Prose version of the traditional folk ballad
Story: Bruce Garrard, Illustrations: Willow Roe
36 pages, A5 booklet
Tam Lin is an elvin knight who dwells in the forest, and Janet is the daughter of a great Lord in his castle. The story of their romance is the subject of a well-known traditional folk ballad. Versions have been sung and recorded by many contemporary musicians including Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span.
The story deals with the relationship between the human world and the faerie realm, and by implication with the relationship between Christianity and the old religion. The eighteenth and nineteenth century versions which have come down to us are over-laid with Christian imagery but the tale has ancient roots, sharing many motifs and story-lines with the Mabinogion.
This prose re-telling is presented in a modern idiom, but with the intention of remaining true to the spirit and style of the original songs. It is published in booklet form as a work-in-progress, and is illustrated with a series of delightful line drawings by Glastonbury artist Willow Roe.
“Oh, I forbid you maidens all, that wear gold in your hair …”
‘Carterhaugh’, named like a great hall though in reality it was only forest, a place some distance off where Janet had never been allowed to go – so of course her desire to get there one day was enormous, and her interest in it too. She listened to every old wife’s tale and every woodsman’s boast that she ever heard, and filled herself with imaginings as to what such a place, with such stories, would look like to her own sweet eye.
In fact so pre-occupied did she become with Carterhaugh’s distant mystique that she even persuaded her soft-hearted father to bequeath this one small corner of his wide estates to herself; and he had agreed, though only on condition that she would never enter Carterhaugh till she was past twenty one years and married. Until then the title deeds would remain in his safe-keeping. He muttered that there were strange tales told about Carterhaugh woods.
She thanked him, asked no questions, and withdrew.
Strange tales? What did she care about strange tales? Carterhaugh woods were calling to her – and that indeed was strange – but when it came to tales, all that she heard were child-like echoes of what might once have been some deep forest magic. They didn’t put her off at all, but added to the enchantment and the mystery. She imagined lofty leafy trees, with birdsong rampant in the air and elvin folk dancing on the sunbeams that floated and flowed like thin golden liquid through the foliage. She could all but hear it and see it and touch it. She held her breath and waited to see if the Faerie Queen would walk out into the glade. She did! Just for a second, then the trees enfolded their branches and she could no longer be seen …
Janet loved the thought of Carterhaugh. She was thrilled by the absolute wonder that one day it would be hers, she could go there and make it her own. This helped to keep her going on the days when she did have to sit and spin or sew; and always she’d go to a little room in the castle tower, where from her high window she could see the growing green of the forest in the distance.
It was on such a day in late July that she noticed the approach of Abercorn and his merry band of companions, coming as expected for their visit to the castle. With her thoughts on the forthcoming party, she wished for something brighter than the rich but predictable silks and satins that all the young ladies would wear. She wanted wild golden flowers that shone like the sun, fragrances that no-one else had smelled, adornments for her gown that would make quite sure she was noticed by all of Abercorn’s gracious-eyed young gentlemen friends. And where would she find such blooms but in Carterhaugh woods? And why should she not go there? Carterhaugh was hers, after all, in all but technicality.
She let her sewing drop to the floor, the needle fell by her toe, and she jauntily ran down the many, many winding stairs of the castle tower as she went to meet her friend and uncle, Abercorn.
Tam Lin was an elvin knight; indeed, the most lithe and handsome of all the Elvin Queen’s entourage. He was tall, he was splendid, he was everything an elvin knight should be. He belonged in the forest like the animals and the birds; he specially liked the squirrel, which bounced around and chattered to him and sometimes threw him a nut. He dressed in a simple tunic, though richly belted and clasped at the throat with silver. He whistled a lot, though he never was one to sing many words to a song. In the Queen’s court he was favourite, and the first among her servants; out in the forest at Carterhaugh, he was King.
As far as he was concerned, Carterhaugh woods were his. He lived there. For him, Carterhaugh was indeed a great hall, fashioned out of mighty growing trees and more magnificent than any castle or cathedral. And from there he could walk out over the green hillsides and along the country paths, blessing the good people in their farmsteads and flirting with their daughters when he met them. He was known by the folk in those parts as ‘True Thomas’, but no-one had any idea where he actually came from.
He would often spend his time walking, taking this path or that path at a comfortable pace and a gentle spontaneous whim, having no concerns about where he was going or where he might have been. Whoever he met was the best person to meet that morning, wherever he arrived was the best place possible to be. And after such a walk on a bright sunny morning (and most of his mornings were sunny and bright) he would cross the little stone foot bridge that leads down into Carterhaugh woods; past the sacred well with its shrouds of dangling foliage, and along by the swift-flowing stream to the quiet glade where his horse would be happily waiting. And there, one day, he lay himself down to rest.
He stayed asleep all afternoon; a very strange thing for him, particularly as that was the afternoon when Janet came to Carterhaugh, collecting bright sunny flowers for Abercorn’s party.
She had slipped away from the castle grounds when all were engaged in greeting their new summer guests. Everyone was rushing about, preparing bed-chambers, attending to the stabling, welcoming old friends and generally being very busy, so nobody missed her as she made her way with the most enjoyable sense of purpose through several miles of countryside. When she stopped to ask the way she did receive one or two strange looks – Carterhaugh was a place somehow not best recommended for a young lady’s solitary jaunt – but for her that just added to the fun.
She reached the forest and carefully made her way, with great precision in her step, through the bracken and cascading ferns, over moss-covered rocks and along the slenderest of paths. Carterhaugh! Yes, it did look just as wonderful as it had sounded. Every detail, every tree, every plant, every new sight whenever she turned a corner, had her enthralled. Then all of a sudden she found him, the elvish knight, fast asleep, and she thought he was delightful. She patted his horse’s nose and and calmed him when he looked to become agitated. A grey goshawk, a hunting hawk, flew down to her and would have screeched in alarm but she stroked his feathers with her finger and he was quiet. She noticed that both the horse and the goshawk were untethered. She glanced at Tam Lin, who was still fast asleep, and she found it hard to pull her eyes away. A squirrel thought of throwing him a nut, but then desisted. Janet went to fetch the voluptuous blooms she needed, and she also picked one pure white flower and left it on the horse’s saddle as a token of her thanks. Then she left the beautiful knight to the pleasures of his dreams.