Many years ago, during summer break in high school, I found myself bored in the library looking for something to read. I had a few sections in the library that I liked to haunt depending on my mood, and this particular day I was in the science-fiction section. I had this habit where I would start from one end of the section (authors “A”) and painstakingly look at each and every book spine, read the title, and consider whether the book called to me or not. Sometimes I’d pull it out, look at the cover, and read the flyleaves.
I’d made it to the “K”s—Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner.
“Hmm, interesting. What’s this?” I mused to myself. I looked at the cover. Being a freshly minted harper, I immediately noticed the figure holding a harp. “Say no more!” I thought, eagerly anticipating more harp lore to satiate my obsession with the instrument. “I’m definitely reserving this book!”
It’s a quick read, and full of rich visual descriptions of fairyland. If you’re into that sort of thing, I highly recommend this book. All these years later, I never forgot the story.
I return to this memory now, because I’ve been working my way through the Child Ballads, looking for Scottish stories and songs to share with you. To my pleasure, who should I stumble upon, but Thomas the Rhymer, (Child Ballad #37)! I did not know that he was a figure from popular Scottish lore. Evidently, he was not only Scottish, but he was often mentioned alongside his more well-known soothsaying counterpart, Merlin. Unlike Merlin, however, Thomas’ historicity has firmer feet reality. But more on that later.
First, after finding Child’s faithfully reproduced (but somewhat hard to read) version, I found a slightly more anglicized version here, but before we get to the ballad, I’d like to:
- Give you a brief summary of the story.
- Link you to a wonderful recitation of the ballad for you to listen to while you read along.
- Give you a helpful glossary with some of the Scots terms that I had trouble with.
Thomas the Rhymer is an archetypical “Voyage & Return” story. It goes like this: an otherworldly Queen is taken with an earthly man’s skill—he is a poet and singer named Thomas the Rhymer. She strikes a contract with him (which is sealed with a kiss) that he will serve her for seven years. The Queen takes Thomas to her home, and along the way, the Queen shows Thomas a three-fold path: righteousness, wickedness, and the way to fairy land. Thomas is allowed stay with her in fairyland, but while he is there he must not utter a single word or he will not be able to return to earth. Thomas fulfills his contract and is returned to earth seven years later, but before he goes, the Queen gives Thomas an apple that bestows the power of truth and prophecy on him, Thomas is unable to speak a lie, thus giving him a new name: “True Thomas”.
I found a couple of versions on YouTube, and I really enjoyed this one by Ewan MacColl. It’s a little odd at first, but it grows on you. To hear more songs like this, you can look through some of his work for sale on Amazon.
If you’re looking for something super corny and a little more upbeat here you go: Steeleye Span. These guys don’t sing all the verses, though.
(In order of appearance in the ballad)
- Huntley: City in Scotland
- Eildon Tree: Hawthorne tree?
- Tett: Braid
- Carp: Sing
- Weird: fate
- Daunton: variant of “Be afraid”
- Maun: must
- Gaed: went
- Ferlies: wonders
- Leven: A lake in Scotland
- Brae: hill
- Dought: could
Without further ado, here’s the ballad.
1. True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank
A fairy he spied with his e’e
And there he saw a lady bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.
2. Her skirt was of the grass green silk
Her mantle of the velvet fine
At each tett of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty silver bells and nine.
3. True Thomas, he pulled off his cap
And bowed low down to his knee
“All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.”
4. “Oh no, oh no, Thomas,” she said
“That name does not belong to me
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland
That am hither come to visit thee.
5. “Harp and carp, Thomas,” she said
“Harp and carp along with me
And if you dare to kiss my lips
Sure of your body I will be.”
That weird shall never daunton me”
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips
All underneath the Eildon Tree.
7. “Now, ye maun go with me,” she said
“True Thomas, ye maun go with me
And ye maun serve me seven years
Though weal and woe, as may chance to be.”
8. She mounted on her milk white steed
She’s taken True Thomas up behind
And aye whenever her bridle rang
The steed flew swifter than the wind.
9. Oh they rode on, and further on
The steed gaed swifter than the wind
Until they reached a desert wide
And living land was left behind.
10. “Light down, light down now, true Thomas
And lean you head upon my knee
Abide and rest a little space
And I will show you ferlies three.
So thick beset with thorn and briars
That is the path of righteousness
Though after it but few enquire.
12. “And see you not that broad, broad road
That lies across that lily leven
That is the path of wickedness
Though some call it the road to Heaven.
13. “And see you not that bonnie road
That winds about the fernie brae
That is the road to fair Elfland
Where thou and I this night maun gae.
14. “But Thomas, you must hold your tongue
Whatever you may hear or see
For if you speak word in Elfin land
You’ll ne’er get back to you ain country.”
__. O they made on, and farther on, knee
And they waded through river boon the
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.
__. It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light,
And they waded through red blood to the knee
For a’ the blue that’s shed on earth
Runs through the springs o’ that country.
And she pulled an apple frae a tree
“Take this for thy wages, True Thomas
It will give the tongue that can never lie.”
16. “My tongue is my own”, True Thomas said
“A goodly gift you would give to me
I neither dought to buy or sell
At fair or tryst where I may be.
17. “I dought neither speak to prince nor peer
Nor ask of grace from fair lady”
“Now hold thy peace!” the lady said
“For as I say, so it must be.”
18. He has gotten a coat of the even cloth
And a pair of shoes of velvet green
And till seven years were gone and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen.
If you’d rather read a prose version of that, I rewrote it here:
While lying on the bank of Huntley river underneath the Eildon Tree, Thomas the Rhymer sees a bright figure—a lady—riding toward him on a milk-white horse. She wore a silk skirt, the color of green grass, and a velvet cloak. Her horse had 59 silver bells tied to each braid in the horse’s mane.
Overcome by the vision, Thomas pulled off his cap and bowed low before the lady saying “All hail the mighty Queen of Heaven! I have never seen anyone on this earth as beautiful as you.”
The Queen replied, “No, no, Thomas. That name doesn’t belong to me—I am the Queen of Elfland. I have come to visit you.” The Queen continues, “Will you play your harp and sing with me? If you dare to kiss me, then I know you are willing to come.”
Thomas then kissed her, saying “For better or worse, I will not be afraid of my fate.”
His fate sealed, the Queen replied, “Now, True Thomas, you must go with me, and you will serve me for seven years—for richer or for poorer.” At that, she took Thomas up on her horse, and swiftly rode away, the bridle ringing as she took flight.
They rode on and on, until they reached a wide desert, leaving the land of the living behind them.
“Let’s dismount here,” said the Queen. “Let us rest a bit, and I will show you three wonders.” She gestured to three roads. “Do you see that narrow road? It is overgrown with thorns and briars. That is the path of righteousness, and very few people seek this path.
“Do you see that wide road—the one that lies across the lake? That is the path of wickedness, though some call it the road to Heaven.
“Do you see that pretty road—the one that winds all around the hill? That is the road to Elfland, where you and I must go tonight. Now Thomas, you must listen closely. Whatever you hear or see while we are there, don’t say a word. If you speak, you will never get back to your own country.”
They rode on. They saw neither sun nor moon, but heard the roaring of the sea. Through the dark night, they waded knee-deep through the blood-red water. (You see, all the blood that’s shed on earth runs through the springs of this country.)
Soon, they come upon a lush garden. The Queen approached a tree, plucked an apple, and handed it to Thomas, saying “Take this for your payment, True Thomas. It will give you a tongue that can never tell a lie.”
“My tongue is my own,” he said. “This is a wonderful gift you’ve given me—which can never be bought or sold at a market, but if I accept this, I can never speak to a prince or peer, or ask devotion from a fair lady.”
“Be quiet!” rebuked the Queen. “It must be as I say.”
Thomas received a coat of elven cloth, and velvet green shoes. He stayed in elven land for seven years, and when his time was served, he was returned to earth.
Historical Information about Thomas the Rhymer
You remember that I said Thomas was like Merlin? Thomas was a seer and a poet, and held a position in Scottish lore similar to that of Merlin in England. With one exception, of course–he was likely a real person, or at least more “real” than Merlin was. Thomas the Rhymer was known by other names: Thomas of Erceldoune and Thomas of Learmont, and he was highly regarded in England as well as in Scotland.
Erceldoune is believed to have lived through nearly the whole of the 13th century, from 1220 to 1297. This is backed up from a number of sources, outlined in detail here, but in short–his name appears on deeds, he’s known to have owned a parcel of land, he’s talked about by other contemporaries, and his lineage can be traced down to “Robert Learmont, the last of the family claiming descent from Thomas of Erceldoune, who died unmarried about 1840.”
How about his name? Where did it come from? He derived his name from the village of Erceldoune (Earlston), in the county of Berwick, which lies on the river Leader, about two miles above its junction with the Tweed. The Huntley bank on which the meeting of Thomas with the Queen of Fairy took place is situated on one of the Eldoun hills. –Francis J. Child
If you’d like to see photos of this area, another fairy-tale blogger has done a fantastic job giving the lay of the land. The blogger rightly remarks, “It’s easy to see why the Eildon hills are seen as such a magical place, the views are breathtaking!”
Finally, to address his so-called reputation as a “prophet”.
The story goes that on a nice spring day, (March 18 1286) Thomas was visiting the Castle Dunbar, and sitting with his old buddy the Earl of March, having a nice cup of tea or whatever. Knowing Thomas to be a prophet, March cheekily asks “So… What will tomorrow bring?”
Thomas summoned up a vision and replied, “Heu diei crastinæ! diei calamitatis et miseriæ! qua ante horam explicite duodecimam audietur tam vehemen ventus in Scotia, quod a magnis retroactis temporibus consimilis minime inveniebatur”
In other words, “Oh morrow! Day of misery and calamity! Before the 12th hour a wind so strong the likes of which has never been seen before will be felt in Scotland.”
His buddy apparently thought he was just talking about the weather and understood him to mean, “I predict that tomorrow will be windy.” Hey–I’ll have you know, it’s not a trivial thing to have a sage that can predict the weather. Before the invention of barometers, a weather-wise prophet might be an important personage, hm?
The next day was calm.
“Ah-HA!” Shouted the Earl of March. “I knew you were a hack!”
Not so fast, Earl. Scotland’s King Alexander III died last night. He fell from his horse while riding through the dark to visit the queen at Kinghorn—apparently it was her birthday and just had to visit her. He had spent the evening at Edinburgh Castle celebrating his second marriage and overseeing a meeting with royal advisors. He was advised by them not to make the journey to Kinghorn because of weather conditions, but he travelled anyway. Alexander became separated from his guides and it is assumed that in the dark his horse lost its footing. The 44-year-old king was found dead on the shore the following morning with a broken neck.
After Alexander’s death, the realm was plunged into a period of darkness that would eventually lead to war with England.
Windy, indeed. The winds of change, perhaps?
The Earl of March had taken Thomas’ prophecy literally, and he forgot to consider its allegorical meaning. He did eventually learn of Alexander III’s death, which restored the credibility of Thomas’ prophecies from then on.
Was Thomas a real prophet? Or did he just give a vague prophecy that could be shaped to mean anything? I’ll leave that for you to decide…
What does the story teach us?
All right let’s wrap this up by turning our attention back to the ballad for a moment. I feel like I’ve gotten off track, and we’re starting to bog ourselves down into the “real” details, and failing to miss the magic of the tale, which is not my intent.
While listening to this story, and other stories like this one, I often find myself wondering, “Why do these types of stories resonate with us so much?” Part of it might be a desire to escape to the world of make-believe, but I think it goes much deeper than that.
I think that Thomas was enacting a timeless drama of a person embarking on a journey to find themselves. Remember, the Elfen Queen presented three paths:
- the path of wickedness,
- the good path of a righteous human life,
- the path that transcends humanity.
Thomas emerges from his transcendental journey a forever changed man, unable to tell a lie. This resonates with me especially well, since I hold truth to be among my highest values. I can also empathize with the incredibly difficult job Thomas must have had as a poet (or fili), since it was their job to pay close attention to society and speak the truth, no matter how unpopular it may be.
So–take a page out of Thomas the Rhymer’s book: be brave and face new challenges head-on. Seek to exceed your own humanity, and you never know what wonders await.