A Sacramental Tam Lin: A Response to Leah Libresco
Carterhaugh, near Selkirk, Scotland.
“I forbid all you maidens that wear gold upon your hair to come or go near Caterhaugh, for young Tam Lin waits there” (translation by author). Photo by Richard Webb. Creative Commons License.
In the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, it was common for authors to correspond to one another, to offer support or to voice disagreement through letters. I was fortunate to meet Leah Libresco at the Doxacon convention last year—I spoke on fairy tales—and I picked up a copy of her book Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer. Alas, I didn’t get read it until after the convention ended and we went our separate ways, and I am unable to make it to this year’s convention; so I must now resort to written dialogue.
Janet and Tam Lin
In her chapter on Confession, Libresco explains the Tam Lin tale, most commonly known from Child’s Ballad 39:
The Faerie Queen transforms Tam Lin into a bear. Janet “holds him tight and fears him not.” (CCO Creative Commons; Pixabay.)
“… Janet falls in love with the knight Tam Lin, who is in the thrall of the [. . .] fairies. To rescue her lover, she has to pull him off his horse as the fairy procession passes and hold on to him, even as he shifts through a variety of dangerous forms. As Tam Lin turns into an asp and a dog and a bear and a burning coal, Janet’s task is simply to hold on. She uses no magic in the story, but she is still a partner in freeing him from his curse. She cooperates as her strengths and faculties allow.”
Ms. Libresco uses the story of Tam Lin as a metaphor for the sacrament of Confession, for cooperating with God’s grace. Her observation that Janet uses no magic is one that I somehow never noticed before. Yet I object to Libresco’s characterization of Janet’s actions as a “task.” Task connotes work and duty.
The ballad itself attributes Janet’s perseverance as active love, not merely cooperation, and certainly no obligation. Janet braved her fears and ventured into the dark on Halloween, the night when according to folk belief, the veil between the worlds is thinnest and spiritual entities like faeries and ghosts roam the earth. She waited until the most opportune moment to pull Tam Lin off his horse. When Tam Lin is magically transformed into a progression of wild animals, the ballad explains why Janet is able to hold onto him throughout these vicious enchantments: “She held him tight and feared him not / he was her baby’s father” and “she held him tight and feared him not / as she loved her child.” (Modern language adaptations here and elsewhere are my own.) Janet was the active force who could save Tam Lin when he couldn’t save himself.
Janet loves despite the cost, breaking societal norms. When she shows up pregnant, she boldly informs her father, “If I go with child . . . / only I bear the blame. / For there’s no lord about your hall / shall have my baby’s name.” She won’t be married off to a respectable knight for the sake of family propriety or even financial security. She declares, “I will not leave my one true love / for any lord and all his wealth.” Her father could have disowned her; she could have been left a penniless single mother. At this point in the ballad she doesn’t yet know if she will be able to rescue Tam Lin. Since she refuses to be separated from her baby’s father, if she’s unsuccessful in rescuing him, her only other option is to go to Faerie herself to be united with him there and to raise her child in Fairyland. What a choice!
In this, Janet is like the Old Testament heroine Ruth who said, “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” Or, if you prefer, Orpheus, who braved Hades in order to rescue Eurydice. Janet takes on the indomitable Fairy Queen to win her true love back.
Confession of Faith
Maybe Janet suspected that she wouldn’t have to go live in Faerie. Maybe she has more faith in God than I do. As soon as she found out that she was pregnant, Janet asked Tam Lin, “If e’er ye was in holy chapel / Or Christendom did see?” (Helen Child Sargent’s 1904 text). Tam Lin doesn’t explicitly clarify what today we would call “religious affiliation,” but he confirms that he was mortal, which in the historic context and culture of the original ballad is an affirmative reply. He confirms that he is a baptized Christian.
Were you baptized? Are you Christian? — (paraphrase) — from Child’s Faerie Ballad #39, Tam Lin. (CCO Creative Commons; Pixabay)
A Sacramental Tam Lin Affirms Confession and Baptism
Janet intercepts the faerie procession at Miles Cross, at a crossroads. In the Celtic culture, crossroads represent potentiality and liminality. It’s the best place to try to change things, because it is an opportunity to literally change one’s course or direction. In that regard, Ms. Libresco shows a keen insight in equating the tale of Tam Lin with Confession. Repentance, from the Greek metanoia, means a change of life, a change of mind and actions. A crossroads represents the opportunity for metanoia. It also is a geographic representation of the sign of the cross.
The Faerie Queen shape-changes Tam Lin into a fiery coal. (CCO Creative Commons; Pixabay)
“Quickly she dropped him in a well, as she loved her soul.” –From Child’s Ballad #39 (CCO Creative Commons; Pixabay)
But the breaking of Tam Lin’s enchantment is more closely related to the sacrament of Baptism. Janet had already asked if he knew “Christendom;” she was counting on the grace of God to claim His own. The enchantment breaks when Janet throws Tam Lin, trapped in the enchanted form of a burning coal, into a well. We may presume it is a holy well; Scotland is full of them. It need not be. In fairy tales, metaphors have a life of their own. The water of symbolic baptism frees Tam Lin.
Janet rescues Tam Lin by demonstrating the self-emptying love of Christ that never lets go. With this divine-empowered love she not only endures but clutches to herself the forms of serpents, dogs, and lions. In our baptism we are made children of God. God loves us with a love that will not let us go, no matter what form our actions may take. Just as nothing can separate Tam Lin from Janet’s love, St. Paul reminds us that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers” can separate us from God’s love. Nor asps or adders or bears or coals.
A baptism font in a church in Amsoldingern, Switzerland. In baptism, we are made children of God. “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers . . . nor faeries . . . . nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Tam Lin’s Well, Carterhaugh, Scotland
Carterhaugh Geography from the website Tam Lin Balladry.
The Faery Folklorist