Witch Week 2015: A Guide to Blackstock College


This is the first post for Witch Week 2015, a celebration of fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.

In Tam Lin, Pamela Dean takes her college experience and mixes it with elements of the well-known sixteenth-century ballad about a young man entrapped by the Fairy Queen, who is then rescued by his mortal lover from becoming a Halloween sacrifice. It’s a wonderful novel about that time between adolescence and adulthood when the world opens up, revealing both its promise and its dangers. It’s about love and friendship and books and learning and life, and how they all intertwine in the process of growing up.

Because I attended the same school as the author — Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota — every time I reread Tam Lin I find a special pleasure in identifying and imagining the buildings, landscapes, and events that are so lovingly described in its pages. Dean says in a note that “Blackstock is not Carleton,” but really, it’s pretty darn close. For those who don’t have the advantage of having been there in person, here is a guide to help you visualize some of the geography I know and love so well.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication and my own graduation in 1991, it’s interesting to note how much the Carleton campus has changed in that time — far more than it had changed since the setting of Tam Lin in the early seventies, which on my first reading seemed like the remote past. The core remains, though, and if you stroll the campus with book in hand you’ll still recognize much of it.

In any case, if you ever do have the chance to go to Carleton, whether for a day, a term, or the whole four years, take it. Even if the fairy queen doesn’t actually ride through the Arb on All Hallows Eve, it truly is a magical place.

Heartfelt thanks are due to Matt Ryan, Carleton’s Associate Director of Web Communications, and to the Carleton Archives for their help with obtaining the images in this post. For requests to use these images elsewhere, please contact the College.


BlackstockCampusMapA map showing the “Blackstock” names for Carleton buildings that existed in the mid 1970s, when Tam Lin is set. Keep in mind that some sizes and distances have been changed in the book, and some buildings eliminated.

Major Locations

In the text the Blackstock name is given first, and then the Carleton name (if different) in italics. Attentive readers will note that the name-pairs often have some obvious relationship — e.g. Watson becomes Holmes. I’d be grateful to anyone who can cast light on the more obscure ones (Dunbar? Murchison?).


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Ericson Hall (Nourse Hall)
Janet, our heroine, lives here with her two roommates during her freshman and senior years, having a distinct prejudice in favor of the old-fashioned style of dormitory. I liked it too, when I lived there as a freshman. There really is a Little Theater in the basement, scene of a highly charged production of The Revengers’ Tragedy in the book and of countless student productions through the years in real life. I never heard of any ghosts, though.

Eliot Hall (Evans Hall)
Janet and her friends live here during her sophomore and junior years, in Column A — the building’s oddity being that it is arranged in vertical columns rather than horizontal floors to reduce noise. In its Carleton incarnation, this unfortunately also did away with much of the floor-based socializing that sustains student life, and so it was remodeled some years ago to a more conventional floor plan. Eliot/Evans also housed Janet’s and my favorite dining hall, where one could enjoy the view across Bell Field without having to trudge all the way to the edge of campus (see Dunbar, below). Alas, that too is gone, replaced by a more central, modern facility. Still remaining is the Cave, the student hangout in the basement where Thomas (the Tam Lin character) drowns his sorrows in weak beer.

Dunbar Hall (Goodhue Hall)
Janet’s second-favorite dining hall is here, with even more spectacular view thanks to its floor-to-ceiling windows, but lower popularity due to its distance from the center of campus. That’s gone too, repurposed into an enormous “superlounge.” Proximity to the Arboretum makes it a good choice for outdoorsy types, and Janet spends a lot of time going back and forth over the bridge that links it to the main campus (as do many of the more unsavory characters).

Masters Hall (Laird Hall)
Home of the English department in Janet’s time and mine, this former science building is a proud edifice facing the center of campus, with a lofty, high-ceilinged interior. She happily spends many hours here delving into the treasures of English literature, as did I. The warren of temporary buildings behind Masters/Laird where Janet has to hunt for her advisor either never existed at Carleton or was gone before I got there, though “Laird Annex” was a computer lab where I printed out my papers using the college computers.

Library (Laurence Gould Library)
Also known as the Libe, due to the Carleton/Blackstock penchant for abbreviating everything. Janet first encounters Thomas in the stacks here, seeks clues to the identity of the Ericson ghost in the archives, and finds peace in its “padded rooms” for studying. Because it’s built into a hill, it’s much bigger than it appears from its front elevation.

Chester Hall (Old Music Hall)
In her most obvious deviation from actual Carleton architecture, Dean makes the comely but rather petite old Music building into a looming, menacing supernatural presence of considerable grandeur. I do remember a listening room and music library, but not a marble-floored hall suitable for roller skating. A significant event takes place in one of the practice rooms, but I can’t say whether that is based in reality or not.

To my loss, I never spent much time in this enormous natural preserve during my time at Carleton. Janet is wiser, and as a Blackstock faculty child she has a longstanding knowledge of its byways. Her first romantic encounter takes place here, as well as meetings of the more supernatural variety. It’s a good place to locate your fairy court, if it’s going to be attached to a midwestern college.

Janet made a ceremonial stop in the middle of the bridge. She knew this stream in all its manifestations, from cracked mud set about with slimy green rocks to the foaming mass that covered the knees of the trees and lapped at the concrete wall that separated the parkingΒ  area from the woods. Today it was about midway between those two. All the rocks were covered, and the grass that overhung the banks like combed hair drifted sideways in a mild brown current. The air was full of dusty sunlight and a slow fall of yellow elm leaves. The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, thought Janet, recalling favorite poems with a pleasurable melancholy. — Tam Lin, pp. 46-47

Minor Locations

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Taylor Hall (Burton Hall) – Janet dislikes the dungeon-like dining hall in the basement of this dormitory on the far west side of campus, which causes a rather sticky situation when she ends up uncharacteristically going there one day.

Womens Center (Cowling Gymnasium) – Site of Janet’s freshman fencing class, this smallish gym is in convenient proximity to the East side dorms where she lives.

Murchison Hall (Musser Hall), Forbes Hall (Myers Hall), and Holmes Hall (Watson Hall) – These modern dormitories get short shrift in Janet’s book, but I lived in two of them and they weren’t so bad. I was definitely glad I never had to live in Musser, though.

Appleton Hall (Boliou Hall) – The building where Janet has her first Greek class is a pleasant place to study art and art history. The fountain in front tempts Carleton students to splash in it on hot summer days.

Olin Hall – The science building that looks like a radiator doesn’t even get its own Blackstock name. It does have an open-air auditorium nearby, though, suitable for impromptu performances by Music and Drama majors.

Observatory (Goodsell Observatory) – This historic building is one of the gems of the Blackstock/Carleton campus. Janet takes astronomy just so she can learn to use the telescope, an aim with which I sympathize.

Student Union (Willis Hall) – In Janet’s time, the student union is crammed into this tiny old building with an iconic clock tower. At Carleton this function was eventually to be taken on by the repurposed Sayles-Hill Gymnasium (see Room Draw, below).

Sterne Hall (Severance Hall) – This attractive dormitory also boasts a “Tea Room” in the basement where Janet and Thomas buy greasy french fries. In my time this was just another dining hall, but we still called it the Tea Room.

Music and Drama Center – Janet frequently walks past this much-maligned modern construction but oddly never sets foot inside it, in spite of her love of music and drama.

Chapel – Janet also admires this lovely building from a distance but never goes inside, even though she must have done so at some point. At Carleton, weekly convocation gatherings in the chapel are a longstanding tradition; once they had a religious element but this has been replaced by secular lectures and presentations. Janet mentions Convocation exactly once.

She looked out the window in time to catch the best view of Blackstock, as the bus climbed the hill that led them out of the river valley the town was built in. The buildings between which she ran and bicycled and trudged laden down with books made one tight cluster, the chapel tower, the brick battlements of Taylor, the black glittering clock tower of the Student Union, the brick stack of the heating plant and the mellow sandstone of the Anthro building crammed in the center of a circle of trees, green and red and yellow. You could have put the whole thing in your pocket. — Tam Lin, pp. 138-139


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The Tunnels – The steam tunnels that so conveniently linked many buildings on the East side of campus were closed due to safety concerns after my freshman year. I don’t remember seeing Homer in Greek on the wall, but there’s a lot of other amazing graffiti down there, including a reproduction of Tenniel’s Jabberwocky, a Twister board, and the yellow brick road.

The Town (Northfield) – Janet and her friends go downtown to buy bedspreads, eat sandwiches at a diner, and pick each other up from the bus — all typical activities for students needing to get off campus for a while.

The Old Theater (Old Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis) – The theater where Janet and Thomas go to attend highly meaningful performances of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Lady’s Not For Burning was demolished in 2006, replaced by a new waterfront complex. (I’m not sure why Dean already called it the Old Theater in 1991 though. Did she have some inside information?) This article from NPR gives some historical background, along with interior and exterior photos of the theater. It also includes shots from the first and last plays to be performed on its stage: both productions of Hamlet, appropriately enough.

Schiller – In a significant early scene, Janet gets involved in a pitched battle over the bust of the German poet, which is jealously guarded by groups of students who try to steal it from one another while also making dramatic appearances at public events. Yes, this really does happen at Carleton, and there are more wacky stories about it than you can shake a stick at. The idea is to keep things fun, clever, and nonviolent, which is Carleton in a nutshell.

Room Draw – The dormitories at Carleton (and presumably Blackstock as well) are mixed, without designated dorms for upperclassmen. Rooms are assigned via a quota system, whereby in the spring each student draws a random number that allows him or her a place in line to choose from remaining rooms. Janet and her friend Molly both draw extremely low numbers for their sophomore room, which is why they are so glad that their third roommate Tina is still willing to stick with them even with a high number that might have given her a chance at a single. At Blackstock room draw and registration take place in the old gymnasium, which by my time at Carleton had been made into the new campus center.

Traying – The temptation to take trays from the dining halls and use them to sled down Bell Hill is something few Blackstock/Carleton students can resist, and Janet and Thomas are no exception.

They had made the bottom of the slide properly: instead of stopping abruptly in the hollow made by everybody’s stamping feet, the tray skimmed halfway across the huge expanse of Bell Field, slowed, and slowed, and stopped somewhere in the middle. The setting sun lined the bare branches of the trees across the stream with gold, but down here there was a blue and gray twilight. — Tam Lin, p. 285


I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of the Blackstock/Carleton campus, and that if you don’t know it through either its fictional or real-life incarnations, it’s intrigued you enough to take a look! Please stop by again for the remaining Witch Week events; tomorrow will see the launch of a giveaway featuring two fabulous books, Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter.

33 thoughts on “Witch Week 2015: A Guide to Blackstock College

  1. Your comments about both the book and the canpus are bringing up wonderful and sometimes scary memories of my own college days. I attended various campuses, so the bridge and the steam tunnels were all part of my experiences, And traying!
    Wonderful post and such a great beginning to Witch Week.

    (as I am doing some Halloween hopping I have Robin William’s HOOK movie ( a retelling) playing behind me.)


    1. Yes, college memories can sometimes be scary too, though hopefully not involving human sacrifice on Halloween. πŸ™‚ Enjoy your reading and viewing!


  2. Well, Lory, this is a very detailed vademecum and, though I haven’t yet got round to Tam Lin, I shall definitely have this guide to hand when I do! It strongly reminds me of those fascinating literary guides to, say, Oxford (for Alice in Wonderland and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex (where, though names are changed, the originals are easy to identify).

    Great selection of photos; this companion will definitely help me picture the scenes alongside the text of the novel.


    1. Yes, Northfield should certainly join those famous locations in the literary hall of fame. And I do hope the photos will enhance your reading experience.


  3. This is so great! My brain is always trying to force Janet and co. onto the campus I went to, which obviously doesn’t work at all (for one thing, it doesn’t snow there and the steam tunnels have never been open to students ever). So I have gone over this info carefully and will get it out again when I next read Tam Lin. πŸ™‚


  4. This book sounds so good. The way that it is linked to your old collage is neat.

    My collage days were also a time of discovery where I first encountered a lit of the light, as well as the dark that is found in this world. Thus I think that I would relate to this book.

    Our tunnel system was also closed but we snuck down there anyway πŸ™‚


    1. Interesting, I always thought our tunnels were unique, but now I’m finding they’re not. I still think we must have had some of the best grafitti. (The pictures I was able to find do not do it justice.)


  5. Oh, I love this tour! Tam Lin is one of my favorite novels, and I’m glad to know it’s realistic in its fantastical way. Love the photos, too.


  6. I keep finding this book mentioned: maybe I should read it? πŸ™‚ A fascinating post, in any case.

    Have you ever read two other retellings of Tam Lin: Fire and Hemlock (Diana Wynne Jones) and The Queen of Spells (Dahlov Ipcar)? I like them both.

    Very exciting to read about Witch Week: what a splendid idea!


    1. There seem to be an unusual number of excellent books based on Tam Lin. Fire and Hemlock is one of my all-time favorites, and The Perilous Gard is also wonderful. I haven’t read The Queen of Spells but I will definitely check it out!


      1. The Perilous Guard is a great title, I’ll look it up! I’ve ordered a copy of the Pamela Dean now, no pressure Lory but I’d better like it! πŸ˜‰


  7. What a detailed and useful post for anyone thinking of reading Tam Lin! I will definitely return to it when I finally get to read the book.

    Carlton is lovely! I applied to and was accepted there, but ended up going to Oberlin instead. Looking at your photos, I was struck by some of the architectural similarities between the two schools, and wonder if they merely reflect popular styles, or whether some of the same architects designed buildings at both colleges. And traying! Oberlin has precious little in the way of hills, but the mound left from excavating for the (then new) gymnasium was often used for traying in the winter. Good memories, both yours and those stirred in me by the photos and your comments.


    1. Well, I’ll forgive you for making that decision, you chose a good school too. πŸ™‚ My Carleton roommate was an Oberlin native but I never visited there, so have no mental picture of the campus. I can imagine the schools may have shared some architects or at least some of the same taste in midwestern collegiate architecture.


  8. I remember how vivid my mental pictures of the campus were while reading Tam Lin. She does a fantastic job of describing the school — which makes sense if she spent formative years there! This post just rearranges things a bit for me. πŸ˜‰


    1. I’m glad Pamela Dean’s descriptions brought the place to life for you. They are indeed very vivid and detailed (as I noticed on my recent reread).


  9. I am a Carleton grad, Class of ’93 and Tam Lin is a favorite book. I loved reading your post and remembering so many lovely places around campus and their connections to the book. It has been a long time since I have read Tam Lin but I think I am going to go home and pull out my copy for a walk down memory lane. Thanks!


    1. Always nice to hear from a fellow Carl! We may have crossed paths at some point…my brother was also in your class. And I did greatly enjoy my own virtual tour of the campus as well.


      1. Is your brother Kirk? I wondered if this was the Lory Hess I knew. This is Missy Burkhead, now Stempien. We all hung out together quite a bit as I remember. πŸ™‚


  10. Wow, it’s so beautiful at that college! I’m not familiar with Dean’s version of Tam Lin, but I do know the story and love that it has such a vivid setting with this school as it’s inspiration. I have to read this version now. Gorgeous photos, I really enjoyed reading this post! Even though I haven’t been here, it’s brought back some fond memories of my own college days. πŸ™‚


    1. I think college was a magical time for many of us. How great is it to have four years to read and study and meet friends who like to do the same thing? I’d love to do it all over again.


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