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
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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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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.

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