Heart of flesh, heart of stone: a retelling of Tam Lin

Tam Lin is a traditional Scottish ballad, telling the story of Janet (sometimes Margaret, and in a few variants, Jenett, and yes, that’s part of where I got the name from) who goes into her dowry woods, meets up with a man, becomes pregnant, and rescues him from becoming the Fae Court’s tithe to hell.

It’s a complicated story, full of choices, unwritten rules and expectations, and transformations, which is one of the reasons I love it. In 2005, I used it as part of the base for a ritual for my group at the time, for a ritual focusing on the choices – and the costs – of commitment. In that ritual, portions of the Tam Lin story alternated with modern-day scenes and choices: watching people in a coffee shop, dedicating to the group, and the dissolution of a magical group. I’m happy to send the full ritual to people who might be interested, but am happier sharing the story by itself in public.

This is just one version of the story. It’s not the only way I see the story: this is just the version that made sense to me, then, for that setting. I’d tell a somewhat different one today – and I hope, a different one next year. I normally try to post something Tam Lin related on Samhain, but wanted to reference this in a post elsewhere online.

The moon was titled: “Heart of Flesh or Heart of Stone?” which comes from a line in the ballad: this particular choice is slightly less obvious in this version than in either the ballad or the ritual, but I think it’s still present.

I’ve indicated the original breaks in the story with *** marks (this is where the modern scenes were). It was written to be read aloud, and the language choices and structure also reflect that. There are parts of this writing I am very pleased by, and parts I’d do differently now. Isn’t that always the way? Source notes are at the end.

[heart of flesh or heart of stone?]
My name is Janet. I live in the north of England. My father’s the local lord. There’s a place I own – dowry land – called Carter Hall. Stories say the Good Folk live there. Some are scared by that. Many avoid it.

But I’m a grown woman now – not a child scared by stories – and so I went to see my land. Flowers grow there, the colors of sunset, and the white of pearls, glistening in the sun. I picked one – just one – for my hair. Soon as I did, a young man appeared, startling me. I thought it no great thing, at first.

His name is Tam Lin. He said he’d been bound there by magic, that that grove was his. What do I know of magic? And, he said, there was a price for the flower. I must give him a gift. It could be my cloak, my ring … my maidenhead. My father will ask for the ring, and my family would notice the cloak. But sex? That’s a big price.

All at once, here’s a huge decision I didn’t expect. What’s right? What’s truly mine to give? How do I tell what to choose? What happens after?


It’s Janet again. What else is truly mine to give but my body and my consent? It didn’t turn out like I thought. I liked the one part of it a great deal more than I’d thought to. Women at court tell such stories – it’s hard to tell what’s truth, what’s bitterness, what’s fantasy.

We laughed, we talked. I like him. Thing is, I don’t know if I love him, and I’m pregnant with his child. Father’s wouldn’t understand that it was my choice, and my action that brought me here. I went back to Carter Hall to find Tam Lin.

I told him. He told me more. He was a mortal, brought among the fae for a game, then kept. Each seven years, on Samhain night, the Queen of Faerie pays a tithe. Whether to Hell, or to some great evil, no one is sure. He doesn’t care: he just doesn’t want to die.

He says the only way he can be saved is if a woman pregnant with his child pulls him from his horse, holds on no matter what, till the end. That’s me. If I choose.

He wants me to do what? To stand against who? What have I gotten myself into? I barely know him: do I risk myself for him? Do I even know if he’s telling me the truth? But what do I become if I turn my back on him, his need? And if I help, what next?


It’s Samhain eve. I’m on the bridge, waiting for the horses and their riders. It’s dark, and cold.

I’m scared.

“First let pass the black,” he said “And then let pass the brown. Run quickly to the milk-white steed, and pull his rider down.” I see lights in the distance – the lights of torches, the glow of faerie fire. I search for him, in the dark and the torchlight, and … and *there*.

I catch him up, and pull him down, and he falls a top me. I barely sense the horses stopping, a woman’s voice calling “Young Tam Lin’s away!”.

All my might, all my mind is on him, “Fear me not” he says, and he is transformed. An adder black as the night around me, hisssing and snapping at my hand. I barely manage to keep fangs from my face.

I feel another shift, the massive wings of a swan beating down against my head, my arms clinging barely to its neck, its bill snapping at my face, hissing in anger and fear. I struggle to hold it, away from my head, when the feathers turn to soft fur, and the grumbling roar of a lion fills the air. Claws and teeth, too close, and yet not close enough.

The lion’s claws turn into talons, and there are wings again, beating to reach towards the sky, a hawk’s beak and keening. I grab hold, careful not to hurt it, but when I finally get a good grasp, there is heat, burning against my hands, a red hot iron in my lap, I can think of nothing else for a moment than throwing it away, when I remember the stream, and roll towards it.

The water is almost ice. I shiver, in shock, still clutching the now cold iron for an instant before it transforms once more to a naked man. My naked man, it seems. I gather up my mantle, and cover him, forgetting the riders till one speaks.

“Had I know, Tam Lin, had I known what you’d do this eve, I’d have taken out your heart of flesh, and put in a heart of stone. I’d have taken out your bright bright eyes, and put in two from a tree.”

The voice hisses, and I feel the slow life and death of the wood, the stillness and immutability of the stone. Fates averted, for good or ill, for a different life. With me, and am I easy to live with? With a child. What kind of child will this one be? What now?

Do I form a life with this stranger?

[source notes]
The ballad of Tam Lin has a number of versions. There is a fantastic website out there at http://www.tam-lin.org/ which has the texts of all of them, lots of other reference and creative works, and a long list of music and other versions.

Particular sources of inspiration include Pamela Dean‘s novel Tam Lin (this story, set in 1970s more-or-less Carleton College and one of my top five books ever since I read it first), Jo Walton‘s Tam Lin, a Barrayaran Shakespeare Play_ (This makes much more sense if you’re familiar with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe). Also substantial help from several friends, especially Elise for the transformation sequence (which is somewhat different than the ballad versions.)

Also much thanks to Pamela and to Peg Kerr for various comments in writing over the years that got me thinking about the primary conflict represented in the title.