Tam Lin by Jane Yolen and Charles Mikolaycak (An Inspiration Post)

Introducing a new series: Inspiration Posts. Essentially, these are simply posts highlighting a book, film, album, or other work that has influenced and inspired me, probably in writing but potentially in other regards. This will probably be a never-ending, sporadic series, so you never know when one might pop up.

In a nutshell, this is a brief, lavishly illustrated retelling of the old Scottish ballad “Tam Lin.” I’ve read a good deal of books like this, but this one has stood out to me in particular over several years. Yolen and Mikolaycak make an undeniably formidable team: Yolen crafts hauntingly beautiful scenes with her words, and Mikolaycak makes them flow across the page in a visual form with his illustrations. Perhaps it’s this that makes me love this book so much, or maybe it’s the story itself. Tam Lin tells the story of Jennet MacKenzie, a freshly-turned-sixteen-year-old who rescues her own true love from the clutches of the Fey intent on sacrificing him on All Hallow’s Eve. It’s a fascinating role reversal in comparison to  familiar fairy tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, in which it is the prince who does the rescuing. In addition, it’s a tale of my favorite type of dark mythology, that of the Seelie and Unseelie courts of fairies and the sacrifices they must make to Hell. Similar stories can be found in modern forms in YA novels including Tithe by Holly Black and City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare.

Tam Lin has stayed with me as a constant reminder and inspiration, and I never tire of rereading it. It helps to cultivate my mental garden of ideas, if you will. It’s helped me in a few obvious ways–the ballad, through this retelling, provided me with the name Jennet for one of my favorite characters in my novel. The landscape, clothing, and overall atmosphere found in the illustrations of this volume really helped me get my world-building on a roll: they provided a basic start which I quickly manipulated and expanded upon until only subtle undertones of this magical version of Scotland remained. The ballad was the first older folk or fairy tale I’d heard of that had a strong female protagonist, and it acted as a kind of proof to myself that these things did exist in the middle ages. (I’ve since discovered a few other tales of this kind, so it does not, in fact, stand alone.)

I remember that a copy of this book had been in my bookshelf for a very long time before I actually read it. It was a constant companion as I grew up, but I didn’t actually crack it open until middle school, just about the time I was getting serious about writing. Because of this, the book’s contents are only half of its significance to me. Tam Lin has become one of the central symbols of my own adolescence and one of the main works that helped the inspiration for my current novel to grow.

 

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