The King forbade his maidens a'
This admonition begins the immortal fairy ballad of Tam Lin. Of course, no young lady worth her salt would accept the word of her father alone, especially if he was the king, and so Janet decides to pay a visit to Carter-haugh. Kaledon Naddair, in his Keltic Folk and Faerie Tales, thinks that Carter Haugh might once have been Kerton Hall, and says that the original is possibly Garten Hall, a Pictish and Bryth-onic phrase in the mysteries. This is an interesting idea, but Kaledon provides no background or explanation for this concept. What's even more interesting is that Carterhaugh is an actual location in Selkirkshire which stands at the conflux of the rivers Yarrow and Ettrick, and in Walter Scott's day, local people insisted that there were"fairy rings" present there. This insistence upon an actual physical location in the outer world seems to be a hallmark in the fairy tradition, as R.J. Stewart has noted throughout his works. Certainly, the Reverend Robert Kirk was associated with Aberfoyle and True Thomas with Ercledoune and the fairy hills of Eildon. Tam Lin was not known to be an historical personage like the last two, but his ballad still begins in an outer world actual location.
Janet is warned that Tam Lin exacts a fee from all those who pass by, an early version of the toll road. Folks have to part with either their rings or green mantles or else their maiden-heads! The green mantle is also of interest in the fairy tradition. Wearing of green is often associated with magic, witchcraft, and fertility. Thomas Rhymer is given green clothing by the fairy queen. Gawain goes to fight the Green Knight, and his shield is of green with a golden pentacle on it. Katherine Briggs states that"most people, asked off-hand about the colour of the fairies' clothes, would answer 'green' without hesitation and they would not be far astray. Green is generally acknowledged to be the fairy colour..." Briggs reports that red runs green a close second in the descriptions of fairy colors. She also says that"many of the Green Ladies of Scotland were connected with the dead, and so naturally wore green, for green is the Celtic colour of death." It was widely held that the witches, fairies, and the dead all danced together on Halloween. Isobel Gowdie, the self- confessed witch, described the Fairy Queen thusly:"The Qwein of Fearrie is brawlie clothed in whyt linens, and in whyt and browne cloathes." Next to this rather tawdry image, a Fairy Queen who came to a Galloway cottage to borrow some oatmeal was much more glamorous:
She was very magnificently attired; her dress was of the richest green, embroidered round with spangles of gold, and on her head was a small coronet of pearls...2
Green is a color rich in associations with the fairies and the land, and could also signify the dead. Many Scotswomen considered it an unlucky color, but Janet dons it as her mantle and tying it a little above the knee hies herself to Carterhaugh.
Once there, she summons Tam Lin by an interesting means:
She had not pulled a double rose,
Tam Lin is summoned by the breaking of plants that grow near the well. In folk tradition, spirits often resided in plants. In many cases, it was taboo to injure or harm certain plants and trees. Wood-Martin in Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland mentions a sacred ash whose branches were never cut, though firewood was scarce in that district. Another in Borriskone was used in the old May Day rites, and if any one burnt a chip of it on their hearth, their whole house would burn down. In Lincolnshire, it was deemed necessary to ask the tree's permission before a branch could be cut. The right words were"Owd Gal, give me of thy wood, an Oi will give some of moine, when I graws inter a tree."3 In ancient Ireland, the unnecessary cutting of certain of the noble trees was punishable by death. One does not just take without asking. I paid for the thoughtless plucking of a juniper berry with a three month cold.
Despite claiming to own Carterhaugh Wood through her father the king, Janet has to pay the tithe, and in this case, she goes with child. When she returns to her father's hall, with the chess-playing maidens, this fact emerges and also the nature of her lover. An alternate version of the ballad goes:
If my love were an earthly knight,
Tam Lin's dual nature is clearly seen in another verse from this alternate version:
When she cam to Carterhaugh,
Tam Lin is not physically present at the well until he's summoned by the breaking of branches. He's in another dimension, but the knight's totem, his horse, is physically at the well to symbolize his presence. R.J. Stewart succinctly sums this up:
There is a strong parallel between Janet's pregnancy 'in a mist' and the actual translation of Tam Lin from fairyland. The ballads imply that the two processes are possibly united or analogous. Folk tradition does not necessarily discriminate between magical location of beings, the spirits of the dead, and the birth of children. From an esoteric viewpoint, within the more subtle teachings of the tradition, the popular lore is not, in fact, 'confused'. Nor are we suggesting that the ballad lore is merely a folk restatement of the so-called 'laws of reincarnation', for the true implication of the tradition is one of synchronicity and correspondence through more than one world...5
This seems to me one of the keys of magical tradition and Stewart has gone on to further note that in the deeper underworld experiences, we come to the hidden orders as a team, a partnership of human, faery, and spiritual creature which Stewart calls the triune alliance.6
Janet returns to Carterhaugh and pulls an abortifacient. When Tam Lin appears and asks why she seeks to end the pregnancy, she stops him with the question of what his true nature is:
'You must tell to me Tam Lin,
This is the"asking of the correct questions" which has been a fixture of magical lore down through the ages. From Perceval's failure to ask about the wonders of the Grail Castle to the ignominious failure at the bridge in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we know if you don't ask the right questions, your name will never be revealed, your quest will remain unfulfilled, and the land will be laid waste. Tam Lin then reveals his mortal origins and the fate that awaits him.
'I was once a mortal knight
In another version, recounted by F. Marian McNeill in The Silver Bough:
Ae fatal morning I gaed out
Apple trees were considered very magical. When cut across, the pips reveal a pentacle. Apples were linked to longevity and immortality, and were often seen as the passport to the other world before death.
A branch from the apple tree of Emain
The next day, with the fairy spell upon him, Bran, son of Febal, began his voyage toward the setting sun. Apples were seen as the sources of power and youth, and an 'ymp-tree' (a grafted apple) was under fairy influence. A man who slept under it, as Sir Lancelot discovered, was quite likely to be literally carried away by fairy ladies. A similar fate befell Queen Meroudys in the medieval poem"King Orfeo." Thomas Rhymer was carried away after falling asleep under a flowering hawthorn on Beltane. Tam Lin is carried off near Samhain or Halloween. Fairy and Other-world tradition holds that these liminal times, when the boundaries are thin, are the best time to approach the Otherworld. For the Celts, dawn, twilight, the changing between the light and dark halves of the year, were always times of potency and dread.
Subsequent verses of the ballad reveal that Hell is not the Christian place of eternal damnation, but the forces of destruction and dissolution. Tam Lin has been given the foreknowledge of what will transpire on Samhain night. Janet must hide herself at Miles Cross, literally a crossroads, once again, a place of liminal magic in many traditions. Legba, the Yoruban guardian of the crossroads, would find much of interest in this ballad. Janet must wait until the three orders of fairy have passed and then pull Tam Lin from off his horse. The fairies will change or transform Tam Lin into a number of shapes which will make it difficult or undesirable for Janet to hold him. Lastly, when he is a naked knight, she must wrap him in her green mantle and keep him out of sight. The transformations are interesting, for Tam Lin has to pass through the forms of raging lion, snake, water serpent, and then the elements of fire and water before his final return as a naked knight. The well water brings about his rebirth, and it's interesting that Tam Lin has been the guardian of a well. Water was often the votive deposit of choice for the Celt. What is also clear is that Janet is the vital ingredient of this piece of magic. It is her ability to hold him by the sheer power of love throughout these fearful changes of substance that will ensure Tam Lin's return to mortality.
Janet then wraps him in her cloak of green, and for the first time we hear the Fairy Queen. She is not amused:
Out then spak the Queen o Fairies,
In Naddair's version, she wishes an ill death on Janet and says that, had she apprehended this turn of events, she would have plucked out Tam Lin's own two eyes and put in the eyes of a tree. This is because Tam Lin, having resided in both worlds, is able to see into both worlds. She also would have liked to replace his living heart with a heart of stone. If she had done this, he would not have been able to fall in love with Janet and thus secure his redemption. R.J. Stewart, commenting on the darker nature of the Fairy Queen in Tam Lin, notes:
In Tam Lin, the Queen, not activated or motivated by true love, can only be a deeper archetype. This concept is central to the practical operation of magic in the underworld, and should be fully understood before any experiments are attempted. Indeed, the stories of Tam and Thomas should be seen as two operative variants of the same magical liberation process. In the first, the hero is saved by love from an exterior agency~either human love or divine grace~while in the second he is saved by that same divine power emanating from within himself. For most of us, the first mode of liberation is the most likely, though the second is the true aim and function of the tradition. It would not be too daring to suggest that Tam Lin and Thomas may be taken sequentially for magical purposes.10
This business of being redeemed by true love is not to be taken lightly. In Walter Scott's time, Robert Kirk's tomb was to be seen in the east end of the churchyard at Aberfoyle, but his ashes were not there. After the funeral ceremony, the shade of Reverend Kirk appeared to a relation asking him to go to Grahame of Duchray with the message that he was a captive in Fairyland, and only one chance remained for him to be freed. When his posthumous child is delivered and christened, Kirk would appear and Duchray, who was cousin to them both, had to throw a knife over Kirk's head. Duchray did go to the christening and did bring the dirk. Kirk did appear but Duchray was so astonished he did nothing, and Kirk was not restored to mortal life.
Oral tradition was the carrier of knowledge for many generations, and it is not surprising that two of our best sources for fairy lore are the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas Rhymer. Much of interest is contained in these ballads and their alternate versions on contact and right action within the Otherworld. For those interested in pursuing the model of the elven knight, I would recommend Maureen Duffy's The Erotic World of Faery. I would also urge you to seek out sung versions of Tam Lin. Two of the most readily available are Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief, CD 4257 from A&M records, featuring the vocals of Sandy Dennis and an arrangement of"Tam Lin" by Dave Swarbrick, and Steeleye Span's"Tonight's the Night," featuring a rocking version by Maddy Prior. Failing that, find a nice tree, sit down, and read these words:
The King forbade his maidens a'
JOANN KEESEY has been a witch for the past eleven years. She would have been a medieval scholar but earning a living precluded that. She comes from Irish peasant stock on her mother's side, i.e., the only land they owned was in a window box. Her father's side favored the Plattdeutsch peasantry. To these ancestors, she owes her good humor and pleasing personality. Joann met R.J. Stewart in 1992, and has been actively working in the Priests and Priestesses metier since 1994. She was firmly rebuked by your gracious editor for using" Bob Stewart" in her footnotes. In this case, familiarity has not bred contempt but increasing respect.
All material ©1999 Obsidian Magazine. All rights reserved.