(c) Nin Harris 1999-2016
“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.”
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.
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 Raymond E. Feist, Ellen Kushner, Sherri S. Tepper and Diana Wynne Jones. In the latter two, 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.”
Related Books and Music
- 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.
- Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner: A beautiful narration of the legend which captures that element of strangeness felt by Thomas during the course of his captivity in Faerie Land. Also, fans of Ellen Kushner and the legend may be interested in the following link: Ellen Kushner on Jim Freund’s Hour of the Wolf, who shares with listeners (and her readers!) several versions of the True Thomas/Thomas the Rhymer ballads.
- Beauty by Sherri S. Tepper: A 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.
- Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist: The 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.
- 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.
- Now We are Six by Steeleye Span: This 1991 re-release of the 1974 album features a version of “Thomas the Rhymer” delivered with Steeleye Span’s usual folk-rock gusto. This
rollicking piece of cross-over music is enjoyable especially for the chorus of “Harp and carp, carp along with me, Thomas the Rhymer”.
- Ewan McColl’s Version: I was introduced to Ewan McColl when Ellen Kushner and Jim Freund played his version of Thomas the Rhymer on The Hour of the Wolf. You can listen to his True Thomas by clicking here, but you’ll have to listen to the first quarter or so of the show first.Misc. LinksA comparison of the Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer ballads.
Dan Dutton has both a painting and a recording that references Thomas the Rhymer.
Wikipedia’s Thomas the Rhymer page
Salvaged Comments from an Earlier Version
- Dan Dutton Says:
September 19th, 2006 at 7:25 pmYou might find my painting of True Thomas of interest. It is posted on my website under “Ballad Paintings/ Full Index.” My recording of True Thomas incorporates some of the information in the “Romance” poem that Francis Child included as a footnote to his collection of texts. Thank you for your informative site! Dan Dutton
- Lune Says:
November 28th, 2006 at 11:48 amI wonder if you can point me in the right direction…
I found a quote regarding Thomas the Rhymer saying “it is believed he still awaits rebirth in a yew grove guarded by faeries near Inverness.” No sources to back up that claim. Any idea where this idea may have come from or where the grove is supposed to be?
Thanks for creating the wonderful resource which is this site! xx
- Nin Harris Says:
December 3rd, 2006 at 5:42 am You know, I’ve never heard that particular quote before, so I am intrigued! I did drive past Eildon, near the borderlands of Scotland last year but was not able to stop for a look-see. Such a tragedy! Anyway, I’m curious about the Inverness connection now and will try to find out more.
- Darren Williamson Says:
December 12th, 2006 at 1:39 pmDear Nin, I’m currently researching various myths of the British Isles and happened upon your website while finding details about Thomas the rhymer.
After reading Lune’s post regarding Thomas awaiting rebirth in a yew grove near inverness I decided to have a look for further information.
I discovered Tomnahurich Hill – which means hill of the yews – a rounded tree covered hillock on the outskirts of Inverness.
There are many traditions associated with the hill including that of Thomas the Rhymer, said to be buried beneath it, or to live within it, ready to lead an army of men and white steeds to rally Scotland in its hour of need. A modern cemetery now covers the hill.
I have included a link to the source of the information which should hopefully lead to further discoveries.
I hope this was of some use and perhaps speak again soon. All the best, Darren Williamson.
- Michael Maiden Says:
April 7th, 2007 at 7:00 am Richard Leigh (co-author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail) also took a run at Thomas the Rhymer in a short story called Erceldoune. The novella was included in his 2006 paperback book, Erceldoune & Other Stories.
The protagonist of the story is Thomas ‘Rafe’ Erlston, an American folk singer who travels to Ireland. The first part of the story is online here: http://www.egoetia.com/Erceldoune_Sample.pdf