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Tam Lynn

Absolutely nothing to do with Tamberlain, Tam Lynn (variously spelt) is the hero of a traditional ballad. Yes, I admit it I used to listen to electric folk. As any traditional ballad should do, it teaches a very important lesson.


I find this a particularly resonant story. In both the versions I have come across, the woman knows where she loves, and is undeterred by irrational changes or behaviour on the part of her beloved. She remains faithful both to herself and to her partner, accepts these temporary changes as discrepancies from truth, and is rewarded for her constancy.

Version 1 - from memory
So far as I can remember, a qualification which has to more do with the unreliable nature of my recollections than with the quality of the ballad, Tam Lin either offends the Queen of Faerie or attracts her. Either way, he ends up captive in her realm.

His lady, a woman of courage and intelligence, is not happy with this situation, and somehow learns that she might be able to win him back if she can show sufficient determination. It seems unfair that anyone of her character should not have a name – let's call her Janet. She waits until the Queen of Faerie and her attendant knights are riding in the earthly realm, pulls the ensorcelled Tam Lin from his horse and clutches him tightly in her arms. Furious, the Queen changes him into a number of dauntingly unpleasant things including a giant fish and a bar of red-hot iron. Finally she gives in. Janet finds she is holding her true love in her arms, and wraps him sensibly in her cloak.
Version 2 - from Fairport Convention
Dear me, how my unreliable memory had glossed over this text! If you ask me, the Janet (here named by name) in the Fairport version is no better than she ought to be. Warned that no nice girl would venture anywhere near Carter Haugh, what does she do but kilt her skirts up to the knee (or beyond) and leg it there without delay … and having got it, she flaunts it. Tsk.
Version 3 - from Pyewackett
Now that we have a record-deck again, I have rediscovered the Pyewackett version of the ballad: a clearer text (apart from the somewhat headstrong behaviour of anyone who goes out looking for flowers in Scotland at the end of October) and a fine musical arrangement. Here it is clear that the woman is called Margaret, and that the story starts with love at first sight. The essential remains unchanged. To win her love, Margaret must brave the forces of faerie and pay no heed to appearances.
Other versions
These abound. Go to the Tam-Lin site mentioned in the links below to find a fascinating set of comparisons, variants, speculations and comments. My thanks to J.L. Steigerwalt for telling me about this site, and comments that brought me to realise I had been confusing Fairport Convention with Steeleye Span – my only excuse is that it was all rather a long time ago.