One of my favorite books is Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, a college novel laced with fantasy, romance, and dialogue about literature. I reread this all-ages classic every year as a kind of inspirational back-to-school book that bolsters me (reluctantly, occasionally) to teach Latin through adult ed.
The witty, intellectual heroine, Janet, is an enthusiastic reader who spends four years studying literature at Blackstock College (an idyllic small college based on Carleton College in Minnesota, Dean’s alma mater). As an English major who is always under siege by the classics department to change her major to classics, she is an eclectic student of Chase & Phillips (a first-year Greek text), Homer, the Early Greeks, Virgil, The Romance of the Rose, Chaucer, the Elizabethans, Milton, the Romantics, Eliot, & Tom Stoppard. She mixes it up with liberal doses of her favorite books from home: Squirrel Nutkin, Lord of the Rings, The Children of Llyr, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Crystal Cave.
I recommend this novel to everyone, and assure you that it is an adult book and not a Y.A. book, despite the marketing (Amazon will mislead you into thinking this is a children’s book). First published in 1991 as one of Terri Windling’s series of adult novels based on classic fairy tales, it was reissued in 2006 by Firebird, a paperback fantasy & SF imprint aimed at teens. It may be too sophisticated for most Y.A. readers: parts are based on “Tam Lin,” a sixteenth-century Scottish ballad, and there are also conversations about literature on every page of the book. So if you don’t care to read about Burns, Euripides, Dr. Johnson, or The Revenger’s Tragedy, you are doomed.
Tam Lin is the perfect novel for women of my generation who are nostalgic for the freedom and privilege of college life. Although I didn’t go to a small college, and indeed doubt it would have been right for me–I love state universities–I certainly wish I had gone to school with Janet.
Janet becomes involved with some fascinating classics majors, very handsome, brilliant young men who also have a predilection for Elizabethan drama and fencing. There’s something odd about them–but I won’t give it away.
I always have to laugh at Melinda Wolfe’s attempt to convert Janet from English to classics. “…you might be better off majoring in Classics. Latin and Greek will give you an enormous advantage in learning any other Indo-European language, and introduce you to much of the work that is the basis of English literature. You could still get a Master’s degree in English if you like.”
How many times have I said similar words?