A Modern Twist on a Medieval, Scottish Halloween Story

October 1st is the launch of my novella Tam Lin: A Modern Queer, Retelling. The story of Tam Lin dates back to 16th century Scotland. It was traditionally a Halloween story since the climax takes place on the eve of All Saints Day or Samhain, in the Gaelic tradition.

In the original tale, a young woman named Janet longs for the forest of Carterhaugh, a place that still exists in Scotland today. She is warned not to go into the forest alone because a shade (a supernatural creature) haunts the forest, asking of women their virginity or their valuables. Janet pays no heed to their warnings and ventures out into the wood.

There she finds lovely roses and begins picking them. Tam Lin tells her to stop picking his roses and asks her what she’s doing in HIS forest. (Sound familiar? Beauty and the Beast, written in the 18th century is based off Tam Lin.)

Janet, is no mild mannered and meek woman. She boastfully announces that her father is the lord of these lands and that the roses and forest belong to HER. In the original tale, it’s not really clear how it happens, but Tam Lin does sleep with Janet during that encounter. I’d like to think that it was consensual because the rest of the story is pretty much a tale of feminist empowerment.

Some time after Janet and Tam Lin’s sexual encounter, Janet’s father notices that his daughter is showing the early signs of pregnancy. He asks which of his men should he congratulate. Janet could have easily pointed a finger and lied to get a marriage to cover that she’d had sex with an elf/fae. Instead, she boasts of having an elf lord for a lover and that the baby is his.

Janet doesn’t want to carry a shade’s baby, so she goes to forest of Carterhaugh for an herb to abort/miscarry the new pregnancy. (I thought this was a rad move for a story back then.) She sees the rose bushes where she and Tam Lin conceived the baby and starts tearing them up.

This action summons Tam Lin. He knows why she’s there and begs her not to abort the child got between them. He proclaims love. He also explains that he was once human, but became the lover of the Queen of the Fairies. The queen gifted him with immortality. Unfortunately, she’d grown tired of him and would sacrifice him to the devil on Samhain. ( In modern times, we would wonder what the heck the fae have to do with Satan, but this totally made sense to Christians then because the pagan religions were preached as the work of the devil.) He gives Janet instructions on how to save him on All Hallows Eve. Janet must literally hold on to her man.

The fateful day arrives, Janet lies in wait. When Tam Lin passes through Carterhaugh in a procession of fae, Janet drags him off his white steed. He turns into all manner of creatures. Tam Lin has already warned Janet this will happen and no harm will come to her. In the end, he turns into a hot coal, which he instructed her to throw into a well. He becomes a human man again and Janet takes home her prize.

Tam Lin: A Modern, Queer Retelling is about the story of Tam Lin and Janet’s descendant Tom. Tom is insecure abut his relationships and wants a public exchange of vows with his boyfriend Ariel. Ariel has his reasons for not wanting to do this, namely he wants Tom to know about his family’s curse. So he sends Tom to Ireland where the young professor will meet up with Tam Lin’s fae past.

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