Tam Lin, Fair Janet, and the Sexual Revolution: Traditional Ballads, Fairy Tales, and Twentieth-Century Children's Literature

By Hixon, Martha P. | Marvels & Tales, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Tam Lin, Fair Janet, and the Sexual Revolution: Traditional Ballads, Fairy Tales, and Twentieth-Century Children's Literature


Hixon, Martha P., Marvels & Tales


Through their depiction of incidents in which "goodness" is rewarded and "evil" deeds punished, folk and fairy tales function as pedagogical tools that illustrate cultural values, enforce the status quo, and define socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Yet this function certainly is not limited to the prose tales alone: traditional ballads, the old story-songs still performed in Anglo-American cultures, also tell the stories of men and women who must cope with established cultural conventions. The 305 traditional Scottish and English ballads collected by American folklorist Francis James Child at the end of the nineteenth century are filled with such stories, and their commentary on human relationships and social strictures has been the subject of some interest to both folklorists and social analysts in the twentieth century. The following essay identifies the sociocultural messages underlying one of the more well-known of these ballads, "Tam Lin," through an examination of the metaphorical meanings of the ballad's basic motifs and plot sequences, first in its oral form of folk ballad and then as it has been recast into prose narratives for twentieth-century British and American children and young adults. The purpose of this examination is to explore what constitutes the resonance, or core, of the "Tam Lin" ballad: that is, what elements, motifs, or meanings remain or are retained throughout various transformations, including those regarding genre, plot, characterization, and audience, and why the story still has meaning for today's audiences and storytellers.

Traditional folk ballads can be categorized, as ballad scholar David Buchan notes, into three major groups: the magical and marvelous, the romantic and tragic, and the historical and semihistorical, along with a fourth, smaller group consisting of comic ballads (Scottish Ballad Book 5; see also Lang, "The Ballads" 520-21).

Although some folk ballads-those Buchan labels as "historical"-either are concerned with the deeds of legendary figures, such as Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, or derive from actual historical or political events, folk ballads as a whole most often tell about love won or lost in some way; the early twentieth-century ballad scholar Gordon Gerould observed that "of the 305 specimens printed by Child, by far the largest number have to do with what may be called private and personal affairs rather than matters that concern the larger social units of clan or nation," and that nearly half of the ballad stories in the Child corpus are "love-stories of one sort or another" or concern crimes of violence that derive from sexual relationships (38-39; see also Buchan, Scottish Ballad Book 5). This focus is particularly true of the supernatural ballads, which tell of lovers won or returned from Fairyland or released from fairy enchantments.

The conventional approach in modern ballad scholarship has been to treat folk ballads as an entity separate from folktales-as indeed they are as far as form and genre are concerned. Yet as Buchan observes, interrelationships between the genres of traditional material do exist: many ballads have motifs that can be found in the Stith Thompson Motif-Index of Folk Literature, a tool commonly used to categorize folk narratives, and several of the supernatural ballads share themes and motifs with fairy tales found listed in the Aarne-Thompson Tale Type Index between AT 400 and AT 450 (Scottish Ballad Book 7-8). Like fairy tales, the ballads that narrate supernatural events involve interactions with the Otherworld as well as with inhabitants of this world. Concerning this particular group of ballads, nineteenth-century folklorist Andrew Lang commented on their "close resemblance to prose Märchen [. . .] with their folklore incidents, based on universal superstitions and customs" and diffuse authorship, calling them "popular Märchen in rhyme" ("The Ballad" 521). Transformation and enchantment, and supernatural beings such as fairies and ghosts, infuse the narratives of these ballads and contribute to the action of the plot, as these elements do in traditional folk and fairy tales. …

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