October 12, 2020

Holding On To Tam Lin, by Vivica Reeves

Editor’s note: As a Halloween fan, I found this take on not loving Halloween intriguing and thought provoking. EC is definitely pro Halloween, so I thought it was both fair and enlightening to give a different point of view that happens to be folklore-based. What do you think? 

With October well on its way, I’m reminded of some questions I was always asked around this time when I was growing up. “Why don’t you celebrate Halloween? Is it because you’re a Christian? Did your parents say it was bad?” Well, honestly at first, it was neither of those options.

When I was around six or seven, I was at an Arc Thrift Store. I ran to the book section, eagerly looking for something that would catch my eye. Only one thing caught my eye. An old yellow hardcover book with the title Myths and Legends. The exact title was Great Myths and Legends: The 1984 Childcraft Annual (An annual supplement to Childcraft—The How and Why Library). It was a mouthful, so I just called it Myths and Legends.

As a fairy-tale lover, I was intrigued. I sat down on the floor and began reading. Immediately, I was captivated by the legends and myths from Greece, Ireland, Africa, India, and Scotland. My parents noticed I liked it and bought it for me. That night, I eagerly devoured the stories and tales it gave me. By nightfall, I reached a story I could never forget, “The Saving of Tam Lin.”

The first thing I noticed about the tale was its illustrations, by Pollyanna Quasthoff. In my child mind, all I saw were scratchy, desperately drawn pictures. I was transfixed on the picture of a woman tightly holding onto a wolfman. Its snarling jaw close enough to tear her head off. They were surrounded by old wizards with soulless flint colored eyes. I still remembered how my heart pounded and my mouth became dry as I imagined the picture moving as they did in Harry Potter.

The creepy soulless wizards chanting as their staffs pulsated eerily. The wolfman’s chest vibrating with snarls and growls as it snapped its sharp fangs at the woman. The woman gritting her teeth as she held tighter, burrowing her face into the wolfman’s chest as her body trembled in fear (Quasthoff, 1984). I was so terrified, I yelped. Still, I read on.

The book’s version of the tale is simple. A brave and beautiful girl named Janet is told to beware of Caterhaugh woods. At first, she does, but when she is grown, her fearlessness wins out. She goes into the woods to pick roses and a handsome man clad in green, Tam Lin, appears, as one did back then. In the woods they talked every day, only talked and nothing else, and fell in love. But Tam Lin was under the rule of the fae. They kidnapped him when he was a child because in this version of the tale the fae are just evil jerks. They also had to make a sacrifice to the dark spirits on All-Hallows Eve.

Why did the fae have to make sacrifices? I don’t know, but I do know who is to be sacrificed, Tam Lin! Of course, Janet is horrified and insists that there must be a way to save him. Tam Lin told her that there was a way, but it would be dangerous and he feared for her safety. Janet insisted that she could do it and promised to save him. For nothing beats the power of a woman in love. At least, Tam Lin hoped nothing could beat his brave and beautiful girl. He told Janet what to do.

She had to wait in the magical dark spirit-filled woods till the fae rode by at the dead of night. Then she had to grab Tam Lin and hold onto him for 21 heartbeats. But, then fae wizards would attempt to make her let go of Tam Lin by turning him into horrible and terrifying things, such as the wolf in the image. Despite the terrifying things Tam Lin became and the pain Janet felt, she still held on. She kept her mind on her love for Tam Lin and her promise to save him. And save him she did. After 21 heartbeats, Tam Lin was human once more and the fae, along with the other dark spirits, disappeared. They were free to go live happily ever after and never travel into the Caterhaugh woods again, a smart decision on their part (World Book Inc., 1984).

When I was six, this tale was enough to spark my research on the holiday, Halloween. I found out that Halloween was one of the pagan holidays the Catholic Church used to convert people. And before it was rewritten, it had Celtic origins from the end of summer festival called Samhain, which means the end of summer. Samhain was the three-day festival at the end and beginning of the Celtic year, around the end of October and beginning of November for the modern Calendar. It was a time of bountiful harvest and preparation for the upcoming harsh winters. Since it was a time where death and life meet for the harvest, it was believed to be when the veil to the supernatural was thin. Since the veil was thin, some religious practices were done. Such as fortune-telling, speaking with the dead, and sacrifices like in “The Saving of Tam Lin” (Lang, 2019).

With my imagination, it did not take much to not want to celebrate Halloween. I did not want to celebrate a holiday where I could lose who I love. Or worse, they would change into something I feared.  Yet, as I grew up, like Janet, my fear lessened. I did not fear Halloween, but I still did not want to celebrate Halloween. When anyone asked me why, I didn’t know. Then I watched a video that summarized the ballad of Tam Lin (Overly Sarcastic Productions, 2018). Something in me stirred. Despite the terror, the tale caused me, I held onto it.

After I reread my childhood version, I found the original Scottish ballad of “Tam Lin,” and one with more modern English (Acland, 1997). There were different aspects between the original and my childhood tale. Such as a baby and a spiteful fae queen. But mainly I found something far more inspiring, devotion. Janet was devoted and dedicated to saving Tam Lin. She would not let him go because it wasn’t about what Janet feared, but who she loved.

So, why don’t I celebrate Halloween? Because I love God more than my fears and I want to hold on to Him. What do you hold on to?



Acland, A. “Versions of the Ballad of Tam Lin.” Tam Lin Versions, Tam Lin Balladry, 1997. 


Lang, Cady. “What Is Samhain? Origin of Halloween Rooted in Pagan Holiday.” Time, Time, 30 Oct. 2018.



Overly Sarcastic Productions. “Tam Lin.” YouTube, Overly Sarcastic Productions, 26 Oct. 2018, 



Quasthoff, Pollyanna. Great Myths and Legends: the 1984 Childcraft Annual. World Book, 1984. Illustrations.

World Book Inc., editor. Great Myths and Legends: the 1984 Childcraft Annual. World Book, 1984. Pages 72-81.


Bio: Vivica Reeves graduated with a bachelor's degree in Media Arts and Animation. With a short story published in the anthology, Her Story II and an essay published on Enchanted Conversation, she hopes to cultivate her storytelling with her blog SOMETHING GOOD and continue teaching children on how to tell their stories.


Images are both from the Myths and Legends book. Good sources for the illustrations were not easy to find, but I did my best! The book is still well worth exploring and many used copies are available online. Sadly, I could not find any examples of the Tam Lin story from the book in question, so I provided an old image on Wikipedia. KW


Kelly Jarvis said...

I enjoyed reading this essay about Halloween, and I especially liked the writer's description of the frightening illustration from childhood. The story of Tam Lin can be terrifying when you think about the sacrifice, but, as the writer points out, it is also a beautiful story of love and devotion. I think Halloween can be scary too; when my sons were little they would not even go into a Halloween store because of the grotesque decorations! But I also think Halloween is beautiful because it celebrates the thin veil that separates the worlds of the living and the dead. If the "monsters" can slip through the veil, so too can the people we have loved and lost, and Halloween is a night when we can celebrate life by confronting death, all while holding on to the hope that we will see our lost loved ones again. A wonderful read, but I remain "Team Halloween"!

Katew said...

Well put Kelly! And I agree, Tam Lin can be scary.

Donna said...

Scary or not, I love Halloween as well as the tale of Tam Lin.

Wolfchick3 said...

I have four a love for the tale of Tam Lin too, Donna.Thank you for reading!