O I forbid you, maidens a’,
That wear gowd on your hair
To come or gae by Carterhaugh,
For young Tam Lin is there.
For her novel Tam Lin, Pamela Dean takes the story of that ballad and sets it in a college in Minnesota in the 1970s.
If you’re not familiar with the ballad of Tam Lin, the Wikipedia page, followed by this song, will be a good primer. There are many different versions of the ballad, but the novel pursues its own path, and at first that seems to have nothing to do with the story from which it takes its title. But Dean’s writing is such that I couldn’t help but be drawn in, even though for a very long time, it seems almost more like a literary novel about coming of age at a small liberal-arts focused college.
The story opens with Janet starting at Blackstock College, with the aim of majoring in English. In her words, “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?”
As it turns out, her adviser tries to get her to consider a major in Classics. Janet’s father is a professor at Blackstock, and so she’s familiar with the tenet that the “Classics majors are crazy.” But she and her roommates Molly and Tina – both of whom are going to study biology – end up falling in with a group of Classics majors, and as they make their way toward their degrees, there are many indications that there might be something more than craziness at work in the Classics Department.
Janet starts off with just the intent of reading her way through to her degree, but it becomes increasingly evident that the reading alone is not enough to get what the works of art are offering.
At the start, she’s absorbed in her books and in her appreciation of them, to the point that she looks down on Tina for not doing the same and for generally not being a person with whom she has much in common. Her bad treatment of Tina actually gets to the point that multiple characters call her out on it, subtly undermining the cliché about reading teaching people empathy with those who aren’t like them. It can, of course, but only if the reader lets it happen. To her credit, Janet does try to do this, and though she and Tina are never exactly at ease, her treatment of Tina notably improves throughout the book. That’s in sharp contrast to some of the most well-read characters, such as Nick Tooley, who spouts poetry at the drop of the hat and tries to set it to music. “Nick was bright, but he wasn’t warm,” Janet thinks at one point in the story, and he’s not the only character of whom this could be said.
In fact coldness is what marks the Classics majors, rather than craziness. They’re eccentric, but likeable enough at the beginning. Yet as the years of college pass and they seemingly don’t change in personality, it becomes eerie. There’s only one who has normal ups and downs – Thomas Lane. He shows a temper, tries to make amends for that temper, is hurt and upset when romance goes sour, and for unclear reasons at first, is at war with the head of the Classics department as he tries to change his major from Classics to English while being allowed to graduate.
And as all of this plays out, there are small, unsettling incidents that keep piling up at Blackstock – incidents that become increasingly difficult to explain by real-world standards.
But for the most part, the conflict and the struggle comes from the characters trying to find the words for things they cannot name and trying to grapple with the impact of the words they do say.
“She had been so conscious of not saying what she thought to Tina, that she had been saying it to all sorts of innocent people without reflecting on the consequences,” Janet thinks at one point.
And throughout the book, she struggles to find her own words. She’s constantly trying to write poetry of her own, and succeeds at one point in doing so, but it’s a constant battle and one fought in the shadow of her studying some of the great poets. All the while, “a collection of unspoken thoughts” is piling up for herself and Nick, with whom she’s romantically involved for much of the story. As she commits to helping Tina improve her own writing, you have the sense her own creativity is struggling. And it highlights a bit of the futility that can hit anyone studying great works of art with a view of making their own: what is there to be said, when so much has been said already?
As Janet draws to the end of her college time, the unnatural things about Blackstock come to a head with a vengeance, and the story of Tam Lin asserts itself in unmistakable fashion.
If there’s any fault to the novel, I think it might lie here; the revelation of the ballad’s story serves as the crescendo of all the eeriness throughout the book, but it’s still rather abruptly handled. But when you consider the fairy world as part of the mysteries touched on in the poems Janet studies and the others quote, I think its appearance could only come that late in the game. All the poetry, the plays, the mystery novels, the fantasy books, the urban legends about ghosts- all of them brush barely against the terrifying reality that’s lurking beneath Blackstock’s pleasant surface. And in many ways, that echoes the actual college experience; it’s a cacophony of learning that can get loud enough to drown out the world outside- the world that is in varying degrees the source of all the things you’re studying within the university walls.
In the ballad, Tam Lin has to be thrown into well water for the fairy queen’s hold on him to be broken. And in Tam Lin the book, it’s not just him – the plunge into the otherworldly is one that breaks a hold on Janet too. All her learning has brought her to this pass, where she has to make the right choice and abide by it, a subject fitting for any great work of art. But for Janet, it’s painful and messy and unclear, hardly picturesque. Yet she’s sustained throughout her ordeals by the things she’s read and what they’ve taught her. This is not ever said directly, but you can perceive the effect of her reading and her considering the meanings of it. It shines in her words, in her thoughts and in her grappling with the reverberations of acting with integrity. And at the end of it all, she’s able to write again.
Art really can’t work when it’s just for art’s own sake, after all. Stephen King memorably said that life is not a support system for art, but rather that it’s the other way around. Tam Lin illustrates the perils of letting artistic artifice drown out life. But it showcases also the richness of a life that draws upon artistry without letting it drown out the human impulses that lead us to seek out beauty in the first place. It’s a lovely book, and one I look forward to reading again.