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