Tam Lin is an ancient Scottish story full of love, magic, faerie complications and a lot of shapeshifting. Many versions exist, but the short explanation is: Tam is a young man, falls off his horse while hunting, taken by the faeries to live with them, goes round seducing young ladies in the woods. Seduces Janet, gets her pregnant. She comes back looking for a herb to terminate the pregnancy, he tells her the faeries are going to sacrifice him to Satan at Halloween, and how to save him, she shows up, pulls him from his horse, hangs onto him as he shifts and eventually gets a naked man she can take home. It’s a good story, and there are a lot of places to go with it.
This version doesn’t have any angry faerie queens in it. Just a strange young man, who wanders the forest. A young man who has become more of a shade than a man, and who she has to hold through his transformations so that he can turn back into the kind of person you can realistically take home.
I find this incredibly resonant. Take out the faeries, and what you have is a story that reflects something about bringing back someone who is lost and wandering. I’ve had nights like this, when the difference between life and death is the person who can hold you as you flail, howl, and sometimes bite. A lot of the versions have Tam Lin become a burning brand of iron. Anyone who has tried to hold someone in crisis can expect it to be tough. Mostly it’s not a case of one hard night fending off faerie transformations. Seeing the snarling wolf and the snake within the other person, seeing their teeth and their broken animal self, seeing where they are dangerous and where they are wounded… generally it takes more than a night of holding to make that journey. It takes a lot of holding the burning iron.
But sometimes, at the far end of it, when you have weathered everything there is, when you have heard it all, sometimes what you are left with is another person, whole in their skin and naked in their vulnerability. Someone who might, after all, be able to go back to the village and take up life as a person again.