Janet and Tam Lin: the feminine transforms the phallic

From: The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, a Study in Folk-Lore & Psychical Research.
Text by Robert Kirk, M.A. Minister of Aberfoyle, A.D. 1691. Printed Longman & Co. 1815.
Comment by Andrew Lang, M.A. 1893. Reprinted by David Nutt, in the Strand, London, 1893.
Reprinted by Joann Keesey, 1999: Obsidian Magazine, #2.
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Janet and Tam Lin

The King forbade his maidens a’
That wore gold in their hair
To come and go by Carterhaugh,
For the young Tam Lin is there.

And those that go by Carterhaugh
From them he takes a wad,
Either their rings or green mantles
Or else their maidenheads!

So Janet has kilted her green mantle
Just a little above her knee,
And she has gone to Carterhaugh
Just as fast as she could flee.

She had not pulled a double rose,
A rose but three or four,
When up and spoke this young Tam Lin,
Crying ‘Lady, pull no more!’

‘How dare you pull those flowers!
How dare you break those wands!
How dare you come to Carterhaugh
Withouten my command?’

She says, ‘Carterhaugh it is my own,
My Father gave it me,
And I will come and go by here
Withouten any leave of thee!’

There were four and twenty ladies gay
All sitting down at chess,
In and come the fair Janet,
As pale as any glass.

Up and spake her father dear,
He spake up meek and mild,
‘Oh alas, Janet,’ he cried,
‘I fear you go with child!’

‘And if I go with child,
It is myself to blame!
There’s not a lord in all your hall
Shall give my child his name!’

[‘If my love were an earthly knight,
As he’s an elfin grey,
I would not give my own true love
For nae lord that you hae.’]

Janet has kilted her green mantle
Just a little above her knee,
And she has gone to Carterhaugh
For to pull the scathing tree.

‘How dare you pull that herb
All among the leaves so green
For to kill the bonny babe
That we got us between!’

‘You must tell to me Tam Lin,
Ah you must tell to me,
Were you once a mortal knight
Or mortal hall did see?’

‘I was once a mortal knight
I was hunting here one day,
I did fall from off my horse,
The Fairy Queen stole me away.

‘And pleasant is the Fairy Land
But a strange tale I’ll tell,
For at the end of seven years
They pay a fine to Hell.

‘At the end of seven years
They pay a fine to Hell,
And I so fair and full of flesh
I fear it is myself.’

‘Tomorrow night is Halloween,
And the Fairy Folk do ride;
Those that would their true love win
At Miles Cross they must hide!

‘First you let pass the black horse
Then you let pass the brown,
But run up to the milk white steed
And pull the rider down.

‘First they’ll change me in your arms
Into some esk or adder,
Hold me close and fear me not,
For I’m your child’s father.

‘Then they’ll turn me in your arms
Into a lion wild.
Hold me tight and fear me not
As you would hold your child.

‘Then they’ll turn me in your arms
Into a red-hot bar of iron,
Hold me close and fear me not,
For I will do no harm.

‘Then they’ll turn me in your arms
Into some burning lead,
Throw me into well-water
And throw me in with speed.

‘Last they’ll turn me in your arms
Into a naked knight
Wrap me up in your green mantle,
And hide me close from sight.’

So well she did what he did say
She did her true love win,
She wrapped him up in her mantle,
As blythe as any bird in Spring.

Up and spake the Fairy Queen,
And angry cried she,
‘If I’d have known of this Tam Lin,
That some lady’d borrowed thee,

‘If I had known of this Tam Lin,
That some lady borrowed thee,
I’d have plucked out thine eyes of flesh
And put in eyes from a tree!

‘If I’d have known of this Tam Lin,
Before we came from home,
I’d have plucked out thine heart of flesh
And put in a heart of stone!’


(With thanks to Abigail Acland for her scholarship on the legend.)

The main character

To orient ourselves with this tale we have first to ask who is the main character? If we think it is Tam Lin, then our interpretation will go astray. It is Janet who initiates the action: she defies her father, defies Tam Lin, defies the people in her father’s hall, defies the fairy Queen, and rescues Tam Lin. Our interpretation must be organized around her.

Janet finds her own path. She wins a child and a man, not by looking beautiful but by asserting herself and defying common wisdom. Her heroine’s journey is fundamentally different from a hero’s journey, but accomplishes a similar purpose. Thus the tale is about a woman’s individuation or, more accurately, about individuation and the feminine principle.

(A character in a fairy story does not represent a whole person, but rather an archetype; an archetype can be understood as an organizing principle which operates both in nature and in human psychology. Women, more than men, tend to identify with the feminine, but the feminine is an impersonal principle which belongs to both sexes. In men the feminine tends to be less cultivated; for both sexes it is a mysterious unconscious force which we need to understand better. A fairy tale portrays the archetypes and shows how they may interact.)

Since individuation is linked to the development of consciousness, Janet suggests the development of feminine consciousness. This tale helps illuminate feminine consciousness.

Ruling consciousness

The King symbolizes ruling, collective consciousness, that is, mental attitudes, conventions, and beliefs to which most people subscribe. The dominant religion is a system of ruling conventions, and so are widely accepted sexist, racist, materialistic or political prejudices and stereotypes. The authority or rightness of these conventions is not questioned but taken for granted, at least by the dominant majority, which means that the conventions are in some part unconscious, though hidden in broad daylight.

Like present-day (written in February 2011) middle-eastern Kings or Presidents-for-life, collective consciousness fears change and suppresses opposing potentials which would undermine its control. The personality becomes a sterile status quo and psychic life no longer flows creatively.

But control provokes defiance. Through unconscious productions such as dreams and fairy tales the psyche reacts by expressing the opposing (unconscious) potentials. Opposing potentials may be based more in feeling or passion or creative play than in worldly power. They may be symbolized by a youth, or an artist or a young woman. Often a fairy tale tells how the at-first-despised potential finds a way to express itself and thereby renew the flow of psychic life. Thus the current rebellions in the middle-east are part of a universal pattern.

An unconscious phallic spirit

Tam Lin is a phallic spirit within the underworld, a leader of the unconscious spirit which would compensate for and disrupt collective consciousness. He takes a ‘wad’ (toll) for any intrusion – specifically takes a maiden’s virginity (gold ring, green mantle, maidenhead). These things also represent a vassal’s allegiance to an aristocratic family (ruling consciousness): gold suggests aristocratic wealth, mantle suggests family insignia. How will collective consciousness accomodate the unconscious spirit? And what will be the role of the feminine?

Each of us must struggle to resolve this tension. Each of us has a creative impulse which longs to be free and each of us tends to repress, disavow, ‘perfect’, divert, pervert, or otherwise misuse it. What we love we also fear and hate. What nourishes us we shun or crush or put in the freezer for safe keeping.

Feminine desire

Gold sometimes represents virginity, or a ‘maiden’s wealth’: the ‘King’s maidens that wore gold in their hair’ were those whose bodies and minds were still virgin, which means still under his mental domination (hair, as a product of the mind, suggests thoughts, beliefs and attitudes.) Their gold in their hair is their own mental potential but the King still controlls it. This image confirms that the feminine is subservient to ruling male attitudes, that it has yet to differentiate into its own conscious form.

But Janet desires fertility: she fastens her green mantle a little above her knee which means she is ready and willing to meet Tam Lin. She defies her father by going off ‘as fast as she could flee’.

She longs to engage her unconscious soul who would ‘deflower’ her and bring passion and feeling into awareness. Her longing for Tam Lin is her longing for individual consciousness – not collective consciousness. Consciousness is not just intellectual but involves the whole body, passion and feeling as well. When we are conscious as individuals we deal consciously with all parts of ourselves.

Janet arouses Tam Lin by pulling roses, which (roses) suggest passion, feminine sexuality and the unfolding of the luminous Self. Thus Janet crosses a boundary and asserts herself sexually. Her feelings oppose not only the power of the king but also the power of the fairy. The feminine arouses desire and desire takes us beyond our limits, creates entanglements which lead we know not where, which make us alive again.

This tale makes it clear that feminine desire is a power, and authority, which has its own direction and can fight to assert itself, which can link consciousness with the new possibilities of the unconscious.


Tam Lin says the roses are his, but she insists that she has the right to them by her father’s authority. Thus it is ruling consciousness, limited though it may be, which empowers Janet. Her evolution can proceed not only because she engages the unconscious, but also because she brings conscious powers to bear. In the middle east it is often educated young people who spark change by allying consciousness with suppressed desires. Janet symbolizes the potential for relationship between consciousness and the unconscious, the potential to bridge the gap, which is required if consciousness is to become individual.

Janet is an individual

Twenty four ladies playing chess in her father’s hall is a lot of women to be involved in a sex-neutral activity. This underscores the daring and fertility of Janet’s action: the feminine asserting itself and making something profound happen in life. It is the difference between playing chess on the computer and actually doing that creative writing which is your real task.

Janet will not let any lord in the house marry her and give her child his name. She tells them all that her lover is an elf. She and Tam Lin are the authors of this development – it is not to be subsumed under any conventional arrangement, but is a truly creative new beginning, a true expression of her autonomy and of her liaison with the underworld.

She threatens to abort her new life. She is in control, she decides. What is evolving is a relationship between consciousness and unconscious potential; each has authority and they must argue.

She demands to know Tam Lin’s story. She will listen to the unconscious when it answers her questions. This is like asking for dreams, recording them carefully and analyzing their meaning.

The Knight’s fall

What can it mean that Tam Lin was a mortal who fell off his horse and was stolen by the Fairy Queen? I am tempted to dismiss this image because I don’t understand it: ‘maybe it is just a meaningless embellishment.’ But that would be consciousness trying to dominate by denying the unconscious its voice. Details of the legend are preserved because they have meaning.

Tam Lin is a green man/horned god/nature god, a natural agent or archetype of virility and hidden knowledge and power. But his human form is derived from familiar human images. It is because of his humanity that Janet wants him. Archetypes often adopt human form and use human language. They reach us by sharing our human skills. Our intercourse with them is modeled on human intercourse, or human intercourse is an embodied instance of interactions between the archetypes.

When we lend the gods our human language we lend them our powers of discrimination. Jung said ‘As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of being.’ I feel most alive when I am creative, thereby rendering the unconscious into tangible human-scale forms, that is, giving the unconscious a voice, making it articulate.

In Tam Lin’s fall, conscious awareness has stumbled and been dragged into the unconscious, where it continues to function, observing the activities of the below world. It has ‘gone native’, bringing awareness to an area of being that was not self-aware. Sometimes one dreams that there is a photographer taking pictures of the dream action, that is, making the action more conscious. Since a camera is a humanly crafted mechanism such a dream depicts the knight’s role.

The unconscious is so rich and varied that it attracts consciousness and can seduce it to dive in. A conscious stand point is hard-won and easily lost. Furthermore consciousness must periodically renew itself by re-immersing itself in the unconscious.

Then what does it mean that the knight may be paid as a fine to hell? Again I would like to dismiss this detail as an embellishment but cannot: it must have meaning. Hell must represent a deeper more irrevocable level of unconsciousness, a level at which one is permanently trapped and incinerated. This would be to burn up in madness. If I lose my human connections, lose my footing entirely, I can be consumed forever by the unconscious: regression can become irreversible. The Knight needs Janet’s desire for him just as she needs his fertilization.

This ballad portrays in an intensely human way what Jung called, using somewhat bloodless terms, the coniunctio or the alchemical marriage. The ballad helps us connect the marriage with our own experience of erotic desire. True consciousness includes passion.

Janet embraces the Knight

Janet must ‘win her true love.’ Her human love must extract him from imprisonment. What does this contest between the Fairy Queen and Janet represent? It is the struggle between the progressive erotic feminine and the regressive maternal, between active relationship with the unconscious and passive immersion in it.

Janet claims phallic potential from the unconscious. She seeks to relate to it rather than leave it possessed by unawareness. While it is unconscious it functions destructively. She will tend to be negative, perhaps depressed, possessed by strong but groundless opinions, self defeating, unable to achieve what she wants. If she can integrate phallic potential, then she can use it to be constructive and productive in the world. She can be fulfilled both externally and internally.

Janet must choose the right horse: she discriminates the forces of the unconscious and chooses what to claim for herself. Her choice and her physical assertion in pulling him from his horse confirm (by the repetition of the same idea through a series of different images – such repetition provides us with an internal check on the accuracy of our interpretation) that she is beginning to use phallic power for her own purposes.

She is compared here with the Fairy Queen who took Tam Lin when he fell from his horse. Tam Lin’s power is again relativized – as it was when Janet and he struggled over the roses – when aspects of the feminine assert themselves. Yang is being balanced by Yin.

Janet embraces the phallus as it shape-shifts from snake, to lion, to red-hot bar of iron, to molten lead. She is an alchemical vessel. Her passion ends with a naked man secure in her arms, wrapped in her cloak. The feminine transforms the phallic. Janet prevails by integrating feminine and phallic power.

The Queen’s reply

The Fairy Queen makes it clear that she would have held Tam Lin in nature, unconscious (with the eyes of a tree and a heart of stone) if she could have. This shows that the devouring unconscious fiercely resists consciousness.

The achievement of consciousness is always a struggle. This is the symbolic meaning of initiation trials and trials of strength, or the conquering of physical challenges, mountain climbing and such, or the feminine tasks in fairy tales of sorting grains or weaving garments. This is why children must leave home and win victories in the world – at a psychological level all of this represents the claiming of consciousness.