Tam Lin & The Three Magicks
The beginning of a story is a delicate thing. The breath before the first word is spoken – that is a portentous moment. No matter how many ways the story is told, it will never again not have been told like this. The telling shapes a piece of the world in a way it never was before, and never now will not be. Words are our most powerful magicks.
Forever ago or yesterday or just now, a group of people came together in the liminal lands between the mundane and the marvelous. They thinned the veil and they lived a tale… it takes a village to tell a story. Each left with a piece of that story under their tongue, and this piece is mine:
There is the Wild, and the Safe, and the land in between. This story ends at a crossroads just there, on the edge of the “real” world, at the corner of Chaos and Probably OK.
Next to a little creek just deep enough to burble.
This story ends with a naked man – pale, perfect and dead – lying half in and half out of the water. Cradled by Water and Earth, he too is liminal. In womb-space. Coming from and returning to the Mother. Standing on either side of him is a woman. The one on his right is young, swelling-bellied, holding a long warm mantle of grassy green. The one on his left is older. Sadder. Her right hand holds an object of power we can’t quite see clearly. It seems to shift and waver in our sight. A blade, or a rod, a branch or a long crooked finger – we only know the push/pull flavor of potency it prints on the air.
Long ago when this story was just beginning, the man and the young woman were children, playing together in the fields surrounding the town surrounding the castle of her father the king. Indistinguishable as puppies they tumbled together with the farmers’ children and the friendly wild creatures in the peculiar, particular widespread way of young things. As they grew they played less with the creatures – who began to whiff the man-scent on them – and then less with the busy-ing children in the fields and finally less with each other, as he set about the work of being a knight and she about the work of being a princess.
Her name is Jennet, and she sat in the castle tower sewing a fine seam.
His name is Tam Lin. He disappeared into myth.
I’m not saying she loved him. He was one of the playfellows of her youth and her youth was behind her and she did the women’s work now of stitching stitching stitching but she noticed when he vanished. He rode out one day, in a knightly way, and didn’t return, and the town began to whisper stories. Dead, some said. Or gone with the Fey. Or, some asked, what’s the difference? Haunting Carter Shay, they all agreed. Ghost or changling, prisoner or procurer, he haunts that place on the edge of the faerie lands and don’t go there! Particularly you maidens! There’ll be a price to pay! Our Tam has passed into dreams and become a Dream. He is lost to us. Don’t go into the Wild, Children! The Dream lives in the Wild and costs a pretty penny, like dreams do. He’ll take a treasure from you and, if you’ve none other to offer up, the price will be your maidenhead.
Because this is a story, we know it is just a matter of time until Jennet does the thing she is warned against. How much time doesn’t matter. Not really. Nor do we need to know exactly what Called her. Was it her name, or the scent of a rose that the wind carried to her? How long had she been listening? When did stitching turn to waiting? How long did she set her heart against the lure-song rising in her blood? What made her give up the fight? All of that is for another story. All we need to know is that one day she threw down her sewing – a puddle of grassy-green cloth at her feet – hitched up her skirts and ran to Carter Shay. She ran right at the thing she was told to fear.
Fear and excitement are chemically identical in our bodies, you know. Which we feel depends on what story we tell ourselves about the feeling.
Jennet ran to Carter Shay and Tam Lin was there and she came back changed. Something new and wild growing inside her. “Pregnant” is a large word but the town was full of small minds and one of them was her father’s. She returned to a community that didn’t see transformation and wisdom in her new shape, they just saw the shame of a baby without a father. Misunderstood, reviled, ostracized – in desperation Jennet returned to Carter Shay to pick the bitter herb that would cut her free from the unwelcome new wildness within her. Tam spoke to her, stopped her. “I want to come back with you,” he told her. “To be the baby’s father. Help me.”
He told her his story. On his knightly rounds, that fateful day, he saw, as knights will do, a fair damsel. Thinking she must be in distress, so far from the Safe, so deep in the Wild, he followed her still deeper. It happened so gradually – the treebark turning silver-blue and the sky the pink of a baby’s blanket – that he didn’t know he’d entered the realm of the fey-folk until they thicked around him.
“There is beautiful music,” he told Jennet, “and wondrous wisdom and strangely sweet pleasures to be had there. The food is elixir and the days pass like slow water.” If he didn’t tell her that the sway in the hips of the fair damsel he followed had a deal to do with his missing all signs of a border crossing, if he didn’t tell her that the damsel, in no distress at all, had smiled at him and shook her hair, that there had been more of eagerness than of duty in his following, that the damsel he followed into Fey was in fact their Queen, and became his lover… well stories are tools, are they not? And some tools are keys. Tell the story that fits the shape of the lock you need to open…
After all, how he spent his seven years in Faerie was not a part of the story Jennet needed to hear. That was a long telling for another time, safe before a fire on either side of a rocking cradle. What was vital, in that moment when she reached for the bitter herb and he stopped her, was the story of why he wanted to leave. Yes, love of Jennet, and of the baby to come, homesickness and the longing to bring the things he’d learned in the Wild back to the town of his birth but also…
He’d heard a story. Whispers on the wind. Caught the words in the Queen’s mouth when she didn’t know he was near. “Every seven years a sacrifice.”
“On Samhain Eve,” he told Jennet, “the Faerie ride out into the between-lands. If you pull me from my horse, and hold me tight no matter what happens, and cover me with the green mantle you have sewn so long, then I will be free to stay with you when they ride home again. It must be now,” he told Jennet, “because every seven years the Faerie make sacrifice, and this Samhain will make seven years since I came into their keeping. I fear the sacrifice will be me.”
We’re back again at the crossroads. Almost back to story’s end. Almost midnight. Samhain Eve. A mist rising from the fields at the edge of the Wild lands. Jennet waiting at the crossroads, carrying Tam’s promise in her heart and in her belly and, in her hands, the green mantle that she stitched stitched stitched.
We hear them before we see them, hooves dull thunder before the sweat-shined breasts of the faerie steeds break the mist apart. Their Queen rides at their head, and Jennet lets her pass, along with one or two more riders until she sees Tam Lin following fast behind. With signs he gave her (the color of his horse, the manner of his clothing) she picks him out from the horde and pulls him from the saddle as he passes, holding him tight in her arms.
And in her arms he turns, and twists, and coils into a snake that strikes at her with venom-beaded fangs. But she holds on. And in her arms he turns, and swells, and rounds into a bear that rakes at her with claws that stink of carrion. But she holds on. And in her arms he turns and turns again, into shapes that frighten her, repulse her, threaten the integrity of her body and her mind, but she holds on.
At last he turns, dissolves and puddles into an armful of fire-y molten lead. She cannot hold him, but throws him into the creek then scrambles down to pull him out – naked, pale, perfect and dead – and lay him on the bank, half in and half out of the water.
The Fey and their horses have vanished back into the mists, but the Queen swirls slowly out of them, the air around her right hand still shimmering with the remnants of powerful shape-shifting magic, to stand on the other side of Tam’s body. And we have closed the circle now. What follows is speculation. Or is it hope? It is a truth, if one of many. It is a truth because we tell it.
Perhaps she tells Jennet her story. Perhaps she doesn’t need to. She may not need to say that, just as Tam Lin called Jennet into the Wild and so set her on the journey to herself, She herself called him. She may not need to say that the story of the sacrifice was how she persuaded him to call Jennet – to reach back to the Safe, to overcome the uncertainty of the return. She may not need to say that, knowing the journey is for naught if the journeyer goes back unchanged, she wrenched his shape apart and through transformation after transformation until he – and Jennet – could hold and make solid his essential self again.
She may not need to say how it hurt her to do it. Jennet may be able to see all of that in her eyes. And when Jennet lays her mantle over Tam Lin’s body – imbued with her patient labor, her daily discipline, and the accumulated wisdom of the work of the women of the Safe lands – and when he opens his eyes, lives again, returns home with her… The Queen may not need to say that the sacrifice is hers, and that it is worthy.
This story is called The Ballad of Tam Lin because he is its hero. In the sense that he is the one who makes the hero’s journey. His is the complete cycle. He goes into Faerie and returns. His is the essence that maintains its integrity throughout its transformation as he is called into the Wild by the powerful shape-shifting, world-changing magic of the Faerie Queen, then called back again by the faith and the love and the labor of Jennet.
But it takes a village to tell a story, and we told it to ourselves, and each other, as the story of Three Magicks. The Magic of Transformation, the Magic of Manifestation, and the Magic of Integrity. We invoked these magicks with questions: What is my power? What am I bringing into life? Who am I? And we lived the mystery, the key that unlocks the secrets of stories and dreams… all of these selves are one self. Everything I see is me.
Every seven years – which is to say over and over (seven being a number of completion and transformation) – we stand at a crossroads and we have all three magicks available to us: Jennet’s magic of manifestation at our right hand, the Queen’s magic of transformation at our left, Tam Lin’s magic of integrity blazing in our core. Standing on that balance point of integrity, knowing my name, my essential self, I transform my reality and manifest my dreams. And the sacrifice? What dies at the crossroads is what always dies at the crossroads – the luxury of believing that I didn’t have a choice.
I am Jennet who waits, and works, and holds on while everything changes. I am the Fey Queen, with the power to transform, to shift and change and shape my world. And I am Tam Lin, the changed one, remembering myself in all of my guises. I Make, I Act, and I Am. All three magicks are mine. This is a truth because we have told it.
So mote it be.
This post was written by Laurie Dietrich