Tam Lin is Pamela Dean’s retelling of the classic folk tale, done as part of The Fairy Tale series created by Terri Windling. The folk tale is about a battle between the Faery Queen and a mortal girl for the heart and soul of Tam Lin, a young man enthralled by the Faery Queen. Pamela Dean has taken the innovative step of setting the story at a university in the Midwest during the seventies, which is pretty smart, because if the Faery Queen needs to hide out, where is she more likely to blend in than with a bunch of eccentric theater majors? Janet, the daughter of one of Blackstock’s professors, enrolls at the university as a freshman and moves into the dormitories. Like those at any good old university, the dorms are haunted, and like any good freshman Janet has no idea what she wants to major in. As Janet tries to decide what she wants to study and get to the bottom of the book-throwing ghost, she meets Thomas, a young man who is more than he seems. When things get complicated, she has to choose exactly what she wants to do with her life and the lives of those around her. For those readers not familiar with the fairy tale, Dean includes a copy of the folk song in the volume.
Reading Tam Lin is like walking through autumn sunshine. The atmosphere is almost tangible as Janet struggles to make an identity of her own as a new student at Blackstock. Even though the plot as dictated by the Tam Lin folk tale doesn’t really get underway until the last quarter of the book, there are plenty of hints that something is not quite right. Dean is capable of casting an aura of foreboding and making it believable that the Faery Queen could be living undetected in a Midwestern university town. Balancing the vague sense that something is rotten in the dorms is the mundanity of college living — bad cafeteria food, weird roommates, and bizarre traditions. These details flesh out the surroundings until they take on a life of their own.
Tam Lin is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it a handful of times, and it’s one of my top choices for when I’m in a funk because it is so beautiful to read. It doesn’t bother me that almost nothing happens until the last quarter of the book, that the characters run around discussing the classics like they were born in a library, or that Dean introduces in detail a wide circle of characters who exist merely to make the world more real and have no purpose in the plot. All that just serves to illuminate the gorgeous writing.
You are not going to like this book if you need action and plot advancement at all times, but if you are willing to just sit back and visit another world, content just to observe, this book will richly reward you for the time you spend walking the halls of Blackstock.
I love love love fantasies set in college, and this is the very epitome of that. It’s so enchanting that you don’t care that the plot doesn’t start till the very end. I read a review once that said something like, “It’s not that we wish there were more of the Faery Queen stuff. It’s more that we’d gladly read another 400 pages of Janet Goes to School.”
I think you have to have liked college life to “get” this one… and I did. OK, my friends and I weren’t quite this erudite, but still…
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean is one of those books that some people love and others can’t stand. I happen to love it, but (lawyer-talk here) you’d be well advised to check out some of the reviews and descriptions of this book to see if it’s likely to be your cup of tea.
This novel is a modern-day retelling of the old ballad of “Tam Lin.” Here’s one version of the old tale of the pregnant girl who tries to save her love from the Queen of Faerie. I suggest reading it before you read this book, to help you catch the subtle clues and hints that tie this novel to the original ballad.
Pamela Dean’s version follows Janet’s life and times at a small liberal arts college, beginning as a freshman and going up to the Halloween of her senior year, and her many interactions with her roommates and friends. There is a fantasy element to this story, but the magic creeps up extremely slowly until it burst into full bloom at the very end of the book (and I do mean the very end).
If you’re expecting a novel where magic and fantasy fill the entire story, or if you have little patience with reading about theatre and the arts and the college students who live and breathe them, this version of Tam Lin is not for you.
However, if you don’t mind a book where the fantasy element is much more subtle and is woven into a story about college life and liberal arts majors who put their hearts into plays and walk around randomly quoting Shakespeare and the like to each other, there’s magic, along with a lot of wit and humor, to be found in Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin.