They say you're a headstrong girl. You run into the woods and pull a double rose. This is later thought to be symbolic. But today, you just pick the flower and he appears, as though called. If you were warned not to come here, he's the reason why. He pulls you down. Is it wrong? When it's done, according to the song, you turn "to ask your true love's name." But he's gone, and the woods grow dim.
The characters are introduced. A situation that begins to demand a set of changes. The ballad is named for him, although he is not the hero: Tam Lin, Tom Line, Tamlane, Young Tambling. There are many variations. Is he elven or human—is he trapped between worlds? He was enough in your world to leave you pregnant. A servant suggests an herb that will invite miscarriage. Traditional ballad narratives are episodic, relying on dialogue and action. Back to the woods, your father's woods, to pick the bitter herb and suddenly he's there again, saying: why do that when you could have the baby, and me, and a whole new life.
Seems like some people are born waiting for something—always listening, or looking, feeling toward the future. Other people—it just happens and they don't know what hit them.
Nearly half of the 305 ballads that Francis Child collected in the late 1800s are tales of romantic love and/or crimes of violence related to sex. Polly Stewart asks "what are the lessons women might learn from these ballads?" and concludes "that a man will take from a woman what he can and will punish her for being his victim; that a woman's needs are not a primary consideration either for her family or for men outside her family... that a woman's resources for protecting her interests are slim indeed." This ballad is an exception.
When they meet in the woods the second time, Young Tambling tells Margaret (in other versions, Janet, or Jennet) that he has been kidnapped by the Queen of Elfland and he describes in detail how he can be rescued. There are rules, which mainly involve holding on to him tightly, fearlessly, while he is turned into a lion, then a snake, a red-hot coal or bar of iron, and finally into a naked man, whom she must hide with her mantle.
For once, the hero is the girl, and her point of view and actions are the primary focus as the story unfolds. "It's so rare, even to this day, incidentally, that a woman drives the narrative of a drama." By the end, because he owes her his life, we might imagine that these two could embark on something like an equal partnership. Though that was probably impossible in the sixteenth century. It's a modern idea.
Sometime in the late twentieth century, I'm taking a new record from its sleeve. The singer is someone I've heard about and what I've heard intrigues me. This is her first album, just out and available only in the UK. As I set the needle down, looking at the surface of the vinyl, I notice the extra-wide, ten and a half minute track "Young Tambling." She will sing it unaccompanied. I will listen unaccompanied.