TAM LIN AND THE ORIGINS OF
THE SURRENDER OF LADY JANE
or “Where I Didn’t Get My Ideas From”
by Marissa Day
All things considered, traditional ballads and broadsheet songs are not a fertile source for good Romance. Seriously. If you are a hero or a heroine in, say, a Child ballad, your odds of successfully achieving the Happily Ever After are really, really small. You’re far more likely to be betrayed by your lady love over a very small misunderstanding, which will cause you to die of a broken heart (Barbara Allen). Better yet, she could kill you herself over a badly timed joke and have her servants throw you in the backyard well (Proud Lady Margaret). On the heroine’s side, you could be accidently shot because your lover turns out to have bad eyesight and you’ve got an unusually large apron (Polly Von), or the guy you thought was going to marry you could show up already married to another woman, after which she kills you, which causes him to kill her follows that up with his public suicide at the wedding feast (Fair Ellen). Alternately, you could elope with a guy who turns out to be a serial killer and have to chuck him in the ocean and then talk your parrot into not ratting you out (The Outlandish Knight).
Mothers are particularly hazardous to your Trad. Ballad couple. Your mother could leave your true love out in the cold (The Lass of Roch Royal), or you could get the double whammy where your mother curses you, and then the heroine’s mother leaves you out in the cold (The Drowned Lovers). Fathers aren’t any good either. They tend to do things like follow up the arrangement an advantageous marriage for you by trying to perform a public confirmation of your virginity, forcing you to either die of embarrassment or turn into a tree (The Arbutus). For an exciting variation, there’s the possibility that your husband will murder both your shapeshifting lover and your son (The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry), or you could just get murdered by your jealous brunette of a sister on general principles (The Twa Sisters).
Of course, this is not a problem limited to the Scottish and British ballads. Do not even get me started on the dope slap needed by all the players in the traditional Appalachian ballad “The Long, Black Veil.” I’m telling you, it is just not a grand ballroom of glamour and romance out there.
And yet, it was a traditional Ballad that furnished me with the basics for THE SURRENDER OF LADY JANE. The ballad was “Tam Lin.”
“Tam Lin,” is one of the Child ballads, and it has existed in various versions for hundreds of years on the Scottish borderlands (this according to its very own website: http://tam-lin.org/). But by the standards of traditional ballads, Tam Lin is different. For starters, we have a genuinely gutsy heroine, Janet. We also have a loyal hero, Tam Lin himself. Janet starts off the ballad by defying her father’s injunction against going to a portion of her own lands, because there’s supposedly a highwayman lurking there who has a bad habit of accosting passing maidens. In your normal ballad, this alone would be enough to cause Serious and Permanent Harm, but Janet follows it up by getting pregnant out of wedlock. This would usually be a death sentence for somebody. But in “Tam Lin,” something happens that absolutely and without exception never happens in the traditional ballad.
The hero and the heroine talk to each other.
Janet explains she’s with child. Tam, for his part, explains he’s a prisoner of the fairy queen, and about to be made into a human sacrifice as part of a tithe to Hell. This, as you might imagine, constitutes something of a problem. However, Tam (because he is much smarter than your average Ballad Hero), also tells Janet how he can be set free. Janet, being smarter than your average Ballad Heroine, follows through on the instructions, and does free him. Not only do we have an HEA, but we have an early example of the importance of good communication in the maintenance of a healthy relationship.
I first read Tam Lin in a fat red book I found on my parent’s shelves called A LITTLE TREASURY OF GREAT POETRY. Writers get asked a lot about their influences, and I have to say this beat up little book (which I still own), was one of mine. This is the book that also introduced me to “The Raven,” “The Rubyiat (it’s a smutty book! (bonus points if you can ID that quote)), “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which I obsessed over when I was about ten, for no comprehensible reason), “Tom O’ Bedlam,” and more clean limericks than you might believe existed.
Reading those works that could be famous or obscure, tragic or funny, was my introduction not only to the power of poetry, but to poetry as the shortest and most difficult form of storytelling. And it all sank in. It did result in a brief phase of my writing shockingly bad verse, but that’s okay. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing my language muscles. No one can beat a poet for heavy lifting with language. A novelist has paragraphs and pages to work with. The labor and balance required by each phrase are spread out. A poem can turn on a single word, if the poet is good enough.
In that book, I met Shakespeare’s sonnets, Shelly’s observations, Byron’s laments, and Carroll’s nonsense, but it was the ballads I kept going back to. Even at their longest (see “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), a ballad is a complete and relatively brief story. It’s got plot, pacing, and character in compact and entertaining form. When it came to “Tam Lin,” it had a hero and heroine deciding to trust to each other’s courage so they could be together.
And that is the heart and soul of good Romance.