This book was based on two ballads, Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight and Tam Lin. There are many different versions of the first ballad, and I’ve only read a couple of them, so I really can’t say much about it except that Lady Isabel is every bit as cool a heroine as Janet. The novel starts at the beginning of the Tam Lin story, and the end of the Lady Isabel story. Jenny (Jeanette) is a willful, stubborn heroine who enjoyed more freedom than most girls in her time did. She is smart and had a sharp tongue, and perhaps her character may seem stereotypical for a fantasy in a medieval setting. She’s pretty much like the Janet I imagine from the ballad. When her sister, Isabel, is disgraced, Jenny finds herself in the position of the elder sister, where she is expected to be more docile and make a good marriage. She catches the attention of Earl William, but instead falls for Tam Lin, the wild, unearthly young man who lives in the woods.
Both Jenny and Isabel were strong female characters, but I would prefer it if they were given more depth and character development throughout the story. The girls remind me a bit of Niamh and Liadan from Juliet Marillier’s Son of the Shadows, except that the latter pair were much more admirable and sympathetic. When I read Lady Isabel and the Elf-knight I imagined Isabel as a smart woman who could outwit her enemies in times of trouble. The Isabel in An Earthly Knight was brave and intelligent enough to fight for herself, but it grated on me that she had to punish herself instead of defying the men who blamed her for the lost of a knight. Although, I suppose she did redeem herself in the end. As for Jenny, I actually liked the fact that she had bouts of selfishness and vanity when she was being courted by Earl William. It made her seem more human.
The inhuman aspects of the story seemed rather tacked on, and almost non-existent. I did enjoy the bit about the dress that Tam Lin gave Jenny, but other than that, the final scene on Halloween was the only fantastic element, and it does make me wonder if the story could just do away with the “fairy” part of it. (That would certainly be an interesting Tam Lin retelling!) That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy this novel; in fact, I enjoyed it very much. I’m never much good at reading anything in verse form (despite loving ballads a lot), so it’s great to read something that comes so close to the actual ballad. But the story definitely concerns itself more to the historical setting, than the fantastic element of the ballad. So those looking for a good fairy story would be better off with Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose or Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, while those looking for an interesting reworking set in more recent times should go for Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock or Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. If you wanted to read a faithful adaptation, though, or if you’re looking for something that reads like historical romance for young adults, I will happily recommend this book to you.