Janet McNaughton’s An Earthly Knight is a historical fantasy novel published in 2003, and based on the Tam Lin legend. The main character, Jenny, has recently had to step into the role of the lady of the house, after a tragic accident ruined her sister’s reputation. Jenny, however, was not raised to fit into her father’s world of Norman nobility – she longs for freedom, and the wildness of the woods. When she is told that Tam Lin (rumored to have been kidnapped by the fairies, still dangerous and threatened by magic) has taken up residence nearby, Jenny’s curiosity draws her to him. In Tam Lin, however, Jenny finds a kind, educated, and intelligent young man and she is drawn to him despite her father’s warnings. Perhaps her father was wrong, but the rumors it appears were not, and Jenny must be the one to save herself and Tam from enchantment.
I am often a re-reader, and Janet McNaughton’s An Earthly Knight is my favorite re-read. There is something so comfortable about this world. Jenny may be noble, but because her mother was native Scottish, she has a special bond with the local servants, and feels connected to the land in a way that her French father and half-brother and sister do not. I love books about characters that just feel grounded, and Jenny fits this perfectly. Her nurse often comments on how Jenny, at least, could never be taken by the fairies, or accused of magic – she is of the earth. This is reflected in her actions – Jenny faces magical challenges as well as practical ones, and all of her solutions are equally realistic, from an unhappy sister, to an unwanted suitor, to Tam’s own magical threats. Tam Lin is also the perfect romantic interest: he always means well, and he holds a great deal of respect for Jenny, but he is still far from perfect. He makes mistakes, and poor judgement calls, and when he realizes what has happened he genuinely tries to make things up to her. I also loved Jenny’s sister, Isabel, as a character. At the beginning of the novel I felt frustrated with her self-inflicted penance, but as her story is revealed the reader, Isabel becomes a sympathetic character, and she has a great chance to grow and redeem herself.
I can’t recommend this book enough to readers of young adult fantasy. It has a beautiful setting, the characters all feel real, and the plot is just complex enough to be interesting, but simple enough to have that comforting feel of a fairy-tale.