February 28, 2013

A Project Fairy Tale Wrap-Up

It is with mixed emotions that I conclude Project: Fairy Tale here at Late Nights with Good Books. On the one hand, I loved being able to learn more about the "Tam Lin" story through research and reading so many retellings. It was also, however, quite exhausting and time-consuming. I'm definitely ready for a break.

In case you missed any of them, below is a round-up of all of my blog posts for Project: Fairy Tale. 

About Tam Lin:
Tam Lin, a Scottish Ballad

A Brief History of Tam Lin
Finding Meaning in Tam Lin
Further Readings of Tam Lin

Tithe by Holly Black
Tam Lin by Susan Cooper
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean 
Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip
An Earthly Knight by Janet McNaughton
The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
"Cotillion" by Delia Sherman
"Tam Lin" by Joan Vinge
Tam Lin by Jane Yolen

Stories Featuring Cursed Males
On the Nature of Retellings

I've learned a lot about "Tam Lin" and the many other fairy tales/fables discussed on the blogs of other participants, and I hope you did as well!

Thanks again to Allison for putting all of this together. Once again, here's a link to the Project: Fairy Tale Master Post. It's been fun!
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February 27, 2013

Further Readings of Tam Lin

As Project: Fairy Tale draws to a close, I wanted to leave my readers with a list of sources and various retellings of "Tam Lin." Obviously in a month I couldn't touch upon them all, so here's a list I created of some stories related to the ballad (that I believe are actually still in print).
Original versions:
Francis James Childe versions A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K

Fairy Tales from Scotland by Barbara Ker Wilson
Scottish Folk-Tales and Legends by Barbara Ker Wilson
Picture books:
Tam Lin by Susan Cooper
Wild Robin by Susan Jeffers
Tam Lin by Jane Yolen 

Short stories:
"He Said, Sidhe Said" by Tanya Huff, in the anthology Finding Magic
"Cotillion" by Delia Sherman, in the anthology Firebirds
"Tam Lin" by Joan Vinge, in the anthology Imaginary Lands
"Burd Janet" by Jane Yolen, in the collection Not Only Damsel in Distress

No Earthly Sunne by Margaret Ball
Tithe by Holly Black
Tam Lin by Sullivan Clarke
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
The Shadow and the Rose by Amanda DeWees
Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
The Ballad of Young Tam Lin by Patricia A. Leslie
The Ballad of Tam Lin by Kathleen McGowan
Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip
An Earthly Knight by Janet McNaughton
Silvermay by James Moloney
The Nightwood by Robin Muller
The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Cold Tom by Sally Prue
Feyland: The Dark Realm by Anthea Sharp

Happy reading! If you know of any additional "Tam Lin" retellings, please let me know!
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February 25, 2013

Review: Tam Lin by Jane Yolen

Tam Lin by Jane Yolen
Published: 1990, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Genre: Children's picture book, Retelling
Source: Library book

"Do not go down to Carterhaugh..."

When the worlds of humankind and the Faery Folk sit side by side—with moonlight and mist the only door between—young Jennet MacKenzie defies her parents' warning and embarks on a quest to win back the forbidden Carterhaugh, her ancestral home. One evening at the dilapidated mansion Jennet comes upon a blood-red rose amid the twining thorns. When she plucks it, it summons forth Tam Lin, a handsome captive of the Faery Queen. With courage and spirit, Jennet challenges the power of the Queen to save the life of Tam Lin and to win back the home that is rightfully hers.

Master storyteller Jane Yolen, winner of the World Fantasy Award, and prize-winning artist Charles Mikolaycak re-create the mystery and enchantment of this ancient Scottish ballad. (Book jacket) 

I ended up enjoying both the "Tam Lin" picture book retellings that I read. There's something about conveying the simplicity of the original tale through the picture book medium that works very well (and I believe this is true for all fairy tale and fable retellings). The stories themselves may remain rather simple (but never simplistic), but the accompanying images help to convey more than words ever can. 

As always, Yolen keeps the focus of her retelling on Jennet MacKenzie, the daughter of a Scottish clan chief, deemed unweddable "for she always spoke what she thought." It is her desire to help restore her family, coupled with her disregard of conventions, that causes Jennet to decide that her first act as an adult of age would be to reclaim Carterhaugh. Once Jennet makes that declaration to her parents, Yolen's Tam Lin continues down the familiar and well-trodden path of early versions.
Most interesting are some of the ways in which Yolen alters the tale to make it suitable for her young audience. Carterhaugh is not a danger to maidens in particular, as all children are warned to avoid the land and ruined castle full of horrible smells and strange shadows. Mantles and rings are still lost to the mysteries of Carterhaugh, but not as explicit payment to the fairies. No mention is made of a Tam Lin who keeps to the woods of Carterhaugh, although Jennet's parents do tell her that the land now belongs to the Fair Folk. Jennet's decision to travel to Carterhaugh is partially driven by her desire to prove that she's brave, partially by the desire to reclaim the land that should still belong to her family. And, once she learns about his plight, Jennet's decision to save Tam Lin is not driven by any sort of instant attraction. When Tam Lin reveals that only his own true human love can save him, and that all those who loved and cared for him have long since died, Jennet resolves to save him herself: "If no one else in this human world loves you, then I must."

The Fairy Queen has a more active role in this version, which really highlights Jennet's struggle to reclaim Tam Lin to the world of the living. Even before a physical test of strength in which Tam Lin changes into three forms within Jennet's arms, Jennet is subjected to an emotional test of strength. First the Fairy Queen offers Jennet money, then jewels, and, finally, ownership of Carterhaugh. Having the Fairy Queen interact more with Jennet and Tam Lin, instead of simply cursing their ability to save Tam Lin, makes the power of the fair folk all the more deadly.
I loved how this picture book seemed to be more about helping children in our culture today visualize and understand the story of "Tam Lin" than about Yolen taking many authorial liberties in this version. Images, such as the one pictured here, place a heavy focus on Scottish plaids and other reminders of the Scottish setting. Red and green colors are heavily used throughout the book. The focus on Scotland, however, is not nearly as significant to this tale as is the focus on the characters. The scenery pales in comparison to the characters, which are generally brightly attired and given a central prominence within the images.

At the end of the story, Yolen gives a little background on the original tale and how we can understand it. As I mentioned in my review of Susan Cooper's picture book Tam Lin, most authors of retellings seem to use the "by" tagline. For Cooper's and Yolen's picture book versions, however, the authors each use a "retold by" tagline. It makes me wonder about whether the picture book format makes authors more likely to stick closely to the original tale. 

With all that in mind, how do I think that Tam Lin fared? I found Yolen's deviations from the original tale both interesting and relvant to the audience. I loved the intense focus on Scotland and Scottish culture. Yolen's version is a treasure of a retelling.
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February 23, 2013

Review: Tam Lin by Joan D. Vinge

"Tam Lin" by Joan D. Vinge
Featured in Imaginary Lands, edited by Robin McKinley
Published: 1985, Greenwillow Books
Genre: Fantasy Anthology
Source: Library book
Goodreads · Amazon

With the exclusion of the picture books, Joan Vinge's "Tam Lin" retelling may be the most faithful one I've read. Vinge is careful to tread almost the exact same path as the original tale, deviating from it only to bring a little more context to the tale. Her short story is literally "Tam Lin" simply retold by another writer. Still, though, it was interesting to read the reasoning and context that Vinge added to make her story a little fuller, a little more accessible, to her readers.

Jennet is the only child of a wealthy Scottish laird. Carter Hall, a once-great hall currently in ruins, is Jennet's inheritance and the sole link to her dead mother. Jennet's father turned to Christianity after his wife died and expects Jennet to follow his advice on religion and prospective husbands. On this midsummer festival day, however, all Jennet wants to do is celebrate outside with her friends. After watching all of her friends pair up with prospective suitors that night, Jennet, feeling lonely and rebellious and missing her mother, goes to visit the ruins of Carter Hall, where she encounters Tam Lin.

From there, little in the short story is unpredictable, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the main aspect of the story that I found unpredictable is Jennet's characterization. Although later in the story I was able to go with the fact that this is a retelling and Jennet and Tam Lin are meant for each other, Vinge does not make their first meeting plausible at all. While Jennet's slight desire for rebellion is somewhat explained, I had no idea what led Jennet to make the choices she did. Below, I have briefly satirized their first meeting:
Tam Lin: Hey you can't just pick my roses! And, you know, trespassers must pay a price...How about giving me your cloak?
Jennet: No!
Tam Lin: Those expensive rings?
Jennet: No!
Tam Lin: Well, the only thing you have left to give me is your virginity....
Jennet: Yes, please!
Although perhaps this isn't really too satirical a representation, since that really is what happens in the novel. While original "Tam Lin" versions leave Janet's impregnation vague, Vinge tries to explain what happens. By doing so, however, I was abruptly taken out of my willful suspension of disbelief. Um, excuse me? Why did you just agree to this, Jennet? If there's one thing I hate most in stories, it's when I just can't understand the characters or their motivations at all, and unfortunately that became the case with Jennet on more than one occasion.

Where Vinge's story really shines is how it adds context to further flesh out the original tale. There's a reason behind Carter Hall being in ruins that has to do with the fair folk and Jennet's mother. Jennet has multiple reasons for wanting to ignore her father's admonitions to stay far, far away from Carter Hall. And the religious aspect is probably my favorite part. Jennet's world is one where Christianity is slowly gaining power, but harvest/fertility festivals such as the one being celebrated on Midsummer's Eve still remain popular with the people. "Tam Lin" brings up the question between traditions/old ways and the new ways of life proponed by the Church. As I mentioned in my review of The Perilous Gard, I love how historical and religious details can help me better situate the story.

Of all the "Tam Lin" retellings I read, this one definitely ended on the most dubious note (considering that it is a standalone short story). Not everything is neatly resolved, and it's almost as if Vinge wants her readers to question our own preconceived notions of how, when good defeats evil, we automatically assume that everything will now be perfect. This is not to say that anything bad happens in the end - just that there is a slight tone of uncertainty.

With all of that in mind, how do I think "Tam Lin" fared? This wasn't my favorite retelling, despite how closely it adhered to the original tale, simply because I had a difficult time relating to Jennet. Perhaps the issue here is that by adhering too closely to the story, Vinge did not give herself as much creative freedom to really delve into the major points of the story and find alternate ways to express the same ideas. Nevertheless, this is a short story and still worth reading for anyone looking for another "Tam Lin" retelling.
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February 22, 2013

On The Nature of Retellings

Retellings are tricky matters. On the one hand, writers are explicitly giving credit to an older story/idea. On the other hand, however, writers are expected to do something more with their new stories, offer a fresher take, add in bits and pieces that make the retelling uniquely theirs. It can be a very fine line to walk indeed.

While writing my thesis on changes to the "Beauty and the Beast" tale over the years, I found Perry Nodelman's spine theory to be extremely helpful. Nodelman is a prominent scholar on children's literature and attempts to explain the draw and sense of unity that we feel between various versions of the same tale
in Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books:
If we investigate what remains the same and what differs in different versions of the same fairy tale, we discover that each of the tellings contains something like a spine: a series of actions that appear in every version and that always appear in the same order... (p. 269).

If we consider "Tam Lin" versions and retellings, a spine, or  the major points of the story, those that get transferred from one retelling to the next becomes clear:
  • Tam Lin is a mortal man who is currently under a supernatural spell
  • Tam Lin and Janet meet in a place where the natural and supernatural worlds collide (Carterhaugh)
  • Janet saves Tam Lin from being tithed by holding on to him as his body morphs into many different shapes
  • Janet is successful and Tam Lin is free from supernatural forces

Even considering my relatively small sample size of "Tam Lin" retellings from this month, I can say without a doubt that they all hit those major points. Setting, character genders, additional plot points, narrative techniques, and more all not relevant to whether a story retells "Tam Lin." According to Nodelman's spine theory (which I firmly believe in myself), what really matters in determining a retelling is whether key concepts and plot points remain prevalent in the story. I want to be clear, however, that substitutions do work only to some extent. I could easily see a "Tam Lin" retelling where Tam Lin is the captive of other supernatural forces that may not specifically be fairies. But if someone tried to tell the tale by removing the supernatural elements, I imagine it would be an utter disaster. How would that author explain Tam Lin's captivity, his imminent death, and the trials that Janet must endure in order to save his life?

Sometimes I wish there was a specific formula for determining how authors should write retellings of classic stories, and then another one to help readers and critics decide how to regard these retellings. But that ruins the fun of them. Every author seems to approach a retelling in a different way, and it's fascinating to see what elements of the original story stuck with them and in what new directions they've taken the story. 

I'd like to say that I tend to prefer retellings that stay a little closer to the source material, but that's not necessarily true. What I really appreciate is simply a well-told story that gives credit where credit's due to the original, but also makes some intelligent changes to the original story in a context that makes sense.

Here are a few of my favorite retellings:

Now let me know: What are your thoughts on retellings? Anything that you love, or anything that really turns you off? What are some of your favorite retellings?
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February 21, 2013

Review: Cotillion by Delia Sherman

"Cotillion" by Delia Sherman
Featured in Firebirds: An Anthology of Original Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Sharyn November
Published: 2003, Firebird
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy Anthology
Source: Library book
· Amazon · Barnes and Noble

During the winter break of her first year at Vassar College, Celia Townsend is presented at the Snow Ball Debutante Cotillion along with other young Upper-East Side socialites. She agrees to come out mostly for her mother's sake, and, while there, ends up meeting Valentine Carter. Valentine seems like the ideal gentleman: charming and proper and vastly superior to Celia's boyfriend Guy. After a wonderful night at the cotillion, Valentine invites Celia to come listen to him play his lute with some other classical musicians the following evening. It is there that Celia realizes that there is more to Valentine than meets the eye, and that, as Janet was for Tam Lin, she is the only one who can save Valentine from becoming the fairies' tithe.

I have a few criteria that must be met for me to be satisfied by modern updates of classic stories: the modern updates must make sense within the context of the original tale as well as the new setting and the author must still hit the certain core events of the story. Basically, I want to still feel a certain sense of familiarity with the story. I view modernized updates not as completely new stories, but as stories that have been slightly adapted to fit in to their new environments. Thankfully, "Cotillion" met all of those marks and then some.

For the most part, the character modernizations make a lot of sense. Celia modernizes Janet's character by becoming a wealthy young socialite in 1969 New York. Valentine is a classical lutenist who lives in the Village. Instead of a powerful father, here Celia must deal with her mother's worries about her traveling to the Village to visit a young man whom she barely knows. The only significant player that could have been better characterized is the Fairy Queen. I definitely got the vibe that she is all-powerful, but her modernization left me more confused than anything else.

I really enjoyed that in "Cotillion" the characters are aware enough of the "Tam Lin" story and able to recognize that they've become players in a new version of it. "Cotillion" is not quite a retelling of "Tam Lin," however. Valentine and Celia take the "Tam Lin" story as a truth. Because they and the fairies all know how "Tam Lin" concludes, Celia's challenges are not the same as Janet's; she must find new ways to outwit the fairies and save the human under their spell.

Not all of my questions were answered, there are some awkward time jumps, and the characterization could have been stronger. Although I did have those criticisms while reading the story, those criticisms fade a little bit when considered in light of the fact that "Cotillion" is a short story of about thirty-five pages. In such a short span of pages, Sherman really has to pick and choose what elements to give significance to. The focus on "Cotillion" is on Celia's desire for a romantic adventure in her life, and how the rescue of Valentine satisfies that. Even more so than with novels, short stories must leave a lot for the readers to infer. Although Celia agrees to the ball and has a boyfriend, she also has these repressed hopes and desires. Readers can leave the short story content with the fact that this event has had enough significance on Celia's life as to assure new changes and future growth.

With all of that in mind, how do I think that "Cotillion" fared? I enjoyed reading this story and identifying how (and trying to guess why) certain aspects of the story were modernized. I do think that the story loses some significance if the readers do not have an understanding of the "Tam Lin" ballad, although it is explained to some degree within the contents of the short story. While not my favorite "Tam Lin" retelling, this is certainly a solid contribution to the field.
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February 19, 2013

Review: The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Published: 1974, Houghton Mifflin
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction, Retelling
Source: Library book

In 1558, while exiled by Queen Mary Tudor to a remote castle known as Perilous Gard, young Kate Sutton becomes involved in a series of mysterious events that lead her to an underground world peopled by Fairy Folk—whose customs are even older than the Druids’ and include human sacrifice. (Goodreads)

I first read The Perilous Gard in my seventh grade English class. Of all the books we read that year, this was one of my favorites. When I realized I had the excuse to read it again as an adult for Project: Fairy Tale, I was pretty excited, but also nervous. It's been twelve years since I read it for class. I'm a different person now and have doubled my life, reading, and experiences since then. I am happy to report, however, that I ended up loving The Perilous Gard, perhaps loving it even more so this time than when I first read it. It's a book that has aged well, and, for me at least, benefits from re-readings.

Kate Sutton is a likeable protagonist and throws into question how strength of character can be determined. She is banished to Elvenwood Hall, also known as the Perilous Gard, through no fault of her own. Yet she does not spend time blaming her impetuous younger sister Alicia, instead quietly submitting to her sentence. Her determination to make the best of her situation does not make Kate an easy victim, however, nor does she accept the victimization of others. From kindly treating the wandering bard Roland, whose brains have supposedly been addled by the fairies, to aiding a village woman in her time of need, Kate proves to be sensitive and aware of others' needs. Kate's sense of morality shines through when she agrees to live beneath the ground and serve the fairies, in the hopes of rescuing Christopher, the younger brother of her guardian Sir Geoffrey Heron. Kate's strength is a quiet and subtle sort of strength, but a strength nonetheless.

I thought it was genius of Pope to place this story within the context of Tudor England under Mary's rule. Philippa Gregory (along with some other authors and history books) has given me a healthy appreciation for and knowledge of England during the 1500s. I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds this time period fascinating. What makes the setting really work for the story is the fact that it does take place during a tumultuous time of change. None of the Tudor family had a relatively peaceful or easy experience presiding over the English throne. What was significant about Mary's few years of ruling was that England had just been forced to undergo many changes, from religion to way of life under her father Henry VIII. When Mary ascended the throne, she expected the English people to easily return back to the way they were before all of Henry's changes. Easier said than done, of course, yet Mary was willing to harm and persecute those who resisted yet another change to their very ways of life.

It is in this historical setting that Pope expands her story into the fantasy realm. The fairy folk here are being forcefully removed from every place of residence. The Fairy Queen remarks to Kate that the places where fairies can live are constantly being taken over by humans, and that soon they'll no longer have any place in England left to live in. Much like the new Protestants and those who followed Henry VIII's edicts, the fairy folk find themselves unwanted in a land that is purposefully moving away from the powers and influences of the past. In a way, it's almost tragic. The fairies of Pope's story are not harmless, certainly, but they also are not vengeful or cruel, participating in the tiend because it is the only way to renew their strength.

Another enjoyable aspect of The Perilous Gard is that its characters are self-aware of fairy lore and tales such as "Tam Lin." 

"Why was it wrong of you to sing the ballad of Tam Lin?" Kate cut in...
"It's not a song to sing so close to the Queen's hall," said Randal, shaking his head. "Surely they'd never show me the way in again if they heard me. For it tells of the lady who rescued her lover out of the fairy land, and that's a story they wouldn't care to remember; and in it the tiend is openly spoken of, and that's a thing they would choose to have for a secret." p. 90
So not only does Pope as the author draw upon the rich history of fairy lore and tales about it, but her characters are aware of such stories and use that knowledge to better situation themselves and help determine their own actions. It is an interesting literary device to have, and, through its use, Kate and Christopher literally become new versions of Janet and Tam Lin. In a way, having the characters be aware of the stories gives Kate the solution and strength she needs to save Christopher.

Reading this did make me wonder if Pope has included bits of other ballads and fairy stories. Both the Tudor England setting and the "Tam Lin" story appear to be meticulously researched. They wove together so well that I definitely could have been persuaded to believe that "Tam Lin" was a story that originated in 1500s England.

There are a couple little things that ordinarily would have caused me a little annoyance in other books, such as the heavy use of dialogue to relate relevant background information and some characters that could have been more fleshed-out. I found that those issues did not really bother me at all while reading The Perilous Gard, however, and that it's status as a Newbery Honor Book is well-deserved.

With all that in mind, how do I think The Perilous Gard fared? As should now be obvious through my review, I absolutely loved The Perilous Gard and will definitely keep it in mind as a text to refer back to again and again. It has just the right mix of historical fiction and fantasy and is a classic that should be read by any who love those genres, and even those in need of a quick but satisfying read. And as a bonus: you don't even need to necessarily read "Tam Lin" before the story to get the connections, since the ballad's story is explicitly mentioned within the main narrative.
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