Margaret's Reviews > Tam Lin

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
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Aug 23, 2016

it was amazing
bookshelves: fantasy-and-science-fiction, mythology-and-fairy-tales, favorites, tam-lin, authors-cd, 2016-read
Read from August 22 to 23, 2016

O I forbid you, maidens a', That wear gowd on your hair,
To come or gae by Carterhaugh, For young Tam Lin is there.


These are the first lines of the best-known version of the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, about a young man doomed to be given to hell by the faerie queen, and the young woman who saves him. It's a ballad whose fascination is enduring and which has inspired a number of retellings, of which Pamela Dean's is my favorite (followed closely by Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock).

Dean's version of the story is set in the Midwestern college of Blackstock (based on Dean's alma mater, Carleton). When Janet Carter enters college, she and her roommates, Molly and Tina, fall in with a small group of charismatic students, who are all closely connected with the Classics department and its Professor Medeous, an enigmatic but fascinating woman. As Janet wends her way through her four years at college, she learns more and more about Medeous and her followers and eventually finds herself entangled in their intrigues.

Dean spins Janet's story into the tale of Tam Lin in a slow, subtle, and gorgeous way. Hints of the unearthly begin early, from the ghost who throws books from the windows of Janet's dorm, to the mysterious horse riders she encounters on Hallowe'en. Yet much of the book's charm lies in its exploration of college life. It makes me nostalgic, even though I didn't go to a small college and my experiences were nothing like Janet's. The excitement of learning, the thrills of first love, the sheer difference of living on your own, away from your parents; these are all there.

I think I'm particularly drawn to the book because of its interest in literature and in the Classics. I love the bit where Janet and her friends are going through the steam tunnels below campus and come upon some graffiti on the walls: the opening lines of Homer's Iliad, in Greek, whereupon the Classics majors read it aloud and offer a couple of translations (one of which is Chapman's Homer, immortalized in the Keats sonnet).
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Quotes Margaret Liked

Pamela Dean
“Look," said Janet, irritated, "if the thing you liked best to do in the world was read, and somebody offered to pay you room and board and give you a liberal arts degree if you would just read for four years, wouldn't you do it?”
Pamela Dean, Tam Lin


Reading Progress

08/22/2016 marked as: read
08/22/2016 marked as: currently-reading
08/23/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Just lovely. I need to read this book.


message 2: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell This book is one of my top favourites. I used to reread it a couple of times a year, until I was afraid of wearing it out. I particularly love Janet's characterization, and the relationships she has with her roommates Molly and Tina. As much if not more time is given to those as the romantic heterosexual ones, and I liked that a lot.

I used to think the pace was a little rushed - Janet's freshman year is given in great detail, the next year(s) not so much, and the last year seems very fast? But then someone told me that's based on the actual storyline of the ballad, altho I couldn't figure it out. It does actually correspond to experience, tho - I remember nearly everything about my freshman year, not so much about the last!


Margaret If I had to name my top ten books (which would be really, really hard), this would certainly be on it.

Moi, that's interesting about the timeline. I should reread the ballad to see about that, because I've always thought it was kind of rushed, too. Maybe just because I love it so much I'd like to have more to read about the last couple of years.

Hey, it's been five years since I read it last. Maybe I can read it again this summer without wearing it out!


message 4: by Moira (last edited Jul 25, 2010 08:43PM) (new) - added it

Moira Russell If I had to name my top ten books (which would be really, really hard), this would certainly be on it.

OMG I don't know if I could ever do that! But this would be WAY up there, yeah. I don't even remember how I first heard of it - I was mad for ballads as a girl, and went from there to fantasy books based on ballads, and I think I had it checked out from the Santa Fe Public Library for about two years. Heh. (It's so neat that it got reprinted along with the Secret Country trilogy - those were SO hard to find, for a while.)

I should reread the ballad to see about that, because I've always thought it was kind of rushed, too. Maybe just because I love it so much I'd like to have more to read about the last couple of years.

I could have happily done with the book being 2 or 3 x as long! I remember the first time I finished it being so disappointed it was OVER and hoping for a sequel....there does seem to be a tiny set-up in the last pages. But I guess not, sigh.

Maybe I can read it again this summer without wearing it out!

I had such a neon orange glaring crush the size of Texas on Thomas, it was terrible.


Edited because thinking of Thomas in the ruffly shirt in the Revengers Tragedy fried my HTML skills


Margaret Oh, god, I had the first two Secret Country books for literally years before I managed to find the third one (way before they got reprinted). I imagine that the people in the bookstore when I found it thought I was nuts.

I love Thomas, especially because he's one of the few bearable versions of that character. Mmm, ruffly shirt! (I also like Tom in DWJ's Fire and Hemlock, though I know not everyone agrees with me on that.)


message 6: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Oh, god, I had the first two Secret Country books for literally years before I managed to find the third one (way before they got reprinted). I imagine that the people in the bookstore when I found it thought I was nuts.

DUDE. DUDE. I got the first one, loved it, bought what I thought was the second volume, only it was the third, read it anyway, loved it (yes), and YEARS later, found the second volume. God bless the internet. Maybe it was months that felt like years. Trying to find out-of-print fantasy novel sets is such a pain, even with Amazon and book depository &c.

I love Thomas, especially because he's one of the few bearable versions of that character. Mmm, ruffly shirt! (I also like Tom in DWJ's Fire and Hemlock, though I know not everyone agrees with me on that.)

I love it when he asks her to marry him OVER THE PHONE and she shuts him down and he just says 'As a response to the only proposal I am ever likely to make'....

I....kind of liked Tom? I mean, I found him attractive. At the same time he was terribly patronizing to Polly (all that writing criticism, wtf), and he kept her in the dark a good long while, and I did find the age difference sort of skeezy. That may be more of a personal squick, tho.

I have also never been able to figure out the ending of that book. DWJ's endings in general seem deliberately baffling, sometimes. Or maybe more deliberately not neatly wrapped-up, would be closer to it.


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