Thomas Rymer [Child 37]
DESCRIPTION: Thomas the Rhymer of Ercildoune meets the Queen of Elfland. She takes him away from earth for seven years, putting him through various rituals which no doubt instill his prophetic powers.
EARLIEST DATE: 1800 (GordonBrown/Rieuwerts); printed by Scott in 1802
KEYWORDS: magic prophecy abduction
FOUND IN: Britain(Scotland) US(SE)
REFERENCES (23 citations):
Child 37, "Thomas Rymer" (3 texts)
Bronson 37, "Thomas Rymer" (2 versions)
BronsonSinging 37, "Thomas Rhymer" (2 versions: #1, #2)
GordonBrown/Rieuwerts, pp. 218-219, "Thomas Rymer & Queen of Elfland (1 text)
BrownII 10, "Thomas Rhymer" (1 text)
Leach, pp. 131-135, "Thomas Rhymer" (2 texts)
OBB 1, "Thomas the Rhymer" (1 text)
Friedman, p. 39, "Thomas Rymer" (1 text)
PBB 22, "Thomas Rhymer" (1 text)
Gummere, pp. 290-292+361-362, "Thomas Rymer" (1 text)
Hodgart, p. 127, "Thomas Rymer" (1 text)
DBuchan 6, "Thomas Rymer" (1 text)
TBB 35, "Thomas Rymer" (1 text)
Ord, pp. 422-425, "Sir John Gordon" (1 text, a truly curious version which retains the plot and lyrics of this song so closely that it cannot be called anything else, but with a different and inexplicable name for the hero)
Bell-Combined, pp. 116-119, "Thomas the Rhymer" (1 text)
Leach-Heritage, pp. 35-37, "Thomas the Rhymer" (1 text)
Whitelaw-Ballads, pp. 469-478, "Thomas the Rhymer" (1 text)
HarvClass-EP1, pp. 76-78, "Thomas Rymer and the Queen of Elfland" (1 text)
DT 37, TOMRHYM* TOMRHYM2 TRUTOMAS
ADDITIONAL: Emily Lyle, _Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition_, Wissenschaflicher Verlag Trier, 2007, pp. 5-11, "Thomas the Rhymer" (1 text plus sundry verses, 1 tune)
Katherine Briggs, _An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblines, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures_, 1976 (I use the 1977 Pantheon paperback), pp. 415-417, article "True Thomas" (1 text plus discussion)
Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; #136, "Thomas Rymer" (1 text)
Bob Stewart, _Where Is Saint George? Pagan Imagery in English Folksong_, revised edition, Blandford, 1988, pp. 131-132, "Thomas the Rhymour" (1 text)
NOTES [2010 words]: Very many of Thomas of Ercildoune's (True Thomas's) predictions are in circulation, though only a few are precisely dated or can be tied to specific events. As Kunitz/Haycraft point out (p. 177), "Soon after Thomas's death, prophecies made in his name became so popular that it is impossible to know which were his own."
Perhaps the most famous prophecy dates from 1286, the year Alexander III of Scotland died. The day before Alexander's death, Thomas had forecast that "before the next day at noon, such a tempest shall blow as Scotland has not felt for many years" (Douglas, p. 155) or perhaps that the next day would be "the stormiest day ever witnessed in Scotland" (Cook, p. 65). Kunitz/Haycraft, p. 177, think that it was just a vague oracular saying. When the next day proved clear, Thomas was taunted, but his forecast proved true -- Scotland would not again see peace until after the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
He also became a hero of legend in his own right -- e.g. Briggs, pp. 233-235, prints a tale, "Canobie Dick and Thomas of Ercildoune," which is a variant on one of the Arthurian legends with Thomas cast in the Merlin role. It is because of stories like this that LindahlEtAl, p. 404, declare of him, "Scottish poet at the heart of an interesting complex of literature and legend."
Real and verifiable facts about Thomas are far fewer, but he does appear to have been a real person. "Thomas of Ercildoune" is a witness to a charter of c. 1265 (about the Haigs of Bemerside, also the subject of one of his couplets), and another Thomas, the son of "Thomas the Rhymer of Ercildoune," was an adult transacting in property in 1294.
Kunitz/Haycraft, p. 177, declare "That he lived and wrote at least some of the tales attributed to him is indisputable. Sometimes calling himself Learmont, sometimes The Rhymer, he owned property on a tributary of the Tweed River which to this day is known as Rhymer's Land.[Both Ercildoun (now Earlston) and the Eildon Hills are located in the region of Melrose and Berwick.] The Russian poet Lermontov believed himself a descendant of The Rhymer." They give his dates as fl. 1220?-1297?.
Alexander also gives 1297 as his last year: "A summons to return to Elfame in 1297 when Thomas was entertaining friends in the Tower of Erceldoune. A man came to him with a story that a stag and a hind had left the shelter of the forest and were walking about the village unafraid. At this portent Thomas immediately left his guests and followed the animals out of human ken to his fairy mistress." Hole, p. 63, observes that these stories of Thomas seem to be related to some of the legends about the death or departure of King Arthur.
Garnett/Gosse, volume I, pp. 275-278, discusses what is known about the real Thomas. It credits him as least being the inspiration of Scottish poetry: "Many, perhaps most, ancient literatures claim a patriarchal founder, who from some points of view wears the semblance of a fable and from others that of a fact. Scotland had her Orpheus or Linus in THOMAS of ERCILDOUNE, called also THOMAS the RHYMER, who... [would] fulfil the requisites of a venerable ancestor, could we but be sure he was indeed an author. His actual existence is unquestionable. Ercildoune or Earlston is a village in Berwickshire, and ancient parchments demonstrate that two Thomases, father and son, dwelt there as landowners in the thirteenth century. The tradition of poetry appears to attach to the elder, whose appellation of 'Thomas the Rhymer' might seem decisive on the point if, by a strange coincidence, 'Rhymer' were not also another form of 'Rymour," a surname then common in Berwickshire" (pp. 275-276).
LindahlEtAl:, pp. 404-405, declare him "the first poet on Scottish soil using the 'Inglis' language (that is, Scots as opposed to Cumbrian or Gaelic) whose name is known." The authors compare the folktales about him to Sir Launfal, the first tale in the Mabinogion, and Sir Orfeo.
Garnett and Gosse, on p. 276, note that Robert Manning's 1338 metrical chronicle "affirms [Thomas] to have been the author of a poem on Tristrem sufficiently popular to be habitually in the mouths of minstrels and reciters. This is strong testimony. It is thought to be invalidated by the fact that Gottfried of Strasbourg, writing his standard poem on the Tristrem story nearly a century before Thomas of Ercildoune, declares himself indebted for it to another Thomas, Thomas of Brittany, whom chronology forbids us to identify with the Rhymer. But it is by no means clear that Thomas of Brittany was a poet. Internal evidence proves Gottfried's poem to be derived from a French version."
CHEL1, p. 316, is not convinced: "With the Tristram legend is connected the name of Thomas, a poet of the twelfth century, who is mentioned by Gottfried of Strasbourg in the early thirteenth century. The somewhat misty but historical Thomas of Erceldoune has been credited with the composition of a Sir Tristram story, but this was possibly due to a confusion of the twelfth century Thomas with his interesting namesake of the succeeding century. The confusion would be one to which the popular mind was peculiarly susceptible. Thomas the Rhymer was a romantic figure credited with prophetical gifts, and a popular tale would readily be linked with his name...."
(Garnett and Gosse do say, on p. 278, that the Tristram poem associated with Thomas is of "small" poetic merit; "Its defects are not so much of language, as of insensibility to the beauty and significance of the story; the versification is not inharmonioius, but the poet... follows his original with matter of fact servility, and seems afraid of saying more than is set down for him: hence the strongest situations are slurred over and thrown away.")
Pp. 277-278 add that "A metrical romance composed on [Thomas's] name more that a century after his death represents him as the favored lover of the Queen of Fairy, as residing with her for three years in her enchanted realm, and as at length dismissed to earth lest he should be apprehended by the field, who is about to make his triennial visitation to Elfland, exactly like a bishop. As a parting gift the Fairy Queen endows him with the faculty of prophecy, which he turns to account by predicting a series of events in Scottish history some considerable time after they have taken place.... If, as is supposed, this original poem ended with the return of Thomas to Fairie, it cannot have been written by him, but no doubt embodies a genuine tradition respecting him."
Wells, p. 224, describes the prophecy/romance of "Tomas of Ersseldoune" as havving "three 'fitts,' and was probably originally Northern English. It is preserved in MSS. Thornton (1430-1440), 636 verses [i.e. lines]; C[ambridge] Unic. Libr. Ff V 48 (15th century), 492 verses; Cotton Vitellius E X (late 15th century), very defective, 565 verses; and Sloane 2578 (c. 1550), 321 verses, only fitts 2 and 3 [i.e. it omits the material parallel to this ballad, leaving only the prophecies]. Scattered fragments are found in various MSS. The verses are four-stress abab; the prologue (in MS. Thornton) has 24 verses ababbbcbdeddedefgfgfg." (Making it pretty clear that the prologue is not from the same hand as the rest.) The first fit corresponds closely in plot although not in language with this song, and Child urged that it was originally independent of the rest; it is partly first person, partly third person (Wells, p. 225). Most would agree that the various pieces of the prophecy arose independently.
(This description has its peculiar points, because, Tolkien's study "On Fairy Stories," (pp. 7-8), says that the word "Fairy/Fairie" is not attested before Gower, and only once before 1450, which poses problems in describing a tale allegedly of the fourteenth century.)
The legend of the sleeper under the earth has many parallels; Baring-Gould lists several, of which he considers the Tanhauser legend the earliest; he considers (p. 121) the story of Thomas to be a variant upon that
Thus Thomas's place in legend is very strong. Thomas's prophecies, however, were not "collected" until 1603; it would be difficult to prove the authenticity of most of these. Those wishing for samples can see Lyle, pp. 18-21. Several pages after that are devoted to the idea that Thomas himself will return to somehow set right the problems of the time.
Lyle, pp. 31-33, also compares a text of the ballad of Thomas with the Romance. The parallels are close enough to make dependence an effective certainty. Possibly the parallels would be even closer had not both items been damaged; Lyle thinks the ballad has lost part of its ending, while the romance "is well known to be incoherent." Lyle goes so far (p. 33) as to suggest that the ballad is the source for the romance, although there are genuine difficulties with this hypothesis and I do not believe she presents enough data to allow a real judgment.
Lyle also mentions some possible sources for the idea of standing somewhere and viewing heaven and hell and other places (integral here, and also found in some "House Carpenter" versions); her own suggested source is an item called "St. Patrick's Purgatory"; she also notes "The Adulterous Falmouth Squire" (for a modernized version of the latter, see Stone, pp. 82-88. It is far more of a moralizing piece -- mostly a sermon, in fact -- discussing the sacraments and talking about the sin of David before getting into the story of the squire). Much of the material she refers to could, however, come from Dante or a similar source.
Lyle, pp. 49-54, notes key similarities to the romance of "The Turk and Gawain" (published by Hahn as "The Turke and Sir Gawain"); she even published an article on the subject ("The Turk and Gawain as a Source of Thomas of Ercildoune") in 1970 (see Rice, pp. 537-538, for bibliography of this and of texts of "The Turke and Gowin," in Rice's spelling). "The Turk" is a piece from the Percy Folio, and much damaged, so this is hard to prove. That there are similar motifs is beyond question -- Lyle lists among other similarities the journey with an other-worldly character (see Hahn, p. 341,lines 42-47), denying the hero food, including an order not to eat when plenty is available (Hahn, p. 341, lines 51-54; pp. 342-343, lines 83-94), an underground journey and storm (Hahn, p. 342, lines 66-72, but this section of the romance is damaged), and a castle (Hahn, p. 342, line 77).
Lyle points out that these parallels all occur in one short section of "Thomas" -- but does not point out that they occupy only a small part of "The Turk" -- roughly 60 lines out of the 337 still extant. And the direction the plot takes is completely different. I would be inclined to think that there is a common tale at the root of both.
But it is interesting to note that Whiting/Fox, p. 74, declares that "Gawain's original mistress was a fairy, queen of the other world, and nameless." Whiting rather reduces the effect of this by claiming that fairy wives were common in folklore, but it is certainly of note that the Gawain tale here parallels the tale of Thomas. Although someone really needs to do a detailed examination of date; could "The Turk and Gawain" truly precede the romance of Thomas?
Lyle also suspects a link to what she calls "Sir Landevale" -- the story Marie de France made into the Breton lai of Lanval, which also exists in a fourtheenth century English form as "Sir Landevale," and in the Percy folio text as Sir Lambewell. There are certainly thematic similarities at some points. But to make this contention possible, she has to assume a lost original used by both. I personally think that they merely both picked up the same folklore themes.
Ercildoune itself is now known merely as Earlston, according to Lyle, p. 8. For other place-names found in the versions of the ballad, see Lyle, pp. 12-17. The Eildon Tree of the song is long gone, but there is actually a memorial on its proposed site.
Supposedly this song was the inspiration for Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Alexander: Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain, Sutton Publishing, 2002
- Baring-Gould: Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, new edition, 1894 (references are to the 2005 Dover paperback reprint)
- Briggs: Katherine Briggs, British Folktales (originally published in 1970 as A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales), revised 1977 (I use the 1977 Pantheon paperback edition)
- CHEL1: Sir A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller, Editors, The Cambridge History of English Literature, Volume I: From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance, 1907 (I use the 1967 Cambridge edition)
- Cook: E. Thornton Cook, Their Majesties of Scotland, John Murray, 1928
- Douglas: Ronald Macdonald Douglas, Scottish Lore and Folklore (this is the title on the dust jacket, although the spine and title page call it The Scots Book of Lore and Folklore), Beekman House, 1982
- Garnett/Gosse: Richard Garnett and Edmund Gosse, English Literature: An Illustrated Record four volumes, MacMillan, 1903-1904 (I used the 1935 edition published in two volumes)
- Hahn: Thomas Hahn, editor, Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan
- Hole: Christina Hole, English Folk Heroes: From King Arthur to Thomas a Becket, 1948? (I use the 1992? Dorset Press reprint)
- Kunitz/Haycraft: Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, Editors, British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary, H. W. Wilson, 1952 (I use the fourth printing of 1965)
- LindahlEtAl: Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, and John Lindow, editors, Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, 2000 (I use the 2002 one-volume paperback edition)
- Lyle: Emily Lyle, Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition, Wissenschaflicher Verlag Trier, 2007
- Rice: Joanne A. Rice, Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955-1985, Garland Publishing, 1987
- Stone: Brian Stone, translator, Medieval English Verse, revised edition, Penguin, 1971
- Tolkien: J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories" (presented as a lecture in 1938, then in 1947 in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, then combined with "Leaf by Niggle" in the 1964 volume Tree and Leaf); I use the version published in The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine, 1966 (although, because "Tree and Leaf" has a separate pagination from the rest of the book, it likely is close to the pagination in Tree and Leaf)
- Wells: John Edwin Wells, A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1400, 1916 (references are to the 1930 fifth printing with three supplements)
- Whiting/Fox: B. J. Whiting, "Gawain: His Reputation, His Courtesy, and His Appearance in Chaucer's Squire's Tale," essay reprinted (with modifications) in Denton Fox, editor, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 73-78
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.