The Mythogenetic Grove

Thomas the Rhymer: A Commentary, Notes and Annotated Links

by on Jul.13, 2014, under Essays, Articles, Lists, Folklore & Fairytales, Lists!

(c) Nin Harris 1999-2018

“Harp and carp, Thomas,” she said,
Harp and carp along with me;

And if ye dare to kiss my lips
Sure of your body I will be!”

“And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about the green hillside?
That is the way to fair Elfland,
Where you and I this night must bide.”

~`True Thomas’~

One of the most intriguing story threads within the faerie folktales of the British Isles is that of Thomas the Rhymer. The tale of a brash young poet who is swept away by the Faerie Queen to become her lover is, doubtless, both romantic and exciting. However, there are other elements that make this tale a compelling one. The ballad, called either “Thomas the Rhymer” or “True Thomas” or Thomas and the Fairy Queen provides the narrator a way to detail the protocol of the Faerie court to his audience, and provides the audience with a human (hence familiar) glance into the world of Faerie. Secondly, the resolution of the tale, with the “fateful” gift that transfigures his life, serves as a rather colorful explanation for the powers of a very real personality in Scottish History, that of Thomas of Erceldoune. This gift, includes seeing the future; indeed, this Tom has been documented as making a lot of famous prophecies. You may find the full text of his prophecies here, for a better understanding of the legend.

The force of Thomas’s personality comes up in the many versions of the Thomas tale. He has been given many names – True Tom, True Thomas, Thomas the Rhymer, Thomas of Erceldoune as well as Thomas Learmont. His name has cropped up in many modern tellings of the Faerie Court, including those by Diana Wynne Jones, Raymond E Feist, Elizabeth Bear, and Ellen Kushner. In Wynne Jones’s version, a connection is made between the “Thomas the Rhymer” tale and another scottish “Tom” – the figure captured by the Faerie Queen in “Tam Lin”.

What follows is a little compilation of quotations and allusions to Thomas as well as a list of twentieth century fantasy/faerie fiction in which he makes an appearance.

This following entry was found in the Oxford Companion to English Literature:

Thomas of Erceldoune (fl.1220 ? -97 ?): “Seer and poet, is mentioned in the chartulary (1294) of the Trinity House of Solfra as having inherited lands in Erceldoune, a Berwickshire village. Said to have foretold the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland, and the battle of Bannockburn, and is the traditional fountain of many (fabricated) oracles, one of which ‘foretold’ the accession of James VI to the English throne. He is the reputed author of a poem on the Tristram story, which Sir Walter Scott considered genuine; it probably emanated from a French Source. The romance of ‘True Thomas’ and the ‘ladye gaye’, popularly attributed to him may be placed after 1401. (edited by Dr, J.A.H. Murray, 1875)”

This following excerpt was found in Fairy Tales, Legends and Romances Illustrating Shakespeare and Other Early English Writers (To Which Are Prefixed Two Preliminary Dissertations 1.On Pigmies 2. On Fairies) by Joseph Ritson.London (1875)

“The connection between the purgatory and paradise of the monks and the fairy lands of the people, observes Mr Wright, is perhaps nowhere so fully exhibited as in the following ballad. Which is besides no unfavourable specimen of early poetry. there is something exceedingly graceful in the commencement of it, and a taste displayed which we vainly look for in most contemporary pieces of the kind; and the wild and fanciful tale on which the prophecies are engrafted impart interest to the whole composition. Thomas of Erceldoune, whose adventures with the fairy queen are here narrated, was a legendary character, to whom were ascribed several prophecies,which passed for a long time under his name, similar to those of Merlin. Sir W. Scott and others have endeavoured to prove that the English romance of Tristrem was written by Thomas of Erceldoune; but the translator merely alludes to him at the commencement in a fanciful manner, and I think it, with Mr Wright, most probable that, finding the name Thomas in the French original and not understanding it, he was induced to take a character, then so famous, to add some popularity to the subject”. (pages 101-102 in the preface to the ballad Thomas and the Fairy Queen)”

The following excerpt was found in The Celtic Twilight in the anthology Mythologies by William Butler Yeats:

“The faeries in whom he believes have given him many subjects, notably Thomas of Ercildoune sitting motionless in the twilight while a young and beautiful creature leans softly out of the shadow and whispers in his ear.”

The following excerpt is from Alexander Porteous’s The Lore of the Forest which has other fascinating snippets of information with regards to Thomas the Rhymer:

“Thomas the Rhymer is credited with having uttered [this] prophecy:

While the mistletoe bats on Errol’s aik,

And that aik stands fast,
The Hays shall flourish, and their good grey hawk
Shall nocht flinch before the blast.

But when the root of the aik decays
And the mistletoe dwines on its withered breast,
The grass shall grow on Errol’s hearthstane,
And the corbie roup [croak] in the falcon’s nest.”

Thomas the Rhymer in Fiction

  • Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones : A contemporary fantasy that draws upon both “Thomas the Rhymer” and “Tam Lin” to create a composite figure called Thomas Lynne, also in thrall to the Faerie Court. The difference is that he struggles hard to break free. A character in the novel refers to the fact that Thomas is more like “Thomas the Rhymer” than “Tam Lin” even if the taking of him resembles more closely that of Tam Lin’s legend. This was the work of fiction that first introduced me to both Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and the one I keep returning to because it influenced me so much.
  • Beauty by Sherri S. TepperA long retelling of Sleeping Beauty which incorporates other
    legends. Beauty in this tale is part-faerie and during the course of her visits to the Faerie Realm meets Thomas, who is the only other human there. Tepper too, seems to have merged both Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin into one composite figure. This was the second piece of work I read in the `90s that had Thomas the Rhymer in it.
  • Faerie Tale by Raymond E. FeistThe eerie journey into the Faerie Realms by the two boy characters in this tale also unveils the character of Thomas the Rhymer, and he is given a more direct mention here, and in some cases is the spokesman for the Faeries to the human characters in this book. He also assumes his traditional place as a conduit for the narrator’s voice-to explain the quality of Strange-ness, or Other-ness of the Fey.
  • Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master by Raymond E. Feist: I added the first two books of the Rift War saga into this list because the elves in this case have a queen — Aglaranna who meets a young human boy named “Tomas”, and her intimate relationship with him does resonate of the ballad of “Thomas and the Fairy Queen”. The only difference is that he is basically a warrior.
  • Ink and Steel by Elizabeth Bear has another version of Thomas the Rhymer. There is a sequel I have not read yet. I enjoyed Bear’s version a lot and am looking forward to acquiring the entire series at some point.
  • Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner is a popular retelling of the legend and something of a cult favourite amongst the mythpunk crowd, although I read it rather late in the day and was already introduced/coloured by the renditions of Wynne Jones, Feist, Tepper and the various versions of ballads I’d read before I read this version (being a lit nerd I’d already been into the Oxford Book of Ballads extensively before I hit the age of 16).  It’s an interesting perspective on the legend and I can see why it’s popular with fans. Here’s a 2010 write-up about the book by Jo Walton.
  • Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales by Gordon Jarvie (compiler and editor) :There is a fairly straightforward prose retelling of the legend in this compilation, which includes details of his place of dwelling, the nature of his prophecies as well as a blow by blow account of the events in the ballad. Since it was listed under “Traditional” with no other name attached and Jarvie has been listed as the copyright owner of adaptations, I am assuming that he wrote this piece.


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