Tam Lin & escapes from faeryland

The Fairy Host in Tam Lin by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

A number of Scottish ballads suggest that for human captives in fairyland to escape their captivity can be a violent and terrifying process- especially for the person trying to save them.  There are three primary examples to consider, all of which share close resemblances. 

In the ballad, The Faery Oak of Corriewater, a young man called Elph Irving has been captured by the queen of Elfland to be her cupbearer.  He is said to be “the fairest that earth may see” and, for his seven years’ service, she says that “his wage is a kiss of me” which seems to make it fairly clear that he is as much a sex slave as a domestic servant. It’s notable too that his name is prefixed ‘Elph,’ suggestive of some kind of assimilation to faery-kind through his residence with them. As we know, for humans to eat faery food can lead to a permanent physical change which prevents their return to the mortal world.

Irving’s sister comes to save him.  The fairies are alerted to her approach (“For here comes the smell of some baptised flesh,/ And the sounding of baptised feet”- humans can be smelt by fairies just as much as we can detect them by their distinctive fairy smell) and try to make a getaway on their steeds.  The sister, however, is too fast:

“She linked her brother around,

And called on God, and the steed with a snort

Sank into the gaping ground.

But the fire maun [must] burn, and I maun quake,

And the time that is gone will no more come back.

And she held her brother, and lo! he grow

A wild bull waked in ire;

And she held her brother, and lo! he changed

To a river roaring higher;

And she held her brother, and he became

A flood of the raging fire;

She shrieked and sank, and the wild elves laughed

Till the mountain rang and mire.”

To save her brother, she must be brave and not be intimidated by the transformations he goes through under the power of faery glamour. Sadly, the sister’s courage fails at last moment when Irving turns into the blaze of elfin fire and her chance to save him is lost forever.

Erica Leveque

The story of Tam Lin is very similar to that of the Faery Oak, but the ending is much happier.  Tam is a human boy who, as before, has been taken by the faery queen- perhaps once again for carnal reasons, as he describes himself as “fat and fair of flesh.”  This may, alternatively, relate to the fact that the fairies seem to intend to sacrifice him as their teind (tithe) to the devil.  This fate arises in part from his good looks, but it is also likely to reflect his part-human status; although Tam also states that he too has undergone some sort of transformation and that he is now “a fairy, lyth and limb,” he’s still not entirely one of them and, as such, is easier for the community to lose.

A girl called Janet falls for Tam after she meets him in a wood and gets pregnant.  She wants to rescue him from the fairies, so that she has a father for her child, and he instructs her when, where and how to do it.  She has to snatch him from his horse as the fairy court is out on its Halloween rade- and she must then be prepared for the transformations that will follow:

“They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and a snake;

            But had [hold] me fast, let me not pass,

            Gin ye wad be my maik [lover/ partner].

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and an ask;

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A bale that burns fast.

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A red-hot gad o’ airn;

            But haud me fast, let me not pass,

            For I’ll do you no harm.

First dip me in a stand o’ milk,

            And then in a stand o’ water;

            But had me fast, let me not pass,

            I’ll be your bairn’s father.

And next they’ll shape me in your arms

            A toad but and an eel;

            But had me fast, nor let me gang,

            As you do love me weel.

            ‘They’ll shape me in your arms, Janet,

            A dove but and a swan,

            And last they’ll shape me in your arms

            A mother-naked man;

            Cast your green mantle over me,

            I’ll be myself again.”

When Janet has rescued Tam, the fairy queen curses her for taking away the bonniest knight in her company: “Shame betide her ill-far’d face,/  And an ill death may she die.”  At the same time, too, the queen wishes she had taken steps to stop Tam’s fancy from straying.  She regrets that she had not taken out his heart, and replaced it with a stone, and that she had not “taen out thy twa grey een,/ Put in twa een o tree” (“Taken out your two grey eyes/ And put in two of wood.”)  This desire to blind Tam so he can’t see humans is an interesting detail of the ballad, because of its comparison to the faery practice of blinding those humans (usually midwives) who have got ointment on their eyes and as a result can see the fairies through their glamour.

Tam Lin by wylielise on deviantart

Our last example of a perilous escape from faery concerns a female captive who is rescued by her father.  The Ballad of Mary o’ Craignethan sees Mary stolen away under the fairy knoll by a fae man.  Her father seeks expert counsel and is advised on the ritual he has to follow to bless (sain) and then release her.  He must go to the fairy oak and there blow his horn three times.  At the first blast, the tree will bend and fall; at the second a silence will fall and an eldritch laugh will ring out.  At the third, a loathsome fiend will appear with “wauchie cheek and wauland ye” (‘a sallow cheek and wildly rolling eyes’). This will be Mary- and her father has to grasp her tightly by the wrists and make the sign of a cross over her:

“syne an ugsome ask in his han’ sho kyth’t

Owerspread wi’ lapper’t blude.”

She’ll appear next as a fearsome newt in his hand, covered in clotted blood.  He mustn’t quail but should then make the sign of the cross again and:

“Syne a sneeran’ [hissing] snake she turn’d roun’ his arm

And ower his bosom slade;

When he the thirden time she sain’t

A burnan bale she grew;

He nam’d ower her the halie name

An’ she flichter’t a milk-white dou [fluttered like a white dove].

He nam’d ower her the halie name

In his han’ was a lily rare;

He nam’d ower her the halie name,

In his han’ was his Mary fair.”

As you’ll have noticed, several transformations are common to all these stories.  Snakes, newts and burning bales seem to have been mentioned because they are likely to scare the rescuer into releasing their loved one; birds will flap wildly to try to escape- and it’s likely, I guess, that the snakes and newts will slither and, once again, alarm the rescuer. What is very clear, though, is that the rescue requires a lot of the human: she or he must not only know the necessary words and ritual; they must also have a very steady nerve and be able to see through the faeries’ glamour and realise that the deadly creatures in their arms are only illusion, and pose no real threat.

Tamlaine by Robert Macnair

4 thoughts on “Tam Lin & escapes from faeryland

  1. Tam Lin could have had a very different fate!

    A very enjoyable article. I’d only come across Tam Lin before, not the other two ballads, so it was interesting to learn about their similiarities and differences.

    Like

    1. Lynden

      You’re right: Tam, was lucky that Janet was a tough young woman. If you recall, or have reread the ballad, she’s already demonstrated her independence and strength of will, so it’s less surprising. As for the other two stories, they are both pretty obscure (especially the Craignethan one) which is why I felt they deserved a bit of wider attention.

      John

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s