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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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. The illustrations are gorgeous! Re-tellings can be a tricky undertaking but this author seems like they hit the mark. Great review Amanda. :)

    1. They are pretty pictures haha. And this one did overall, I was impressed. Thanks, Rachel!


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