[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Dawson contrasts Yolen's prose adaptation of the traditional Scottish ballad Tam Lin for children with that of British author Susan Cooper, asserting that though both authors add detail that offers texture to the characterization, neither manages to capture the nuance and complexity of the original.]
O I forbid you, maidens a,' That wear gowd on your hair, To come or gae by Caterhaugh, For young Tam Lin is there. There's nane that gaes by Caterhaugh But they leave him a wad, Either their rings, or green mantles, Or else their maidenhead. Janet has kilted her green kirtle A little aboon her knee, And she has broded her yellow hair A little aboon her bree, And she's awa' to Carterhaugh. As fast as she can hie. --Tam Lin (Child 39A)1
Tam Lin is one of the better known of the traditional Scottish fairy ballads. This highly romantic story of a young woman who rescues her lover from the Fairy Queen was noted in written sources as early as the sixteenth century. Although the ballad itself, set in the wild border lands of Scotland, appears to be unique to the Scottish people, folklorists have connected the story with Greek popular traditions older than Homer (Child 336).2 The story has also been linked to other traditional ballads and tales, including Thomas the Rhymer,The Faerie Oak of Corriewater, Alice Brand, The King's Daughter Jane, and Beauty and the Beast, and it has been described as the canonical ballad ("Legends"). In more recent times, the story has continued to inspire artists, writers, and musicians.3 Tam Lin has even entered the electronic age with an extensive web site devoted to the discussion and interpretation of the ballad.4
Romance aside, however, Tam Lin is a dark, violent and highly complex story that in its various manifestations deals with rape, abortion, abduction, torture, and human sacrifice. It also draws on primal fears of abandonment, darkness, madness, and the power of evil. This is adult material, to be sure; nonetheless, the ballad has inspired a number of fantasy stories and novels for children and young adults including The Gold of Fairnilee (1888) by Andrew Lang, Thursday by Catherine Storr (1971) The Queen of Spells by Dahlov Ipcar (1973), The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope (1974), and Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones (1984), as well as illustrated children's books by Jane Yolen (1990) and Susan Cooper (1991).5 Many of these authors have been drawn to the character of the determined young woman who redeems her lover from the Fairy Queen.6 Indeed, the fair Janet, or Margaret, as she is variously known, has been represented as a kind of protofeminist in a number of modern discussions of the ballad John Niles writes that
In its portrait of Janet, a young woman willing to venture her life in defiance of all restrictions in an attempt to win her lover back to human form, the...