There are a lot of versions of Tam Lin and a lot of variants on plot points major and minor. This essay is examining the question of how long Tam Lin has been ‘with the faeries gone’.
One of the plot lines I’ve seen in a lot of Tam Lin retellings is the idea that Tam Lin has been gone for seven years. It makes a basic sort of sense, as that’s the time period between tithes, but it doesn’t have a great deal of textual support. Mind you, a ballad really isn’t a lot of text to support much detail at all, so much of what people believe is going on in the story story is going on between the words as much as anything else. Besides which, for a ballad with as many variants as Tam Lin has, what’s true for one version may be tenuous for another, and outright contradicted by a third.
"And it's every seventh seventh year
We pay a toll to hell
And the last one here is the first to go.
And I fear the toll, it's meself, it's meself
Aye, I fear the toll's meself."
The clearest support for Tam Lin having been gone for seven years or less is the versions that cite the choice of sacrifice for the tithe as ‘last one in is first to go’, which puts Tam Lin’s time with the faeries at likely no more than seven years. It would still work at longer than that if someone else was taken in the last tithe and no one else has joined since, however. In a few other versions, Tam Lin is not explicitly under threat of being the tithe, he just wants to leave faerie land because it exists, so it’s entirely possible that he’s trying to exit as a result of dislike with the practice in general and not personal preservation. In those versions, it’s a fair inference that he hasn’t been around for many previous instances of sacrifice, although even then, it could easily have been more than seven years.
'The Queen of Fairies she came by,
Took me wi her to dwell,
Evn where she has a pleasant land
For those that in it dwell,
But at the end o seven years,
They pay their teind to hell.
The next best argument for a short time in the land of Fey are the versions where, when asked his heritage, Tam Lin reminds Janet that “We loved when we were children small”, limiting the time he’s been gone to likely no more than a few years, assuming they’re both still on the rather young side themselves.
Randolph, Earl Murray, was my sire,
Dunbar, Earl March, is thine;
We loved when we were children small
Which yet you well may mind,
For version that do not include these sorts of clues, we have no idea how long Tam Lin has been gone. Given that it’s more frequent that Janet asks him to identify himself as human or faerie, it would seem to be long enough that the local populace has forgotten his human identity. One would think it would take more than seven years for a disappeared local laird’s heir to fade out of memory, but if you’re in a region where the faeries carry people off in the first place, maybe not.
"My name is young Lord Robinson, did you ever hear tell of me?
I was stolen by the Queen of Fairies when I was a young babié.
Tomorrow will be the first of May, we'll all go out to ride,
If you come down to Crickmagh, there we all will pass by.
(In the versions where he explicitly identifies as a faerie, there’s no answer to how long he’s been with them, other than ‘always’)
The ballad also varies as to when Tam Lin was carried off in his own timeline. In some versions, he’s taken as a small child, most commonly around age nine, but sometimes as young as three, sometimes after an act of treachery by a relative. Sometimes he’s older, and fell off his horse while hunting. Given that time can’t be assumed to run the same between mortal and faerie realms, we can’t know how long this translates to in terms of human time. Either way, if he’s taken as a very young child, the idea that it’s only been seven years makes the idea that he’s running about impregnating people a little disturbing. Let’s hope it’s been longer.
'When I was young, o three years old, Muckle was made o me; My stepmother put on my claithes, An ill, ill sained she me.
As a final argument on the side of a longer absence, while the seven year’s guess is based on the period between tithes, it’s not an unreasonable reading that Tam Lin has seen a few of them before- he objects in some cases to the fact that it’s likely to be him on this go round, and is therefore trying to exit on the basis of self-preservation rather than any other interest. If he’s only facing it because the choice is the one fair and full of flesh, well, it’s fair to ask how he knows how it works. Maybe he’s seen others go before him, which would mean it’s possible he’s been gone considerably long than one stretch of seven years.
Added to site March 2015