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So, I spent the day driving to Hanover, New Hampshire, to see this year's Revels North production, which this year had the first performance ever of a new telling of the ballad of Tam Lin using a script by Susan Cooper (the author, on whom more in a minute) and Will Rowan and Maureen Buford.

It's described in the program as "Inspired by Susan Cooper's children's book Tam Lin". (Which came out in 1991.)

(Buford is just ending a decade as the Artistic Director of Revels North, and Rowan is the Associate Music Director for the production.)

I found out about the production thanks to A. Acland, who has run the excellent and amazing Tam Lin site at for more than a decade now. She also has a great Tumblr highlighting art, music, retellings, and more, and the site itself is a wealth of detailed information about the ballad. (And I promised her notes, so here they are for everyone.)

(I live just outside of Boston, so driving to New Hampshire was a 4 hour round trip. It was totally worth it here.)

A little housekeeping:
This is a public entry, so I'm not linking to the journals of some people mentioned herein, but if you are happy with me doing that, you know who you are, tell me in comments or email or whatever.

Feel free to share this with others, or quote pieces from it - I'd appreciate a comment saying where you did, because I'm curious, but I'm writing it for general use and discussion.

About the Revels

So, to make the actual production make sense, I need to start by explaining about what the Revels are.

The Revels describe themselves on the umbrella organization info as "Revels engages today’s audiences in theatrical and musical experiences that bring the world’s cultural traditions and celebrations to life."

They were founded in 1971 in Cambridge, MA, and now there are performances in 9 different locations around the United States. (If I had not gone to Revels North this year, I would have gone to the Cambridge one.)

The performances vary in focus - many are British Isles, but if you read through the Revels site, you'll find lots of examples of other times and places, too. They're a combination of music, storytelling, theatre, dance, decorative arts, and more, in a context that is decidedly community centred: there are participatory songs, the age range of participants on stage runs from well under 10 to decidedly more than 60, and with a wide range of skills and talents on display. (Visible ethnic diversity was less so, but that's at least in part regional demographics, and it wasn't non-existent, which delighted me.)

There is often some linking story joining the various segments of dance and music and so on together (though sometimes the story is very prominent, and sometimes it's more background) but it also serves as a theme to center many of the other artistic choices around. (So, in this case, this performance had a lot of Scottish dancing, as you'd probably expect, but a performance with a different focus might not have any.)

The religious focus also varies: I've seen some years where there was a bit more Overt Christianity, but even then, it is very much a moderate thing, and focused on carols and so on (and not the more theologically difficult ones to be inclusive with). [1]

There are also some traditional segments that are done by the Revels almost every year: one of the most notable is the reciting of Susan Cooper's poem "The Shortest Day".

Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper's website of course has a full listing of her works, (and naturally there is more about her on Wikipedia but she's probably best known for two things: The Dark is Rising books, if you know her books, or her poem "The Shortest Day" which is often selected for reading, because it's a wonderful celebration of the season without being explicitly any religion. The poem was written for the Christmas Revels.

Anyway, Cooper has written a wide range of other children's and young adult fiction, and in 2013 got a lifetime achievement World Fantasy Award. She's been particularly recognised for her 'authentic Welsh background' of the Dark Is Rising books.

She was heavily involved with the Revels for the first 25 years or so, but stopped contributing heavily once John Falstaff, the founder, retired. This year, she's back and contributed heavily both to the Cambridge Revels and to Revels North (This news story describes some of the Cambridge Revels material more thoroughly)

She also wrote a retelling of Tam Lin in 1991 for children and young adults, which I am pretty sure I've read in the past, but remember none of the details of now. (Also, seriously, 1990 and 1991 were a bumper year for Tam Lin stories...)

Short version: I've always liked her work, and find it resonant across years and stages of life, and that alone was more or less enough to get me to do the drive.

Tam Lin

Tam Lin has been my favourite ballad for rather a long time: certainly by about 1994, when I got to college, and had just read Pamela Dean's Tam Lin (which I continue to adore and find new things in every time I read it.)

As you can see if you browse the website, it's also one that has come in for a vast number of retellings. I'm not going to attempt to summarise them all, because they're there.

The basic story involves a young woman (called various things, including Margaret, Janet, and Jenett [2]) who goes out into the wood her father owns after she's told not to, picks a rose, is interrupted by a young man, and the story goes on from there.

Some versions of the story involve her being asked to give up something of value, and giving up her virginity. Some are rather less with the direct consent. A lot of versions - especially modern retellings - have it be her choice, at least to some degree. This version here is decidedly a family-friendly retelling, and what they do is a) not specified and b) very clearly mutual.

In many versions, she becomes pregnant through this, and it's her pregnancy that allows her to be the one to save Tam Lin, when he is offered as a tithe to hell later that year. Saving him involves a transformation sequence (and I'm always fascinated by which animals show up..) and finally Margeret (or whatever her name is) covers him up with her green mantle.

(I can't resist, here, noting that I did a retelling for ritual use in 2005, which focuses on the questions of choice, consquence, and the question of the heart of flesh or heart of stone.)

About this specific production

This particular production has an interesting structure, as the whole performance was structured roughly as a Scottish ceilidh (a gathering for the whole community with song, dance, stories, and more, which makes it a great vehicle for a variety of performing groups.).

Smaller subgroups in the performance included a lovely four person folk group (with people playing harp, fiddle, accordion, and then the last person playing bodhran, low whistle, and Scottish Highland and low pipes), a brass ensemble, an adult chorus, a teen chorus, a children's chorus, and then various small groups of folk dancers, as well as the individual actors.

I grew up in a theatre family (my father was a theatre professor) and I learned a long time ago that I can either enjoy the performance and let myself be swept up in it, or I can go into analytical mode - and in this case, I chose the former (except for taking some notes on the Tam Lin version choices.)

I will say that I found it all deeply competent as a production, which is a much more rare thing than it might be sometimes. There were times I wished for a bit more complexity on harmony (or what I could hear of the harmony), but the whole thing was on pitch, well sung and danced on a technical level, and more than that, entirely enjoyable and clearly done by people who loved what they were doing. This goes a tremendously long way for me.

The set and costumes were relatively simple, in broad terms, but well-executed, and worked really well for a variety of staging needs. The costumes were Scottish-flavoured bodices and skirts or kilts, generally, but nicely varied in colour and design (the kind of variety you'd get in an actual living community.)

The production was at the main performance space at Dartmouth, so imagine your well-appointed college performance stage, nicely deep. Half the set is stage level, and then two shallow steps going up to a platform, across almost the entire width. The backdrop has silhouettes of mountains in the back, and then four long drapes of cloth that give the effect of rough cut stone pillars on the sides of the stage. The top level has a small bench on each side.

On the right, there's a bit of stone that clearly had steps behind it, going up toward an existing balcony (there's an organ console up there), and on the other side, stage right, there was a collection of roses on a bush in the first act, and the top of a well in the second act.

I'm not going to comment here at length about the rest of the music and such, because this is already long, but it was very pleasant, and I'm glad the program book (which you can see on the Revels North website, at least at the moment)

Cooper also wrote a mummer's play, that takes place in act 2, which I took many fewer notes about, but which involved Boban Christmas, Dougal Jack, the Fool, an Irish Knight, St. Andrew, a Red Lion, and a White Dragon, had the more or less expected bits of funny business (emphasis on independence from England's - the white dragon's - empire - and ending with St. Andrew killed and revived.)

The story

This was a live performance, and I did scribble down notes quickly about basic plot details and the occasionally really good line (not all of them, but some) as I could, but this is obviously a very rough sketch of a much more lovely thing.

The story is split up into four segments, all in the framing of a village story teller telling a story to the assembled community. There are 38 segments in the show, and the story occurs after segment 5, 13, 18, and 32, to give an idea of the spacing. (Running time was about 2:15.)

Things in double quote marks below are my best approximation of the actual quote: otherwise I have paraphrased.

Before we get to the story, I want to quote one paragraph out of the short essay about the story in the program (it's on page 39, by Simone Pyle, who is a librarian and the Revels North media manager.)

She says: "We have framed this story as a battle between dark and light, acontest between youthful and courageous Margaret and the mercurial controlling Elf Queen for Tam Lin's very soul. But perhaps the real battle is between inertia and accepting change; maybe it is the act of embracing change with love and hope, and not the end itself, that is the light. Holding on to the ones we love and allowing them to metamorphose into their next selves... what parent doesn't understand that feeling? What spouse, partner, friend?"

Part one:
Margaret, her nurse, and two other young woman are sitting, sewing, and the nurse goes into the more or less expected spiel for this version of the story, of how it's important to be well-behaved, and the expectations of court, and how to keep the rules, so that a nice young man will marry them. And then, of course, warns them against going to Carterhay Wood, because there's an elfin knight there who makes maidens disappear.

Margaret is having none of this, and argues that she is not going to sit and wait for someone to decide to marry her. Specifically: "I am not a flower waiting to be picked, I will do my own picking!"

She then goes off to Carterhays Wood.

Part two
Margaret arrives in the wood, and there are mentions of the wood having oak, ash, thorn - and apples, nice magical trees that they are.

She picks a rose, and a young man shows up, and asks her why she picked it. He says something I didn't note to her, asking why she's there, and she says it's her father's land, he's the king, she'll pick the roses she wants, and that he is a "cheeky young man".

He produces an apple, and shortly after, the narration notes that an apple is actually a rather odd thing to have fruiting in June, which makes the timing here clear.

Tam Lin then offers to show her the wood, and the magical well at the centre, and they go off together (the narration has a line about "And whatever they do in private..." that implies to the adult audience that yes, sex might well be a thing there, but does not state it at all explicitly.)

At the end of the day, at dusk, Tam Lin vanishes, and Margaret goes back to the castle, to be swarmed by her friends and her nurse, who are so glad she's back, everyone's been searching for her. She's very puzzled, because for her, it's only been a few hours, but they tell her she's been gone for a week.

Part three:
Margaret, of course, goes back to the wood, and confronts him, shortly after. She accuses him of being an elfin knight, and he says, no, he was the son of the Earl of Roxborough, and the Elfin Queen stole him when he was a child, and would Margaret like him to show her?

She says yes, and what happens next is a really lovely dance sequence. The primary dancer in this case is Ruth Mayer, who danced with the American Ballet Theatre between 1969 and 1984, and since then has been a dancer, teacher, and choreographer various places. I mention the dates because one of the things I really loved about the show was the range of expressions of bodies of the cast - seeing a beautifully trained dancer who must be in at least her 60s now, and graceful and so thoughtful about her movements and how she used them was a joy.

She also made a really excellent Elf Queen - dressed in silvers and pale blues, with a long skirt, and a rather glorious white crown with two white antlers curling up. The choreography was largely modern dance in form, expressive gesture, wide use of the stage, but not overtly athletic.

In it, the Queen lured a young boy (who was utterly adorable), conveying through the dance how he started spiralling closer and closer to her, a couple of times turning away, before she brought him back toward her, lured him, convinced him. It was nicely planned, nicely paced, and just generally a pleasure to watch. At the end, she swoops the boy off, and carries him off stage.

The showing of what happened finishes, and Margaret asks about her, says she's beautiful, and Tam Lin says "Beautiful but cold-hearted." He then describes the sacrifice to hell they make every 7 years, and that he's afraid it will be him this year.

Margaret asks what could save him, and he says "A maid who loves me." and she answers "Supposing I loved you, what would I need to do?"

He tells her that on the Winter Solstice (this is a change from most tellings, if appropos for this use, more commonly it's All Hallow's Eve.) there will be a procession, and he will go by, one hand bare and one hand gloved, that she must pull him down by the bare hand, hold on to him, don't look at the queen, and hold on while the queen changes him into many things.

He tells her that at the end, drop what she's holding into the well, and he'll come back to her, that he'll never hurt her. She listens, and goes off, and considers. (And it is strongly implied that she does not see him between then and the solstice.)

Part 4
Margaret sneaks out of her father's celebrations, and wanders by several traditional dances and celebrations of the people: dancing, women fulling tweed, children and the first footing for luck, men singing a duan chant, while igniting the yule fire. This segues into the elven procession, with a very haunting song, "Tàladh Chrìosta" which was written in 1855.

She watches them go by, and then grabs Tam Lin's bare hand, and he is changed into animals, represented by large and fierce puppets, while the Queen cries out "Tam Lin will not leave me."

(The puppets are all substantial in size, and mostly of the kind where a large fabric shape is over the puppeteer's head and shoulders for the head.)

First is a snake, which coils around the procession, then a wolf, then an eagle, pulling her up into the air, using those hidden stairs I mentioned and the balcony, and then finally, as the narration makes clear, a red-hot bar of iron.

She holds it as best she can, and then runs to the magic well, and drops it in, and Tam Lin emerges, naked, and she covers him with her green mantle. (There is the line in here about "As you know, the winter solstice in Scotland is not a good time to be without clothes.")

They have a short closing exchange, in which he suggests that they might someday have a child as "naked and as glad as the man reborn today." and Margaret replies that she wants a girl, and then "And we'll teach her to pick roses."


[1] One of the songs also regularly done is "Lord of the Dance", which people often assume is a traditional song, but no, it was written in 1963 and is still in copyright.

While putting this together, I discovered the delightful fact that Sydney Crawford, who wrote the "Lord of the Dance" lyrics was born on the exact same day - May 6th, though many years apart - as the Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, who wrote "Simple Gifts". More about the two songs.

[2] If you're wondering, the fact I use Jenett broadly online and in my interactions in the Pagan community is from this ballad. It happens to also both have elements of my legal first and last name, but that is a coincidence I didn't realise until some years after I'd chosen to start using it. I've loved Janet or Jenett or whatever we're calling her this version for her willingness to choose and dare and then embrace her choices whole-heartedly, even when she's scared of what will happen.
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