Monday, June 21, 2010

#3: Tam Lin

Here's my thesis: Books that people love -truly, heedlessly, painfully love- contain love. Even if the books aren't love stories -and many of them are- love will be there, intermingling with the plot, intermixing with the language, pushing one or the other of them forward or back. Love begets love, and you don't love -or rather, you don't love more than fleetingly- if you don't receive love back.

(All those Medieval songs of unrequited love might say differently, but I'm sticking to my guns!)

And lucky for me I'm reading books you love this year, which gives me the opportunity, if not to prove my supposition, then at least to amass supporting evidence. And so far, I have to say, my theory's been borne out. The Thirteen Clocks , a love letter to the English language, admonished, in addition, against covetous love, and An Equal Music was one long love affair.

Tam Lin, Pamela Dean's retelling of the old ballad, goes one step further, pitting love against death.

At least that's love's ostensible role in Dean's young adult novel, a meandering traipse through the college experience of one Janet Carter, a red-headed faculty brat who fences, quotes profligately from Shakespeare, and is a mostly satisfying mix of nerdy and plucky. Janet attends Blackstock College, an institution of higher learning that appears to be differentiable from Minnesota's Carleton College only insofar as it is lousy with fairies.

(Full disclosure: I almost went to Carleton. It was my favorite of the four colleges I chose between, and had I not gone haring off after music -love, again, damnable love- I might well have matriculated.)

You know the story of Tam Lin. I've even blogged about it before. A young woman saves her lover from becoming the Fairy Queen's human sacrifice by pulling him from his horse and holding on to him as he is transformed into a lion, a snake, a burning brand. She wins him in the end, returning him to life and, more tellingly, to humanity -a victory for love in the face of change.

That scene is in Dean's book. It is almost unaltered from the original, and it takes up two paragraphs toward the very end of the novel. That's two paragraphs out of over 400 pages, which should perhaps clue you in to the real love affair in Dean's Tam Lin, which doesn't involve strapping young men or loyal swains or even fairies. Rather, Dean's Tam Lin is one long, lingering affair with the (selective liberal arts) college experience.

Janet is consumed by her passion for learning. She lusts after her classes, pines for her books and the experience of wrapping her mind around them. She has lively debates with her equally erudite friends, dithers over declaring her major, attends theater events, delves into poetry. She challenges her professors and finds them challenging; and even her mischief, lovingly undertaken with the help of her various brilliant cronies, is recondite. Her love affair with the title character, stuffed hurriedly into the final eighth of the book, seems by-the-by.

The trappings of the ballad, accordingly, feel close to incidental, and the book's loose ends, of which there are many, can grate. Yet, I don't begrudge either Janet or Dean her love. College is, indeed, a wondrous time, a time when we are allowed to be -expected to be- most ourselves. And Janet's sojourn there, so lovingly depicted, is something I don't mind holding on to.


Susan said...

You know, I almost went to Carleton, too!

Also, I just finished reading Fire & Hemlock. I highly recommend Robin McKinley's version of Tam Lin, too.

p.s. Choosing between shortbread and cheese straws is just way too hard.

Samantha said...

Huzzah! You're right -- I love this book because I did NOT go to a snooty liberal arts college, did not even embrace my love of literature until adulthood, and mostly regret both decisions. So, I became a librarian. I'm glad you read it, though!

PS-Give Love in the Time of Cholera a chance. GGM writes so beautifully...