Janet McNaughton,
An Earthly Knight
(HarperCollins, 2004)

Set in 12th-century Scotland, An Earthly Knight is a strongly historical Tam Lin retelling that, as its title suggests, is much more interested in the earthly elements of the tale than the fantastic.

There may be fairies in the woods, but they are little seen amidst the bustle of banquets, weaving, dowries, pilgrimages and contemporary Scottish politics that fill the life of Lady Jeanette Avenel, youngest daughter to an ambitious Norman vicomte. At 16, Jenny is outspoken, strong willed and fond of wandering the woods alone. Neither entirely sharing nor disdaining her father's ambitions for connections with the Scottish crown, she is resigned to being married off to advance his interests -- until she meets the mysterious Tam Lin on one of her forest rambles.

Painstakingly faithful to the ballad, to the point where it quotes actual lines with little modification, An Earthly Knight is a retelling, not a real reinvention or reworking. Unoriginality of plot isn't the problem, however, since an original plot can hardly be demanded of a retelling; rather, it's the fact that the story of Tam Lin, when dominated by uninspiring protagonists and a truly unconvincing romance, becomes the tale of a rather clingy girl who pulls some bloke off his horse.

Jenny Avenel, despite being all the things likable young fantasy heroines generally are these days, is rather bland and occasionally irritating, basking in the glow of other characters' and McNaughton's own clear admiration. An anachronism of her time, Jenny alone sees clearly and critically through the oppressiveness of her society and acts with great courage to change her fate, etc., etc. She avoids the sin of dull, perfect goodness, but her bouts of selfish and immature behavior make her no more likable, and she never fully comes together as a person.

Conversely, Tam Lin is a contemporary female fantasy of Mr. Right transported directly into 1162 Scotland. Not only is he gentle and handsome (with long blond hair!), he also cooks, cleans and plays shrink/doctor/fairy godmother for Jenny. There is almost as little personality evident in his character as there is chemistry in their romance.

Supporting characters like Jenny's sister Isabel and the bard Cospatric can be interesting, but they are explored too little to compensate for the lackluster quality of the romance that occupies the center. The fairy queen is a particular disappointment. Like most fantastic elements in the novel, she almost fails to put in an appearance; when she does, she clashes violently with the prosaic historical setting that dominates the book.

An Earthly Knight isn't so much steeped in history as it is stuffed with it, to the point where it is actually awkward and intrusive. Jenny can hardly take a sip of wine without being interrupted by chatty narratorial comments on Norman beverage preferences and transportation problems. Characters insist upon telling other things (i.e., that Queen Maud was King David's sister) that everyone at that time and location should already know. The overabundance, and often awkward insertion, of historical sidenotes actually has an adverse effect on how convincing Jenny's world is. At the same time, anachronisms in the way the characters speak and act further disrupt the spell that historical fiction should ideally cast. In particular, the glaringly modern usage of words like "nicer" and "grumbly" gives the book the feel of a play in which contemporary actors have imperfectly learned their roles.

Neither quite adequate as historical fiction nor as fantasy, An Earthly Knight still retains some appeal for ballad lovers. One of its gems is the surprising and graceful interweaving of another ballad with Jenny's story. Their juxtaposition, which raises some really interesting questions about heroines, their actions and others' perceptions of both, is the single most compelling reason to read this book. As it is, An Earthly Knight is moderately enjoyable, if far from groundbreaking. Other authors, like Diana Wynne Jones in Fire & Hemlock and Elizabeth Marie Pope in The Perilous Gard, have written considerably more innovative and satisfying explorations of Tam Lin.

by Jennifer Mo
11 November 2006

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