Fairport Convention: Tam Lin
Last Week, I looked into the British folk song Cruel Sister, and found survivals of pre-Christian beliefs in the song. The case is even easier to make in the case of Tam Lin.
Faerie lore is a British tradition which allowed the natives to preserve their beliefs when the British Isles became Christianized. The old gods became the fey folk, and myths became children’s stories. Nowadays, belief in faeries and Christianity exist peacefully side by side in parts of the British Isles.
The Otherworld is the home of the fey folk, and there is a borderland between their world and ours, where humans can be lured, and from there entrapped in the Otherworld. One way this happens in Celtic myth is that a nobleman strays into this borderland while hunting a magical beast, typically a white stag. This is clearly what happens to Tam Lin, although all the song tells us is that he fell off his horse, and was captured by the Faerie Queen.
Tam Lin is paired with the Faerie queen, and the tradition of the seven-year king is followed. In this tradition, Tam Lin becomes the ruler of the Otherworld alongside the faerie queen, and he must be sacrificed after seven years to make way for the new ruler. Because he has this rank, Tam Lin can himself lure a human woman to the borderland, and mate with her.
In Celtic lore, there is a term called a geas. When Tam Lin is captured, the faerie queen places him under a geas which makes it impossible for him to escape the fate she has set for him, and return to the human realm, unless certain conditions are met. In this case, the mother of his child must meet him on Hallowe’en at a crossroads, and pull him down from his horse. She must hold him tight as the faerie queen transforms him into a series of fearsome beasts. Finally, if she holds him still, he will be transformed into his human form, and he will be free. The breaking of this geas is the trick in the song.
Hallowe’en, or Samhain, is the time in Celtic mythology when the boundaries between our world and the world of faerie break down. Then, the fey ride out from their realm in the wild hunt, seeking mortals to lure back to their world. The wild hunt is clearly what the climactic scene in Tam Lin describes.