This comes about a week late, but better that than never. Having reviewed it
, let me talk a bit more on Pamela Dean's Tam Lin
, because this is one of those books that I wanted to discuss with someone while reading it. For lack of a fellow reader, I poked around on the internet instead. Rowan Inish's Green Man Review
is a look at the book in the best possible light: a dense and delicate, indulgently idealized, brilliant college fantasy blossoming into a strong, realistic rendering of a fairy tale taking place in our real world. Meanwhile, Asking the Wrong Questions
approaches the book more critically, searching for some body behind all the glorious fantasy of manners fluff, and failing to find it at key moments. (Both reviews are rife with spoilers, so be warned.) I stand between the two opinions
Because I was surprised that reading Dean's Tam Lin
didn't inspire a slew of college nightmares, but really that makes perfect sense. Blackstock is so intensely and perfectly the college experience that I wished to have that it defies nightmares about the reality of the hell college actually can be. I can't overstate the effectiveness of Dean's wish-fulfillment fantasy. The book is so dense and detailed that the fantasy college experience is utterly immersive, and the experience itself is seductive to the hopeful academic. The whole thing is a delight. But I know that I'm an easy mark in this regard, and I begrudge being made and taken for my last pennyand I'm bitter, too, that the real world can't compare to the book's fantasy. It's a bit like the allure of Harry Potter: Mary Sue-ing yourself into a House and picking a wand and guessing at your patronus is fun, but it's silly and a bit humiliating in hindsightand heartbreaking, too, that you'll never get to attend Hogwarts because in the real world, people don't turn into cats (and, for that matter, you're far too old).
So as much as I enjoyed Dean's Tam Lin
and wanted it to succeed, I turned a jaded eye on all of its faultsand it has many of those. It was a bit of a conflicted read: as many joys and complains, and much reading aloud of the good as of the bad. (Sorry for that last part, Devon.)
Somewhat less relevant to the quality of book, but more relevant to its quality as a retelling:I have some doubts about how Dean approaches Tam Lin.
(Spoilers for the end of the book follow; consider yourself warned.) In Janet's general, growing impression that something fantastic exists at Blackstock, Dean does a wonderful job building up to some sort of fantasybut until she's already pregnant with his child, Janet knows nothing of Tam Lin himself. The original ballad, on the other hand, begins by introducing Tam Lin and warning maidens to avoid Carterhaugh, where he can be found. This warning is not specifically directed at Janet, but it is placed in explicit contrast to Janet's journey to Carterhaugh. In other words, the ballad implies that Janet knows, and willfully encounters, the risks. Which isn't to say that Dean's Janet is uninformed: the book's focus on birth control makes sex and pregnancy the known danger and the risk willingly taken.
But it's not quite the same thing. I should state that my introduction to Tam Lin was Tricky Pixie's version of the ballad
, which brings the sexy back to the source materialand the willfulness, and the consent (which, for some strange reason, are a pretty big part of the sexy)and encountering that version first has certainly influenced my interpretation of the ballad. Even with that influence aside, what makes the ballad so remarkable is Janet's agency: she knows the dangers, she goes to Carterhaugh, she bears the blame for her pregnancy, she declares the identity of her lover, she returns to him, she asks for his story, she asks how to save him, and she does then do so.
Dean's Janet may know about the dangers of pregnancy and suspect that there's something supernatural afoot, but in the rush of the last 50 pages Tam Lin's story still takes her by surprise and his rescue is a last-minute, conflicted decision; furthermore, because the quick ending receives none of the complexity and detail given to the rest of the book, it feels like Janet is fulfilling a role rather than making her own choices. That role may be more or less logical, it may not feel entire out of place, but it still lacks the remarkable, wonderful, willful agency that Janet possesses in the source material.
And Dean's novel is the poorer for it.
To end on a positive note, I give you one of my favorite paragraphs from the book:
Janet considered interrupting, but what she thought of as the fatal flaw of the novel-reader prevented her. She had meant to ask Nick if he and Robin were coming to the party, since neither of them had actually expressed any intention of doing so. But the flaw of the novel-reader is to want to know what will happen if a situation is allowed to develop unmolested. So she let them talk, and ate her canned okra and tomato soup, and wondered if they should move any of the furniture in their room to make more room for the party.
Tam Lin, Pamela Dean, 190
A favorite because it is true, you knowor, at least, it is true for me.