Sunday, May 26, 2013

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

series: Terri Windling's Fairy Tale Series (5)

Pamela Dean's Tam Lin is one of the books in Terri Windling's wonderful Fairy Tale Series,1 retellings of classic fairy tales for adults, originally published by Ace and Tor (1987-2002) with cover art by Thomas Canty. In it, Dean reimagines the tale of "Tam Lin" (a ballad of the Scottish Borders first recorded in the 1549) on the campus of a small liberal arts college in Minnesota in the early 1970s.

The bulk of Tam Lin read like a very literary college novel (a word of warning: unless you have seriously studied English literature and have a background in Classics, the sheer number of references and quotations peppering the narrative is bound to leave you feeling dejectedly ignorant). The faerie realm enters the story overtly only in the last ten percent or so of the novel, though it intrudes, subtly, much earlier.

I have to admit that as I was reading Tam Lin I was at a bit of a loss as to how it could possibly qualify as a fantasy novel. Not being familiar with the original story and not having (re)read the back-cover text prior to beginning the novel, I nevertheless was well aware of the fact that the novel was an adaptation of a fairy tale of sorts. Knowing that, I remained alert, taking note of anything that was remotely out of the ordinary, which helped me to tune into the undercurrents in the story early on.

I enjoyed Tam Lin (and it definitely made me nostalgic for my own college years), but I do wish that there was a bit more of a balance between the natural and supernatural elements of the story. The realization, climax, and ending seem horribly rushed when compared to Dean's detailed treatment of everyday college life. One can't help but feel a bit disappointed.

My favorite line2 of the whole 456-page novel:
"If you read science fiction," [her advisor] said, "you'll like Herodotus." (22)
I have no idea if this is true,3 but I liked that the protagonist's academic advisor (a Classics professor) tried that tack in hopes of luring her into the strangely malevolent Classics department.
  1. Other books in the Fairy Tale series:
  2. My other favorite is "'I only did it to please Janet,' said Molly. 'She thinks elephants are festive'" (137), which I found absolutely hysterical - though it doesn't seem as amusing out of context.
  3. Care to weigh in, Classics majors?

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