February 6, 2013

Review: Tam Lin by Susan Cooper

Tam Lin by Susan Cooper
Published: 1991, Margaret K. McElderry Books
Genre: Children's Picture Book, Retelling
Source: Library book

Margaret, daughter of the king of Scotland, longs for adventure. Tired of setting a good example for all the other young girls -- and of waiting to be married -- Margaret flings down her embroidery one day and runs out of the castle, over the fields to Carterhays, a wood that is supposedly haunted by Tam Lin, an Elfin knight. There, indeed, she meets Tam Lin, who is remarkably handsome. When she learns his story -- that he is human, not Elfin at all, and was stolen as a baby by the Elfin Queen -- she determines to help break the enchantment that holds him. Courageous and steadfast throughout one fearful night, Margaret defeats each dangerous and dramatic attempt by the Elfin Queen to keep Tam Lin. And when the morning sun rises, Margaret and Tam Lin ride together across the green fields of Scotland, back to the castle. (Goodreads)

Let me preface this review by saying that, yes, this is a picture book. But it's written by the incomparable Susan Cooper! I thought that reading two "Tam Lin" picture books would help to provide an interesting point of comparison to the more mature retellings I've been reading. As I discovered while writing my thesis on "Beauty and the Beast" retellings, picture books are much more complex than we traditionally give them credit for. In the case of Tam Lin, I read the story to see how Cooper remained faithful and deviated from a tale that's not much shorter than her retelling itself. I also wanted to look at what scenes and images were selected to be portrayed through the illustrations. I swear, it's really interesting stuff!

The story itself does not deviate much from the original ballad. In fact, it remains a pretty faithful rendition of the core story of the many variants that I read. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that Cooper's audience with a picture book is going to be slightly younger than those who either heard or sang the ballad back in Scotland, so there are some slight modifications.

Cooper blends together a number of different "Tam Lin" tales (some I apparently haven't even read) and adds her own interpretation to make this story more child-friendly. In her version, Margaret becomes more fleshed out, as do the motivations for her actions. In a way, Margaret can be viewed as an empowering role model for young girls. She is a princess, but feels confined sewing each day and is tired of her nurses speaking constantly of marriage and how ladies must prepare to be wives. Headstrong Margaret is defiant and stubborn, and in this case she travels to Carterhays to prove a point: she doesn't want to be married off like a piece of property. It is this frustration with the way her life is being planned out that causes Margaret to rebel and seek out Tam Lin's wood. Of course Cooper must take some liberties with Margaret and Tam Lin's relationship. There is no hint of anything remotely sexual between them, nor is there much in the way of romance, although Tam Lin does mention at the end that he and Margaret will have a child together some day.

Illustrations frequently accompany the text, and the images seem to mirror Margaret's desire for the freedom to see more of the world. For the most part, the illustrations show humans as tiny against sweeping scenery and landscapes. Nature and the natural world plays a large role in the story. Take, for example, the image to the right, as Margaret covers the saved Tam Lin.

It is interesting that Susan Cooper chose to have her byline read "retold by" instead of the traditional "by." None of the authors of the other "Tam Lin" versions I read chose to do that. In a way, what Cooper manages to do with this book is create a version that is more accessible to a younger audience, and perhaps takes fewer authorial liberties than most authors do who choose to retell classic tales.

With that in mind, how do I think Tam Lin fared? The illustrations were not my favorite, but I'm picky with those. I did enjoy how Cooper has made the story more accessible to a younger audience, although some of her modifications (such as making the tithe occur during Midsummer's Eve rather than Halloween) left me a little confused. Nonetheless, this is definitely a story that I would share with children, especially young girls.
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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. This is definitely a book catered to younger audience. On the other hand, I'm glad that with this book, the young can familiarize themselves with Tam Lin's story. Plus, the illustrations seem nice, although I'm still amazed by William Joyce's picture books. I guess people can also relate to Margaret, including myself. Born and raised a Chinese, it's not a rare occasion to hear stories about arranged marriages (good thing this doesn't happen to us anymore), so I understand Margaret's eagerness to have freedom. If I ever come across this book, I would definitely want to read it.

    1. For sure! haha yes, I do think it's good to make the tale accessible to people of all ages. I'm not familiar with William Joyce - I'll have to look him up.

  2. Beautifully written as always! I would love to see more of these illustrations and see how this book was directed towards a younger audience.

    1. Thanks, Cort! Reading it while trying to figure out how the illustrations served the story certainly made it more interesting for me.

  3. I've been reading a lot of picture books lately (I have a 5 year old), and I'm always on the lookout for something valuable enough (artistically, I mean) to get for my daughter. This sounds like just the thing.
    Thanks you for the lovely review, Amanda!

    1. Thank you, Maja! I hope you do share this story with your daughter! I definitely will when I have children.


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