Let Go of Him, Janet!: A Reconsideration of Tam Lin
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Article ID: 13839
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 1,425
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Author: Blue Cowboy
Posted: May 30th. 2010
Times Viewed: 1,850
‘I forbid you maidens all/ Who wear gold in your hair/ To travel to Carterhaugh/ For young Tam Lin is there….’
Ever since I was a young girl, I have loved princess stories where the princess—or better yet, a girl who does not have the advantage of being a princess—does the saving. All of my yang energy, as I tend to be a very yang-y girl, goes flying toward fairy tales in which the young heroine fights and prevails on behalf of her man. ‘East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon’ and ‘Molly Whuppie’ (or, 'Molly Opens Up a Can of Whup-a** on Some Giants') are a couple of my favorites, so of course ‘Tam Lin’ used to be. But it wasn’t until I found myself in an emotionally abusive relationship that it ceased to be.
Now Tam Lin, which originates in the borderlands of Scotland, might not officially be a fairy tale: it is a ballad or folklore. But it has fairies in it, and a handsome knight, and a brave heroine. The first time I ever read ‘Tam Lin’ was in a book of British folklore belonging to my grandmother: deep in the pages was an etching, dark against the night, of the heroine Janet clamping her arms around a lion rampant, with a troop of fairies arrayed behind her.
The image arrested my attention and I went into a child’s reverie: of a midnight with Janet hiding by the crossroads with her heart hammering in her chest as the fairy court troops by on the way to sacrifice her lover, her desperate eyes straining through the darkness to see the white horse on which he rides and hoping not to hop out too soon and draw the wrath of the fairies or to miss the horse and her only chance to save her lover; Janet springing out and dragging Tam down from his horse and he under enchantment writhing in her arms, turning into a swan that beats her with its wings, a lion which roars and rips her with his claws and teeth, a snake which cracks her ribs in its coils, finally a huge rod of white-hot iron that sears and broils the insides of her arms and the side of her cheek as she runs with it to the nearest well to throw it into the cold water. Out of the cold well emerges Tam Lin, dripping and stripped both of clothes and enchantment, fully recognizing her, fully in love with her.
How could a brave little girl not love this story? Janet is brave and there is shapeshifting and there are fairies. And I am hardly the only one to have been so enamored: ‘Tam Lin’ been multiply interpreted, musically most famously by Fairport Convention, but also re-translated through modern literature and art, by Diana Wynne Jones, by Pamela Dean, by Elizabeth Marie Pope, by Charles Vess, and many, many others. Of course it has, for it is irresistible, iconic, archetypal: this scene of Janet holding on to her man as he transmutes and transmogrifies into various animals, resisting with bravery and love the built-in weaponry of each one, resisting through unbearable pain as she is beaten and torn and burned until finally the glow of recognition rests on her, the glow that tells we are special, the ah-hah moment of being seen and loved.
Janet became a model, a totem for me: Janet’s love for Tam Lin, who does ask her to save him, became an archetype of courage. I never thought of it as sacrificial or self-immolating. I thought it was the opposite, all active yang: the equivalent of a knight bloodying himself on briars to get to a castle, or crossing a river on the edge of a sword. I longed for being at a dark midnight crossroads so I could prove my bravery the same way. ‘I will not know you, ’ Tam says to Janet. I determined that would hold my man until he did know me.
Years passed, and then as a grown woman, I eventually found myself in a relationship with an emotionally volatile and unstable man. Maybe on some level I sought it out, in order to prove myself; there are theories about that. My lover knew about Tam, because in our lyrical sweet moments I told him about this model of love that meant so much to me. I sensed and interpreted his moods as moments of transmogrification, and I wanted to reassure him that I would not let go of him. ‘I may seem like I do not know you, Laura, ’ he would say, ‘but hold on to me. I am your Tam and you are my Janet.’
‘I’ll hang on to you, Tam, ’ I would vow. And then the mood swings began, the throes of name-calling and emotional manipulation. Like many relationships, it started out sweet and then it got sick. My lover would game me by saying he was going back to his ex-; he would get jealous of nothing and emotionally withdraw so that I would go running to him even when I had done nothing wrong. Even when he was the one acting up, he would go into emotional retreat and I would be the one to have to hold on: to reassure him, he said. To convince him that I needed him. So to convince him I loved him, I had to let him mistreat me and then hold the space or check on him to see when he would come out of his petty funk. I had to hold on to this burning brand or writhing serpent and wait for the sweetness to return.
‘If I hold on long enough he will know me, ’ I would tell myself. ‘I am like Janet.’ Meanwhile, he got to act however he wanted. And because I had convinced myself that to do so was brave, that I was the one in the relationship with strength and power, I held on and turned into a kind of inverse victim. Any yang energy that I was exhibiting was actually the dark involute of yang: power and bravery so tenacious and determined that it lets itself be abused, 'doormatted', i.e. a Giving Tree that ends up a stump. I realized, after a few strokes of grace that ended the relationship, that what I had been taking as bravery, he took as license.
My own mythos had betrayed me.
Now, much of this is my fault for viewing my life, for understanding events, through the templates of stories. Story forms help my understanding. I think they do for many of us, although often the stories are much more familiar. I am write this in the hope that if there are lovers who adore this ballad of Tam Lin, who use it as a model, if there is anyone who is as enthralled by it as I was, just to warn you that although it is daring and dramatic, there is another side to it that potentially lays one open for abuse.
My former lover was never physically abusive, but one can see how if he had wanted to do that I would have had a narrative excuse for staying. How often do people, usually women but not always, stay in something unhealthy and harmful because they think their tenacity will bring a change?
So I will speak through the layers of time and fable: brave Janet, let go of him. Be brave enough to open your arms and stop taking the beating. Clean your scratches out and go find a knight who will not hurt you. All you have to do is let go.
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