Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner
“What songs do you sing to them in Elfland? There, where all songs are true, and all stories history… I have seen lovers walking in those glades, with gentle hands and shining faces, their feet light upon the grass, where little flowers shone in the shadows as though the lovers trod the starry firmament. And some I almost recognized: Niamh of the Shining Hair with Irish Oisian; Fair Aucassin with his gentle Nicolette; and two kingly men with their arms around one graceful, merry queen… other faces, other figures strangely arrayed, each one with their own story, no doubt, and now at peace, with all stories done.”
Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer is a retelling of the legend of True Thomas, a man taken by the fairy queen to be her lover for seven years, after which he returned to the land of mortals and was given the gift of true speech – the ability to tell the future, but never to tell a lie. The original story dates back to the 1400s, and has been passed down in the form of medieval verse romances and traditional Scottish folk ballads.
Ellen Kushner’s version of the story draws on the ballad, as well as two other folk ballads, “The Famous Flower of Servingmen” and “Tam Lin”, using traditional elements to create a compelling fantasy story with a strong flavour of English and Scottish folklore. She creates an alluring yet dangerous Elfland and fairy court that doesn’t shy away from some of the more sinister elements of the mythology around the fair folk. However the real power of the novel stems from its deftly realised characters, who ensure that even the most magical and fantastical parts of the story are grounded in relatable, heartfelt human emotions. This is most elegantly displayed in how well written and believable the central relationship is. In the end, Thomas the Rhymer is as much about two people learning to live with and love each other despite their different experiences.
Thomas the Rhymer is divided into four sections, each narrated by a different character. Thomas himself only narrates the second part, which details his seven years in Elfland as the Elf Queen’s lover. We are introduced to Thomas through the eyes of Gavin, an old sheep farmer who lives in the hills with his wife Meg and who takes the travelling musician in on a stormy night. Gavin is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense, practical man, who like everyone else is entranced by Thomas’ gift with words and music, but is old enough to see his immaturity and to disapprove of his womanising, especially when Thomas starts flirting with Elspeth, a beautiful but naïve girl from the village.
The third section of the book, when Thomas returns from Elfland, is narrated by Meg, who, while she is also down-to-earth, is much more emotionally clued up, and so is able to understand and sympathise with both Thomas and Eslpeth’s conflicting emotions at seeing each other again, and is more easily able to see the truth in Thomas’ story and his condition. The final part of the book, and easily the most moving, is narrated by Elspeth, many years later after she and Thomas have been happily married for many years, and sees Elspeth reflecting back on their life together as he dies. She reflects on the love they share and the difficulties they have faced in their relationship when Thomas’ carefree past has caught up with him, and tries to hide from him the sadness that she feels as he is unavoidably slipping out of her life. Thus Kushner expertly uses different viewpoints to highlight different facets of her protagonist’s character, and to bring out the appropriate element for the place in the story.
At the heart of the novel is Thomas’ journey as a character, from the carefree loveable rogue who turns up on Gavin and Meg’s doorstep to the wise prophet and loving husband tinged with sadness and regret Elspeth tends to as he dies. Kushner is able to achieve this because she has such a firm grasp on who Thomas is as a character from the very beginning, and his maturity is achieved organically through the things he experiences, both during his time in Elfland, and after, as he learns to live with his gift of prophecy and truth and how to repair his relationship with Elspeth, and then to live with her as her husband.
Thomas’ great talent, the thing that makes both Elspeth and the Elf Queen and many other women besides fall for him, is not his handsomeness but his way with words and music. Thomas is a great musician, talented and ambitious, moving from playing at county fairs to entertaining at minor lords’ courts and slowly working his way up from there, and his talent with stories extends to his sharp tongue and his quick wit. Much of the flirting between him and Elspeth is achieved entirely by the two’s love of words and wit, and Kushner’s talent for dialogue really shine here, as the two lovers spark off each other.
However, as part of his journey into Elfland, Thomas must forego this quintessential aspect of himself. The condition on which he is allowed to enter, after being seduced by the Elf Queen, is that he is allowed to speak to no one but her while he is there. So, while he is at the fairy court, surrounded on all sides by intrigue and riddles, Thomas must learn to survive and to defend himself against Hunter, the Queen’s jealous brother, without his greatest asset, his most trusty weapon. This is the beginning of a process whereby Thomas learns humility, and begins to realise that he is not the centre of the universe.
Upon discovering the cruelty inflicted by Hunter on a dove, the soul of a murdered knight, he trades his voice so that the dove can return to the world of mortal men and tell its story and get its revenge, and he wins the freedom of his servant, a mortal woman who Hunter seduced and then turned invisible as a punishment for growing old. These acts of selflessness are only achieved because Thomas’ position as a prisoner in Elfland, and his lack of control over his own situation, force him to learn empathy.
One of the smart choices Kushner makes in Thomas the Rhymer is that Thomas’ growth to maturity doesn’t end here, or when he is returned to the world of mortal humans. When he returns to Gavin and Meg’s village, he has finally matured enough to begin to love Elspeth in a meaningful way, but first he has to overcome her resentment at his sudden and unexplained disappearance, during which time she has unhappily married into a cruel family. Thomas has to face the consequences of carelessly hurting her by leaving, which he never has had to before. And while Thomas has returned from Elfland with the gift of prophecy and the inability to lie, that doesn’t mean that everyone will believe him, especially when they remember his young and feckless self, and his love of tall tales.
Nor is Thomas and Elspeth’s story over when they marry. The final part of the book is a powerfully moving examination of both the joys and the trials of a life shared, as Elspeth reflects on what she will soon lose. Kushner portrays how the mistakes and infidelities of Thomas’ life eventually catch up with him, and how Thomas and Elspeth cope with this. The book explores the importance of the little white lies people frequently tell each other, and how knowledge of the truth can be a burden. She also explores how fragile humanity is, both in her portrayal of Thomas’ illness, how this great, larger than life man is fading away before Elspeth’s eyes, but also in how terrible knowledge of the future can be, especially when it relates to the ultimate fates of our loved ones. It is this depth of character and emotion that Kushner brings to her retelling of the ballad. She has successfully humanised its characters and crafted a compelling and sensitive reimagining of a classic piece of folklore.