Let me tell you about them.
Because, thing is, they are where all the bad-ass women of fairy tales have been hiding all this time.
First, the basics:
Compiled by Francis James Child in the mid to late 1800s, the full title is actually The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and it is a collection of just that. Also they are all free and online, so that’s neat.
You probably know some of these ballads; for one, all the Robin Hood ballads are in it. Tam Lin is one of the more popular ones these days. A heck-ton of the ballads have been covered by 60s folk rock bands like Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span. Simon and Garfunkle’s (and others’) cover of “Scarborough Fair” also comes from the Child’s Ballads. They’re little-known, and yet oddly pervasive. I know I listened to a bunch of them as a kid, so the stories got stuck in my head. They’re a good repository for British fairy lore, for one.
For another, the Child’s Ballads have some wacky wacky gender-swapping as compared to the rest of European fairy tales. The Germans and French have a cycle of “animal groom” tales, e.g. Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, the Frog King, and Snow White & Rose Red. The English and Scottish have what’s effectively a cycle of “animal bride” tales. They usually go something like this: There is a monstrous woman and/or a woman who’s been turned to a dragon. (Often she’s under some evil spell, sometimes she’s just a witch.) A man has to come along and be nice to her, and then he is rewarded. Alternately, he’s a jerk and she punishes him. Here’s one about a man who acted sensibly in the face of grisly destruction:
A much nicer ending than many tales of monstrous women. “Them sireens loved him up and turnt him to a toad!”
The ballad of Tam Lin, in particular, gender-reverses the classic “Prince saves damsel-in-distress” trope. Here’s two versions of the ballad, the more traditional Fairport Convention version and a wacky bassline double-voice new version by Tricky Pixie:
Despite the ballad’s title, “Tam Lin” follows the character arc of Janet, Tam Lin’s lover. Tam Lin, on the other hand, is a prisoner of circumstances and needs Janet to rescue him. While Janet herself is not a majorly dynamic character, in that she is brave and strong throughout the ballad, she does follow the footsteps of the hero’s journey and is the clear protagonist of the ballad.
Throughout the tale, Janet shows agency and in full control of her actions and choices. Janet shows her true spirit during the ordeal scene, where she declares, “If that I gae wi child, father,/Mysel maun bear the blame.” Janet takes responsibility for her actions and makes clear choices, including the choice to keep her child once she knows Tam Lin’s earthly parentage.
Tam Lin is reactive and passive through much of the ballad. He displays agency related to his child: he stops Janet from aborting their child and tells her how to save him from the fairies, emphasizing, “I am your bairn’s father.” He would have been unable to escape the Fairy Queen and teind to hell had Janet not chosen to go to Carterhall. Even the method of Tam Lin’s entry into the fairy world is passive: He fell from his horse and was taken in by the Fairy Queen. Like many princesses in Grimms’ fairy tales, Tam Lin is valued by the Fairy Queen for his physical assets: “I am sae fair and fu o flesh I’m feared [the teind] be mysel.” Tam Lin’s character is defined less by him doing things and more by him being things, i.e. a father, a human, a teind payment.
Instead of a damsel in distress saved by a knight in shining armor, the ballad of Tam Lin reverses the paradigm. The damsel pulls the knight in shining armor off his horse and holds him through magical transformations until he regains his humanity. Janet pulling Tam Lin to ground reflects her agency as well as her particularly feminine, “grounded” sense. While Tam Lin’s metamorphoses are similar to many animal husband tales, few of such tales have a heroine who goes on a campaign to rescue the “animal” husband. For example, Beauty goes to the Beast not because she wants to save the Beast, but out of loyalty to her father. Beauty is a victim of circumstances. Janet aims to misbehave (and to save Tam Lin).
Aaaand that’s what I think about in my spare time. Which is why I’m going to grad school and rewriting fairy tales, obvs.
So, in conclusion, check out the Child’s Ballads. There are strong and/or excitingly monstrous women, and we don’t have enough of those in fairy tales, damn it. The ballads are written in pretty heavy Scots dialect, so just mutter along in a Scottish accent and you’ll be fine. If reading them is too heavy sledding, you can always listen to Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, and Pentangle on Youtube.