Tam Lin

Pamela Dean’s retelling of the Scottish ballad Tam Lin is set at a Minnesota college in the 1970s. Janet, whose father teachers at the college, is beginning her studies there when she and her roommates, Tina and Molly, become involved with a tight-knit group of classics majors, Nick, Thomas, and Robin. And various interpersonal dramas ensue, just as it does in college.

Only gradually do elements of the ballad sneak in. At first, it’s just names — Janet, Thomas Lane, the Romance of the Rose. Dean takes her time building to the meat of the ballad. For most of the book, Janet spends her time fretting over her relationship with Nick, while Thomas is dating Tina. There are little teases related to the ballad, but nothing concrete. A female professor has an unusual amount of power over the boys. The girls start using birth control, although Janet’s choice in this area seems obviously misguided. One Halloween passes. And another. …

The book is over 400 pages long, and most of it just involves the characters moving around each other. Because Dean takes so much time getting to the ballad, the relationships, rather than the mythology, become the central point of the story. I think a case could be made that the establishing to details of these relationships goes on too long, but I enjoyed seeing how the characters evolved over their college years. And it makes the realization of what’s going on all the more shattering for Janet.

The ending, when it comes, happens quickly, with Janet understanding her situation and having to make an almost immediate decision. And there are just enough questions left at the end to leave readers with a sense of both relief and unease. I liked that about it, too.


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9 Responses to Tam Lin

  1. Yeah, it’s not the MOST Tam Linny compared to some other Tam Lin retellings, but gosh, I sure like it anyway. It is one of my big comfort reads — the first time I read it, I completely disregarded my art history class and just read it under my desk for the full hour and a half. Which I was NOT WONT TO DO in college, as it felt like a waste of my hard-earned money.

  2. Jeanne says:

    I was slow to love this retelling, but I have come to love it more with time and reading other, shorter versions.
    I also like to tell an abbreviated version of the story before my fiddle group plays the reel called Tam Lin; there’s a sudden high part where I want them to imagine he turns into a bird and tries to fly up, out of her arms.

  3. Lory says:

    For me this book brings back fond memories of being at Carleton, which is the college in the book. I attended it 25 years after Dean did, but it’s still recognizable. I’m so happy other people love it too!

  4. CLM says:

    I guess fans of the legend have their favorite retelling, and while I liked this very much (and wonder who has my copy – don’t you hate to be reminded of a book you own and then not be able to rush to find it) my favorite is The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope.

    • Teresa says:

      I loved The Perilous Gard. Fire and Hemlock is another good one. I think those are the only retellings I’ve read, but Maggie Stiefvater’s Lament draws on the legend too, now that I think about it.

  5. Jeane says:

    This is one of my all-time favorites. I first read it as a teen, and at the time wasn’t familiar with the ballad so it was all rich and new to me. I’ve read it over at least five times! Love Fire and Hemlock, too. And I happen to have Perilous Gard on my shelf, unread so far, didn’t realize it was also a retelling. Now i’m even more eager to read that one!

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