The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 11, No 1 (2007)

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An Earthly Knight and Fire and Hemlock: Two "Tam Lin" Retellings

Kallie George


Kallie George is currently completing her Masters of Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia. Her thesis concerns how Grimms' fairy tales were interpreted by the Nazis and used as propaganda during the Holocaust, and how these compare to contemporary revisions of the same Grimms' tales in novels for young adults that deal with the Holocaust.


"Tam Lin", one the most beautiful, magical Scottish ballads about love and the world of the faerie has been the subject of quite a few contemporary novels for young adults. Some authors have retold the ballad setting it in modern times, others re-creating a medieval world for the tale. Rather than distinguish these retellings based on where they set the ballad, or whether they are postmodern or not, evaluating these retellings based on their development of a believable Secondary World, including credible characters that play to the strengths of the ballad, can distinguish a strong retelling from a weak one. This article in particular examines the creation and believability of Secondary Worlds of two novelizations of "Tam Lin"; An Earthy Knight by Janet McNaughton and Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.

Explaining the proliferation of novelizations of fairy tales and folk tales has been the focus of intense speculation within the study of children's literature. Anna E. Altmann and Gail de Vos, in their book New Tales for Old: Folktales as Literary Fictions for Young Adults, propose three possibilities for this burgeoning field of children's stories: one, our collective imaginative creativity has become tired in its constant search for something new for the market and thus has returned to folktales for inspiration; two, the shortage of wonder in our world dominated by materialism and applied science to solve our problems has made fairytales once again attractive; and three, the rootlessness brought about by postmodern diversity and globalism can be eased by folktales which give us a sense of collective, especially localized, tradition. (27-29)

An alternate way to explain the rise and attractiveness of novelizations is to look at J.R.R. Tolkien's three functions of the folktale, as outlined in his essay 'On Fairy Stories'. According to Tolkien, the terms recovery, escape and consolation explain both why people are drawn to fairy tales and what they get out of them. Recovery explains how fairy tales give us freshness and wonder of the world. Escape explains how fairy tales allow people to escape from the brutality of their times, and consolation explains how the stories give us the satisfaction of the happy ending, denying universal final defeat.

The currently popular novelization of the fairy tale typically encapsulate Tolkien's well-explained threefold functions of the regular fairy tale, excepting certain fairy-tale parodies which purposefully work to usurp these functions. But the genre also develops atmosphere and character far beyond that of the settings and characters of the original bare-bones tales. Thus, it is no wonder novelizations are so appealing. They provide satisfaction, especially in terms in connection with characters, beyond the regular tale.

Furthermore, the quest nature of the tales are very appealing, especially to teenagers, since the nature of quest, particularly its aspect of transitioning from one stage of life to another, as outlined by Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces, is helpful for teenagers who find themselves facing life transitions.

The appeal is apparent, simply from the popularity and proliferation of the texts and the awards they have won. And since there have been so many novelizations, naturally they have taken many forms. Jane Yolen's Briar Rose for example, tells a story of the holocaust using the plot, characters and motifs of Sleeping Beauty. Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, on the other hand, retells Cinderella, keeping it in a fairytale/medieval setting. Others, like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire, retells the story of Cinderella from the antagonist's perspective. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is in fact an adult novel, not a children's, although it is likely read by young adults.

Altmann and De Vos, in their sequel to New Tales for Old, Tales, Then and Now: More Folktales as Literature for Young Adults, list five categories for the different kinds of novelizations: novelizations that are parodies, novelizations that are sequels, novelizations that change the expected outcome of the story, novelizations that replace magic with rational explanations, and novelizations that simply fill in the gaps of the folktale giving it a specific setting and character development. (xxi)

However these categories are much too broad to allow for close analysis. In this essay I will be looking closely at two novelizations of the Tam Lin ballad and how they dramatically differ in their retellings. Retellings can successfully use medieval or contemporary settings to retell a folktale or a ballad. Ultimately however, the success of a retelling depends on the successful creation of a Secondary World. As J.R.R. Tolkien notes, "Inside [a Secondary World], what [the author] relates is "true": it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed." (37) Although Tolkien's essay only discusses original fairy stories, not retellings, I believe his ideas of the believable Secondary World apply to retellings, too. As well, within this Secondary World, not only setting, but characters and action, all must develop believably in order for the retelling to truly enchant. Furthermore, an eloquent retelling is based on an thorough knowledge of the text/s it chooses to retell, drawing on the story's emotive strengths, including plot and character strengths.

Janet McNaughton's An Earthly Knight and Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock are novelizations that simply 'fill in the gaps of the folktale' (or in this case, ballad). Fire and Hemlock does to some extent change the overall ending of the ballad, although it does not change the final specific ending, since man and woman (Thomas and Polly) still end up together. However, even though these two novelizations share the same category of novelization, they are worlds apart in terms of how they have interpreted the tale. As well, they are worlds apart in terms of quality of literature.

First of all, it is important to give a basic overview of the ballad upon which these novels is based. Two ballads comprise the inspiration for both novels. "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" and "Tam Lin" are the two ballads that comprise McNaughton's An Earthly Knight. McNaughton even includes a historical note at the end of her text which describes these two references. Jones' Fire and Helmock is based upon the ballads "Thomas the Rhymer" and "Tam Lin".

Although not folktales, the ballads share many similarities with the fairy story/folktale. Firstly, they are essentially quest orientated and do not explore character or setting beyond basic types, making them, like folktales, ripe for novelization. One of the main differences is that they were sung, not told, and the importance of music unsurprisingly plays a large role in both Jones' and McNaughton's novels.

The "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" ballad is the foundation for the protagonist's sister's past in An Earthly Knight and thus will not be discussed at length here. "Tam Lin", on the other hand, is incredibly important since it is the main story being told. Like all Scottish ballads it is not terribly old, dating from only the Middle Ages, however its content may well precede that. Like most Scottish Ballads, it contains a meeting between mortals and supernatural folk. The Scots Musical Museum, edited by James Johnston and published in 1792 contains the earliest variant of the ballad.

Most of the versions of the ballad begin with a stanza similar to this:

"I forbid you, maidens a',
That wear gowd on your hair,
To come or gae by Carterbaugh,
For young Tam Lin is there."

The basic shortened story of the ballad, which takes place at Carterhaugh, a flat land next to a river near Selkirk, Scotland, either belonging to a family named Cater or where the local carters used to meet just outside Scotland, goes as follows: Young Janet has been warned not to go into the woods. However, being headstrong and adventurous, she goes anyways and picks a rose, an element of the ballad that reminds one of the beginning of the fairytale "Beauty and the Beast". A young man appears and questions her actions whereupon she retorts that the land is hers and he has no right to question her. This talk leads to much more deeply involved relations and when Janet returns home, she is pregnant. The details of these relations will be a focus later in this essay. Thus follows the discovery that the man whom she met, Tam Lin, lives with the fairies, who took him in when he was a child. Every seven years the fairy folk must pay a tiend to Hell, and it so turns out that this year Tam Lin will be the payment. The only way Janet can save him is to take him from his horse and hold onto him while the fairy folk pass. She agrees and when she holds onto him he is transformed into a series of horrible things including a lizard, adder, bear, lion, hot iron bar and burning gleed. At the end, Tam Lin changes back to himself. Janet has won her lover.

Another Scottish ballad, "Thomas the Rhymer" consists of a shorter story. Like "Tam Lin" it dates from the Middle Ages. The character is supposedly based on Thomas of Ercildoune, the earliest named poet in Scotland, who lived in the reign of Alexander III. The ballad is set within a twenty-five mile radius of Carterhaugh, just outside the town of Melrose, in the Eildon Hills. "Thomas the Rhymer" holds great importance in Fire and Hemlock since the main Tam Lin-type character in the novel, Thomas Lynn, represents both Tam Lin and the lead character in the ballad, "Thomas the Rhymer": Thomas, while resting on a Huntlie bank, sees a fair lady by the Eildon tree. As it turns out she is the queen of elfland and dares him to kiss her. He does and agrees to go down the bonny path with her. When they arrive in the land of fairies, the queen offers Thomas an apple and a tongue that cannot lie. For seven years he must stay with her and cannot refuse these gifts.

Both "Tam Lin" and "Thomas the Rhymer" are ballads about men who are taken as the fairy queens' lovers. However since "Tam Lin" has a more complete story with conflict, climax and resolution, it is no wonder that it provides the primary basis for the plot of both novels. However, whereas Janet McNaughton uses the ballad's strengths to give her own telling strength and create a fantastic young adult fiction, Diana Wynne Jones loses the ballad's emotive and plot strengths in a confusing and action-driven plot.

First of all, I shall look closely at McNaughton's An Earthly Knight, winner of both Mr. Christie's Book Award and The Newfoundland and Labrador Book Awards. McNaughton, a Canadian children's book fantasy and historical fiction author, has set this fantasy most appropriately in Scotland (reminding me of another well-known Canadian children's book fantasist, O.R. Melling, and her novel Hunter's Moon, set in Ireland. Her novel also concerns humans who have been taken by fairy folk).

An Earthly Knight is a very close retelling of "Tam Lin". Even details of the ballad like Tam Lin's white horse and Cauterhaugh figure importantly within the novel. Not only does the plot closely adhere to the ballad, the story is set in the same time and place from which the ballad originates. The action takes place in the 12th century in Teviotdale, the part of southeastern Scotland now called the Borders. The setting's details are all historical in base. Even the royal characters in the book, King Malcolm IV and Earl William, are based on the real King Malcolm IV and Earl William, brothers whom were reported to have characteristics that McNaughton has played up in her retelling. King Malcolm took a vow of celibacy and was called the Maiden because of it and Earl William who ascended to the throne when Malcolm died at twenty-four, had at least six children out of wedlock. (McNaughton 301-303)

More than just staying true to such historical details, McNaughton has created an atmosphere in the book that truly draws one into the medieval world. The stilted, formal way in which the characters speak, saying phrases like "Are you unwilling to tame our young lion, then?" rather than saying "You don't want to tame our young lion, then?" and even little words like the Scottish "lass" and "aye" work to create this ambience. As well, details of food and mannerisms as well as the singing of ballads, the tournaments and even the way in which the characters express their thoughts all are true to the time period. One of the most poignant of these examples is when Jenny meets another young lady, Adele, and they discuss what it is like to have to face prearranged marriages. Jenny says, "I wish we were free to marry men of our own choosing, just like the common lassies. Do you ever wish that, Adele?" Adele replies with a look of shock. "Our marriages must advance our fathers' alliances. That is our role." Jenny sighs to herself and then thinks, "As the only daughter of a powerful man, Adele could not be expected to think otherwise" (182).

By having the narrative presented in a limited omniscient voice that follows closely the thoughts and feelings of Jenny (who is the main Janet character), readers are more easily able to empathize with and understand Jenny. This is one of the major ways in which McNaughton has expanded the ballad. She focuses on the protagonist and turns her from a two-dimensional character to a truly dynamic one. This includes the creation of a family for Jenny to interact with. Her loving relationship with her sister as well as her relationships with her brother, father and nurse, are very important to the story.

Jenny herself is very dynamic, full of thought and tenderness. Although the ballad does show her as headstrong, going into the woods even when she is told not to, one possible interpretation of the ballad is that it also shows her as a victim. In the ballad, Jenny/Janet's feelings toward making love with Tam Lin are never explored. Most versions of the ballad jump from Janet speaking with Tam Lin and telling him that Cauterhaugh is her land and she may go where she pleases to the stanza;

"Four and twenty ladies fair
Were playing at the ba,
And out then cam the fair Janet,
Ance the flower amang them a' "

At this point, Janet has emerged from the woods and is pregnant, and must explain her pregnancy to her father. This omission of what actually transpired between Janet and Tam Lin has created much speculation in the academic world. Some see Janet as being raped by Tam Lin. Polly Stewart, who examined the treatment of women characters in Child Ballads, concludes that the cultural lessons imparted by the ballads are not very positive. Tam Lin is an example that a man will "take from a woman what he can" and "for a woman, stepping outside the house is a dangerous act" and "a woman's resources for protecting her interests are slim indeed" (Altmann, Tales, Then and Now, 104).

Kimberly White, too, portrays Janet's circumstances in a very negative light. She says the ballad can be interpreted "as the story of a young woman, the victim of rape and circumstance who must strike a bargain with her assailant so that both their needs are met" (Altmann, 107). This wipes away emotional love from the story and interprets Janet's actions as being driven by economic and social forces.

However, in most versions of the ballad, Janet herself says that she loves Tam Lin, which contradicts the notion that she has been raped as does her breaking of the rose. In fact, she refuses to marry another man who offers to take her, saying that she only desires to marry her elfin lover, as represented in this stanza of the ballad:

"If my love were an earthly knight.
As he's an elfin grey,
I wad na gie my ain true-love
For nae lord that ye hae."

McNaughton wipes away speculation of Janet/Jenny being a victim by filling the gaps of that particular part omitted from the ballad, making it clear that Jenny was not raped and indeed has fallen in love with Tam Lin. In fact, in An Earthly Knight, Jenny is in love with Tam Lin before they even share their first kiss. (209, 230) Their meetings in the wood are many and each time they progress further in getting to know each other. On the night they sleep together, it is Jenny who leaves her hall in order to seek out Tam Lin. And it is Jenny, too, who "puts her mouth over his to stop the words." (230) What follows is one of the most beautiful descriptions of a first kiss and first love that I have ever read. McNaughton describes it thusly: "It was as if their bodies continued the kind of conversation they had always shared, each gesture answered by another that matched it perfectly." (230)

Jenny's pregnancy is the result of first true love, and certainly not Tam Lin taking advantage of her. Focusing on Jenny's love with Tam Lin, which is a love that is both physical and emotional, brings strength to the final scene, which is a similar combination. It is a marriage of emotion and might that allows Janet to rescue her lover. Her emotional love overrides her fear of facing the fairies and gives her the strength to go out on Halloween night. Physical might, however, strengthened by spiritual and emotional passion, is what she must use to cling to Tam Lin when he is being transformed. Overall, An Earthy Knight is a fantastic retelling.

Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock, on the other hand, fills in the gaps of the ballad very differently, and is not as strong a story due to the development of the action by the main character. Rather than a medieval setting, Fire and Hemlock is set in contemporary times. The character Janet takes the form of Polly, a young woman of nineteen. The story begins with her anxiety about her lost memories. As she begins to recall these memories, the novel shifts to recount the memories in full detail of Polly as a ten-year-old girl meeting a man named Thomas Lynn for the first time. The memories continue, making up a substantial portion of the book, and are a combination of two main things: the heart-wrenching struggles of her parents' messy divorce in which she is wanted by neither mother nor father, and the magical adventures that she has with her adult friend.

Thomas Lynn, who takes after the Thomas the Rhymer figure more than the Tam Lin figure, befriends Polly at a funeral. Over the course of time they meet several times, making up imaginary games together, which begin to come true. For example, after discussing how important it is for a hero to have a horse, a rampaging circus horse appears on the street, which Thomas must calm and control.

Thomas Lynn has, like Thomas the Rhymer, been taken by Laurel, the elf-queen figure, who has given him the gift of a tongue that cannot lie. This means whatever he says, even if it is magical, comes true. The events that occur are a result of Diana Wynne Jones "filling in the gaps" of the ballad, since the ballad never goes into detail about how Thomas the Rhymer uses his tongue that cannot lie. As well, like McNaughton, Jones fills in the gaps of the meeting of Janet and Tam Lin in the woods, for each meeting of Polly and Thomas furthers their relationship, which moves toward the same climax of the Halloween night sacrifice.

By the end of the book, when Polly has managed to retrieve the memories that were nearly erased by the fairy queen and her henchman Mr. Leroy, she realizes the fate that Thomas faces and goes to save him from being a sacrificial victim of the fairies. Polly does succeed, but not by holding onto her friend. Thomas and Polly's relationship by this point is confusing, for even though there has been no chance for their relationship to morph from friend to lover, they are described now as lovers. Instead, Polly must provide emotional support in the form of lying to Thomas, rejecting him so that he is forced to draw on his own strength to win the contest set up by Laurel. This, rather than "filling in the gaps" of Tam Lin, is an instance of morphing the ballad. What exactly Thomas' own strengths are and why exactly Polly feels she must lie to him and, as she says, "lose in order to win" is never fully explained by Jones, which makes for an incredibly confusing and unsatisfactory ending. The confusion is added to, with the actions and settings, such as the current and pool that make up an important part of Laurel's ultimate contest, not being fully described. Altmann and de Vos, who give the book a positive review, do not mention the ending except to say it consists of "Polly and Thomas as they reexamine their relationship in light of their involvement with the forces of the faerie world." (117) Instead, they focus their attention on Polly's characterization, which they deem excellent, as well as the literary and musical references Jones alludes to, which are impressive.

Some symbols from the ballad are easy to identify in Fire and Hemlock. There is a focus on music with each of the five sections of the novel labeled like a musical movement, which reflects the nature of the musical ballads. But in truth, Fire and Hemlock is a story only loosely based on the ballads. This is not necessarily a negative comment. In fact, to place a fairy-tale or ballad into a contemporary setting almost requires that it be heavily transformed, since the contemporary world brings with it contemporary objects and issues that are very different from the pastoral or medieval fairy tale settings.

However, in my opinion, Fire and Hemlock is not as powerful a retelling as An Earthly Knight. The strength of the original ballad lies within the character Janet and her ability to fight for her lover. McNaughton increases this strength, with her focus on the relationship between Janet and Tam Lin. The strength of relationships in Jones' novel, however, although powerful at the beginning and middle, fall apart at the end. In the beginning and middle, Polly must deal with her granny and friends as well as with her mother, Ivy, who is a cruel character and parallel to the elf-queen figure, and her father, who barely pays attention to her. Her parents' divorce is described in full detail, with Jones unflinchingly representing it as a hateful and ugly event. Jones also presents very negative mother and father figures.

Equally important in the beginning and middle of the novel is Polly's relationship with Thomas, who takes the role of a father figure or mentor, sending Polly amazing literature in order to expand her imagination, as well as give her links into his situation with the fairies. This friendship, however, is not the most important relationship in her life, nor is it sexual in any way. This is why at the end of the book when their relationship suddenly becomes the most important thing in Polly's life as well as a sexual relationship, the novel seems to fall apart. Rather than having an ending built on a climax of powerful emotions, Fire and Hemlock's ending becomes all about the action, not the emotion, since empathizing and even understanding the new relationship is almost impossible. "Tam Lin" focuses on Janet's need to rescue her lover, for love as well as social and economic reasons since she is pregnant; Fire and Hemlock has no such focus. It is hard to understand why Polly wants to rescue Thomas, other than the fact that he was her childhood mentor. Certainly she does not need to rescue him, which makes the climax a little less compelling than the ballad's or the climax of An Earthly Knight.

In fact, it is hard to know if Polly really wants to rescue Thomas at all, since she tells him "I never want to see you again." (387) This is supposedly a lie in order to help him help himself. However, is it really a lie? We are given no reason to believe that Polly really does need to see Thomas again. In fact, rather than see Thomas again, Polly, I feel, needs to see her mother and father again in order to get some resolution, some recognition that she was hurt by them so that she can move on.

Even at the very end, my heart is still with the ten-year-old Polly, the Polly who was a friend to Thomas and a victim of divorce, not the Polly who is suddenly in love with Thomas, an illogical emotional jump. The believability of the plot is broken and thus, so too is Fire and Hemlock's Secondary World. As Tolkien says, "The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside." (37)

It is very important to not draw conclusions about the value or superiority of one kind of novelization over another. When comparing An Earthly Knight to Fire and Hemlock, it would be easy to draw the faulty conclusion that contemporary novelization fails whereas the traditional novelization does not. Ballads and fairy stories set in a more fairy-tale like setting with a plot that follows the traditional tale are not necessarily more powerful than those set in contemporary places and twist the plot of the original ballad/fairy tale. There are many incredibly strong novelizations of fairy tales set in contemporary times.

Instead, analyzing two such novelizations can give us general clues as to what makes up a powerful novelization of a retelling. As J.R.R. Tolkien emphasizes fairy tales are a rare achievement of art where readers experience worlds that are utterly strange, yet consistent and rational at the same time. When a believable protagonist is created who has powerful relationships and feelings, the novel soars. When the protagonist or his/her relationships are not believable, the novel does not. Novelizations of a ballad like "Tam Lin", a ballad that already moves beyond many folktales by depicting a character like Janet who has particular character traits, namely being headstrong and willing to fight for what she wants, must truly take this into account in their re-workings. Diana Wynne Jones' Fire &Hemlock unfortunately loses its believability when we no longer understand what drives the main character to act as she does. The retelling's climax is confusing, rather than compelling. Janet McNaughton's An Earthy Knight, on the other hand, is a compelling retelling. Like the best fairy tales, its fully realized Secondary World and characters are sure to enchant readers of all ages for many years.

 

Works Cited

Altmann, Anna E. & Gail de Vos. New Tales for Old: Folktales as Literary Fictions for Young Adults. Englewood: Teacher Ideas Press, 1999.

Altmann, Anna E. & Gail de Vos. Tales, Then and Now: More Folktales as Literary Fictions for Young Adults. Englewood: Teacher Ideas Press, 2001.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Davis, John Renfro. "Tam Lin" http://www.contemplator.com/child/tamlin.html
Accessed April 1, 2006.

Jones, Diana Wynne. Fire and Hemlock. London; HarperCollins, 2000.

Levine, Gail Carson. Ella Enchanted. London: HarperTrophy, 1998.

McNaughton, Janet. An Earthly Knight. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2003.

Melling, O.R. The Hunter's Moon. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993.

Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy Stories." Tree and Leaf. London: HarperCollins, 2001.

Yolen, Jane. Briar Rose. New York: Tor Teen, 2002

Kallie George


Volume 11, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2 January, 2007

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"An Earthly Knight and Fire and Hemlock: Two 'Tam Lin' Retellings"
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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