Starring Ava Gardner as the Faery Queen

Ava Gardner, 1950s.

Ava Gardner (1922–1990) was one of the most famous American film stars of the late 1940s through the 1960s, probably best known for The Night of the Iguana (1964). She had moved to London 1968, which might be why she was cast in a movie that, given my interests, I am surprised to have never heard of: Tam Lin, also known as The Devil’s Widow.  (Link to YouTube.)

“Tam Lin,”  Child Ballad 39[1]Click here for information on where in Scotland the different versions were collected. is a traditional song about a young man who takes up with the Queen of Faery and his mortal girlfriend, “fair Janet,” who fights for his return, intercepting the fairies’ ride on Halloween and pitting her love against their magic:

They’ll turn me in your arms, lady, Into an esk and adder;

But hold me fast, and fear me not, I am your bairn’s father.

They’ll turn me to a bear sae grim, And then a lion bold;

But hold me fast, and fear me not, As ye shall love your child.

Again they’ll turn me in your arms To a red het gaud of airn;

But hold me fast, and fear me not, I’ll do to you nae harm.

A Musical Interlude

Here is a stripped-down version from Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, performing in Toronto in 2013:

Here is the great German neofolk band Faun’s version, in German with English subtitles, featuring an actual hurdy-gurdy for that 16th-century “big band” sound.

“Tam Lin,” the Movie

I like the poster for the Spanish-language version best.

At the northern Colorado covenstead in the late 1970s, Pentangle was one of the bands whose albums were on constant rotation.[2]The definitive book on the British electric-folk revival of the 1960s–1970s is Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music.

You will hear their version of “Tam Lin” in the 1970 movie Tam Lin (also titled The Ballad of Tam Lin or in one version, The Devil’s Widow). It starred Ava Garder (47 or 48 at the time) as Michaela “Mickey” Cazaret”; Ian McShane, 27, as “Tom Lynn,” her current boy-toy — one of a very long series — and Stephanie Beacham, 22, as Janet.

Plus a large cast of long-haired bellbottoms-wearing young people as the equivalent of the Fairy Crew, both a pleasure-seeking “light” version and a more violent “dark” contingent. The director was Roddy McDowell, better-known for his roles in the Planet of the Apes series.

I will return the question of disparate ages later.

You can think of this lot as the “light” fairies.

The Gentry Doing Weird Things in the Big House

Isn’t that the favorite trope of British horror films? The action may start in the city, as does Tam Lin, but the real weirdness is at the country estate where the lord/lady of the manor is a secret Satanist, Pagan, sex magician, Reptilian, whatever. One of my favorites is The Lair of the White Worm (1988), but there are So Many Others.

Tam and Mickey in happier times.

In this movie, once Tam Lin is at the big house, events pretty well follow the ballad’s narrative, with new characters added. He meets Janet (the vicar’s daughter) at Carterhaugh. Sex ensues. She becomes pregnant. He wants to leave his older mistress — but she is not going to make it easy for him, not at all.

The “Carter” Confusion

As an American, I did not have a map of the Scottish Lowlands in my head. When I read the lyrics for the electric-folk band Steeleye Span’s version of “Tam Lin” (Steeleye Span was also in heavy rotation at the covenstead in those days.), they said,

Oh, I forbid you maidens all
That wear gold in your hair
To come or go by Carter Hall
For young Tam Lin is there[3]Tam Lin here presented as a sort of young robber knight, but working for the Faeries.

But “Carter Hall”? To me, that was a brand of pipe tobacco that I saw on store shelves, named for a plantation in northern Virginia.[4]For the record, my Clifton ancestors apparently got off the boat in Surry County Virginia, on the James River, and did not own anything that qualifies as a “hall.”  That is in America, not Scotland, but maybe there was another? (Not according to Google.)

Originally,  the encounter between Tam Lin and Janet occurrs at Carterhaugh, which is a real place on the Scottish border — the name designates a farm and a woodland

Some Scots speakers have a way of dropping final “L” sounds, so “ball” becomes “ba,”  for example, and thus “Carter Hall” and “Carterhaugh” would sound about the same. So some English folksinger could hear “Carterhaugh” and think that “Carter Hall” was the “correct” wording.  The so-called correction introduced a new scribal error. This happens more than you realize.

As the Tam Lin ballad website says on its “Carterhaugh” page, “The town [Selkirk] itself doesn’t have much in the way of tourist industry aimed at Tam Lin fans.”

Older Woman, Younger Man, Younger Woman

The older woman-younger man-younger woman dramatic triangle pops up all the time. In a pre-pubescent version, it is the core of Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Snow Queen,” published in 1844.

I read that as a kid and totally got it “wrong.” I wanted little Kai to live with the Snow Queen. She was magnetic and amazing, and who was pious little Greta coming to drag him away?

And Ava Gardner? In 1966, three years before she made Tam Lin, she tried for the part of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, in which “a disillusioned college graduate [Dustin Hoffman] finds himself torn between his older lover and her daughter.”

But Anne Bancroft, 35 at the time, got the part. Katharine Ross, 26, played the daughter. Yeah, do the math. Anne Bancroft was only six years older than Dustin Hoffman. Weirdly, The Graduate is described as a “romantic comedy” but also as “the 17th greatest American film of all time.”

Nevertheless, the message from pop culture, whether ballad or film, is the same: “Youth must triumph.” But older lovers have some power too, particularly if they are supernatural figures.

The Wisdom of Traditional Ballads

When I lived in Boulder, Colorado, I had a friend named Michael. A decade earlier, Michael had run a small speciality store downtown (before Pearl Street became a pedestrian mall) with another guy whom I will call W.

It seems that W. was in a relationship with an older woman. This woman had an 18-year-old daughter. W., being young and horny, went to bed with the daughter too.

When the mother found out, this did not turn into a porn-movie scenario. Oh no, this was real life.

In Michael’s words, the term “went ballistic” failed to describe the mother’s reaction.

It sounds like the closing verses of one version of the ballad “Tam Lin,” in fact:

Out then spak the Queen o Fairies,
And an angry woman was she:
“Shame betide her ill-far’d face,
And an ill death may she die,
For she’s taen awa the bonniest knight
In a’ my companie.”
“But had I kend, Tam Lin,” she says,
‘What now this night I see,
I wad hae taen out thy twa grey een,
And put in twa een o tree.”

Notes

Notes
1 Click here for information on where in Scotland the different versions were collected.
2 The definitive book on the British electric-folk revival of the 1960s–1970s is Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music.
3 Tam Lin here presented as a sort of young robber knight, but working for the Faeries.
4 For the record, my Clifton ancestors apparently got off the boat in Surry County Virginia, on the James River, and did not own anything that qualifies as a “hall.”

2 thoughts on “Starring Ava Gardner as the Faery Queen

  1. Border ballads as a body of lore form an important element of magical currents that I’m affiliated with. The ballads Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer in particular, describing some aspects of relationships between human beings and the Fairy Queen(s).

    The versions performed in the music you mention certainly offer useful versions, just as some investigation of the various textual versions that have been collected does. And some newer versions that have been created. Relationships are dynamic.

    But I never saw (or recall seeing) the movie.

    As an aside, the U.S. Navy has a tradition, started during WW II, of naming an amphibious warfare vessel “Carter Hall'” The current ship is still in active service. There’s a suggestion that the name comes from a plantation in Millwood, Virginia. Maybe a fondly recalled name from the Scottish homeland among some folks who had left it behind?

    My vision/version of the Fairy Queen, at least, might have a little “Ava Gardner” to it. Pop (oc)culture…(Hey! That name! Gardner…)

    Quite an interesting post.

  2. I particularly like Steeleye’s almost-11-minute live version, on Spanning the Years.

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