Thomas the Rhymer

Thomas the Rhymer is one of my favorite Scottish ballads. It has a lot of things going for it: Thomas is a fairly nice man who is not squatting on other people’s property; no one has sacrificed seven princesses; and there are no crows who discuss pecking out a dead person’s eyes. (I fully admit I love those ballads. But sometimes it’s nice for a break?) Instead, we have an excellent fairy queen and a fully consensual relationship. And do you know how rare it is in a fairy tale for a relationship between a fey and a human to work out? It’s kind of rare.

Anyway, the story opens with Thomas the Rhymer lounging on ‘Huntlie bank’, wherever that is, presumably enjoying his day and not expecting to get accosted by random fairy queens. Of course he does, because this is a ballad. The fairy queen comes riding up to him on a white horse, with fifty-nine silver bells hanging from each lock of its mane. That is a blinged-out horse.

Thomas mistakes her for the Virgin Mary, because he knows she’s at least not earthly, and greets her as such. She explains that she is the queen of the fairies, not the Virgin Mary, and that she has come to visit him. Thomas is remarkably chill about this.

She asks him to kiss her, and I love this part of the poem so much I’m quoting it:

‘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.’

Thomas, who at this point I’m pretty sure is crushing hard, does so, and she tells him that he must go with her to fairyland for seven years. Um…maybe going from ‘we just met’ to ‘let’s elope together’ is moving kind of fast? But it’s a fairy tale, what do I expect. She pulls him up onto her horse and gallops off with him, until they come to a desert. She stops there to rest and gets down from her horse, and points out three roads to Thomas. One of these roads is narrow and thorny, and is the path of righteousness, though not many choose it; one of the roads is broad and is the path of wickedness, though some call it the road to heaven; and one of them is a bonny road that winds across a woody hillside, and that is the road to fairyland, where they are going.

After she explains this to him, she tells him that he must not speak a word while in fairyland, or else he’ll never be able to get back to his own country. So, it’s like reverse-gender Ariel, except without the chronic pain! (And yes, Ariel had chronic pain after she was turned into a human, in the Hans Christian Anderson story. I’m a little annoyed at Disney for not including that.) Also, I don’t remember seeing this rule about not speaking in any other fairy tale? As far as I remember, it’s an anomaly to this one. But I could be wrong, of course.

And then they ride on, riding through blood-filled rivers, and no that is not a typo. And I’m quoting this, too:

“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,

And they waded thro red blude to the knee;

For a’ the blude that’s shed on earth

Rins thro the springs o that countrie.”

And finally they come to a garden, where an apple tree grows. She picks an apple and gives it to Thomas, explaining that it will give him a tongue that cannot lie, which sounds like a curse as well as a gift, honestly. Interestingly, in other versions she explicitly tells him not to pick the apple, because apparently the tree is the tree of knowledge? I have no idea which version is older. Anyway, Thomas demurs for a little bit, I think because it’s too great of a gift, but I’m not sure because Scottish English is hard. But she insists, and of course she has her way. And the poem ends with,

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.

Green is a color traditionally associated with fairies, and the ‘being kidnapped for seven years’ thing is also fairly common in these folktales, according to Lady Wilde. (I love Lady Wilde’s book. It’s a great resource on Irish folklore. Seriously, go check it out if you haven’t already.) According to Wikipedia, there is also a version where the fairy queen tells Thomas that she can’t keep him for longer than seven years or else she’ll be forced to sacrifice him in the teind to hell, but I can’t find that one. I feel kind of cheated.

Interestingly enough, Thomas was based on a real person, named Sir Thomas de Ercildoun (no telling if he ever eloped with the fairy queen, though). He was a Scottish laird and prophet from Earlston, living in the thirteenth century. There was a romance written about him in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, which this ballad comes from. There isn’t really any telling as to how old this poem is, as the earliest one they’ve found has been from the eighteenth century, but ballads and folktales are often much older than when they were first written down, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it dated back at least to the renaissance.

There are plenty of folktales about kidnapped brides, but it’s far rarer to find a folktale about a kidnapped bridegroom (the only one I can think of right off the bat is Tam Lin), and rarer still where it is actually totally consensual? I am loving this. I mean, I don’t mind Beauty and the Beast type stories, or stories where the fairy king decides to kidnap yet another pretty human girl and is certain that this time nothing will go wrong (spoiler: something always goes wrong). But an actually healthy relationship between a fairy and a human that is 100% consensual and doesn’t end tragically? Sign me up.

Sources: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch037.htm (This has four different versions of the poem, and my favorite is the last one)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_the_Rhymer

https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/index.htm

Did you like this story? What’s your favorite folktale involving a romance (one-sided or no) between a fairy and a human? Heck, what’s your favorite folktale involving fairies?

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