The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 8, No 3 (2004)

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Judith Saltman, editor


Transformations of "Tam Lin": An Analysis of Folktale Picture Books

Ginger Mullen


Ginger Mullen is a graduate of the Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program at the University of British Columbia.


Some have argued that it is redundant to illustrate folktales [1] because "they were told ever before they were painted and they carry within themselves all the illustration they need" (Alderson 38). However, I believe that a good illustrator, an artist who understands and respects the folktale with which she is working, can go beyond the role of mirroring the autonomous text to bring added depth and richness to a traditional tale. Warwick Hutton and Charles Mikolaycak are two such artists whose versions of Tam Lin, written respectively by Susan Cooper and Jane Yolen, prove to be excellent examples of illustrated folklore.

"Tam Lin" is a traditional Scottish ballad that tells the story of a heroine, usually Margaret or Janet (Yolen uses Jennet), who refuses to obey social rules; consequently, she finds herself in a forbidden wood named Carterhaugh, or variant thereof. She meets the infamous Tam Lin, a young man rumoured to be living with the fairies. At first they quarrel over her right to be at Carterhaugh, but they soon come to like each other. (In the ballad versions, they have an intimate encounter that results in pregnancy; Yolen omits this completely while Cooper insinuates this may have happened.) When the heroine discovers Tam Lin is to be sacrificed by the Fairy Queen to fulfill an ancient tithe, she chooses to help him. She waits for him at the crossroads as the fairy procession passes, then pulls him from his white steed. By holding onto him while the Queen transforms him from one beastly shape into another, including a red-hot bar of iron, the heroine breaks the enchantment so that Tam Lin can return to the human world.

Although these characters, plot and setting comprise the basic narrative of both picture books, the stories are vastly different in tone, theme, and their overall illustrative resonance . But before examining how these two illustrators approach this traditional tale, let me first set up some of my personal expectations about folktale illustration.

Are the images well-crafted?

If a folktale picture book is to appeal to an audience, the images must, first and foremost, reveal good craftsmanship. The illustrator may employ any number of styles and media, but the need for quality is uncompromising. Poorly crafted images lie flat and lifeless on the page, but a skillful illustrator is able to "get right into the heart of the story and make it come alive with individualized lines, colors, shapes, textures, and patterns" (Hearne, Choosing 45).

Do the illustrative techniques support textual themes?

An artist's main illustrative techniques, his use of colour, line, perspective, scale and other visual elements, work well if they support the folkloric themes found in the text. For example, an illustrator may emphasize a low-key colour scheme to focus on a story's sombre mood, or he may accentuate particular objects, and their importance, by isolating them from their surroundings with heavy contour lines (Doonan 3, 24).

Are traditional motifs represented?

Folktales have survived by word of mouth over time because they contain enduring images and symbols that resonate with generations of listeners. By visually presenting these motifs, picture book artists pay respect to and continue the tradition in which they are working (Hearne, Beauty 140).

Are the images culturally and/or temporally accurate?

An illustrator has a responsibility to research a story in order to convey accurate images. If the setting has a specific time period or locale, he should ensure the absence of anachronisms and/or reflect the culture in the costumes, objects, buildings and landscape (Aesop). However, this does not mean she must mimic the artistic style of the culture from which the story originates; it is better for an illustrator to accompany an adaptation in a new graphic mode "than to borrow art motifs and superimpose them uncertainly or awkwardly" (Hearne, "Respect" 3).

Do the images expand and enhance the text?

Rather than simply mirroring the story's words, illustrations should enhance and expand the text (Nodelman 274). The illustrator may insert images -- objects, symbols, visual motifs, characters or scenes -- that do not appear in the text. For instance, an introduction may simply state that the story takes place long ago and far away, while the pictures define a specific culture, time or place.

Tam Lin by Susan Cooper and Warwick Hutton

Cooper's text remains true to nearly every aspect of the traditional ballad, which is briefly credited in the book's summary. She maintains the core narrative features. Her characters, as folktale types, are well-crafted. Her plot, although sometimes slow, subtly maintains the ballad's sexual nuances while keeping a young audience in mind. One of this retelling's great strengths is the use of symbols; as well as incorporating traditional objects such as a fairy well, green clothing, hair and roses, Cooper effectively juxtaposes light and darkness to contrast good and evil. But, most impressively, she brilliantly uses setting as a tool to develop a general theme of social subversion: Margaret's motivation stems from frustration with society's expectations that women should sit, sew and wait to be married.

Given the text's use of setting, light and shadow, the match between Cooper and Hutton, known for his lighted landscapes, works perfectly. His illustrations of Tam Lin, achieved with watercolour and ink, demonstrate craftsmanship, an understanding of the text, interpretive creativity, and a respect for folklore.

Hutton draws on many compositional skills to create images in an eight-inch by nine-inch portrait format that encourage the reader to advance through the book. Of particular note, his use of cross-hatching and of finely-drawn, often disconnected contours lend energy to the illustrations. Also, he frequently shows his characters mid-action, a technique that creates movement because the reader mentally completes the act.

Through expert use of perspective, line and scale, Hutton emphasizes the setting in order to focus the story on social issues. For the most part, he shows the characters from afar, often from a bird's-eye point of view. As a result, the reader does not feel connected to the characters as unique individuals, but instead sees them in relation to the surroundings -- the castle and the outdoors. Also, his use of line and scale greatly contrasts the human and the natural worlds. For example, rigid castle rooms, filled with rectangular carpets and flags, framed portraits, wooden-panel floors and a great square fireplace, profoundly differ from the bending trees, curving paths and rounded flowers of Carterhays. Another spread, in which Margaret runs out of the castle, shows her as only a blip on the page compared to the walls that tower above her. She takes up one centimeter of space while the highest point of the turret stands 30 centimeters in height; its shadow, in fact, nearly hides Margaret completely, suggesting that castle life is rigid and oppressive.

The way Hutton uses light and darkness further supports the textual themes. Margaret's scenes take place, predominantly, in tones of light, while the Elfin Queen resides in shades of darkness. Perhaps one of the most illustrious scenes occurs when Margaret throws the red-hot bar of iron into the well; as she looks downwards, a white arc of light extends from the its mouth, cutting through the dark shadows. The scene rings of pure victory of good triumphing over evil.

Because Cooper's dense, although beautiful, descriptions offer many details, it seems at first that Hutton simply mirrors the text, perhaps even a little too literally at times. For example, he shows Margaret en route back and forth from Carterhays in six spreads. However, upon closer examination, his character foils are unmistakable. Although the Elfin world seems wild and free, it nonetheless has a hierarchical social structure similar to that found in Margaret's castle. The Elfin squires, ladies and knights, along with the banners they carry, echo the courtiers and flags that fill the castle hall. Visually, the reader comes to learn that Tam Lin, like Margaret, is subjected to social rules; while she is expected to marry, he is expected to die in order to seal the Elfin Queen's pact with the Devil. Happily, Tam Lin and Margaret both prove successful in averting these expectations.

In addition to providing rich illustrations, Hutton also respects the folkloric roots of the story. He maintains important symbols such as the green skirt and cloak, the holy well and the rose. His Elfin folk are, as per ballad tradition, the same size as humans, and his setting, although not filled with a lot of specific details, rings true to a Scottish castle and countryside of long ago.

Tam Lin by Jane Yolen and Charles Mikolaycak

Overall, Yolen's text is a well-constructed, smooth retelling of the traditional ballad that provides extensive background information for the reader, remains fairly true to the oral motifs and, at the same time, demonstrates literary skill. She not only maintains the ballad's attention to colour and roses, but she also uses Carterhaugh, depicted as an old castle, as a plot device, so that it serves as the story's thematic fulcrum. Yolen builds on the idea that, because this property rightfully belongs to Jennet MacKenzie, the heroine goes against her parents direct wishes in order to reclaim it. Because this shift focuses on Jennet's personal struggles, the story becomes one about individual conflict more so than a commentary on social mores.

Executed with great skill, understanding and creativity, Mikolaycak's romantic vision of Tam Lin greatly complements Yolen's text. His eight-inch by eleven-inch images, rendered in portrait format with watercolour and coloured pencil, take the reader into another time filled with distinctive Scottish tartans and fairy magic. His style combines strong, bright colours and solid contour lines to create stunning pictures that demand the reader's attention. While the images themselves do not denote a lot of movement, the sheer beauty of their intricate details and vivid colours -- green, red, white and black - invites the reader to linger on the page.

Not only do the predominant colours and objects echo the text's narrative themes and symbolism, but many of the techniques also reinforce the focus on individual conflicts. Because scenes are depicted from a close or mid-range perspective, with an eye-to-eye point of view of the characters, the reader clearly sees facial expressions and gestures. Furthermore, except for one occasion, the spreads are set outdoors with very little background to draw attention away from the characters. As a result, the characters become very prominent, maintaining a distinct and clear presence on the page, leading the reader to naturally develop an interest in and empathy for them.

In addition to faithfully buttressing the text, Mikolaycak brings some very powerful and engaging ideas to the story. Importantly, Tam Lin's clothing, like the man himself, undergoes a transformation. Where the text tells only that he wears "velvet and kilt," the pictures reveal that he wears black and white, with red trim. Later, he brilliantly communicates Tam Lin's transformation with one image. The tip of his snake tail sports the red trim, his middle shows the black and white plaid, and the upper body, coiled around Jennet's waist, has green scales. Two lion paws wrap around her chest as its feline head roars from behind. Then, after the enchantment is broken, Tam Lin wears his original black and white, but interwoven into his new garments are the reds and greens of Jennet's MacKenzie plaid. In this way, Tam Lin's clothing affirms his change, his personal growth and his union with Jennet.

Mikolaycak also uses borders to expand textual meaning. The double-page spreads, framed with an air border as well as a one-eighth-inch green border, create a strong sense of orderliness. However, Jennet, Tam Lin and the Faery Queen do not always respect these boundaries. On several occasions, they either cross over the green border or completely bleed to the edge of the page. These actions effectively communicate the willfulness of those who refuse to be bound by borders and, by extension, rules. Also, the border for the final scene, which shows Jennet and Tam Lin holding their baby, is partially comprised of roses -- a perfect image to reveal their true love.

Finally, the illustrations reflect a respect for "Tam Lin's" folkloric roots. Mikolaycak aptly reveals the story's Scottish origins in both the clothing and the Celtic flavour of several objects (such as the design carved on Jennet's parents' chair).

In order to facilitate the listener's immediate visualization of the story, oral stories demand skeletal plots, type characters, metaphorical settings, visual language and commonly understood symbols -- the very qualities that offer artists vast opportunities for picture book retellings. These two versions of Tam Lin aptly demonstrate this freedom. While drawing from the same ballad about a heroine who saves her beloved from the forces of fairy darkness, they also tell two very different stories. Hutton, working closely with the text, uses elements of tone, scale, line and juxtaposition to create a story about a heroine's discontent with social expectations as well as a tale that deals with general themes of good and evil. In contrast, Mikolaycak's bright colours, strong contours, perspective and borders strongly support a retelling that focuses on individual characters, their emotions, and their personal conflicts. I don't judge one book to be better than the other. Rather, in very distinct styles, they reveal each illustrator's careful consideration of folklore and how they bring artistry, interpretive depth and folkloric resonance to their images.

End Notes

1 I have accepted Stith Thompson's assertion that the folktale can legitimately "include all forms of prose narrative, written or oral, which have come to be handed down through the years" (4). This broad definition works well within the context of this article because I am not concerned with how one categorizes oral narratives, but with how one evaluates these stories. In view of that, the terms folktale and ballad will be used interchangeably.

Works Cited

Aesop Prize of the Children's Folklore Folklore Section of the American Folklore Society. 8 Aug. 2003. http://afsnet.org/sections/children/aesop.htm

Alderson, Brian. Looking at Picture Books. London: National Book League, 1973.

"Tam Lin." English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Vol. 1. Ed. Francis J. Child. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, New York: 1882. 335-358.

Cooper, Susan. Tam Lin. Illus. Warwick Hutton. Toronto and New York: MacMillan, 1991.

Doonan, Jane. Looking at Pictures in Picture Books. South Woodchester, Stroud, Glos. [England] : Thimble Press, 1993.

Hearne, Betsy. Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

---, "Respect the Source: Reducing Cultural Chaos (part two)." School Library Journal. 39.8 (Aug.1993). 6p(33+). Academic Search Premier. Ebsco. Vancouver Public Library, Vancouver, BC. 2 Aug. 2003.

---, with Deborah Stevenson. Choosing Books for Children. 3rd ed. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Mullen, Ginger. The Transformation of "Tam Lin": An Analysis of Picture Books. MA Thesis. University of British Columbia, 2003.

Nodelman, Perry. Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books. Athens: University of Georgia, 1988.

Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. 1946. New York: Dryden Press, 1951.

Yolen, Jane. Tam Lin. Illus. Charles Mikolaycak. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1991.

 

Ginger Mullen


Volume 8, Issue 3 The Looking Glass, September, 2004

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"Transformations of "Tam Lin": An Analysis of Folktale Picture Books"
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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