Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Title: Tam Lin
By: Pamela Dean
If you were the Queen of Faery and had to pay a septennial teinde or tribute to Hell, where would you hunt for your victims? A small liberal arts college in Minnesota seems as likely a place as any to capture promising human youths: take your pick of any of the plethora of English and Classics students inordinately fond of quoting Shakespeare and Homer in everyday dialogue.
Pamela Dean's Tam Lin retells the Scottish ballad(s) of the same name in this modern setting. As in many versions of the ballad, the protagonist is a strong-willed young woman named Janet. (Her middle name, in a nod to other versions, is Margaret.) Starting on her first day as a freshman, Janet receives inklings that sinister things are going on beneath the facade of what passes for "normal" in college. Her dorm is reportedly haunted by the ghost of a student who committed suicide in 1897, strange rumors circulate regarding the intrigues of the exclusive clique that is the Classics Department (which is also known for its annual midnight horseback rides on Halloween), and certain of her classmates display unusual evasiveness about their pasts. But these are just the idiosyncrasies of college life, are they not?
The original supernatural element of the ballad remains peripheral in the sense of peripheral vision; it defies any attempt to look at it directly, remaining ever at the edges of the narrative. Until the seventh year arrives again, that is, and Janet finds herself in a position where only she can save the Queen's intended sacrifice, Tam Lin. "It was exactly as if she had spent four years reading a poem, probably by Keats, and had gotten to the end and seen, finally, what relation all the pieces bore to one another...Not science fiction at all, but a far older idea, remnants of things she had read in her childhood."