A note: As with my other posts on the original "Tam Lin" ballad, I am primarily using Child Ballad #39A as the basis for my analysis, although I also use Child's other variants.
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.
If we consider that this ballad was sung at least as early as the 1500s, then the whole "maidens losing their virginity" thing is a huge deal. For a long time, an important part of a woman's marriageability was determined by her virginity, her pureness as it was. Here Tam Lin threatens the potential of marriage and a stable future for maidens.
Janet first calls Tam Lin to her by plucking a rose. For hundreds of years the rose has been used as a symbol of love and sexuality, and, according to the author's note provided in Jane Yolen's Tam Lin, plucking a rose was a way for people to summon lords within fairy gardens. Summoning Tam Lin through a rose in many ways foreshadows the sexual nature of their encounter. In sleeping with Janet (and possibly other maidens before the events of "Tam Lin" take place), Tam Lin may be continuing a cycle brought upon him. In some variants of the tale, Tam Lin hints to the fact that perhaps one of the reasons he's remained alive in the fairy realm for so many past tithes is because the Fairy Queen is fond of him (and has perhaps taken him as her lover). It is Tam Lin's willingness to become involved with the Fairy Queen that has saved him thus far, and it is Janet's willingness to become involved with Tam Lin that ultimately saves him.
While "Tam Lin" does place a heavy emphasis on sexuality, I think it is also important to mention that it does develop into a love story. It is not Tam Lin's lover or the mother of his child who is necessarily his salvation; it is only his true love who can break the spell. Of course, considering that Tam Lin and Janet met a total of two times before she plays the role of his true love to save him, a suspension of disbelief is required. This is a ballad, a work of folklore, after all; being completely logical is not a requirement.
"Tam Lin" is essentially a tale about two women, Janet and the Fairy Queen, who fight for control of the titular character. Even more interesting is the fact that females are given virtually all of the power in this tale. I found it pretty easy to recognize some feminist elements within "Tam Lin."
Why pu's thou the rose, Janet,
And why breaks thou the wand?
Or why comes thou to Carterhaugh
Withoutten my command?
"Carterhaugh, it is my own,
My daddy gave it me,
I'll come and gang by Carterhaugh,
And ask nae leave at thee."
Janet can easily fit into the mold of a self-actualized, modern heroine. She not only defies her father (a nobleman) by going to Carterhaugh, but I read Janet's loss of her virginity to Tam Lin as an explicit choice she makes. As I mentioned in my brief analysis of the use of sexuality within "Tam Lin," the loss of a maiden's virginity was only the third of three potential payments that Tam Lin requests. Readers can assume that, as the daughter of a lord, she'd least be wearing rings, if in the the weather was too warm for a mantle. Although one interpretation could be that Tam Lin rapes Janet, I think it seems likelier that Janet chooses to offer up her virginity as payment. After taking control of her own sexuality and then finding herself pregnant with Tam Lin's child, Janet owns up to her actions and is unwilling to allow her father to force her into a marriage she doesn't want. Alternate versions speak of Janet going to Carterhaugh to either speak to Tam Lin or to find an abortive drug. Tam Lin asks Janet to save him for their child, but it is still Janet's choice to save Tam Lin. The majority of the story is determined by the choices that Janet makes. She does not always choose the easy choices, and perhaps she does not even make the best choices. But again and again she is portrayed as sticking to her sense of what is right.
Although Janet is the undisputed heroine within the ballad, I think it is important to mention the Fairy Queen. I'm not very familiar with fairy lore, and even less familiar with ancient Celtic beliefs and ceremonies. It is interesting, however, that the fairies have a queen in charge. In some variants, Tam Lin explains he has avoided being tithed for so long because he was the favorite of the Fairy Queen (as I mentioned above, they presumably were romantically involved). Now that the Fairy Queen is no longer wants him romantically, Tam Lin's life at stake. From the Fairy Queen determining where and how Tam Lin lives to Janet being the only person who can save him, Tam Lin's life is literally under the influence of women.
Religion and the Supernatural
The binaries of religious vs. pagan traditions and the natural vs. the supernatural also come into play within the tale. Once again, I do not consider myself an expert on Celtic beliefs and customs, so my thoughts here are based on what is presented in various versions of the tale. Tam Lin himself is of uncertain origin — is he a fairy or mortal man? This information matters quite a bit to Janet, who must decide what to do now that she is pregnant. Should she save her reputation and marry one of her father's men? Should she keep the child? Should she save Tam Lin? These passages below point out the importance that Christianity has upon Janet and her decisions.
In response to her father's concern over Janet's pregnancy:
"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.
Here, we can understand that Janet believes Tam Lin to be a fairy ("elfin grey"), but she makes a point of stating that if he is in fact "an earthly knight" (human and presumably Christian), then she would never be content to allow herself to be married or attached to any one of her father's lords.
"O tell me, tell me, Tam Lin," she says,
"For's sake that died on tree,
If eer ye was in holy chapel,
Or christendom did see?"
Janet asks Tam Lin this after he catches gathering abortive herbs back at Carterhaugh. Only after Tam Lin admits to being a mortal man (and, indirectly, it appears, to being a Christian), does Janet fully commit to bearing her child and saving Tam Lin's life.
Certain variants mention additional aspects to Janet's rescue of Tam Lin, such as pouring holy water over him when he turns into a burning brand. Humanity and Christianity are definitely given preference over fairies and presumably pagan belief systems.
Now, how can we derive a more general meaning of "Tam Lin" based on these various aspects? At its heart, I believe that "Tam Lin" is about the strength of humanity over supernatural beings, a romance, and a bildungsroman for Janet. At the end of the day, it is Janet who must confront ridicule, supernatural beings, and her feelings in order to emerge triumphant.