February 9, 2013

Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
Published: 2006, Firebird (Originally 1991)
Genre: Fantasy, Retelling
Source: Library book

In the ancient Scottish ballad "Tam Lin," headstrong Janet defies Tam Lin to walk in her own land of Carterhaugh . . . and then must battle the Queen of Faery for possession of her lover’s body and soul. In this version of "Tam Lin," masterfully crafted by Pamela Dean, Janet is a college student, "Carterhaugh" is Carter Hall at the university where her father teaches, and Tam Lin is a boy named Thomas Lane. Set against the backdrop of the early 1970s, imbued with wit, poetry, romance, and magic, Tam Lin has become a cult classic—and once you begin reading, you’ll know why. This reissue features an updated introduction by the book’s original editor, the acclaimed Terri Windling. (Goodreads)

I first read Tam Lin back in late middle school/early high school. Needless to say, I didn't remember it very well, nor did I truly understand the "Tam Lin" allusions. Reading it again through a new lens as a small liberal arts college graduate who is more familiar with the source material, Tam Lin was an enjoyable read.
Combining a fifteenth-century (or earlier) Scottish ballad with an American college experience in the 1970s, it is not a surprise that Dean's retelling is quirky. I loved all the discussions that Janet and her friends have about English and Classic Greek and Roman literature. Over the course of nearly four years, they take full advantage of their college experience; from taking strolls around campus to seeing plays at college and local theaters to arranging lunch or dinner dates, all the while discussing course loads and their thoughts of the future. The campus is described in great detail, as are Janet's classes and college life in general.
It is through her desire to portray college life that Dean stumbles a little. For example, Janet and all of her friends are almost unbelievably well-read. They quote Shakespeare, Donne, Homer, and other famous writers all the time. Because Tina does not have an extensive history reading these works, Janet thinks of her as hopelessly ignorant and unlikable for about the first half of the book. While there are ways for like-minded individuals to find one another in college, the main characters' love of classical and historical works verge on unrealistic. Instead, it is the quieter, more subtle scenes where the characters see plays together or spend time eating lunch that make the book more interesting and readable.

Once one has experienced college, one realizes that college isn't really about the classes. Classes may be the ostensible reason for the institution and the justification for spending thousands and thousands of dollars, but many times what matters much more is the experience. For many people, college is the place where young adults begin to gain a sense of self, independence, and really start to think about their futures. In this regard, it is Janet's growth and her relationships with others (and not the "Tam Lin" part of this story) that form some of the strongest aspects of the book. 

The dynamics of Janet's friendships are easily the best parts of the novel. Janet and her two roommates, Molly and Tina, come from very different backgrounds and take a while to adjust to each other, but when they do they're able to bring out the best in each other and provide strong support. Their boyfriends and the males in their friend group actually fade into the background as the girls' friendship develops better. It is through this friendship, strong female teacher mentors, and Janet's post-graduation plans to get a graduate degree, regardless of the circumstances thrown her way, that Tam Lin also as be read as a feminist novel.

I found Janet to be a convincingly modern predecessor of the already self-actualized Janet of the ballad. She rang the most true of the ballad's three main characters. As for Thomas, his character is difficult for the reader to connect with. That's partially due to the fact that Thomas remains an enigma for the majority of the novel. He frequently is in Janet's company, but he's not really the focus of her point of view narration. The fairies, especially the character who turns out to be the Fairy Queen, are a little distant and elusive, but I did not quite get the sense of foreboding and magic that I hoped they'd possess. Even when Thomas does explain his curse and the role of the fairies at their college, it's all told in a matter-of-fact way which Janet does not question nearly as much as I'd expect her to. Oh, she does question her role as Thomas' pregnant lover who must save him from being tithed, but she seems relatively at ease with the fact that enchantment has been all around her college.
From the beginning it's clear that Pamela Dean set out to retell the "Tam Lin" ballad. The synopsis for the novel is quite explicit in its references to the ballad. Terri Windling, a well-known and respected fairy-tale scholar, provides a useful introduction to the novel, and Dean herself provides an afterward discussing the influence that "Tam Lin" had upon her novel's creation. At the very end of the novel, Dean even includes the Child Version A of the ballad.

With all that in mind, how do I think that Tam Lin fared? Honestly, I think it was a little bogged-down with so many descriptions of college life. Although something seems a little off throughout the entire novel, it is not really until the last quarter or so of the story that it clearly becomes a "Tam Lin" retelling. Before that the novel could easily be mistaken for a typical coming-of-age college story. Missing is the sense of wonder and enchantment I'd expect from any story about the fairfolk.
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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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