It’s been said that there are only seven (or nine, or thirteen, depending on whom you ask) original plots out there, and that everything else is just variations on a theme. If one takes that notion to heart, then no narrative can be seen as truly original; every song and story is merely a reworking of a tale that’s already been told a thousand times before. Such over generalizations are hard to disprove precisely because they are so broad — yes, an awful lot of stories can be seen as descendants of boy-meets-girl (or boy-meets-boy, or girl-meets-dragon, or whatever other variations might appeal to a given author) — but that’s a rough sort of relation to make, and it doesn’t say much other than the fact that human beings have a limited range of experience to write about.
On the other hand, there is definitely a booming literary business going in exhuming old plots and characters and slapping a fresh coat of paint on those ancient structures. Du Maurier’s Rebecca, the inhabitants of Rick’s Cafe American and even the Wicked Witch of the West have gotten this sort of treatment in the last few years, for better or for worse, and it would be naiveté to think that the auctorial excavation would stop with those three, or even with the last century or so of creative endeavor. Instead, authors looking for stories to retell have gone further and further back, exploring more and more diverse sources of narrative and dusting them off for modern audiences. Some of the attempts, such as Kenneth C. Flint’s awkward retellings of assorted Irish myth cycles, have been less than terribly successful; others (like Gregory Frost’s Tain and Remscela) have worked rather better. And then there are those efforts that are more than simple retellings of old, old tales – they are freshly imagined renditions that incur a whole new set of risks in their conception. Not every old story lends itself to a new guise, and not every modern setting is appropriate for a reworking of a traditional or ancient narrative. For every success, there are a dozen failures littering remainder bins and library shelves.
Which brings us to one of the more recent attempts to update a classic narrative: Pamela Dean’s massively detailed and lovingly crafted version of Tam Lin (see footnote).
An early part of Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale series, Tam Lin is by far the most ambitious project on the line. The story of Tam Lin is one of the better known ones to escape folklore for the fringes of the mainstream; you’ll find references scuttling about everywhere from old Fairport Convention discs to Christopher Stasheff novels. There’s danger inherent in mucking about with a story that a great many people know and love in its original form; a single misstep and the hard-core devotees of the classic start howling for blood. Moreover, Dean is not content simply to take the ballad of Tam Lin and transplant it bodily into another setting. No, she weaves over 450 pages of story and subplot around the basic tale of green-kirtled Janet and her somewhat iffy taste in men, giving the story not only a setting but a context. Dean’s Janet does not exist in a vacuum. She has a thoroughly detailed existence before her Thomas appears on the scene, and her choices regarding the perils she finds herself in make sense based upon what we know of her established character and history. But even with that advantage given to her heroine, Dean treads dangerous ground by daring to put her own, emphatic spin on a much-loved narrative.
The author’s first conceit, and it is a large one, is to lift the story of Tam Lin out of 16th-century Scotland and plunk it down on the campus of a midwestern liberal arts college in the early Seventies. However, Dean’s approach is more than a simple grafting. Rather, the fiber of the original ballad gets woven into patterns appropriate for its new idiom; the Queen of Faerie doubles as a department head, ancient rites are masked as school traditions, the notion of the perpetual undergrad is taken to ridiculous extremes, and so on. This proposition is a risky one, but Dean pulls it off with panache. That the entire structure of magic, mischief and enthrallment makes as much sense as it does is a tremendous credit to the author; there are any number of hand grenades that she must juggle in order to make her faeries, ensorcelled mortals and other characters believable in their roles, and she handles them deftly. The right characters drop the right quotes and one-liners; anachronisms are delicately placed in the proper mouths to be spoken at important moments, and the whole thing manages to hold itself together without any of its seams showing.
Dean’s second conceit, and it may well be bigger than the first, is to drape so much other detail around what is a fairly simple narrative. There’s not that much you can do with “Girl meets boy, boy gets girl pregnant, girl saves boy from being tithed to Hell even though he turns into assorted unpleasant carnivores during the rescue operation” in and of itself. Tam Lin may be of notable length as a ballad, but that’s a far cry from 450 pages of single- spaced fiction. Had Dean limited herself to the strict action of her source, the book would be more along the lines of a pamphlet. Instead, she gets creative. Subplots about ghosts, rare books, romances, bedhopping, literary criticism and other unlikely bedfellows form the bulk of the novel’s verbiiage, even as Dean stealthily maneuvers the reader closer to the ballad’s familiar denouement. All of these subplots are germane to the ballad’s central action in one form or another; everyone from Colley Cibber to the ghost of a Classics major disappointed in love puts in an appearance so as to build up to the narrative’s tension. It’s a bare twenty pages from the end when our hero, Thomas, finally reveals what’s truly going on and who in the rather large cast of characters is more than what she or he seems. But even then, the delay and the slow buildup seem appropriate — indeed, without Janet’s lengthy and gentle seduction into the magical world Thomas and his cohorts inhabit, there’s no reason for her to believe his revelations, thus condemning him to Hell and readers to a disappointing ending. All of the dabblings and hints are necessary so that we as readers are ready to believe that Janet herself believes. Otherwise, her efforts would seem forced; it’s the book’s greatest triumph that even in the midst of crises both natural and unnatural, Janet behaves in a way that never strains credibility but which does arouse admiration.
In truth the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the book come out of the richness that Dean weaves, essentially out of whole cloth. Yes, there is a great deal going on in the book, and it rewards a second and third read in a way that few other contemporary fantasy novels do. But it is dense, and those who approach Tam Lin without a solid grounding in various flavors of Classics and Lit studies are liable to find themselves lost in a Sargasso of Shakespeare quotes, lit crit references and other bits of academic minutiae of scant interest to the casual reader. Those with little patience may find the slow escalation of tension a little too slow, and the assorted rounds of romantic entanglements can at times be a trifle wearying — alas, undergraduate angst is difficult to make interesting to anyone who isn’t suffering from it directly. A patient reader and a lover of books will dive into Tam Lin repeatedly, and find something new in it with each re-reading. The casual reader is more likely to find the book tough going, and wonder what all the fuss is about. Still, who wants to be thought of as a mere casual reader? Tam Lin, like a demanding professor (of the non-Faerie sort) rewards effort even as it discourages those who would think it enough merely to show up for the reading.
(1) See this Tam Lin site for much more information on this fascinating myth. This site is maintained by Abigail Kitaguchi.
(Tor Books, 1991)