In some versions, Tam Lin falls from his horse in battle. By catching him, the Fairy Queen saves him from death, transporting him to the Land of the Sidhe. There he is treated to a life of pleasure until pregnant Janet rescues him. Poor Tam Lin.
From the faerie perspective, Tam Lin is just another captured human slave. As long as he behaves, he is rewarded, but make no mistake... he is entirely the possession of their mistress, the Faerie Queen. Should he misbehave, he will be seriously reprimanded, maybe even killed and replaced with another human whisked away under similar circumstances. He functions as a knight of the Faerie Court, and performs various duties that include guarding the Queen's wells, forests and gardens in the Land of the
Tam Lin can't complain too much about his living conditions. One could have a much worse job location than the lands of Faerie, a legendary place of great beauty where one never grows old or suffers from any illness. The climate is always temperate, neither too hot nor too cold. Flowers bloom perpetually and never die. There is no sorrow or pain, no war, famine or pestilence of the Realms of Man. The food is great. The wine flows freely. And the music is so amazing as to drive mortals mad when deprived of the sound. Tough gig, eh?
He is a bit worried that the Faerie Queen may be thinking of sacrificing him in payment of a seven-year tithe, but that's not confirmed, only hinted. Still, he is her possession. She owns him body and soul, as you own your favored watch dog.
How would you feel then if some stranger (who had already angered you by raiding your garden) came into your home and took Rover right out from under your nose? Even if this stranger planned to offer Rover a nice home, you'd be downright miffed, as was the Queen of the Fae.
She tried everything in her power to prevent this theft, changing Tam Lin into a slimy newt, a poisonous snake, a ferocious lion, a bear, a bar of red hot iron, and finally a glowing coal. Still the thief would not let go. The Faerie Queen's spell defeated, naked Tam Lin was hidden away and taken back to the Realms of Man under the protection of the thief's green cloak.
Ooooh! Angry? You betcha! The ballad ends here, and we never learn if the lovers live happily ever after. There's a hint that it won't be an easy road for them though. They have provoked one of the mightiest of a mighty race, a monarch not known to forgive or forget. The Queen curses the well-marked thief to die a painful death, and the Fae have their ways of making human lives miserable. Plus, as I discovered when I read a poem by the English master costumer and poet Miki Dennis, the Faerie Queen has an ace in her hand that no human being can trump.
Sooo......"Tam Lin" is not a story meant for children, not when one considers the important roles that sex and sexuality play within the story. Many variants of the tale begin with a warning for young Scottish maidens to avoid Carterhaugh because it is rumored that all maidens passing through Carterhaugh must pay a price, giving up either their mantles, rings, or virginity to Tam Lin.
If we consider that this ballad was sung at least as early as the 1500s, then the whole "maidens losing their virginity" thing is a huge deal. For a long time, an important part of a woman's marriageability was determined by her virginity, her pureness as it was. Here Tam Lin threatens the potential of marriage and a stable future for maidens.
Janet first calls Tam Lin to her by plucking a rose. For hundreds of years the rose has been used as a symbol of love and sexuality, and, according to the author's note provided in Jane Yolen's Tam Lin, plucking a rose was a way for people to summon lords within fairy gardens. Summoning Tam Lin through a rose in many ways foreshadows the sexual nature of their encounter. In sleeping with Janet (and possibly other maidens before the events of "Tam Lin" take place), Tam Lin may be continuing a cycle brought upon him. In some variants of the tale, Tam Lin hints to the fact that perhaps one of the reasons he's remained alive in the fairy realm for so many past tithes is because the Fairy Queen is fond of him (and has perhaps taken him as her lover). It is Tam Lin's willingness to become involved with the Fairy Queen that has saved him thus far, and it is Janet's willingness to become involved with Tam Lin that ultimately saves him.
While "Tam Lin" does place a heavy emphasis on sexuality, I think it is also important to mention that it does develop into a love story. It is not Tam Lin's lover or the mother of his child who is necessarily his salvation; it is only his true love who can break the spell. Of course, considering that Tam Lin and Janet met a total of two times before she plays the role of his true love to save him, a suspension of disbelief is required. This is a ballad, a work of folklore, after all; being completely logical is not a requirement.
"Tam Lin" is essentially a tale about two women, Janet and the Fairy Queen, who fight for control of the titular character. Even more interesting is the fact that females are given virtually all of the power in this tale.
Janet can easily fit into the mold of a self-actualized, modern heroine. She not only defies her father (a nobleman) by going to Carterhaugh, but I read Janet's loss of her virginity to Tam Lin as an explicit choice she makes.
The loss of a maiden's virginity was only the third of three potential payments that Tam Lin requests. Readers can assume that, as the daughter of a lord, she'd least be wearing rings, if in the the weather was too warm for a mantle. Although one interpretation could be that Tam Lin rapes Janet, I think it seems likelier that Janet chooses to offer up her virginity as payment. After taking control of her own sexuality and then finding herself pregnant with Tam Lin's child, Janet owns up to her actions and is unwilling to allow her father to force her into a marriage she doesn't want. Alternate versions speak of Janet going to Carterhaugh to either speak to Tam Lin or to find an abortive drug. Tam Lin asks Janet to save him for their child, but it is still Janet's choice to save Tam Lin. The majority of the story is determined by the choices that Janet makes. She does not always choose the easy choices, and perhaps she does not even make the best choices. But again and again she is portrayed as sticking to her sense of what is right.
In various versions of the tale. Tam Lin himself is of uncertain origin — is he a fairy or mortal man? This information matters quite a bit to Janet, who must decide what to do now that she is pregnant. Should she save her reputation and marry one of her father's men? Should she keep the child? Should she save Tam Lin?
These passages below point out the importance that Christianity has upon Janet and her decisions. Janet makes a point of stating that if he is in fact "an earthly knight" (human and presumably Christian), then she would never be content to allow herself to be married or attached to any one of her father's lords. Only after Tam Lin admits to being a mortal man, does Janet fully commit to bearing her child and saving Tam Lin's life.
The Fairy Queen. It is interesting, however, that the fairies have a queen in charge. In some variants, Tam Lin explains he has avoided being tithed for so long because he was the favorite of the Fairy Queen (as I mentioned above, they presumably were romantically involved). Now that the Fairy Queen is no longer wants him romantically, Tam Lin's life at stake. From the Fairy Queen determining where and how Tam Lin lives to Janet being the only person who can save him, Tam Lin's life is literally under the influence of women.