“Come along, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer,” sings Steeleye Span, one of the early and influential English folk-rock groups, which is how I first heard the story of Thomas the Rhymer, many years ago. An abridged version appears on numerous albums by the group, and has recently been re-released in its full form on a wonderful collection called A Rare Collection 1972-1996.
Ellen Kushner has taken Child Ballad #37 (upon which Steeleye’s version is based) and thoroughly fleshed it out into a most enjoyable and fascinating read. In one of those odd coincidences in life (or maybe not so odd), the aforementioned Maddy Prior is quoted on the back cover of this paperback, saying, “A book to introduce those who know nothing of the ballads to their rich and deep content…and intrigue those already familiar with them.” I couldn’t agree with her more. Think of it, if you will, as your invitation to a most marvelous world you might not discover otherwise.
The plot summary is basically this:
Thomas is a mortal man, a harper by trade, who shows up one day at the cottage of an elderly couple, Gavin and Meg, in the midst of a ferocious storm. Gavin and Meg’s dog, Tray, hears the sound of Thomas’s knocking above the din of the storm. In those days it was considered charitable to take in strangers in need of shelter, and Thomas is given this hospitality.
Thomas, unfortunately, is ill, and Gavin and Meg nurse him back to health. Although he arrives with a broken harp, he entertains his hosts with stories of harping at the royal court. They become quite fond of him, and he reciprocates, although they realize that some parts of his self-revelations don’t quite ring true. As the story proceeds, all of these mysteries are cleared up, and the reader who is really paying attention can figure out some of them while waiting for the book to reveal the answers.
Thomas helps out around the cottage, but eventually it’s time for him to move on (back to court to ply his trade to the King and Queen), and so he says farewell to his kindly host and hostess. He returns the following March, and a new character, Elspeth, a feisty, attractive young neighbor of Meg and Gavin’s, is the first one to know he’s back. The two of them develop an interest in each other, but at this point it is more of a “sparring” match than the romance it will eventually become. Thomas leaves and returns yet again, but one day Thomas goes off…and doesn’t return.
Up to this point the story has been told by a third-person narrator, but now Thomas begins to tell his own story of being ensorceled by the Queen of Elfland. One day, while he is sitting under the Eildon Tree, she comes to him, in her most attractive guise as a beautiful woman, and the usual things that happen between a man and a woman who are attracted to one another take place.
However, Thomas doesn’t realize that he will pay an interesting price for this encounter: he must accompany the Queen back to Elfland for seven years. He is further restricted by two conditions: he must not talk to anyone he meets there (although he is allowed to sing for entertainment at the Queen’s Court), and he may eat no food in Elfland other than that given to him expressly by the Queen — food for mortals, in fact. If he eats any other food he will never be allowed to return to his native land.
There are many legends that refer to similar sorts of conditions and enchantments. For example, the author directly refers to the story of Adam and Eve when Thomas is tempted to help himself to a peach. The Greek legend of Persephone and Demeter also springs to mind here, since Persephone’s consumption of a pomegranate seed in the Underworld means she must spend part of each year there.
On the journey to Elfland, Thomas and the Queen encounter her brother, described as the lord with the silver arrows. He is first met attempting to shoot a dove with one of those arrows. He makes an attempt to get Thomas to break his vows not to speak to anyone but the Queen, but is unsuccessful. We also know that he foreshadows evil later to come in the story.
Once Thomas arrives in Elfland, he realizes that his duties are limited to being the Queen’s lover, (when she feels like sending for him), and entertaining as a harper at the Fairy Court. He is unutterably lonely, but he has made a bargain, and must stick by it. The idea that he can speak to no one but the Queen turns out to be a harder condition to live by than he originally thought, especially since the Queen is whimsical in her need for him. At one point she gives him one of her rings, saying he can summon her by the use of it, but later she takes it from him, and he has no way to contact her without it. He is truly a prisoner.
He is intrigued by another meeting with the dove, sensing that the bird is also under an enchantment. If I tell you the whole story of the dove, you’ll have no reason to read the book, so I won’t! Suffice it to say that the plot twists yet again at this point. Thomas serves out his time in Elfland, and is free to go back to the land of the living at the end of his seven years of indentured servitude.
Once Thomas is back in the land of the mortals, he goes back to Meg and Gavin’s and the story is told from Meg’s point of view. Although Thomas is still a harper, his experience in Elfland has made a sea-change in him; he now has the gift of prophecy, and is known as Thomas the Seer. He finds this “gift” to be a double-edged sword, and realizes that being able to foretell the future definitely has its downside at times. When he comes across Elspeth again, he finds that she has been married and widowed in the time he’s been away — and that she was hurt when he left her without a word. Because she is a proud young woman, she does not forgive him instantly, and Thomas feels he must go away for awhile, partly to resume his career as a harper, but also so that both of them can reassess the relationship between them.
The last bit of the narrative is left to Elspeth. Time fast-forwards 20 years; Elspeth and Thomas are married, have children, and now Thomas is dying, slowly but surely. There is yet another mystery in this story, which is brought to its conclusion in this final portion of the book. It involves another woman with whom Thomas was once entangled, and the outcome of that relationship, but more than that I will not reveal. The story ends with Thomas’s death, but although the death of anyone who is loved is always sad, there is a lovely twist to the end which partly takes away the sting from those who are left behind.
Aside from the purely narrative aspects of the story, which have been summarized above, Kushner’s concept (to introduce her fictionalized characters Meg, Gavin, etc.) to support the story within a story (i.e., the actual story told in the Child Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer) works beautifully and seamlessly. References to many other folk songs are made throughout the book, including Tam Lin (Child Ballad #39 ). In fact, a very good comparison of these two ballads exists at Tam-Lin.org.
It’s important to understand that Thomas of Erceldoune actually was a real person, not just the fictional subject of a ballad. He apparently lived in Scotland, and Francis Child (see our review of his English and Scottish Popular Ballads ) notes that he was not just known as Thomas the Rhymer, but as True Thomas. Says Child, “A prediction of Thomas of Erceldoune’s is recorded in a manuscript which is put at a date before 1329, and he is referred to with other soothsayers in the Scalacronica, a French chronicle of English history begun in 1355.”
A knowledge of folk ballads is not necessary to enjoy this book. If you do no more than read it as a magical fantasy, I promise you will not be disappointed. If you let it lead you into the worlds it describes, and all the tangential links (the Child Ballads, Ellen’s other works, the folkloric/historic aspects of the situation) you will find your life considerably enriched.
Although it is probably difficult to find these days except in a specialized academic collection, there is a book written in 1875 by famous lexicographer James August Henry Murray, called An Introduction to the Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune.
As for Ellen Kushner, she is one of the pre-eminent figures in the world of fantasy literature.