Rereading Tam Lin

by , under books

Tam Lin coverPamela Dean, Tam Lin

This is probably my fifth or sixth rereading– my copy is battered enough for that. I think I still love it, even though I see more –well, not flaws exactly, but little inconsistencies, small unbelievable things, every time.  For instance a Classical Greek class reading Herodotus at the end of one term, while my not at all stupid daughter is struggling with Herodotus after three and a half years of Greek. Perhaps the course is really intensive, and they admittedly have a very good teacher, but from the alphabet to Herodotus in three months when you’re also doing other subjects? Those students are unbelievably good at the other subjects, too, come to think of it. My other half says that’s part of the conceit of the book, and I’m inclined to believe them. Part of the fantasy, perhaps: it smells of fantasy from the first page, even though the actual fantasy-shaped content doesn’t appear until very late. (I’m not counting ghosts.) This, incidentally, is the most mentioned gripe of the reviews I’ve read, but I happen to like fantasies that are set in the normal non-fantasy world and have the supernatural just, or even considerably, below the surface. That’s part of why I like Diana Wynne Jones, too.

Little inconsistencies: when the protagonist (Janet) visits her family for the first time (on the page, she may have gone earlier off-stage) her brother tells her that their sister is going to play the flute, and later on it’s the brother who plays the flute. Also, in the fourth year Janet and her friends have a room in Ericson house like in the first year, but it’s later called Eliot (which also exists, and where they lived for the second and third years). This never struck me before, but I went back and checked it this time.

One reviewer complained that real students don’t talk in quotations and allusions, the way that the ones in the book do; but I have daughters aged sixteen and almost eighteen and I can confirm that they do, though mine haven’t read enough Shakespeare to use that. Moreover, some of the people she’s complaining about aren’t exactly twentieth-century students, but she lost interest in the book before she found that out. It’s lots of foreshadowing, and at the end things fall into place– though shakily, because the ending seems rushed. Also, not everything falls into place: what happens to Molly whose boyfriend is– well, not exactly a twentieth-century student? What happens to Tina who almost literally falls by the wayside?

The first time I read it I desperately wanted to go to a US college, even though I know the one in the book is idealised. I still think the college story is more interesting than the supernatural story, but there are lots of books where the backstory and the environment appeal to me more than the actual plot (for instance De gestolen ikoon) so I don’t care.

Now I must reread Fire and Hemlock, of course. I don’t know if it will spark a full Tam Lin spree, because that always strands on Red Shift which I already started and didn’t finish a few weeks ago.


  1. Elizabeth

    When I read Tam Lin several years ago, it left me thinking, “This is a very good book, but I am not the audience for it.” I had trouble with the characters’ attitudes towards Tina (oh no, she plays tennis and goes folk dancing) and science (Molly wants to be a doctor but complains about having to take biology instead of English) and the Heinlein juveniles. Admittedly, I read this shortly after I’d gotten very irate at the sexism in the Heinleins, which I’d just read for the first time, so when Janet took an extra shelf in the dorm room to hold hers, even though her family lived in town, I took an instant dislike to her.

    I keep thinking I should reread it and see if I like it any better, now that I wouldn’t be so oversensitive.

    • Irina

      It’s even worse with Molly: she wants to be a marine biologist but complains about having to take biology. Perhaps she thinks she knows it all already. And Heinlein– well, I gave up reading that in my early twenties after devouring everything I could get my hands on in my teens. Apparently sexism didn’t bother me until I grew up; probably the same case with Janet.

  2. Elizabeth

    Sexism bothered me a lot when I was younger, though I didn’t have a name for it. I didn’t read Heinlein until I was a grad student in physics, so it really jumped out at me.

    Molly wanting to be a biologist is even worse than wanting to be a doctor.


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