and she had plucked him

In her essay “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women“, Jenny Crusie describes how she found romance fiction. Part of the journey has to do with fairy tales. She writes:

As I studied romance and its roots further, I realized that the academic canon wasn’t the first form of narrative that had let me down. As a child, I’d been looking for myself in fairy tales and finding only disappointments. If I’d been a boy, I could have found great role models in stories like “Jack & the Beanstalk,” with a protagonist who climbed to the top to get what he wanted, grabbed the prize, killed the giant, and came back home a hero. Jack’s story remains a great model for little boys, telling them to be active and quest for what they want in life and they will be rewarded. But what did I have as a girl?

Well, I had Sleeping Beauty, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Snow White, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Cinderella, who should be given some credit for staying awake through her whole story, but who got everything she’d ever wanted because she had really small feet. The fairy tales I read as a child told me that boys’ stories were about doing and winning but that girls’ stories were about waiting and being won. Far from setting out on their own quests, women were the prizes in their own stories, and the less active they were–do NOT be a pushy, knife-wielding stepsister–the better their chances were of getting the castle and the crown.

Hehe. Jenny Crusie is the best.

There was one fairy tale I was told as a child that doesn’t quite fit into this critique. It has forever remained my favourite fairy tale, and as an adult I’ve begun to understand why. It is an old Scottish tale about Janet and Tom Lin (more commonly Tam Lin, but he was always Tom Lin to me). There are countless versions, but I asked Mum to send me the book she used to read us as kids so that I could pick out my favourite lines.

She said, “Now, are you sure you won’t lose it, if I send it to you?” Being 30 years old, I answered that no, of course I wouldn’t. A photocopy of the story arrived in the mail. Thanks Mum!

Janet is a girl who lives in a village, or in the castle of a village. Growing up, she is told, “Do not go near Oakwood.” It’s a dark forest a mile or so distant, where no young woman dare go for fear of meeting Tom Lin. He will take something from you. He might take your maidenhead from you.

When Janet is old enough to find fear more enticing than off-putting, she rides into Oakwood, which now belongs to her. In her head is a song she heard the night sing, Pin all your broaches in your hair, wear all your finest clothes, but if you break into my lair, I’ll pluck you like a rose. She comes to a clearing where there is a well, and a white horse. She is surrounded by roses. There is no sign of Tom Lin.

She pats the horse, who shies away, and drops a rock down the well. Then she plucks a two-headed rose, and Tom Lin appears out of thin air.

“You sing my song,” he said.

“You are Tom Lin?”

“I am. You sing my song,” he said.

“I do?”

“But you do not heed its warning.”

“I do not.”

“You must not come here.”

“But here I am.”

“You must return. You have no business here.”

“And why not, may I ask?” said Janet, smiling.

“Leave now. You must not stay.” He took her by the hand, not roughly, but gently, and led her away, back the way she had come.

“How does he know the way I came…?” she wondered. Then:

“He is kind to me,” she thought, as he held back the brambles for her to pass.

They said not a word to each other until Janet was stepping out of the wood.

“Now, go,” he said, and his voice was kind. “And do not come again.”

She can’t stop thinking about him, of course. Who is he? Why do people say he’s dangerous? Was he just a silly dream?

In the original, this is where her parents discover she’s pregnant. In the version I grew up on, this is where she realises she loves him. The story reads:

Tom Lin had plucked her like a rose. And she had plucked him. It was as simple as that.

So she returns to the wood and demands to know who he is. He reluctantly tells her that he’s the son of a local lord. When he was out hunting as a boy he became lost, and the Queen of the Fairies found him. She trained him in magic and he became her favourite knight.

Every year on Halloween she pays tribute to the Prince of Darkness, and offers one of her knights up to him. This year, Tom Lin fears, he is to be the tribute.

Janet demands to know what she can do. Tom Lin tells her, though probably he shouldn’t.

She must stand in the middle of the cross-roads at midnight, as the Queen and her whole retinue ride past. First the black horses, then the brown, then the white. Tom Lin will wear no glove on his left hand, so that she will know him. She must pull him from his horse, and hold onto him, and not let go.

The Queen will change his shape. She will do everything in her power to make Janet let go, but Janet must hold on until he is himself again. Then if she throws her cloak over him, he will be free.

She does as he asks:

Just before midnight, Janet stood at the crossroads. She was wrapped in her great green cloak. The night was darker than she had ever known it. Only rarely was there a faint glimmer of the moon, through the heavy clouds. And a wild wind howled about her and snatched at her cloak as if to tear it from her.

She clenched her fists and bit her lips in her anxiety. But nothing on earth would drive her from that place. So she stood, trembling, and waited for the trial of strength.

When the first troop of riders came galloping out of the dark, on their black horses, she hardly found time to see them come, sweep past, and disappear again. Fast and furious they swept past her, their black cloaks like storm clouds, their silent horses like strange dreams.

Then the second company came sweeping past treading the air, as if they were carried by the wind. They came, rushed by, and disappeared.

So Janet knew the time had come for her to risk all. To pour all her strength and courage and love into her struggle with the Queen. If she failed, Tom Lin would be dragged down in chains to the dungeons of the Prince of Darkness.

Suddenly the white horses were almost on her. She gasped, her heart raced and thundered, and she looked so hard at the darkness that her eyes ached with the effort. The horsemen swept by. On and on, they passed. There seemed no end to them. “But Tom Lin! Where is he? Oh, where is Tom Lin?” she cried.

And then she saw him, his left hand bared. He was the last of the company, the very last. His horse flashed by, she closed her eyes, and threw herself at Tom Lin.

It was like drowning. It was like being kicked by a thousand feet. It was like falling. It was like a tornado. It was almost a death.

But Janet holds onto him. She holds onto a slippery newt, a snake, a bear, a lion. At the very last a swan, that beats her with its powerful wings and pecks at her. In the original, she holds a burning coal in her hands. Then she is holding Tom Lin, and the furious Queen can do nothing.

In the version we heard as kids, she sings, He was the best of all my knights, but woman’s courage proved too strong. Tom Lin is now your man, by rights. So here’s the burden of my song: I failed to reckon with your will, your courage, and your heart so true, Fair Janet. So for good or ill your life together now pursue. (I love that: for good or ill.)

In the original, she says she should have poked his eyes out and replaced them with wood. Or, in another version, she should have removed his human heart and put clay in its place.

Briefly, the things I love most about this story:

1) Though it’s not in the original, the line, “And she had plucked him.” is so, so perfect. She isn’t an unconscious heroine being done to.

2) Tom Lin asks an awful thing of Janet. The selfless, heroic version of love says he should never have asked such a thing of her. I much prefer this version of love. He trusts in her strength. He is a thousand times more interesting, because he asks her instead of martyring himself. It takes incredible personal power to ask something so awful and difficult.

3) He is trapped, enthralled to a woman. He is passive. Janet is a land-owner of high standing, and she fights with all her strength for what she wants.

The version I’ve quoted from is from the book Tales Three, ed. Geoffrey Summerfield.

Comments 15 Responses

  1. Ruthie

    “It was like drowning. It was like being kicked by a thousand feet. It was like falling. It was like a tornado. It was almost a death.”

    This is you, isn’t it? It sounds like you, and it was my favorite part.

    What a marvelous tale! I’d never heard it.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      It’s from the original, but that’s the bit that always stuck with me. I always remembered that when she pulled him off his horse it felt a bit like a death. This story has informed almost everything I write in such a subconscious way. There’s a part in MLU that goes:

      He didn’t make a single move towards her, but she was breathing like she’d been running, like she’d been drowning, and her heartbeat rushed past her ears like a thousand needles dropped on marble.

      1. Mike

        Its definitely one of the greatest Scottish folk-ballads! Maol a’Cliobain is another good Scots tale with an active heroine. ‘The Virago Book of Fairy-tales’ is a good collection of tales with primarily female protagonists.

  2. Shelley Hughes-Mills

    One of my all-time enduring favorite books is The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, a re-telling of Tam Lin. I have long thought it was the perfect young adult romance novel, with layers and layers of depth about women as leaders, and friends, and rivals, in addition to great storytelling. I’ve read it over 30 times and am still in awe of that book. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy.

      1. Elizabeth

        I have to (belatedly) second Shelley’s recommendation of The Perilous Gard. Really one of the best. I think it’s back in print.

  3. Kaetrin

    There was sexytimes in the brambles?

    Seems like a very subversive story for children with the pregnancy etc. I do like the themes of female empowerment though and I loved the quote from Crusie 🙂

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Crusie is hilarious, natch. I suspect the original ballad wasn’t for kids. But if you read it (or at least a version of it – it would have been aural for years) you can feel that the attitude towards pregnancy is slightly different. There’s no emphasis on marriage, and she isn’t stripped of her land or anything. I kind of like it as a message that an accidental pregnancy doesn’t have to have Bad Consequences.

  4. Catherine

    Tam Lin has always been a favourite of mine, and this is an astonishingly well-timed post, because I’ve just finished reading Janet McNaughton’s ‘An Earthly Knight’, which is a re-telling of the Tam Lin story, with Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight thrown in for good measure. It’s fabulously good, by the way, with a lovely and very satisfying feminist streak … though I think I will always love Pamela Dean’s retelling the best. She sets it at a University, and I read it as an undergraduate and the idea that some of the students were more than just a little strange and charismatic seemed very plausible.

    I was always rather fond of Snow White and Rose Red, as a child – in retrospect, I think I liked the fact that the sisters actually like each other (a rarity in fairy tales and ballads), and get to be a bit more active in their tale – showing generosity and courage to the bear, rescuing the dwarf, and so forth. Patricia Wrede did a lovely retelling of this one, full of Elizabethan magic and Faerie.

    Come to think of it, my bookshelf contains a surprising number of pleasingly feminist re-tellings of fairy-tales. This is probably not accidental…

  5. Ella

    There was a story I used to read when I was a little girl; I just found it again for a story I’m working on. In it, the little girl must grab hold of the witch and hang on, no matter what, as the witch changes her form over and over again, trying to shake the little girl free. The little girl hangs on until the witch is tired, and then is granted her wish. That sounds so like the Tam Lin story, and I’ve never heard anything like it before. That must be where the story comes from.

    1. Laura Vivanco

      There’s someone a bit similar in Greek mythology:

      Proteus knew all things—past, present, and future—but disliked divulging what he knew. Those who wished to consult him had first to surprise and bind him during his noonday slumber. Even when caught he would try to escape by assuming all sorts of shapes. But if his captor held him fast, the god at last returned to his proper shape, gave the wished-for answer, and plunged into the sea. (Encylopaedia Britannica)

  6. Pingback: Foundations of Wonk: The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope | Wonk-o-Mance

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