A Story From: Scotland
Read Time: 6 to 10 mins.
For Ages: 8 to 14yrs.
LIKE ALL OTHER maidens and lads, Janet grew up knowing that she must never enter the woods of Cartherhaugh. The fairies that dwelt in the forest there were known by all for doing strange and evil mischief to visitors. But Janet’s father, the earl, owned the land where the forest stood, “and why shouldn’t I go there if I want?” she thought.
So one day Janet wrapped her green mantle about her, left her grey castle and headed to the Carterhaugh woods. As she stepped into the trees, her nose caught a scent of roses and she followed the lovely aroma to a clearing that was surrounded by rose bushes. Plucking a single large red rose, she drew the bloom to her face and its powerful scent nearly made her faint. Suddenly, a figure appeared in front of her.
“So you like roses,” said a tall elf. “Roses that do not belong to you.”
Startled, Janet said, “Who are you?” Gathering her senses, she drew up her chin and said, “My family owns the land of Caterhaugh, and some day
“My name is Thomalyn,” said he. “I guard the forest for the Fairy Queen. This is not a safe place for a maiden like you.”
“I can manage,” said Janet, eyeing the elf. “Though if you know so much about the forest, and if I would like to explore it, why not be my guide?”
He was taken aback for a moment, then smiled. “Why not?”
So Thomalyn showed Janet the wonders inside the birch and pine forests – orange poppies as wide as one’s hand, bluebells that covered the forest floor like a carpet. The next day Janet returned to Caterhaugh, and each day after that. All the hours she spent in pleasant conversation and forest discoveries with Thomalyn.
One day, the elf was pale and quiet.
“What troubles you?” said Janet, who was already more than fond of the elf man. “Are you worried that you’re an elf and I’m human? For know this – I care not a whit about that!”
“My lady, of course you would say that. I’m afraid the worry on my mind is far more terrible.”
“What can it be?”
Thomalyn sat on a rock and motioned for Janet to do the same. “It’s time you knew the truth,” he said. “I was born a human like you, in fact when I was but more than a boy I became a knight. A few years ago I was hunting in these very woods when a drowsy wind overcame me, and I fell off my horse. The Queen of Fairies was waiting and took me to be her servant. Since then I’ve had to guard the woods of Caterhaugh every day and return to her fairy kingdom at night. But even a life trapped in a cursed enchantment would be better than what I found out this morning.”
“What’s that?” said Janet.
“That every seven years on Samhein Eve, the fairies hold a ritual that allows them to keep their powers for the next seven years. They have a procession through the woods that ends at Miles Cross, and there they sacrifice a mortal to the spirits. Ah, my lady, I am to be the next sacrifice!”
“Today is October 31st,” whispered Janet, “and tonight is Samhein Eve!”
“Aye, and it is the seventh year,” said Tam Lin. “I’m afraid we must say our goodbyes now.”
“No, it cannot be!” Janet jumped up. “There must be a way to break the spell!”
He paused. “There is one way,” Thomalyn said slowly, “but it is so hard and so fraught with peril, that I dare say no more about it.”
“But you must! You must tell me everything!”
Thomalyn sighed. “If you insist. There is one chance, and it happens only when the procession approaches the circle of stones at Miles Cross where the sacrifice takes place. Only then, for a brief time, are the powers of the Fairy Queen weakened. If you want to save my life, you must hide behind a tree at Miles Cross tonight and wait for the procession to come by. Let the first steed pass – that will be a black horse ridden by the Fairy Queen – and then let pass a brown. But run to the next horse, a milk-white steed, and pull the rider down. I will be the rider and when I fall, you must hold me fast. No matter what terrors happen next, your grip on me must last. But this will be terribly hard to do, dear Janet, because to break your grip the Fairy Queen is likely to turn me into beast after horrible beast in your arms. Yet if you can hold tight and not let me go, then no harm will come to you and I’ll be mortal again forever. If you can do this, once the spell is broken, wrap me with your green mantle and cover me out of sight.” He held his breath for a moment. “My lady, that’s the only way.”
Anxiously, they parted. That night, in a gloomy and dark eerie stillness in the air, Janet made her way to Miles Cross and there she hid behind a large oak tree. Just before midnight, she heard the tinkling of bridles and knew the fairies were on the move. From behind the tree, she watched the first black steed pass, a horse ridden by the proud Fairy Queen, then a brown. Quickly she ran to the milk-white steed and pulled the rider down.
Thunder rolled across the sky and the stars flashed as bright as day. Confusion reigned amongst the fairies. The Fairy Queen threw her outstretched finger to the fallen rider and called loudly: “Thomalyn!”
That moment, in Janet’s arms Thomalyn turned into a monstrous bear snarling at her and frothing at the mouth. The maiden turned her head from its hot, angry breath but held on with all her might. A moment later the bear became a scaly lizard, slippery and venomous, its red tongue flicking about her face. Then what seemed like a lifetime later, the lizard was an ice-cold snake dripping with slime. Green slime oozed down Janet’s hair and back while the snake coiled around her, tightening its grip and choking her. Then in an instant, the snake became a red-hot cinder. Janet’s arms and hands were on fire, but somehow she held on.
Then… it was over. In her arms was Thomalyn himself, fully human and grinning. Giddy with relief and joy, Janet remembered to wrap him in her green mantle. The Queen of Fairies rose to her full height, and what an angry woman was she. “An ill death may she die!” cried the Queen, pointing to Janet, “for she’s taken away the bonniest knight in all my company. Had I known what I would see this night, I’d have taken out his eyes and put in pegs to block his sight!”
But neither Janet nor Thomalyn was afraid anymore of the Fairy Queen. The two knew they were safe from her power. So Janet and Thomalyn returned to her home at the grey castle where they were soon married in a grand ceremony, and the two of them lived happily ever after.
First mentioned in a Scottish ballad book, Vederburns Complaint of Scotland, 1549. An oft-referenced version is "Child Ballad #39A" from The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882-1898, by Francis James Child. The tale also appears in Scandinavia.
Retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2006. All rights reserved.
The original story, considered ancient, is a staple in many folk tale collections. "In most folk tales," according to storyteller Nancy Schimmel, "the woman or girl plays a passive role, waiting to be rescued or, at most, helping her male rescuer by her special knowledge of her captor. Women with power tend to have secondary roles - wicked stepmother, fairy godmother." Whereas in this story, Janet herself is the rescuer.
The character of Janet sometimes appears as "Margaret," "Lady Margaret," or "Burd Janet." The character of Thomalyn also appears as "Tam Lin," "Tam Line," "Tamlin," "Young Thomlin," "Thomalyn," or "Tam Lane."
Our modern-day Halloween evolved from an ancient Celtic celebration on November 1st. On that day, the Celtics celebrated a New Year that honored the sun god and Samhain (pronounced so-wane), the Lord of the Dead. The night before, October 31st, was called Samhein Eve. Over time, the Christians chose November 1 to honor Christians who died at the hands of the Romans. In the first 200 years in American, many Protestant settlers rejected the holiday of Halloween along with other feasts on the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. Today Halloween is the second most profitable holiday to American business, second only to Christmas.