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Khazad-dûm Report: October 1986

Khazad-dûm Discussion Group Report
October 1986
Topic: Tam Lin in Literature
Reported by David Bratman

First published in the November 1986 issue of Mythprint.

Khazad-dûm gathered one sunny Sunday afternoon, as far away from Halloween as we could get and still be in October, to discuss two fantasy novels inspired by the Tam Lin story: The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope and Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. We began by listening to a tape of the original ballad of Tam Lin as performed by the electric folk group Fairport Convention. Copies of both a transcription of Fairport’s version, and of their source, Francis Child’s collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads, were floating around the table. We noticed that Fairport condensed the ballad to a mere 21 verses from Child’s 42, as well as translating it into English from the original Scottish dialect. However, Child’s “original” isn’t complete either — there’s a row of asterisks, indicating missing material, between the section where Janet meets Tam Lin and the verse in which she returns home pregnant.

Turning to the two books, we found that despite some fundamental similarities, they are trying to do quite different things. The basic similarity is that neither attempts a retelling of the actual ballad, a la Evangeline Walton; instead, both are stories taking place in later times (The Perilous Gard in 1558; Fire and Hemlock in contemporary England) whose basic plots are the same as Tam Lin‘s: that is, a man is captured by the elves, and a young woman befriends him and attempts to free him. In both books, the ballad itself plays a role in helping to guide the heroine’s actions. In both books, also, she is quite young — early adolescent if that far — and the sexual element is almost entirely absent. The differences lie in how the books work as novels, and in the authors’ use of magic.

The Perilous Gard did not make a big hit with our group. Jo disliked it for its mixing of historical and invented characters, which she found grating, and for its portrayal of faerie. Jeff and I described it as a science fantasy, a book in which the magic is rationalized in scientific terms (Jeff compared it to Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away). Jo replied that that’s exactly what she didn’t like — there is no magic here, only pharmaceutics and ballet. Everything that the fairies do they can teach to Katherine, the mortal heroine, and for this reason doesn’t have the air of magic.

Randolph suggested that the unfamiliar style of Pope’s fairies could partly be due to their being very English, rather than Celtic as are most of the fairies we’re used to, and we then turned to the religious aspects of the book. In the ballad of Tam Lin, the fairies served the devil, and we disputed over whether the devil’s existence is implied in The Perilous Gard. Randolph felt that the fairies are corrupted by the devil, but they don’t necessarily serve him. Only the mysterious grey man is clearly diabolical, and Randolph noted that it’s God who plays no role, and is hence not “necessary”, in this world.

Fire and Hemlock was warmly approved. Chris described it as “enthralling”, and Pat attempted to define its appeal. It’s a familiar, everyday world, but there is definitely an air of magic to it. Even though all of the supernatural events could be explained away, it has that distinctive uncanny quality. I agreed, and suggested that Jones has a firm grasp of how magic ought to work in a contemporary fantasy. Rather than pushing things around in a heavy-handed fashion, magic should simply load the dice, weighting probability in favor of the desired outcome. In this respect we compared Fire and Hemlock favorably to Charles de Lint’s Moonheart, which we discussed the previous month. In both books the magic events are a private matter which nobody outside the stories’ characters learns the truth about, but in Moonheart there was simply too much physical evidence (bodies of tragg’a lying around, etc.), and we didn’t feel that its events could be swept under the rug that way. Fire and Hemlock, though, is sufficiently ethereal. Even at the end, there is nothing to prove to an outsider that magic was at work, although the readers and the characters know what really happened.

We then turned to the characters and their psychology. We admired Jones’ ability to so believably portray Polly’s personality changes over the very difficult age span of 8 to 12. Jo raised the question of whether Tom, in enlisting Polly to help him, is in a sense “seducing” her, but we felt that the stories she writes with him are a good employment for her imagination, a quality which Tom himself lacks. Pat was interested that nobody felt Tom was too passive a character. We agreed, though, that Christopher, his equivalent in The Perilous Gard, is definitely too passive. (Actually, the word we were using was “wimp”.) This got us onto the psychology of The Perilous Gard. Randolph was impressed by the description of the claustrophobia that the characters suffer when underground, but Pat objected to the implication that everyone who goes into the fairy caves suffers from it.

Both books, in summary, are young adult fantasies, but Fire and Hemlock is both more realistic and more magical. Having reached this conclusion after one of our best discussions in some time, we said our farewells for another month.