Friday, January 8, 2021

Robert Frost and TAM LIN

So, I've now finished reading Pamela Dean's TAM LIN, one of Windling's Fairy Tale Series. I thought I'd read this at the time it came out (1991) but it had passed from my memory so thoroughly that I was in doubt about whether I had read it before until I was half way through.

Now that I've read it again I find that, (1) like the other volumes in the series I read, the original ballad or fairy tale is so much better than these adaptations that it undercuts the entire project, and (2) the best thing about them are the Thomas Canty covers --if not his best work then close to it.

That said, I did enjoy this characterization of one minor character:

“the problem with Danny was that he felt the entire human race was so peculiar that no single peculiarity . . . made any more impression on him than any other” (page 234)

Even better was this bit about Robert Frost:

[Thomas said] “But I have other things to do.”

“And miles to go, before you sleep,” said Nick.

“My high-school  English teacher,” said Tina over the back of her seat, “said that line was about death. I never really believed it.”

“You can’t ask Robert Frost,” said Nick reflectively. “He’s dead.”

“What did you think it meant, Tina?” said Thomas, a little hollowly.

“I thought it meant he had miles to go before he slept,” said Tina. “He’s driving a horse through a snowstorm after dark and he’s a long way from home. That’s what it says. It doesn’t say a single thing about death.”

Nick and Janet looked at each other. After a moment Nick said, “While there is a great deal to be said, in the abstract, for that view of poetical criticism, I think it does miss a something in this poem. Did you like it?

“Yes,” said Tina.


“I liked the way it sounded and the way it described the snow. Snow does that.”

“The pleasure of recognition,” said Nick.


“Aristotle validates your reaction.”

“Be quiet,” said Thomas, “leave the girl alone. I don't mind talking about poetry, but I'm damned if I'll talk about critics.”

(pages 164-165)

It’s pretty clear from context in the book that this is meant to make Tina look stupid. But it turns out we can ask Frost, and he'd come down on Tina's side. I used to have an audiotape from the late 1950s  of Frost doing a reading of some of his poems. And in it he insisted that several of his most famous poems, this one among them, were meant to be read literally, with no subtext. Personally I think Frost was having us on, but it does kinda undercuts Dean’s point.

--John R.

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