's 39I, verse 28

Another version states that he had been waiting specifically for her, perhaps because of her family's claim to the land or her beauty.

"Indeed your love's an earthly
The same as well as thee,
And lang I've haunted Charter Wood
A' for your fair bodie

--Child's 39G, verse 22

Some versions take a third path, neither human nor faerie:

"If he were to a gentleman
And not a wild shade,
I'd rock him all the winter's night
And all the summer's day"

-- Anaïs Mitchell, verse 19

In this version, there are no fairies mentioned, and Tam Lin does not contradict Janet's identification of him as a 'wild shade'. He still requires transformations before he can be taken home, indicating some supernatural aspects, but the exact nature is unclear. A shade is usually a term used for a ghost, but as he has engendered a child, this is an unclear identifier.

Recapturing Tam Lin

While many of the versions require little more than Janet's presence, and a strong grip to keep hold of Tam Lin as he transforms, some versions include other actions that must be performed to complete the task. Some of these include bringing along instruments most likely intended to prepare the battle ground in some manner. The imagery of casting around in a circle implies that Janet is clearing a space that will be safe for her, or marking out her battle ground:

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

--Child's 39D, verse 17

There is some variation regarding how to properly treat the faerie troop, with some versions cautioning silence:

"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

-- Child's 39A, verse 28

while others advise saluting some members of the troop respectfully:

The first court that comes along,
You'll let them all pass by;
The next court that comes along,
Salute them reverently.

-- Child's 39D, verse 18

Likewise, there is some disagreement over whether or not to make any sounds during the actual struggle. Some advise calling out Tam Lin's name, which may be either to remind him of who he is, or to lay claim to him by naming him (which would tie in with the baptismal imagery present in some versions):

They 'll next shape him into your arms
Like the laidliest worm of Ind;
But hold him fast, let him not go,
And cry aye "Young Tamlin."'

-- Child's 39E, verse 13

and others implying a fearless silence, which resembles the theme in Faerie Oak of Corriewater, where Elph Irving's sister loses him to the faeries when she displays fear:

"And they'll change me then, and it's all in your arms
Into many's the beast sae wild
You must hold me tight, you must fear me not
I'm the father of your child,
Oh you'll know that I'm the father of your child."

--The Watersons, verse 20

One version includes an attempt by the Queen of Faeries to dissuade Tam Lin from his attempt to escape, and Janet's refusal of the offer.

'Stay still, true Tam-a-Line,' she says,
'Till I pay you your fee:'
'His father wants not lands nor rents,
He'll ask nae fee frae thee.'

-- Child's 39G, verse 50

While in another she merely comments on the timeliness of the rescue:

But hadst thou waited, fair lady,
Till about this time the morn,
He would hae been as far from thee or me
As the wind that blew when he was born.'

-- Child's 39J, verse 19

Some of the versions include a final step of dipping Tam Lin into a stand (a small amount) of milk followed by water.

'First dip me in a stand o milk,
And then in a stand o water
But bad me fast let me not pass,
I'll be your bairn's father.

-- Child's 39I, verse 43

Last Words of the Queen of Faeries

The Queen of Faeries usually gets in the last word, but the interpretation of those words have been taken in fairly different ways. In the some version, she says merely:

"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."

-- Child's 39A, verse 42

The last two lines of which is sometimes falsely interpreted as "I would have looked into your eyes and put you into a tree" (a fate sometimes metted out to faeries, probably due to their association with dryads), as can be seen in the more modern:

"Had I known Tam Lin" She said
"This night I did see
I'd have looked him in the eyse
and turned him to a tree."

-- Fairport Convention verse 21

the longer versions indicate that the actual translation is more along the lines of "I would have taken out your green eyes and put in wooden eyes", as part of overall threats to have altered those aspects of Tam Lin that played a part in his winning of a love to free him.

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

-- Digital Traditions verses 54-55

The confusion most likely arises from the lack of distinction between 'tree' and 'wood' (a product of a tree) as can also be seen in the phrase "for sake that died on tree" as a reference to Christ, in versions where Janet asks Tam Lin if he is Christian. For more into the meaning behind her threats, see interpretations of Tam Lin for an exploration into this and other areas of the ballad.

One version has the Queen expressing quite a different note on the subject; rather than anger at the loss of her captive she expresses a grudging admiration for the brave pair and an injunction against harming them to her troop. This is notable, since most of the time the Queen all but ignores Janet or curses her "ill fair'ed face".

The queen of Elphan she cried out,
An angry woman was she,
Let Leady Marget an her true-love be,
She's bought him dearer than me.'

-- Child's 39K, verse 27

A less generous-hearted Queen in another version makes some rather interesting accusastions of Janet:

She row's her mantle him about to keep him frae the sun
And up then spake the Queen of fairys out o' a bush of whins
O wae worth ye ill woman & an ill dead may ye die
For ye had plenty of lovers at hame & I had nane but he

-- McMath, verse 6

In some versions her words are different, having her express fear that she will now be the one to be sacrificed and largely overlooking the actions of Janet. This does answer the question that sometimes occurs to reads of the ballad; what happens to the faeries if their payment to hell is stolen?

Up bespack the Queen of Fairies,
And she spak wi a loud yell:
Aye at every seven year's end
We pay the kane to hell.
And the koors they hae gane round about,
And I fear it will be mysel.'

-- Child's 39H, verse 15