I was recently lucky enough to be interviewed by Sally Cronin.
At the end of the interview, my good friend Sue asked a thought provoking question: what drew me to the ideas behind Thomas the Rhymer?
To be honest Sue’s incisive question left me realising I have forgotten a lot about why I wrote the book in the first place. I was long overdue a trip down memory lane.
Sue certainly deserved a much better answer than I provided at the time. And what better place to post it!
The Legend of Thomas the Rhymer
Thomas the Rhymer is a 17th century Scottish ballad collected by folklorist Francis Child in 1883 as part of his exhaustive compendium of English and Scottish Ballads. The ballad comes from a first person account written in the 1400s. It is allegedly by Scotland’s greatest prophet; Thomas of Erceldoune, also known as True Thomas because he could not lie, or Thomas Rymour: for like the druids of old and prophets such as Merlin and Nostradamus, Thomas’ prophecies were delivered in rhyme.
Unfortunately the earliest versions date from a couple of centuries after his death, although his son is mentioned in two medieval documents, so we do know he existed. It is more than likely, traditional stories were gathered around an historical figure until his life was shrouded in legend.
Like many folk stories there are different versions of Thomas the Rhymer. I have combined elements into a single narrative. All begin with the Queen of Elphame, dressed in a grass green skirt and riding a snow white mare, spying handsome young Thomas asleep besides a fairy path.
Green is of course the fairy colour. It may signify an ancient association with fertility goddesses who were downgraded to fairies in Christian times. The white mare is the Celtic Horse goddess whom the Romans called Epona and the Welsh Rhiannon.
During their lovemaking the Fairy Queen makes Thomas rest his head in her lap and reveals three marvels: the road to hell, the road to heaven and the road to fair Elphame where she dwells. She then asks if he would like to go there with her. If he agrees he will not be able to return home for a year and a day, and she ominously adds her youth and beauty will vanish if he ever doubts her.
Thomas eagerly agrees and the bargain is sealed with a kiss. They live happily but as the year and a day draws to a close he becomes homesick and asks the queen’s leave to visit his family. Reluctantly she agrees, offering him a gift of music or speech to remember her by. For she knows if he is distracted by the outer world he might never return.
In her heart she hopes he will choose music, so she can find him by following the unearthly beauty of the strains he draws from the harp. But Thomas chooses speech, thinking of the boasting he will make of his adventures to friends and kin.
Thomas returns home to find many long years have passed and everyone he once loved gone. His wailing attracts a crowd who ask him the reason for his anguish. But all Thomas can do is spout prophecies, which make him so renowned he forgets his fairy love for worldly fame and honour.
Ideas behind the novel
I used strands from the folk tale as well as other elements of fairy lore.
The word fairy is a misnomer. It comes from the word old ‘Fey’ meaning enchantment. It is what they do, not who there are. Their magic is ‘Glamour’ – it gives us the modern word meaning an illusion of heightened beauty. Rather than real magic, it appears to be nothing more than illusion; cast to make others see only what the fairy desires.
A good example of this is the 5th century tale of St Collen. When invited to a feast on Glastonbury Tor by Gwyn ap Nudd, the fairy king, the old man sees a wonderful palace and a feast of dainties and delicacies. Scornfully telling his host he will not eat the leaves of the trees, he produces a bottle of holy water and scatters the contents before him. Immediately everything vanishes, leaving nothing but the bare windswept hill.
In the folk stories, fairies often turn from old to young and beautiful, or at cockcrow a beautiful fairy maid is left a withered old hag.
Extract from Chapter 1
By the hill in the park, Jack saw an old woman waylaid Dan. She looked filthy dirty and was dressed like a tramp. He wondered if she was begging. When she started stroking Dan’s face and called him Thomas, Jack could not believe Dan stood there and let her!
Horrified when she suddenly kissed his brother full on the lips, Jack could take no more. He burst out of hiding, shouting at her to get away and leave Dan alone. Freezing Jack with a stare, the old woman shimmered as if going out of focus. In her place a beautiful lady stood willowy, pale and radiant as a princess.
With tangled golden curls sparkling in the watery sunset, she playfully wagged a finger at Jack. In a low musical voice, sounding cosy as a secret shared, she cooed: “Frère Jacques, frère Jacques. Not today, but I will come back! I promise when your day comes, together we will have such fun. Until then silence learn, a kiss sweet Jacques ‘til I return!”
Blowing Jack a kiss which stung like a smack on the mouth, the beautiful lady took Dan’s hand and they vanished. There was no lightning flash or thunderclap. They were simply gone – like they were never there at all.
You tube clip: https://youtu.be/X_3gigefN1Q
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In her fairy kingdom, Queen Sylvie initially appears to Jack and his friends as young and impossibly beautiful. However once the spell is broken everything changes…
Extract from Thomas the Rhymer: Chapter 29
The splendour was fading from the house. The tiny golden fairies were gone. The partygoers were joining them in abandoning the dream. Only Thomas and Sylvie remained. Two lonely figures etched in shadows cast by feeble flickering oil lamps. They looked tiny, lost in the dirty cavernous ballroom of peeling paint, cracked plasterwork, and grimy, cobwebbed windows.
“We shall not see joy abound, ‘til he now lost to us, is found,” Sylvie muttered bitterly.
If Sylvie sounded old and tired, it was because she was. Gone her glorious impossible beauty; hair of spun gold, alabaster complexion and willowy unbent frame. What remained, a shrunk, ancient woman, looked so like Bess, they could have been sisters. Catherine wondered if the resemblance was simply because they had grown old together over hundreds of years; old beyond human comprehension. Seeing her reduced to this, Catherine felt nothing but pity for the poor old woman, guilty of nothing more than trying to save her world.
Poor Thomas was frantic. He held his beloved’s arthritic hands, all swollen joints and knotted veins under parchment thin skin mottled by liver spots. Tears streamed down his face as he fervently whispered over and over…
“We shall grow strong to build a dream, the like of which was never seen. Your name shall be gloried from day to day. Over the hills and far away, they will carry the fame of your name my love. They will carry the fame of your name.”
Embarrassed Jack, Ken and Catherine backed away.
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Poetry was long believed a gift of the gods, and, why not? No other form of speech is quite so moving as a poem or song. Poetry was the reserve of druids and bards – who underwent a 25-year-long apprenticeship. Prophecies were delivered in rhyme as were the druids’ ancient satires. Called lampoons, they were poems so scathing the target would literally die of shame.
I made the fairy queens and Thomas the Rhymer lapse into rhyme to signify their other-worldliness.
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Fairy paths have various names such as fairy, elf or corpse roads among the Celtic peoples of Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Brittany; who saw the otherworld and the fairy world as one and the same.
Fairy paths are ancient straight tracks often running between two hills. They are associated with ley lines. Houses built on such paths were often plagued by poltergeist–like manifestations, or fell down. Their owners suffered terrible misfortunes, illness, or even death.
A way to avoid incurring the fair folk’s wrath and lift the curse was to leave the front and back door ajar on certain nights of the year so the fair folk could pass through unhindered.
The penalty for walking a fairy path is death or madness, although you certainly could not rule out being snatched away to fairyland and never heard or seen again.
In the novel the children learn to accidently learn to ride the fairy paths, or ley lines, travelling from church to church. Christian churches were traditionally built on ancient holy sites of power.
The church door opens revealing the town beyond its wall caught in the ley line’s shimmering blue haze
Catherine about to open the door from a ley line leading to the Old Church Inn
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Fairies are notorious for stealing away children; often leaving a misshapen brat ‘grown-all-wrong’, called a changeling, in their stead. In the novel I used this idea, explaining the fairy race is dying, poisoned by pollution from the industrial revolution. As the philosopher magician Mr Horatio Grin explains…
‘But, consider this…
The Elfin are a dying race who steal children to continue their bloodline. Amazonian Indians, also on the brink of extinction, steal children from Brazilian towns for much the same reason. Have you ever thought the Elfin may deserve your compassion every bit as much as those poor Amazon tribes?’
Horatio Grin in Rosie’s rather humble front room
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Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it.
And thanks to Sue for her intelligent and perceptive question that prompted the post. Let me say what a pleasure it is to be featured again on her amazing blog.
You can read Sally Cronin’s review of Thomas the Rhymer here
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