THOMAS THE RHYMER OR TRUE THOMAS
The tale of Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas is very old indeed. When he was a boy, King James I of Scotland (1394-1437) heard stories of True Thomas.
Thomas lived in the Scottish Borders in a place once known as Ercildoune, now called Earlston. His tale, sung in Border ballads, was retold by Walter Scott, among many others. I find it poignant, as, once he's received the gift of truth-telling, Thomas loses the power to invent stories.
Nigh on seven hundred years ago, in the Borderlands of Scotland, in the village of Ercildoune, lived a young man named Thomas. Thomas was a minstrel. He wrote poems and set them to music. At feasts and fairs he would play upon his small harp to entertain folk. His verse made hearts soar, while his music shimmered through the air like a rainbow arching across the Earth. His songs were so melodic that he was known, both near and far, as "Thomas the Rhymer". One warm summer morning, Thomas left his room in Learmont Tower and went a-wandering by thr Huntly Burn. His father was holding a Midsummer Feast on the morrow and Thomas had promised to have a special ballad ready to celebrate the occasion, but the rhymes he required would not come into his mind. The sun blazed yellow in the sky above him and in every dale and dell of the Border countryside, trees and flowers bloomed: red, blue, green and gold. Thomas found a shady spot under the Eildon Tree and, taking his harp in his hand, he strummed upon the strings. As the day wore on, his head began to ache, for the words still eluded him. His eyelids drooped and he lay down on the grassy bank and fell asleep. In the gloaming light of half-dusk, Thomas awoke with a start. It was late but not fully dark, for it was Midsummer's Eve: the time of the summer solstice, when the veil between the world of mortals and the world ofthe Other People is drawn aside.
Thomas sat up, wondering what had caused him to waken. He heard a ringing-singing sound and thought it to be the tinkling noise of water dashing over stones in the nearby Huntly Burn. Moonlight shone around the Eildon Tree and Thomas saw, riding towards him, a lady on a snow-white horse with a silver crown resting upon her head. She was robed in a flowing dress and cloak of emerald green. On her feet were velvet slippers with tiny bells sewn on the toes. Bells hung from the horse trappings and were plaited into its tail and mane. As she moved through the wood, the green glade echoed with their ringing-singing sound. "Thomas!" The lady called his name in a sweet low voice. "Who are you," replied Thomas, "that you so readily speak my name, yet I know not yours?"
"I am the Queen of Faeryland," the lady replied. She beckoned to him. "You must catch my stirrup and come with me."
Thomas thought the lady was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen and he had no hesitation in doing as she told him. He leaped to his feet. Slinging his harp over his shoulder he grasped the stirrup of her horse. The Queen of Faeryland bent her head and smiled at Thomas, and they went on their way.
No word was spoken between Thomas and the Faery Queen as they journeyed together. They travelled over a great river and in the water swam fih of many colours that Thomas had never seen before. They travelled through a thick forest and among the trees roamed wild beasts of a kind that Thomas had never seen before. They travelled past a city and in the streets walked people of a size and stature that Thomas had never seen before. His head was so filled with wonderment at the sights he saw that his senses reeled and speech stuck in his throat. Then they came to a place where the road branched in three directions. The Queen of Faeryland drew rein on her horse and the ringing-singing sound of the bells stopped.
Thomas looked at the first path. It was a rough track overgrown with thorn bushes.
"What path is that?" he asked. "The Path of Righteousness," replied the Faery Queen. The second path was paved with smooth and shining cobblestones. "What path is that?" Thomas asked. "The Path of Wickedness," replied the Faery Queen. The third path was a bonnie road that wound like a ribbon towards the Eildon Hills. "What path is that?" Thomas asked. The Faery Queen laughed softly and, urging on her horse, she rode along the third path. "Where are you taking me?" asked Thomas, thrilled and frightened in equal measure. The Queen of Faeryland laughed again. "Through the hollow hill to the Land of Everlasting Time." Soon they arrived at the bottom of a cliff and the rock before them was flat and smooth with no crack or fissure upon it. The Queen of Faeryland drew rein on her horse and the ringin-singing sound of the bells stopped. "I will give you a warning, Thomas the Rhymer, and you must pay heed to waht I say." Thomas looked into the eyes of the Faery Queen and listened to what she told him in her sweet low voice. "If you wish to return to your own country and your kin, then you must neither speak nor sup unless we are alone together." Thomas was afraid, for he dearly loved his homeland of Scotland and his relatives and friends, and he feared to be parted forever from his country and his kin. But he desperately wanted to go through the hollow hill and see the Land of Everlasting Time. So he nodded in agreement. "Then you may enter the realm of Faery, but first you must bind your promise with a kiss." "This I will do willingly," said Thomas, "if you will make a promise that you will take me to my home in Ercildoune after I have counted the passage of seven days." The Faery Queen nodded in agreement.
Thomas kissed the Queen of Faeryland to bind his promise to her that he would neither speak nor sup unless they were alone together.
The Queen of Faeryland kissed Thomas the Rhymer to bind her promise to him that she would return him to his home in Ercildoune after he had counted the passage of seven days. Then the Queen of Faeryland raised her hand and pointed at the flat smooth surface of the rock with no crack or fissure upon it. The cliff face shuddered, a hidden door swung open, and the Faery Queen and Thomas entered in.
With a ringing-singing they trotted through Faeryland. The scent of honey filled the air and flowers were strewn in their path wherever they went. THe Faery Queen led Thomas to her palace of gold and there he rested. Every day was spent in composing verse with the Faery Queen and every night was spent in making music. It was easy for Thomas to remember to neither speak nor sup unless he and the Faery Queen were alone together. But it was not easy for Thomas to remember about the passage of time. Such was the entertainment and so full was his happiness that Thomas alomost forgot to count the days. To make sure he didn't overstay, every morning he strummed upon his harp and every evening he plucked out one of the strings. On the monring after he had plucked out the seventh string, no tune came from his harp when he tried to play it. Three times Thomas tried and three times the harp remained silent. Then Thomas understod that it was time for him to go home to Ercildoune. He spoke to the Queen of Faeryland. "As I have kept my promise to you to neither speak nor sup unless you and I were alone together, it is time for you to keep your promise to take me back to my home in Ercildoune."
There were tears in the eyes of the Faery Queen as she replied, "A promise made and bound with a kiss must be kept. I said I would return you to your home in Ercildoune and that I will do." No word was spoken between Thomas and the faery Queen as they journeyed together.
Mounted on the snow-white horse, with a ringing-singing sund they left the golden palace and went through the hollow hill and out of the hidden door in the face of the cliff. Leaving the Realm of Faery and the Land of Everlasting Time, they trotted away from the Eildon Hills until they came to the place where the road branched in three directions. The Queen of Faeryland drew rein on her horse and the ringing-singing sound of the bells stopped. Thomas looked at the first path, which was the rough track overgrown with thorn bushes. "I do not choose the Path of Righteousness," he said. Thomas looked at the second path, which was paved with smooth and shining cobblestones. "I do not choose the Path of Wickedness," he said. Thomas looked at the third path, which was a bonnie road that wound like a ribbon away from the Eildon Hills. Before he could say anything more, the Faery Queen laughed softly and, urging on her horse, she rode along the third path in the direction of Ercildoune.
They travelled past the city where in the streets walked people of a size and stature that Thomas had seen before. They travelled through the thick forest where among the trees roamed wild beasts of a kind that Thomas had seen before. They travelled over the great river where in the water swam fish of many colours that Thomas had seen before. His head was so filled with wonderment at the sights he saw that his senses reeled and speech stuck in his throat.
In the gloaming light of half-dusk they reached the Huntly Burn and the grassy bank below the Eildon Tree. The Queen of Faeryland drew rein on her horse and the ringing-singing sound of the bells stopped. "Ah," Thomas thought aloud. "I must find my father and apologise seven times for being seven days late for his Midsummer Feast." The Queen of Faeryland bent her head and smiled at Thomas. "More than seven times seven will you have to apologise to your father." "It will break my heart to leave you," Thomas told her, for he had fallen in love with the Faery Queen. !As it will mine, for the same reason," replied the Faery Queen. "Will i never see you again?" Thomas wept. "We might yet be together," said the Faery Queen. "When the time comes for you to return to me, I will send you a sign." "You must bind your promise with a kiss," said Thomas. "That I will do," said the Faery Queen. "And in exchange for all the songs and music you have shared with me I will give a gift to you. "
And so the Queen of Fseryland kissed Thomas and said:
#The kiss I give to say goodbye Ensures your tongue will never lie.
Thomas ran home. Bursting into the great hall of Learmont Tower he flung himself at his father's feet, saying, "Dearest Father, I am sorry that I am seven days late for your Midsummer Feast." His fther stagered back in amazement. "Dearest son," he said, "it is not seven days but seven years since you went missing from under the Eildon Tree." Then Thomas understood why the Faery Queen had said, "More than seven times will you have to apologise to your father."
Thomas's father was overjoyed to see him and bade him come to the table where he was dining with one of their neighbours. Thomas played his harp and tried to make up a verse to entertain them. The friend seemed pleased enough with his efforts, but to Thomas the song sounded empty of meaning and magic. "I regret my wife was not fit to travel to hear your wonderful music," his father's friend told him. Thomas looked up. As the words came from the man's mouth, Thomas could see the inside of his house. A woman sat beside a cradle tha held a newborn babe. "She would not want to leave your baby child," said Thomas. The man gave Thomas a strange look. "How is it that you have news of the birth of my baby son when you have been gone from these parts for seven years?"
"I do not know," said Thomas. "Does your son sleep in a cradle of oak wood?" "He does," replied the man. "But lots of cradles are made of stout oak wood." "Does it have a canopy with your family crest embroidered on it?" "It does," said the man. "It is my wife who did the needlework for she is skilled in this craft." "Does your wife have the most lovely hair, black like a raven's wing?" The man's face flushed in anger. "You are too familiar with your words about my wife!"
"It is what I can see," said Thomas. Thomas's father cried out, "Dearest son, why do you speak this way? You are in danger of insulting our honoured guest." But Thomas could not stop, for the Faery Queen had given him the gift of truth telling.
THE KISS I GIVE TO SAY GOODBYE
ENSURES YOUR TONGUE WILL NEVER LIE.
"I see your wife in her bedchamber," said Thomas. The man stood up and reached for his sword. "I see your son and your wife in the bedchamber," Thomas went on. "I see the scaffolding outside the window left by the builder repairing the roof. I see a small fire burning in the brazier. I see it tip over in the wind, and the wood of the scaffolding set alight."
"Fetch my horse!" the man shouted and he raced from Learmont Tower and rode off at full speed. Upon arriving at his house an hour later the man rescued his wife and his child just as the flames flickered against his bedroom window. As news of the incident spread, people realised that Thomas had foretold the fire before it had actually begun.
From that day forth, instead of creating his own stories and songs Thomas spoke only of what he saw in his mind's eye. He wrote down these visions. Many of them came true and some have yet to happen. Thomas's fame spread throughout Scotland and into the countries beyond. Nobles and knights, merchants and millers, and ordinary working folk visited him in Learmont Tower to seek his advice. In addition to being named "Thomas the Rhymer" he also became known as "True Thomas". Time passed - not seven hours, not seven days, not seven years - but seventy years. Thomas grew weary of bearing the burden of prophecy. His spirit yearned to wander once again in the realms of his imagination. His heart longed to recapture the magic of making music. More and more often he would climb to the top of Lermont Tower, look beyond the Eildon Tree, and sigh: "i think the Queen of Faeryland had forgotten her promise to come and take me back to the Land of Everlasting Time."
One day, on the eve of the winter solstice, when the veil between the world of mortals and the world of the Other People is drawn aside, a hunter came running into the hall of Lermont Tower. "There is a white hind standing near the Huntly Burn. I stretched my bow to shoot an arrow at it. Suddenly my arm froze and for a minute I could not move. When I recovered I knew I must tell True Thomas this news."
Thomas left his room in Learmont Tower and walked to the Huntly Burn. UNderneath the Eildon Tree was a pure white hind. On her head rested a silcer crown. Thomas went close to the magical creature. And the shape of Thomas became the shapeof the tree covered in white frost, and then, slowly, became the shape of a pure white hart.
Hsrt and hind sttod by each other. They looked one last time at Ercildoune and the Eildon Tree and then they bounded away together towards the Eildon Hills. Snow began to fall, and from afar come echoing the ringing-singing sound of bells.
From an Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Mythical Creattures written by Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper