- Alan Garner's Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of "Tam Lin"
(For Catherine Storr 1913-2001)
In his 1975 lecture, "Inner Time," the British writer Alan Garner suggested that each of his books could be seen as an "expression" of a different myth.1Elidor (1965), for example, was an expression of the myth contained in the ballad of "Childe Roland and Burd Ellen." For The Owl Service (1967) the myth was that of Lieu, Blodeuedd, and Gronw, from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion. As for Red Shift (1973), then his most recent novel, the myth was "another ballad, the story of Tamlain and Burd Janet and the Queen of Elfland" (111). The first two of these identifications will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the books in question, but the third is more unexpected. Few people seem to have discerned the presence of "Tam Lin" in Red Shift independently2 Indeed, Neil Philip, certainly Garner's most important critic, has written that he finds Garner's statement "hard to accept" (Fine Anger 104). However, Garner is, famously, a man who does not use words lightly, and it is surprising that, in the twenty-six years since he made it, his assertion has not received greater attention. Not only has Red Shift itself been widely studied, but a number of critics have written on the use of "Tam Lin" in other recent children's books. However, the connection between Red Shift and "Tam Lin" has been largely overlooked.3 In this article I will consider the ways in which Red Shift can be seen as an "expression" of "Tam Lin," and what this tells us about Garner's conception of his novel's nature and origin. In doing so I will contrast the novel with a number of other books based on or inspired by this same ballad, particularly the British writer Catherine Storr's 1971 novel Thursday.
The ballad of "Tam Lin" exists in numerous versions. There are nine in Francis Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads alone, and that is certainly not an exhaustive collection.4 Many of the differences between versions are quite significant, but the narrative can be broadly summarized thus: a young woman called Janet (in some versions Margaret) goes to Carterhaugh (or Kertonha, Chaster's Wood, Chester Wood, etc.) against the injunction of her parents, who fear she will lose her virginity to Tam Lin, a fairy youth who haunts the place. There she plucks a flower and summons Tam Lin himself. He challenges her presence, but she replies defiantly that Carterhaugh is her own property and that she has as much right as he to be there. On her return home, it becomes apparent that she is pregnant. Her family (variously her mother, sister, brother, or a family retainer) is shocked. She asserts that Tam Lin is the child's father and returns to Carterhaugh, either to find Tam Lin or else (in some versions) to find an herb to cause an abortion. Tam Lin appears and explains that he is not a fairy at all but a young man of human blood who was stolen away by the Fairy Queen when he was a boy. Although his life with the fairies is pleasant, every seven years on Halloween the fairies must pay a "tithe to hell," and this year he is likely to be the victim. If Janet wishes to save him (and therefore give her baby a father), she must execute a complex procedure that involves pulling Tam Lin from his horse as he rides past with the fairy troop, holding fast to him while he undergoes a series of frightening transformations, and finally covering his naked body with her green mantle. She achieves all this and thus wins Tam Lin from the Fairy Queen, who is bitter at her loss.
As the folklorist Katherine Briggs observes, "Tam Lin" brings together a remarkable number of motifs associated with fairy lore, making it "perhaps the most important supernatural ballad" (449). Although (as is common in ballads) characterization is minimal and several of the narrative episodes obscure, there are enough hints to expand upon and...