“Always Wear Armor When Walking Through the Classics Department”: A Review of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Hello everyone, and welcome back to your regularly scheduled blog posts – the ones where I try to review all that is Fantasy And Science Fiction before the beginning of the summer. Because that’s totally possible, especially now that my workload has lightened and I’ve only got three essays and two finals to work on!

Oh wait.

But before I start to freak out, I’d like to remind everyone that the Hugo Nominations are coming out this weekend (OH GOD). I will be covering those sometime in the next few posts. I’ll also be posting some kind of rant about the Hunger Games/Trayvon Martin correlation, so watch out for that.

*****

Book: Tam Lin

Author: Pamela Dean

Publisher: Firebird Fantasy

Published; 1991

Tam Lin cover picture

***Mild Spoilers for the Entire Book***

In my University, there’s a tunnel between our Arts Building and our Library of Incredible Inefficiency.*

* (I’m not a fan of the main library. But moving right along).

I love this tunnel. It’s a road out of time and space, made of sharp turns that make you quickly lose sight of where you were, and where you’re going. There’s a hint of the medieval about it – a bizarre gate right in the middle that reminds me of torture chambers and ancient sewer systems. But it’s not all medieval either: the copper piping and the violent fluorescent lights give a 19th century Science Fiction vibe. This tunnel would be a great set for a remake of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Or Thomas Lewis’s The Monk.

And sometimes there’s graffiti.
Over time, I’ve learned not to look at the graffiti. It only disappoints me. It does not match the atmosphere of the tunnel at all, but simply repeats the usual “My Life Sucks” and “LOL’s” that are found at every graffitied location in the school.

Yes, in fact, I judge the quality of graffiti. Is originality too much to ask for in our public defacement?

Absolutely not. Consider the case of Blackstock College, the setting of Pamela Dean’s cult fantasy novel, Tam Lin. Students aren’t writing LOL in those tunnels:

“First ten lines of the Iliad. That’s been there long and long. Somebody ought to touch it up.” (52)

When Janet and her newfound college friends find an Iliad quote in a tunnel on their first day of school, they start arguing over the best translation of the greek, and then exchange quotations for a few lines, before ending with an impromptu recitation of my (second) favorite Keats’ poem: “On Chapman’s Homer.”

“His tone was rather sardonic; but it hardly mattered. Lost, thought Janet. He quotes Keats, too. Well, let’s enjoy it, then. She said, ‘Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo Hold.”
Robin rattled “But never did I breath its pure serene Til I heard Chapman speak loud and bold,” and began walking again. “We’ll miss dinner,” he added.

If the past paragraph or two bores you to death… this book is probably not for you. But if you’re the kind of person who goes through tunnels and buildings and matches them to the setting of your favorite novel; if you fall into friendships with people based on the books and movies they can quote in their sleep; if you long to find the free, passionate discussion that can only exist in a group of similarly obsessed people, the discussion where everyone trips over their words and jumps in on the ends of each others sentences -

Tam Lin is the book for you.

Janet, the main character of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, is a new student at Blackstock college. Her Advisor keeps pushing her to be a classics major, but Janet hears (and notices) that All the Classics Majors are Crazy. Besides, she know she wants to be an english major, because “if the thing you liked best to do in the world was read, and somebody offered to pay you room and board and give you a liberal arts degree if you would just read for four years, wouldn’t you do it?”

(there is only one right answer to that question, and it starts with a “y”)

Tam Lin follows Janet and her friends’ four years at Blackstock. On top of all the academic drama and the intellectual, quote-heavy dialogue, there is, of course, a supernatural plot – but it’s so subtle and quiet, you won’t notice it until it hits you in the face. Pamela Dean interlaces the “realism” of the plot with moments of absurdity – for example, Janet and her roommate Molly wake up several times during the semester to find classic books of literary criticism (and when I say classic, I’m not talking Roland Barthes – I mean literary criticism written during the Victorian Era) just outside their window.

They’ve been told there’s a ghost; they have no other explanation for how such rare texts keep appearing. There’s also something strange going on with the classics students, who are all terrified of Professor Medeous, the department head. But all of these mysteries are kept just below the surface, and allowed to grow into full bloom near the end. It is with no particular sense of urgency that we and Janet discover the truth – and by then, Pamela Dean has led up to it so organically that the revelation seems just as realistic as anything else in the novel. Pamela Dean is so skilled with her subtle allusions that the Star Trek Enterprise could have landed in the middle of campus, and I wouldn’t have thought it out of the ordinary.

What makes this novel particularly appealing to me, to English literature lovers, and to nerds of all stripes is that the academic endeavor is the point of the story, not the backdrop. There are lots of movies, books and TV shows that are set in colleges or high schools, but there, the classroom is the setting, and the relationship drama (Gossip Girl), or the action story (Spiderman) is the focus. Here, the opposite is true: the characters are passionately, madly, lovingly enthralled by the work they do and their relationships (platonic or romantic) grow from their obsessions. Janet, for example, falls in “like” with Nick after hearing him recite Keats. Astute reader, meanwhile, note how much better a match she is for Thomas, who takes her to see Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis De Sade.**

(another reason I love Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin: I’ve been involved in productions of all three of those plays.)

Janet realizes Nick’s potential herself after watching a play “about two people named Thomas and Jennet (…) she knew perfectly well, that if examined with the eye of logic, these associations would unravel.” (408).

But in Tam Lin, as in life, the associations don’t unravel. Not really. Tam Lin never slips into the (popular) fallacy that art is somehow “detached” from everyday life, that it’s entertainment, that it doesn’t really matter. Instead, Tam Lin treats Janet’s forays into literature with as much seriousness as it does her forays into sex and relationships.

You shouldn’t worry, however, if you don’t have a strong English Literature background, or if you’re not interested in literature in the least. I’m an English Literature major, and I missed about ⅓ of the allusions in the novel. Doesn’t matter.  Despite the specificity of Janet’s dialogue, it’s her passion – her nerdiness – that makes her so easy to like. The novel describes, without mockery, the passions and obsessions that end up shaping our lives, no matter how obscure or “unimportant” they are.

In this vein, one of my favorite scenes in the novel depicts a conversation between Janet and Nick, Janet’s first boyfriend at Blackstock College. Nick has a strong pedantic streak, which leads to a memorable argument where Janet tries to convince Nick that the only writer who resembles Shakespeare is Keats:

“Keat seems so much like whom?”
“Shakespeare.”
“Keats? That querulous, agonizing little emotion ridden pestilence beffudled liverer’s son?”
“All right,” said Janet. “All right.” What in the would could she recite? He knew the sonnet “On Chapman’ Homer”, most of the rest he probably would have labeled querelous.”Not “Ode to a Nightingale” which had illnesses and drugs in it (…) I’ll give you querulous, Janet though, and cleared her throat:
“This Living Hand, now warm and capable of earnest grasping would, if it were cold And in the icy silence of the tomb, So haunt,they days and chill thy dreaming nights That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood (…)”
“Nicks hands had fallen to his side. Janet, looking straight at him now that she had done remembering, and feeling a little smug, realized witha  shock that he had turned rather pale. He pushed his glasses up his nose with a hand that shook. “That’s Measure for Measure,” he said, just audibly. “Or The Winter’s Tale. Or Troilus and Cressida. I always forget what gems are hidden in that dunghep. That’s not Keats, is it?” (…)
“Yes it is,” said Janet. To her fury, she sounded apologetic. “It was written in the margin of The Cap and Bell. His unfinished play.”
“I cry you mercy,” said Nick, getting up. “I’m unwell. No, it’s all right, don’t bother. I’ll call you later.” (116).

This is such a perfect scene. Of course an argument about Keats and Shakespeare is of critical importance. Of course one might need a bit of a lie down after realizing how much Keats does sound like Shakespeare. Of course such a fundamental shift in one’s worldview might take a few hours of bed-rest to get used to. It only makes sense.

Tam Lin understands the joy of finding people who share your language – the moment of recognition when you realize you don’t have to perform your life in a bizarrely constructed vernacular, but can slide into speech that reflects your thoughts.I’ve been lucky enough to be in a few groups like that – where we all speak the same language. Usually they involve theater, and only last a few weeks. Still, there’s something magical about them – about that intensity of communication. Who doesn’t want that?

Now, before you get the wrong idea, I should make something clear. Although I get quite sentimental writing about Tam Lin, and although Pamela Dean wrote it as a love letter to her college experiences, Tam Lin itself is not a sentimental novel. It’s clear and crisp and fast; there’s a sharpness to it that belies any sentimentality.

A big part of the reason Dean manages to prevent Tam Lin from sliding into an overwrought, overly indulgent novel is her brisk, no-nonsense prose. There’s a reason I’ve quoted the novel so thoroughly (and not just because I want to make some kind of obscure “meta” joke about allusion). Dean’s style is clear and concise and crisp. It pulls you along, demands your attention. No pausing, no stopping, make sure you turn the lights on as you go.

I knew I was in good hands when I got the description of Janet’s thrilling escape from her friends:

“Janet crawled along as fast as she could manage, bumping her head and cursing Nick Tooley and his children unto the nth generation, until she found a suitable hollow by catching her knee in it. She removed the knee, saying “shit, shit, shit,” under her breath because there was no time to think of anything creative, and scooped leaves and dry needles out of the hollow. She dumped Schiller into it unceremoniously, covered him over, limped on through the larch grove to the sidewalk, trudged down it to the bottom of the hill, and took off running in plain sight along the edge of the lake just as the chase came howling past the Fine Arts building.” (82)

Dean’s description is masterclass in efficiency, sly humor, and style. Let us all pause to consider how many more words most writers would take to say exactly the same thing (hell, let us all pause to consider how many CHAPTERS more I would take to say the same thing).

The other thing that makes the novel seem so grounded (and this is a supremely grounded novel) is it’s insights into the academic process. Especially if you are, or have ever been, in College.

For example, we have the (invisible, but at the same time completely obvious) fight between the Classics Department and the English Department. The whole thing starts to feel like two armies recruiting students to their cause. Every time Janet goes to consult her academic advisor, Melinda Wolfe, a classics professor, Wolfe tried to steer her into becoming a classics major. At one point, Wolfe goes “if you read science fiction, you’ll like Herodotus,” which made me howl with laughter. Because who hasn’t had a Professor be like “Come to the Biology/Latin/English/History/Dark Side Department. WE HAVE COOKIES/Herodotus/genetic experimentation/Shakespeare/Crazy Department Heads who Might Be Sleeping with Everyone.

Most Professors I know have been more subtle about it, but yeah, I’ve been there. And hey, I’m an English major because of two such pushy Professors. Not going to name names, but they know who they are (actually, they have no idea).

There’s also this brilliant moment from Janet’s father, an English Professor:

“Take it from me,” said her father. “It is possible to get a Ph.D in English while ignoring no less than three literary periods. You must have read something in all of them, so as to fling their names about, but you can be quite ignorance of at least three and still do very nicely.”
“Which three are you ignorant of?” said Janet.
“The moderns, the whole of the twelfth century and the jacobeans.”

Which just explains everything about every Professor I’ve take a class with, ever.

And that’s, maybe, what I loved most about Tam Lin. Every page felt like I was discovering a secret – a familiar secret. A secret I’d always known was there. It’s real life, but it’s real life with that extra-sharp twist of insight – real life with all the magical underpinnings revealed, from Professorial mysteries to the gossip between nerds. Tam Lin lets you in on the secrets. It’s a story that oozes with so much intelligence and acceptance and joy – joy of learning, joy of growing, joy of confusion – that it’s one of the few novels I actually made an effort to read slower. I didn’t want to leave its coy, secretive, joyous pages.

Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is one of the rare speculative fiction novels I recommend without pause to my English Major Friends. Or to my non-Science Fiction reading friends. Trust me. You will like it. Even if you don’t like magic. Trust me. You should read it. Everyone should read it. If the above review has you interested, drop everything and read it. Trust me, it’s a thousand times better than anything I could describe. You will like it. A lot.

And it’s a rare novel that can get me to engage in some public defacement of my own. But in no small part thanks to Tam Lin, there’s now a Shakespeare quote plastered between some of the LOL graffiti on the walls of my favorite tunnel. From Richard III. Maybe it’ll start a tradition (but don’t tell anyone. Can you get expelled for graffiti? Oh God.)

Pamela Dean on Tam Lin:

“It all reminded me of college, where the fear of getting pregnant collaborated with the conviction that you weren’t nearly as smart as you’d thought you were, that you would never amount to anything, even if all the Professors thought you were a genius, and the world was going to hell so fast that you’d be lucky to have a B.A. to show the devil when it got there to produce a sub-clinical state of frenzy; where juggling your love life with anything else was almost but never quite completely impossible, where we all did any number of foolish and peculiar things while surrounded by and occasionally even absorbing the wisdom of the ages.” (460)

Blackstock College, by the way, is based on Pamela Dean’s real college (at least in appearance) – a small liberal arts college in Minnesota called Carleton College. I visited Carleton as a high-schooler (I was deciding where to apply for University) and I can attest to how gorgeous a campus it is. Even under the pouring rain, it was absolutely beautiful.

Carleton College Tam Lin

*** We do have some great graffiti in my college. Mostly in the girl’s bathrooms (can’t speak to the boy’s). The best one is “Books Before Boys Because Boys Bring Babies.” Indeed.

Other Reviews of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean:

Tansy Rayner Roberts: The Lady’s Not For Burning - it was Rayner Roberts’s love for Tam Lin on the podcast Galactic Suburbia that got me to pick up the book to begin with (I owe her a debt of gratitude for that one) and her written review is equally good.

Things Mean A Lot: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tor.com: College as A Magic Garden: Why Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a Book You’ll Either Love or Hate (Jo Walton). (I love Jo Walton)

Related Posts:

Let the Djombi Eat Cake: A Review of Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo

Nebula Nominations are Wearing the Awesomepants

Frantically, Florally February: A Monthly Reading Roundup


6 Comments on ““Always Wear Armor When Walking Through the Classics Department”: A Review of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean”

  1. eileeny says:

    I was just enchanted with the idea that it was spawned by the Scottish ballad: I have a weakness for things remixed that way.

    I may need to reread Tam Lin.

  2. [...] Review of Tam Lin Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted in Books, Culture, Fangirl, Fantasy, Monthly Roundup, Review and tagged Catherynne Valente, Deathless, God's War, Jeffrey Eugenides, Kameron Hurley, Mockingjay, My New York Diaries, Power and Majesty, Redemption in Indigo, Tansy Rayner Roberts, The Marriage Plot, WisCon [...]

  3. Margaret says:

    There used to be a literary quotation-free, but nonetheless memorable, graffiti exchange on one of the pillars downstairs in the Strand Book Store in New York City. Someone had rather crassly written “I humped Nancy Reagan” (this was back when her husband was still president). To which somebody else replied, “Was she bactrian or dromedary?”

    • C.D. says:

      WOW. That’s beautifully hilarious.
      And it sort of sounds like the graffiti in the girl’s bathroom of my university… it gets very witty in there (and very crass).

  4. marineko says:

    I was re-reading Jo Walton’s review of Tam Lin, and a random search for more reviews led me here. I think yours may be one of my favourites, as it made me want to re-read the book!


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