A Semiotic Look at “Tam Lin”
Fairies, when most people think about them, the picture that comes to mind in that of Tinker Bell, Peter Pan’s small,fiesty and wicket little friend. Being one of the most popular Disney characters, there is no doubt that every single girl and even women love fairies. It is too bad that according to folklore, the image portrait by Tinker Bell could not befarther from the truth. In his essay, On Fairy Stories J.R.R. Tolkien explains that popular image that exists today about fairies is a product of literary fancy and the works of authors such as William Shakespeare and Michael Drayton. There is no doubt that the mass media and merchandizing of everything fairy (from bedroom accessories to make up) have contributed to the cuteness associated tofairies now a days. The truth, according to folklore, is that fairies are wicket, amoral creatures who love to cause trouble and play tricks on humans. They are soulless beings who are linked to the devil. This is the case of the characters in the old Scottish ballad “Tam Lin.” The ballad is part of 305 traditional Scottish ballads collected by American folklorist Francis James Child as part ofhis book English and Scottish Popular Ballads. According to Child, the ballad dates back to at least 1549, when it was a shepherd’s song and dance (Hixon 69).
For semiotician Charles Peirce there are three kinds of signs: the index, the icon and the symbol, being the latter the one I will focus on. A symbol carries meaning in a purely arbitrary way. According to Pierce “Nothing is a signunless it is interpreted as a sign” (172), which basically means anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as representing something else than itself. By using the word symbol, I refer to the image the word produces in our mind and the perceptions, beliefs and emotional responses these images trigger in us.
In this paper, I will try to perform a semiotic analysis of severalsymbols present in the ballad, and interpreting what they may represent in its context. Like most stories about fairies, “Tam Lin” is full of symbols charged with different connotations. For the purpose of this work, I will focus in 9 symbols discussing them in the order they appear in the story: fairies, the color green, the well, flowers, the fairyland, the tithe to hell, Halloween and thewhite horse.
There are many variations of this ballad. For this work, I will use version 39A as listed in
the book English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 
|Verse |word or phrase |
|O I forbid you, maidens a' |a' - all|
|That wear gowd on your hair |gowd - gold |
|To come or gae by Caterhaugh, |gae - go |
|For young Tam Lin is there.|Carterhaugh - area near Selkirk, Scotland. |
|There's nane that gaes by Carterhaugh |nane - none |
|But they leave him a wad, |wad - something of value |
|Either their rings, or green mantles,|mantle - outer garment, cloak |
|Or else their maidenhead. |maidenhead - hymen, virginity |
|Janet has kilted her green kirtle |kilted - to tuck up |
|A little aboon her knee,...
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