Thomas the Rhymer

From Academic Kids

Thomas the Rhymer (also Thomas Rhymer or Thomas Rymer) is the better-known name of Thomas of Erceldoune, a 13th Century Scottish soothsayer. Many people have encountered him in fictional form as the protagonist in the ballad Thomas the Rhymer (Child Ballad number 37).

Thomas was born in Erceldoune (also spelt Ercildoune - presently Earlstoun), Scotland, sometime in the 13th century, and has a reputation as the author of many prophetic verses. Popular esteem of him lived on for centuries after his death, to the extent that several people have fabricated Thomas' "prophecies" in order to further the cause of Scottish independence. His reputation for supernatural powers for a time rivaled that of Merlin, though while the latter was fictitious, Thomas of Ercildoune was an historical figure. Records have been found referring to the son of "Thomas Rymour of Ercildoune". The fifteenth-century romance "Thomas of Erceldoune" with its accompanying prophecies clearly relates to the ballad, though the exact nature of the relationship is not clear.

Musicologists have traced the ballad Thomas the Rhymer back at least as far as the 13th century. It deals with the supernatural subject matter of fairy-folk. The theme of this song also closely relates to another song, that of Tam Lin, which follows the same general topical lines. Its more general theme relates to temptation and mortal pleasures.

Several different variants of the story of Thomas Rhymer exist, most having the same basic theme. They tell how Thomas either kissed or had sex with the Queen of Fairyland and either rode with her or was otherwise transported to Fairyland. One version relates that she changed into a hag immediately after sleeping with him, as some sort of a punishment to him, but returned to her originally beautiful state when they neared her castle, where her husband lived. Thomas stayed at a party in the castle until she told him to return with her, coming back into the mortal realm only to realise that seven years (a significant number in magic) had passed. He asked for a token to remember the Queen by; she offered him the choice of becoming a harper or a prophet, and he chose the latter.

Thomas became known as "True Thomas" because he could not tell a lie. Popular lore recounts how prophesied many great events in Scottish history. (His gift of prophecy seems to link to that of poetry, as Thomas was a noted poet (hence, "Rhymer"), and allegedly wrote Sir Tristrem, a version of the Tristram legend.) After a number of years had passed Thomas returned to Fairyland, from whence he has not yet returned.

The folk-rock band Steeleye Span and the singer Ewan MacColl have each made recordings of the ballad in recent times.

Lyrics to the ballad Thomas Rhymer Child #37

True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank,
A ferlie he spied wi' his ee,
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

Her shirt was o' the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o' the velvet fine,
At ilka tett her horse's mane
Hang fifty siller bells and nine.

True Thomas, he pulld aff his cap,
And louted low down to his knee:
'All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.'

'Oh no, O 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.'

'Harp and carp, Thomas,' she said,
'Harp and carp along wi me,
And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your bodie I will be.'

'Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunton me';
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips,
All underneath the Eildon Tree.

'Now, ye maun go wi me,' she said,
'True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro weal or woe, as chance to be.'

She mounted on her milk-white steed,
She's taen True Thomas up behind,
And aye wheneer her bride rung,
The steed flew swifter than the wind.

O they rade on, and farther on--
The steed gaed swifter than the wind--
Untill they reached a desart wide,
And living land was left behind.

'Light down, light down, now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies three.

'O see ye not yon narrow road,
So think beset with thorns and briers?
That is that path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.

'And see not ye that briad braid road
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.

'And see not ye that bonny road,
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

'But, Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue,
Whatever ye may hear or see,
For, if you speak word in Elflyn land,
Ye'll neer get back to your ain countrie.'

O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded thro rivers aboon the knee,
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,
amd they waded thro red blude to the knee;
Fow a' the blude that's shed on earth
Rins thro the springs o that countrie.

Syne they came on to a garden green,
And she pu'd an apple frae a tree:
'Take this for thy wages, True Thomas,
It will give the tongue that can never lie.'

'My tongue is mine ain,' True Thomas said;
' A gudely gift ye wad gie to me!
I neither dought to buy nor sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.

'I dought neither speak to prince or peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair ladye:'
'Now hold thy peace,' the lady said,
'For as I say, so must it be.'

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth,
And a pair of shoes of velvet green,
And till seven years were gane and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen.

-from F. J. Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, version C


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