Thursday, October 17, 2013

Countdown to Halloween: Walter Scott, "Tam Lin", and "Thomas the Rhymer"; or, Scary Fairies

"The Young Tamlane"
Fairies and old ballads - for various reasons, none of which we need to go into right now, I've been thinking a lot about both over the last little while. So today's post features two old - very old - ballads that feature fairy folk - one which reaches its climax, no less, on Halloween. And, what's more, it's Walter Scott who'll serve as our guide to these supernatural misadventures.

Last year, Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830) - a book from the end of Scott's life and career - provided us with suitably spooky seasonal reading. Today's selections, however, come from near the beginning of Scott's publishing career. Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, published in 1802, was a collection of songs, most ancient, some modern. It was both a product of Scott's long-held fascination with ballads, and the culmination of his ballad collecting activities over a number of years. Its publication was a seminal moment in his own career, spurring on his own poetry - and, more broadly, in compounding the Romantic vogue for the ballad. An 1802 edition is available here.

While there are plenty of moments in the collection that might detain us, this post is concerned with two particular ballads which echo down the ages, and that clearly meant a great deal to Scott himself. "Tam Lin" ("The Young Tamlane" (here), in Scott's version) and "Thomas the Rhymer" (here) both feature protagonists who have dealings with fairies. And one thing is soon clear in these tales: the supernatural creatures on display here are far removed from the Cicely Mary Barker school of charming sprites and pixies. No, these are distinctly scary fairies that you tangle with at your peril. "Tam Lin" spends seven years as the prisoner of the Queen of the Fairies before he is finally rescued - on Halloween - by a young girl that he has impregnated. "Thomas the Rhymer" also spends seven years with the "Queen of fair Elfland", before being returned to the mortal realm freshly endowed with the power of prophecy. The former dates to at least 1549 and is clearly older still; the latter stretches back to the twelfth century. Both are suitably freighted with strangeness and highlight the ancient connection between Halloween and otherworldly doings: "The night it is good Hallowe'en," Tam Lin tells his lover, "When fairy folk will ride."  

But the fairy delights - and terrors - of Scott's Minstrelsy - don't stop there. Scott's particular fascination with these ballads and their subject matter was evidently so profound that he prefaced their appearance in his collection with a long and detailed essay "On The Fairies of Popular Superstition":

And this unsurprisingly delightful essay itself contains further examples of the popular superstitions relating to Halloween and fairies (footnoting Burns in the process) - here, for example.

One final fairy detour, that takes us back to the last post in this countdown and across the Atlantic: when Washington Irving visited Scott at Abbotsford in 1815, the two writers went walking. There was one particular location that Scott was at pains to show his American guest, emphasising just how close to home this material was for him:

I've got goosebumps. Imagine how Irving felt.

It would seem remiss to end without featuring two modern interpretations of these ballads that were ancient when Scott collected them but are still, in some ways, alive. The first, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Fairport Convention's "Tam Lin"; the second is Rapunzel & Sedayne's wonderful version of "Thomas the Rhymer", "True Thomas". Enjoy.

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