Friday, January 8, 2010

Janet Tied Her Kirtle Green ...

Fairport Convention's version of the ballad of Tam Lin is essentially a feminist tale recounted in a world where men still think they are in control but seem obtusely unaware of who wields the real power: women1. The ballad takes its title from the name of its main male character, which is in a way part of its subtle subversiveness; for its real hero is not Tam Lin - who, though now a captive of the Fairies, was once an "earthly knight", but is almost entirely passive throughout and is, in fact, in need of rescue like an archetypal "damsel in distress"- the ballad's real hero is Janet, whose character is largely defined by her rejection of passivity, her refusal to be ruled by men and her insistence on being an aggressively active agent in deciding her own fate ... and Tam's. Janet is by far the strongest and most assertive character in the ballad, surpassing even the Queen of the Fairies, the ballad's second-most assertive character - and also, significantly, female. "Tam Lin" turns the standard Mediaeval trope of two knights battling for a fair maiden's hand on its head; for "Tam Lin" is a tale of two female characters, Janet and the Fairy Queen, battling for the right to possess a man.

The song begins with a male voice - most likely that of the Janet's father - issuing a blanket prohibition to "maidens all":

I forbid you maidens all
that wear gold in your hair
To travel to Carterhaugh
for young Tam Lin is there 

None that go by Carterhaugh
but they leave him a pledge
Either their mantles of green
or else their maidenheads

Janet's immediate response to this proscription, her very first act in the ballad, is to tie "her kirtle green/ A bit above her knee" - a vaguely sexually suggestive image, needless to say - and head straight to Carterhaugh, the forest where Tam Lin dwells. Once there, she plucks one of the forbidden roses and Tam appears to reprimand her; symbolically, she deflowers him, a significant reversal of the usual gender roles2. "And why come you to Carterhaugh/ Without command from me?" asks the elf-knight Tam Lin. "I'll come and go ..../ And ask no leave of thee," Janet defiantly replies.

These gender reversals continue throughout the ballad.

Janet is impregnated by Tam but refuses to be shamed by it or bullied because of it:
Well up then spoke her father dear
and he spoke meek and mild3
"Oh and alas Janet" he said
"I think you go with child."

"Well if that be so" Janet said
"Myself shall bear the blame
There's not a knight in all your hall
shall get the baby's name."
Janet then returns to Carterhaugh to learn how to rescue Tam from his apparent fate of being sacrificed by the Fairy Queen to infernal powers. Tam explains:
... [A]t the end of seven years
she [i.e., the Fairy Queen] pays a tithe to hell
I so fair and full of flesh
am feared it be myself
I so fair and full of flesh - this, it need hardly be pointed out, is an unusual way for a knight to describe himself. It sounds more like how a Bold Knight might describe his Maiden Fair.

Janet rescues Tam by pulling him from his horse on Halloween night and holding on to him as he undergoes a series of protean changes:
"Oh they [i.e., the Fairies] will turn me in your arms
to a newt or a snake
But hold me tight and fear not ...

"And they will turn me in your arms
into a lion bold
But hold me tight and fear not ....

"And they will turn me in your arms
into a naked knight
But cloak me in your mantle
and keep me out of sight"
Janet holds on to Tam as he manifests a series of fearful and intimidating personae - a newt; a snake; a lion - intended to frighten her until, ultimately, his true nature is revealed: a helpless, naked man in need of salvation through a woman's resolute strength and determination - the ballad's final and most telling reversal.
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1 This hardly makes the Fairport Convention version of the ballad unique - most versions of "Tam Lin" have this proto-feminist torque to them.

2 Although it should be noted that Janet does indeed leave Tam the "pledge" of her maidenhead and is impregnated by him. The reversals implicit in the ballad go only so far.

3 Interestingly - and oddly - the  blanket prohibition-issuing father of the opening verses is now, in the face of Janet's presumably shameful out-of-wedlock pregnancy, "meek and mild" ...  adjectives typically associated with women in Mediaeval ballads and tales.
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Tam Lin Song Lyrics
I forbid you maidens all
that wear gold in your hair
To travel to Carterhaugh
for young Tam Lin is there

None that go by Carterhaugh
but they leave him a pledge
Either their mantles of green
or else their maidenheads.

Janet tied her kirtle green
a bit above her knee
And she's gone to Carterhaugh
as fast as go can she.

She'd not pulled a double rose,
a rose but only two
When up then came young Tam Lin
says "Lady pull no more"

"And why come you to Carterhaugh
without command from me?"
"I'll come and go" young Janet said
"And ask no leave of thee".

Janet tied her kirtle green
a bit above her knee
And she's gone to her father
as fast as go can she.

Well up then spoke her father dear
and he spoke meek and mild
"Oh and alas Janet" he said
"I think you go with child."

"Well if that be so" Janet said
"Myself shall bear the blame
There's not a knight in all your hall
shall get the baby's name.

For if my love were an earthly knight
as he is an elfin grey
I'd not change my own true love
for any knight you have."

So Janet tied her kirtle green
a bit above her knee
And she's gone to Carterhaugh
as fast as go can she.

"Oh tell to me Tam Lin" she said
"Why came you here to dwell?"
"The Queen of Fairies caught me
when from my horse I fell

And at the end of seven years
she pays a tithe to hell
I so fair and full of flesh
and feared be myself

But tonight is Halloween
and the fairy folk ride,
Those that would their true love win
at mile's cross they must hide.

First let pass the horses black
and then let pass the brown
Quickly run to the white steed
and pull the rider down,

For I'll ride on the white steed,
the nearest to the town
For I was an earthly knight,
they give me that renown.

Oh they will turn me in your arms
to a newt or a snake
But hold me tight and fear not,
I am your baby's father.

And they will turn me in your arms
into a lion bold
But hold me tight and fear not
and you will love your child,

And they will turn me in your arms
into a naked knight
But cloak me in your mantle
and keep me out of sight".

In the middle of the night
she heard the bridle ring
She heeded what he did say
and young Tam Lin did win.

Then up spoke the Fairy Queen,
an angry Queen was she
"Woe betide her ill-farred face,
an ill death may she die

O, had I known Tam Lin" she said
"What this night I did see
I'd have looked him in the eyes
and turned him to a tree."

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