The Body Horror of Tam Lin

by Sonya Vatomsky

A note for readers: this essay mentions sexual violence.

bc0da84b13315d7d46f4457197fb0affIn folklore, the term “transformation chase” refers to the use of shapeshifting as a means of combat or escape. The wizard duel in the animated film The Sword In The Stone, for one, but more traditionally the plot of several Celtic ballads. “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” was included in a book of folktales I had as a child, translated from song to prose. I remember loving it. I remember the way the name “Tam-Lin” felt on my Russian tongue, liquid and strong. For those unfamiliar with the story, it goes like this: a girl comes upon Tam-Lin in the woods of Carterhaugh, where he is being held prisoner by the Queen of Fairies. To rescue him from the Queen and win him as a lover, the girl must hold him fast through countless transformations: a roaring lion, a terrifying snake, the painful scald of flame. To my young sensibilities, this seemed extremely romantic. I appreciated the ritual of endurance; trials and pageantry were a necessity of love stories because some outside force willed it, not because of the lovers themselves. Years later, “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” made me pissed.

Granted, what sounds romantic to a four-year-old-girl can hardly be expected to ring true to a thirty-year-old non binary queer person. All the same, I wanted to slice apart this story with my feminist lance — which is like a feminist lens, but for folktales. The basic premise of “Tam-Lin,” where a woman holds a man as he hurts her, was no longer abstract but a common narrative played out through a million books and films fetishizing a woman’s abnegation and self-sacrifice for the sake of a man’s potential. “Tam-Lin” became our culture’s unfortunate connection between pain and love, equating the latter with a willingness to suffer on behalf of another. “It’s only true if you bruise by the force of it,” as Chris Corner once said. Fuck. What had originally drawn me to such a sexist, heteronormative depiction of devotion? A poem from my poetry collection, Salt Is For Curing, tried to understand: “She holds and she hurts and / she wins. Maybe I liked it because the woman / is doing something, not waiting. It’s always / either waiting or hurting, you know, and often / one can’t tell the difference.”

Yet the more I thought about it, the more “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” seemed itself to change shape, to become something other than what I had previously seen. As I looked back on an extremely difficult period of my life when I frequently lashed out in anger and attempted to isolate myself from those around me — and as I thought about the people who remained by my side throughout this — I began to see “Tam-Lin” not as a patriarchal narrative of pain-acceptance but as one where a character holds another through change. Tam-Lin did not become a flame and slowly burn hotter; he shifted indiscriminately, the changes done to him as he assumed monstrous forms akin to those in body-horror films like The Fly or Tusk. The transformation chase in “Tam-Lin” is a battle against the Fairy Queen and not really between the two individuals. In this forest, the courage required in love is made literal.

To be forcibly changed, especially as a means of achieving freedom, is a strong metaphor that does double-duty here: the girl can leave the forest and head home any time, but enduring the transformations is the only way for Tam-Lin to escape the Fairy Queen. Someone we love can certainly assume different shapes to frighten or hurt us, but the experiences that make us shift and change are as varied as all the animals in the wood of Carterhaugh. Which is to say: is it possible that there is something beautiful in love’s tenacity? Not in the sense that it’s good or admirable to endure pain, but in the sense that a transformation chase represents the monstrous qualities people display as they pass through tragedy — the qualities we might take on during the processing of grief or trauma. This link of change with pain, especially in the context of external pain (vis-à-vis the Fairy Queen), is in some ways a very honest look at any long-term relationship, where we must each see the other’s wounds and mold each other back into, if not our perfect form, then at least something passable. A transformation chase is not discomfort for the sake of another but the choice to remain by their side in a moment of shared discomfort — because, after all, it is only in fairy tales that change can happen with something as easy as a kiss.


Sonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist with too many feelings on the inside and too much cat hair on the outside. They were born in Moscow and currently live in Seattle with their cat, Magpie Underfoot, and a growing collection of taxidermy, wet specimens, and other oddities. Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015) is their full-length debut — a poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival. Get in touch by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at @coolniceghost and sonyavatomsky.com.

Image by Jill Karla Schwarz.