Ladies of Legend: Fair Janet

References: Stories from the English and Scottish Ballads (E.P. Dutton &Co., Inc., 1968) by Ruth Manning-Sanders, The Ultimate Fairies Handbook (MQ Publications Limited, 2006) by Susannah Marriot, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin

I tend to back up the women of fairy tales, folklore and legend on the general principle of the thing – goodness knows they need the support – but I do have favourites. Fair Janet is the kind of girl who digs in her heels and her reaction to everything that gets in her way is pretty much ‘no, you move’ and I love her so.

In the woods of Carterhaugh there lives a fairy man called Tam Lin. The earl of the lands around forbids all the young women of his household to go there, including his daughter Janet, but Janet does not take well to rules and one day while she’s sewing curiosity abruptly gets the better of her. She abandons her needle and thread, braids back her hair, hikes up her skirts and runs off to explore the forbidden wood. After all, she reasons, it will be hers someday anyway, so she can do what she wants. In that spirit, she starts picking wild roses.

No sooner has she one flower in hand than a beautiful young man appears out of nowhere, the notorious Tam Lin, who upbraids her for taking roses without his permission. She coolly replies that as Carterhaugh is hers, a gift from her father, she’ll do as she pleases. So Tam Lin tries a different tactic, employing personal charm to lead her deeper into the wood. All the versions I have at hand are very tactful about what happens next; a version I know but cannot quote was much more explicit, with Janet returning home pregnant.

Either way, Janet is restless in her father’s house, quiet and sad as she puzzles over how to keep Tam Lin. Because she intends to keep him, fairy or no. So back she goes to Carterhaugh, plucking a few leaves and catching her lover’s attention. She demands to know who he really is. Tam Lin admits that he is not a fairy man by birth; he was born to a human lady and was trained as a knight, but during a winter hunt he was lost in a bitter wind and taken away by the Fairy Queen to her kingdom.

Before you get the wrong impression, Tam Lin is not unhappy about this. He likes Fairyland and would gladly stay there, but unfortunately there’s a catch: every seven years the fairies owe a knight as a tithe to Hell and Tam Lin fears he’s been chosen as the upcoming sacrifice. Only Janet can save him. On the midnight between Hallowe’en and Hallow Day (or, according to The Illustrated Enyclopaedia of Fairies, on Samhain Eve) she must go to Miles Cross with a flask of holy water and await the procession of fairy riders who shall pass by there. Tam Lin will be in the third company of knights, riding a milk-white horse. He will wear a crown of oak leaves marked with a golden star, his right hand will be gloved and his left bare. Beside him will ride the Fairy Queen on a horse ‘silver as the moon’. When Tam Lin passes, Janet must catch the bridle of his horse, pull him down and hold him tight no matter what shape he takes.

So off Janet goes to Miles Cross, marking a circle with holy water and waiting inside it for the fairy rade. The jingling bridles warn her of their approach. The first and second companies of knights go by unmolested but when she sights the white horse she dives forward and hauls her lover to the ground. The fairies all start shouting.

The versions I have all disagree on the shapes Tam Lin takes and the order thereof – the Illustrated Encylcopaedia has it as salamander, then snake, then bear and swan, while the Handbook quotes Francis James Child with wolf first, then flame, iron, an adder then a deer, and of all things a silk string. Ruth Manning-Sanders goes hardcore right from the word go, with Tam Lin turning into a pillar of flame, but Janet won’t let him go. Next he becomes a swan; after that, a wolf. A snake becomes a newt – next he becomes a stag, ramming his antlers into her chest as he tries to get free. Last of all, he becomes a red-hot bar of iron and this she throws into a pool at her feet, whereupon Tam Lin is restored to the shape of a naked man. She covers him with her green cloak.

The Fairy Queen’s response is also a subject of debate. In the Handbook she wishes aloud that she could have taken Tam Lin’s eyes and replaced them with those of a tree; in the Illustrated Encyclopaedia, she wants to tear out his heart and replace it with stone. In Ruth Manning-Sanders’ version, she threatens her lost knight with both, but her power over him is gone. She rides away, her band of fairies in her wake, leaving the human lovers alone together at the crossroads. Janet takes Tam Lin home with her, to general praise and rejoicing, and marries him.

I like to think that Carterhaugh remains hers for life and she very occasionally lords that over him by filling the house with roses.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

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