An Earthly Knight by Janet McNaughton
Published: 2003, HarperCollins
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction, Retelling
Source: Library book
At this point I have a pretty good understanding of what types of books I'll tend to like or dislike. I went into reading An Earthly Knight with the expectation that I'd enjoy it, and I was right. I love a good historical fiction, and I love retellings, especially when said retellings are faithful to the original tale. While I like seeing how authors can put a different spin on a well-known story, at the same time I become frustrated when I feel like authors have taken too many liberties. I approach retellings with a mixed desire for a comforting, easy to anticipate read, and a curiosity about how an author has crafted the story to make it his/her own version. I am happy to say that I felt Janet McNaughton's version is both a faithful retelling and a well-told work of historical fiction.
I really enjoyed the focus on the dynamics of Jenny's family relationships. At the beginning of the novel, Jenny has recently found that all of her family's hopes and dreams now rest on her shoulders. Her brother Eudo is being raised as a knight by another noble family, but their family does not have the vast amounts of wealth or history necessary to be an established part of the upper-class. That's where Isabel, Jenny's older sister, was supposed to come into the picture. If she married well, then the Avenel family would establish another foothold in their quest for power and prestige. After running off with a traveling knight, however, Isabel's reputation is ruined and Jenny has now become the family's most valuable asset.
It is through this new lens of Jenny as the hope of the family that readers can really examine the relationships she has with her family members. Valuable Avenel family asset, younger sister in need protection, younger sister who must support her older sister - Jenny balances all of these roles and then some. Her relationship with her father comes off as a little strained, but it is understandable given the historical setting. While her father obviously cares about his daughter, he is also very much concerned with how she can help their family through marriage. Jenny and Eudo do not have enough interactions to really get a grasp on their relationship. But all other relationships pale in comparison to the one between Jenny and Isabel. After all that she has endured (little of which Jenny or the readers actually know), Isabel is pretty damaged. She's lost a sort of vibrancy and spark for life, refusing even to sing as she once did. The only place she is fit for now is the convent, but that cannot happen until she confesses her sins, which Isabel refuses to do. The relationship between Jenny and Isabel, as Jenny attempts to coax Isabel back to life and help her realize that there are still things worth living for, is wonderful and heartfelt.
McNaughton has also made both Jenny and Isabel the heroines of their own retold ballads, with Jenny as Janet from "Tam Lin" and Isabel as Isabel from "Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight." I definitely want to have the chance to read the second ballad soon!
As with the ballad itself, Jenny and Tam Lin's relationship does seem to be an example of insta-love. Jenny only travels to Carterhaugh a few times and has brief conversations with Tam. Yet both of them (Jenny in particular) are able to sacrifice stability and their reputations for the love that quickly forms between them. While there's nothing wrong with their relationship, I found myself pairing Jenny with Tam Lin because I knew I was supposed to. And, I suppose, because Jenny's suitor William is clearly not right for her. I do think Jenny and Tam have the potential for a strong relationship, and hints of that are shown after they decide to ignore conventions and become intimate with one another. I just wish there was more focus in the book on the development in their relationship. Jenny goes from abstract curiosity/indignation over Tam's occupation of her tocher, to gratitude, to hurt, to love far too quickly, in my opinion.
An Earthly Knight reads like a very well-researched story. McNaughton is able to convincingly integrate several more recent Scottish ballads into the world of twelfth-century Scotland. The little details are what really make this story come alive.
With that in mind, how do I think An Earthly Knight fared? I consider it to be one of my favorite "Tam Lin" retellings. McNaughton's version remains pretty faithful to its origins. By using the core events that make a tale a "Tam Lin" retelling as a foundation, McNaughton is able to expand and detail a potential world for her Tam Lin and Janet. I also think that it simply works as a solid piece of historical fiction for those who do not necessarily care about the story's origins.