Jane Yolen,
illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak,
Tam Lin
(Harcourt Brave Jovanovich, 1990)

Any fan of Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span is likely familiar with the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, the mortal captive of the faery queen who seduces a wayward girl before turning to her for salvation from his fate.

Noted author Jane Yolen gives the oft-sung tale new life in an illustrated volume ostensibly for children, but well-suited for the collection of any adult who enjoys a good tale well told. Artwork by Charles Mikolaycak is a bonus.

Yolen has had plenty of experience honing her storyteller's flair for writing, and it shines through in her lyrical prose here. She adds plenty of detail to the story as well, fleshing out the characters and settings for a much fuller tale. Now, for instance, we don't simply know not to go to Carterhaugh; we know that Carterhaugh is an abandoned castle, and we know what it looks and even smells like. We also know what has happened to those who ignored the warnings even before our willful heroine gets involved in the story.

But of course we cannot do without Jennet (now with a surname, MacKenzie), who is more the star of Tam Lin than Tam Lin himself. She goes to Carterhaugh despite the cautious apprehensions of her parents. There she picks the rose that calls Tam Lin -- the boyhood friend of her father's father's father -- back from "the land of the Ever-Fair," where he has been a captive of the faeries for lifetimes.

Here Yolen varies somewhat from the ballad, which was intended for a different audience than today. Tam Lin and Jennet do nothing more than kiss, and she certainly is not impregnated during their meeting. (In the original version, her carrying his child was a vital part of the rescue to follow.) Suffice it to say, they fall in love in the way only storybook characters can, and she vows to save him from his impending fate, when his faery captors give him as a tithe to Hell.

Although slightly sanitized, Yolen's retelling of Tam Lin is an excellent prose adaptation of the old song. It's certainly easier to follow the story than it is even through repeated listenings of a modern recording of that centuries-old ballad.

Mikolaycak's art is lush and colorful, well-suited to the tone and style of the story, with windswept tartans and misty brambles giving life to the Scottish landscape. The only flaw is his depiction of the faeries themselves -- except for a green horse among the riders, there is nothing extraordinary or inhuman about them, and the faeries of Celtic lore demand some sense of otherness in their portrayal.

Still, for reading to a child or reading to one's self, Jane Yolen's Tam Lin is an excellent addition to the shelf. Folklore collectors in particular should not pass this one by!

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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