(Picture Kelpies: Traditional Scottish Tales)
by Lari Don, illustrated by Philip Longson
30 pages, Floris Books
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
There are some stories that deserve to be retold over and over again. Dating from the sixteenth century (and quite possibly even earlier than that), the legendary Scottish ballad of Tam Linn is undoubtedly one of the strangest and most magical British folk tales. I first came across it in my well-thumbed copy of Francis James Child’s “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads” but it has been adapted countless times both in song and book form.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the ballad tells the story of the fair maiden Janet who goes wandering in the Carterhaugh woods against the advice of her peers. In the woods, she plucks a rose and is confronted by the fairy knight Tam Linn. She loses her virginity to him (some versions of the story portray this as consensual, whilst others are peculiarly ambiguous, even hinting at rape) before returning to her father’s house. When the old Laird spots that Janet is pregnant, he questions her as to who the father of her child might be. She flees the house and returns to the woods where she tries to abort the pregnancy by the aid of a poisonous flower. Tam Linn appears to her once more and Janet states that she would keep the child if he was a human. Tam Linn reveals that he used to be a human but was magically enslaved by the Queen of the Fairies. Together, Janet and Tam Linn make a plan to free him from the Queen’s spell. On All-Hallows-Eve, Janet interrupts the fairy procession through the woods and snatches Tam Linn into her arms. The wicked Queen turns Tam Linn into all manner of dangerous creatures but Janet holds him tightly until the Queen’s magic has been exhausted, and Tam Linn takes human form once more.
It is safe to say that, in its traditional form, Tam Linn is not a children’s story.
Lari Don’s latest book, “The Tale of Tam Linn”, is a splendid retelling of the old ballad. By maintaining the core elements of the story (the strong female lead, the fairy-haunted woods, the enslaved Tam Linn and the magical shape-shifting) and discarding the rape / unwanted pregnancy / abortion aspects of the tale, Don has managed to reshape the story to be both suitable for and accessible to young children. What makes it impressive is that “The Tale of Tam Linn” doesn’t feel like a bowlderised version of the story, but rather a very fun feminist take on the story. Don takes the character of Janet and removes the aspects of the story which make her a victim. The text mentions that “Janet didn’t like being told what to do” and young readers might well find themselves reminded of Princess Merida from Disney’s “Brave” more than the weak or passive female characters seen in traditional fairy tales. The real victim of this version of the story is Tam Linn, he is the one needing rescuing, not the wilting damsel-in-distress.
Don’s clear and straightforward prose means that many little’uns will be able to read this story on their own. Despite the changes to the story, Don’s retelling maintains the pace and rhythm of the original ballad. Purists might bewail Don’s excising of the grittier elements of the original ballad, but Don’s retelling serves as a perfect introduction for younger readers. At under thirty pages, it is the ideal length for a bedtime story and, with its balance of thrills and romance, will appeal to boys and girls alike.
Being a picture book, it would be remiss to ignore Philip Longson’s wonderful artwork in this review. The rich greens and browns of the early pages of the book give way to gloomier shades later on when the story takes a darker turn. The tangled branches of Carterhaugh forest reach across the two-page spreads, hinting at their potentially dangerous magical nature. Red-haired Janet is beautiful, but determined. The earthy simplicity of her dress, elegant yet practical, sets her apart from your normal fairy tale princess. Tam Linn is suitably dashing, a bold red scarf draped over the fairy armour which bears a strong resemblance to that of the elves in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies. Most impressive is the sequence where Janet has to hold onto Tam Linn whilst he transforms into an assortment of dangerous animals. The raw, animalistic power of the beasts contrasts with Janet’s tender determination as she embraces Tam Linn in his various forms.
“The Tale of Tam Linn” is a wonderful picture book and is sure to delight readers both young and old. I sincerely hope that we see more classic folk tales given a new lease on life through the Picture Kelpies imprint.
Hereward L.M. Proops