I’ve always been fascinated by how stories are a dialogue between author and reader. The words on the page never change, and yet the story they tell is different for every person who reads it, refracted through the lens of our individual experiences and expectations. This is why I find re-reading so valuable; the best stories change as we do, revealing deeper layers as we gain the insight to see them.
I’ve never had a better example of this than Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. When I first read the book, I didn’t like it much. Based on the back-of-the-book blurb and the others of Dean’s novels that I’d read, I was expecting something like Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock– the Tam Lin ballad transposed to a modern setting, but retaining plenty of obvious fantasy elements. Perhaps without Jones’s wild imagination and wry humor, but containing the wistful, haunting quality I’d loved in Dean’s The Dubious Hills and her Secret Country trilogy.
Instead, I found myself reading what appeared to be a prosaic, meandering, overly detailed account of a young woman’s experience majoring in English at a small liberal arts college in the 70s. Yeah, her name was Janet like in the ballad, but heck, she wasn’t even interested in Thomas character, let alone struggling to save him from a dire fate. And where was the fantasy? The faerie queen, the tithe to hell, the magic?
I sped through the story, increasingly frustrated, wondering when the hell anything would happen. Eventually the familiar elements of the ballad appeared, but not until the very end. I felt cheated. Here I was expecting a full-on fantasy tale, and instead I got what appeared to be a mainstream story with a tiny bit of fantasy tacked onto the end in rushed, slapdash fashion. I put the book back on the shelf in disgust and didn’t look at it again for several years.
Yet one day something – I don’t recall what – inspired me to pick up Tam Lin again. To my complete surprise, the second time through was an utterly different experience. The fantasy I’d bemoaned the lack of, the magic? It was right there! All the way from the beginning, woven so cleverly into the story that I’d totally missed it the first time around. Seemingly random conversations were not at all random, but carried deeper, gutwrenching levels of meaning. And this time the ending felt inevitable and natural, not forced. I felt as if I’d been staring at one of those clever optical illusions like the Rubin vase drawing, and finally seen the second image, hiding in plain sight.
I was gobsmacked. And head over heels in love with the book. A love that continues to this day. I’ve seen people say that you need to be an English or Classics major to like the book, as Dean peppers the story with all kinds of references to classical literature and plays. I don’t find that at all true. I myself majored in electrical engineering at a school solely devoted to science and technology (Caltech), where we treated most of our humanities classes as necessary evils to be suffered. My ignorance of classical literature didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel – at least, not once my eyes were opened to the subtleties of Dean’s storytelling. After reading the book a few times, I did end up finding and reading some of the plays and books that Janet and her friends talk about, so I could more fully understand the references and discussions. But I didn’t need to do that to like the book.
I have also seen people say the book is a depiction of college as an enchanted garden, and that is much closer to the truth. While my own experiences at college were not much like Janet’s – my friends and I were far more likely to be arguing about quantum physics theory than making quips based on Shakespeare’s plays – I, too, reveled in the freedom I first experienced there, and the joy of diving into the study of subjects I was passionately interested in. For those who didn’t have a similar experience, I can imagine that the book may not resonate so well.
But oh, if it does…not only is Dean’s Tam Lin a wonderful novel in its own right, it can be part of a fascinating comparative reading exercise. Stories aren’t only refracted through readers, but the authors who tell them. If you ever wanted to see an unequivocal demonstration of “it’s not the plot, it’s the execution,” then try reading Dean’s Tam Lin, and then three other retellings of the Tam Lin ballad: Fire and Hemlock (Diana Wynne Jones), The Perilous Gard (Elizabeth Marie Pope), and Red Shift (Alan Garner). Excellent books all, yet completely, utterly different in their approach to the same source material. For extra fun, try reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which in many ways resembles Dean’s Tam Lin reflected through a far darker and more tragic mirror. (I read on someone’s blog a long time ago that Tartt’s The Secret History can be thought of as the memoir of someone trapped in Medeous’s court. I’d agree.)