Friday, 14 March 2014

Tam Lin and the Tiend

For the purposes of clarity, I will call the female protagonist 'Janet', the male protagonist 'Tam Lin' and the place they meet 'Carterhaugh', regardless of the variations (eg, May Margaret, Tam-a-line, Chester's Wood) that occur in Child. My spelling of 'faerie' will be as idiosyncratic as it ever is.

Oh, and this could easily turn into one of those ranty and pedantic blog posts, so if it does, I apologise.

The opinion that faery courts steal human beings in order to pay the Tiend to Hell seems to have become something of an orthodoxy in both academic and popular works. The concept behind it is simple: the fae steal beautiful or worthy human beings in order to pass them onto Hell in the stead of a beautiful or worthy faery. It is the plot of goodness knows how many novels based around faerie court - including the brilliant Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones - and for many years I touted it myself.

Faeries steal humans to pay the Tiend to Hell. It makes the foundation to a nice little fiction. It paints us, our society, irrevocably as the 'good guys', and the fae as 'other', unscrupulous, bad and dependent upon us. It gives a nice, dark little twist to all those twee, late Victorian fairy stories that prettied up the Greenwood and spoiled things for we lovers of the dark and the macabre. To accept it is to say - in fiction or folklore - that the 'good neighbours' can never be unproblematically good, or neighbourly.

The problem is, I can't find a scrap of evidence for it.

Oh, sure, there are plenty of references in academic tomes, plenty of scholars of the fae who present it as inalienable fact, but in all my time reading folklore, I have not encountered a single unambiguous reference to this state of affairs in a primary text.*

In what I've read, the impression seems to be that the fae steal humans mostly because that's a thing that some sorts of faeries do. Oh, sometimes, reasons are given: because they love them, or because they desire them, to eat them or marry them. Sometimes they steal humans because they like their music, because they need a wet-nurse or a midwife, because their own baby is unsatisfactory and they want a prettier one. They might steal a person because a Geis has been broken, a set of conditions met. Sometimes it just seems to be because the humans in these stories can be pretty bloody stupid and, hey, it's fun to fuck with them. But that's it. Stealing humans is just a function of this 'other' race inhabiting more or less the same world as humanity. If I would have to hazard a guess, as to 'why' I might say it was something to do with the blurring of the category of 'faery' and 'dead', but it isn't something that can be answered easily. The function of the abductions is rarely questioned, rarely explored in folktales. It is simply a statement of fact.

Okay, I haven't read everything. As a folklorist, I am an amateur. But when these people, these academics, these individuals who have spent hours pouring over transcripts from the oral tradition that I have no hope of accessing, who use that high-powered academic knowledge to give the strugglers like me a clue, the citation tends to be the same one: Tam Lin. In Tam Lin, the analysis goes, out eponymous hero is kidnapped by the faeries in order to pay the Tiend to Hell.

Well, that's great, isn't it, Alys? That's the little scrap of proof you need?

Actually, no. Because as far as proof goes, it isn't there at all.

If you know Tam Lin, I'm kind of guessing the version you know is either Child39A or the Fairport version (which is a much redacted version of Child39A). In Child39A, the issue of the Tiend is dealt with in these words,

"And pleasant is the fairy land
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years
We pay a tiend to hell;
I am sae fair and fu o flesh
I'm feard it be mysel" 
(Child39A.24. )

Feared. Tam Lin fears. Not because he is human, not because he was stolen for this express purpose but because he is fair and full of flesh. This is a long way from, "Please rescue me as those nasty fairies want to send me to hell" - it's more of a "Yeah, I like faery pretty well, but I don't want to be there when the tiend comes up as I'd rather it wasn't me". Yes, the folk-song could be using the economy of its form to hint that they have been feeding him up in order to send him down to hell, but that isn't the inevitable, or even most obvious, interpretation.

Now, it would be very easy to say at this point to say, "okay, but it comes from one of the other versions". Alright. Except it isn't there, either. Oh, there are a lot more references to fairness and fullness, even 'fatness' of flesh. There are implications that Tam Lin may have been 'fed up' for some purpose, there are even a couple where there is some suggestion of a concern that he, particularly, should worry about being the Tiend, but even in the most explicit of those, there is no unambiguous statement of the fact that, "I am the tiend because I am a human stolen for that purpose."

Now, if you already have evidence that this were the reason folkloric faeries steal humans, Tam Lin could be used as support you hypothesis, but it is not, of itself, sufficient basis for the belief. Certainly the half-hints given by the text cannot support a belief as pervasive as this one seems to be.

If you can be bothered, you can skip over to Sacred Texts to read through variants A- N and draw your own conclusion on this.  If you have a different source for the origin of this, tell me. Argue with me in the comments, but please don't tell me it's in Tam Lin. It isn't.

Why do I care? 

The reason this bothers me isn't merely because my favourite folk ballad is being misrepresented (although obviously that is a factor here.) It has more to do with the fact that any orthodoxy founded on such a shaky, critical basis shouldn't be allowed to go unchallenged, the academic laziness in refusing to do so.

Folklore is varied and fragmented. While many similar features can be found across Europe, across even wider chunks of the globe, people's beliefs, practices and explanations were heterodox, varying in both overt and subtle ways. Yes, a fact found in one source  can be used to illuminate the mystery of another, or it may prove irrelevant. Generally, all that can be provided is an hypothesis to which both sources lend some questionable support. To assume this possibility is an inalienable fact in order to create an orthodoxy is not only futile, it gives a false image of what people honestly thought, which motives inform the source material.

That's my academic gripe. My real concern, however, is the way so shaky a premise is being used to justify a set of sweeping generalisations about a race marked as Other.

After all, we want to believe bad things about the Other, we want to be reassured in our superiority, our virtue, and we want those reassurances to be at their expense. The problem with this assumption is that it silences the multiplicity of voices that can be found in folklore which relates to the fae. Yes, plenty of these traditional stories make it clear that the faeries are the bad guys, that they are unscrupulous, ammoral, but others do not.  Other stories are more ambiguous, or else they portray humans in a distinctly negative light. The blanket assumption that "Faeries kidnap humans to pay the tiend and continue their existence" not only does our higher faculties a disservice, it stifles the range of thought, belief and experience, it undermines ones ability to differentiate, precludes the possibility of tolerance.

More significantly, it offers a precedent by which different models of Otherness can be shamed and demonised. Even if the discourse of faery does not feed directly into racial and cultural prejudices that affect actual people in the human world right now** it does show how willing we are to take an aspect of another race, another culture and - using only thin evidence and poor intellectual practice -  establish a single explanation as 'fact', over-riding a multiplicity of other narratives which could offer alternative explanations.

This, I really hope you don't need to be told, is a bad thing.

You may have noticed I haven't cited an awful lot:

Well, if you don't like this kind of thing, do ignore the rest of the article. If you do, then here are my references, written in the style that I make my notes.