The Scots ballad of ‘True Thomas’, or ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, tells how Thomas was carried off by the Queen of Faery and given ‘true speech’. It is possible to follow a trail from the medieval abbey in Melrose up onto the Eildon Hills and then to descend to Huntley Bank by Bogle Burn (‘Goblin Brook’) and down to the ‘Rhymer’s Stone’, a memorial to mark the spot where Thomas sat, according to the Ballad, under the ‘Eildon Tree’. The Ballad appears in most anthologies of traditional ballads and is an expression of a folklore motif of the Faery Queen on a horse. In this way it is possible to link it with, for instance, the ballad of Tamlane and literary formulations of the motif like the magical arrival of Rhiannon on a white horse in The Mabinogion where she is described as “dressed in shining gold brocade and riding a pale white horse”.
The Historical Character
Thomas of Ercildoune lived in a tower in the village of Ercildoune (now Earlston) between circa 1210 and 1297. The ruins of the tower can still be seen in the village below the Eildon Hills in the valley of the River Tweed. He was dubbed ‘The Rhymer’ because of his reputation for penning prophetic verses. He is said to be the original author of a poem which survives in several manuscript versions telling the story of his being carried off by an otherworld woman in the first part and a series of prophecies in the succeeding parts. His acquisition of the gift for ‘true speech’ from the woman is the validation of his power as a prophet. The earliest manuscript version of the poem dates from a hundred years after he lived and was written in northern England rather than in Scotland.
Comparison of the Ballad and the Prophecies
The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer runs to between eighty and ninety lines according to which of the several versions are consulted. The corresponding narrative in Fytte One of the ‘Prophecies’ of Thomas of Ercildoune runs to 308 lines, with a partial extension into Fytte Two. So the material in the ‘Prophecies’ is obviously more detailed.
The Ballad launches straight into the action while the ‘Prophecies’ spend some time setting the scene. It is a May Morning, the birds are singing and, as the horsewoman comes riding towards him, she is described in great detail. Thomas is overwhelmed. He says, ‘If I were to live until Doomsday, I couldn’t describe her splendour’. She is ‘shining like the sun on a summer’s day’ as she approaches with her jewel be-studded trappings. As she comes, she sings out and blows upon her horn like a hunter. It takes 72 lines to describe her approach. The Ballad does it in eight lines.
Here is part of the description of her approach in the ‘Prophecies’ with my translation alongside the original:
Als j me wente Þis Eldres daye
Ffull faste in mynd makand my mone,
In a mery mornynge of maye
By huntle bankkes my selfe alone,
I herde Þe jaye & Þe throstyll coke,
The Mawys menyde hir of hir songe,
Þe wodewale beryde als a belle
That alle Þe wode a-bowte me ronge.
Allonne in longynge thus als j laye
Vndre-nethe a seemly tree,
J was whare a lady gaye
Come rydynge ouer a longe lee.
If j solde sytt to domesdaye,
With my tongue, to wrobbe and wrye,
Certanely Þat lady gaye
Neuer bese scho askryede for mee.
Hir palfraye was a dappill graye
Swylke one ne saghe j neuer none
Als dose Þe sonne on someres daye
Þat faire lady hir selfe scho schone.
Hir selle it was of roelle bone
Full seemly was Þat syghte to see
Stefly sett with precious stones
And compaste all with crapote,
Stones of Oryente, grete plente,
Hir hare abowte hir hede it hange;
Scho rade ouer Þat lange lee
A whylle scho blewe, a-noÞer scho sange.
As I went out upon a day
With firm intent making my moan,
On a merry morning of May
By Huntley Banks myself alone,
I heard the jay and the cock thrush
The mavis minding of her song,
The wood lark warbling oh so sweet
And all the wood about me rang.
Alone in longing thus I lay
Underneath a pleasant tree,
I was aware of a lady gay
Come riding over the meadow free.
If I should sit till Doomsday
Twisting my tongue to sing and say
Certainly that lady gay
Could never be described by me.
Her palfrey was of dapple grey
Such as I have never seen
As the Sun on a summer’s day
That fair lady herself she shone.
Her saddle was of rewel-bone
Splendid was that sight to see
Firmly set with precious stones
And compassed round with emeralds,
Eastern gems in great plenty,
Her hair about her head it hung
As she rode over the meadow free
Her horn she blew, and then she sang
As the horsewoman approaches him, Thomas assumes that she must be the Virgin Mary and he addresses her as such, but she informs him he is mistaken. She is, rather, as the Ballad has it, The Queen of Elfland, though in the ‘Prophecies’ she simply says that she is ‘a lady from another country’.
In the Ballad, the Queen invites Thomas to give her a kiss and then almost immediately carries him off to Elfland after identifying other possible roads they could take. But in the ‘Prophecies’ much more happens. After being told that she is not Mary, Thomas begins to suggest that they ‘lie down’ together. At first she refuses, saying that it would ‘mar’ and ‘spill’ her beauty. But Thomas persists and she then agrees:
Down then came that lady bright
Underneath the greenwood spray
And if the story tells it right
Seven times with her he lay.
She said ‘man you like your play’
But after this, as she predicted, she is transformed and her appearance is hideous. All of this is covered by the kiss in the Ballad, although the possible euphemistic meaning of ‘riding over the ferny brae’ is given a more definite context by this scene in the ‘Prophecies’!
The Loathly Lady
The incident where the Lady turns into a hideous hag-like figure is not in the Ballad. But the figure of the ‘Loathly Lady’ is well known in medieval literature. Chaucer used it in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Usually, the hero has to kiss or sleep with the Loathly Lady, or agree to marry her, after which she becomes a beautiful young woman. In earlier stories ‘Kissing the Hag’ is a test, when a hero has to prove himself worthy and these stories are usually interpreted as ‘sovereignty’ themes, the would-be king or leader having to wed the land as winter as well as summer. But the pattern seems to be reversed here. Thomas has done a lot more than kiss the Lady, and the result is that she is transformed from beauty to ugliness. The ‘test’ here is that Thomas has to accompany the Lady in her hideous form back to her own land, leaving ‘Middle Earth’ behind them. This involves a frightening journey underground and through water.
The Journey to the Otherworld
In the Ballad, after Thomas has kissed the Elfin Queen, she takes him up on her horse and they ride ‘swifter than the wind’ across a desert leaving the ‘living land’ behind them. In the ‘Prophecies’, following her transformation, Thomas is distraught and reverts to addressing her as the Queen of Heaven, supposing what they have done will bring him great trouble. Her response is to guide him to a ‘secret’ way under the hill where it is ‘dark as midnight mirk’ and where he must wade through a river. He hears nothing but the constant sound of running water for three days before arriving in a fair garden. Though he is faint with hunger and reaches out to eat some of the fruit in the garden, she tells him not to touch it or he will never return. This is a common theme of visits to the Otherworld and it is well that Thomas has a guide and protector.
The briefer narrative of the Ballad dispenses with most of this but does include references to riding through rivers of blood. Both the Ballad and the ‘Prophecies’, though not in the same place in the narrative, have a scene where the Lady tells Thomas to put his head upon her knee while she points out the different roads that could be taken. The Ballad has three of these: ‘the road to righteousness’, ‘the road to wickedness, which some call the road to heaven’, and the ‘bonnie road across the ferny brae’ which will take them to Elfland. In the ‘Prophecies’, the five roads identified are to heaven, to paradise, to purgatory, to hell, and to a castle on a hill which is their destination. The Ballad makes its point without these theological distinctions, simply asserting that ‘Elfland’ is neither heaven nor hell.
In the version of the Ballad given by Walter Scott the Elfin Queen, rather than warning Thomas not to eat the fruit, offers him an apple which will give him ‘a tongue that can never lie’. We are then simply told that he returns after seven years wearing a coat ‘of the even cloth’ and ‘shoes of velvet green’. In both the Ballad and the ‘Prophecies’ Thomas is told not to speak while he is in the Otherworld. In the ‘Prophecies’ the reason given for this is that the Lady doesn’t want him to be questioned by her husband. The Ballad has no explanation except that if he does speak he will never return home.
As they ride towards the castle, the Lady’s beauty returns to her. Thomas stays there for what seems like three days but he is told it is three years (compare the Ballad’s seven years). He must leave, the Lady tells him, as the ‘foul fiend of hell’ will come to claim one of the company and if Thomas is there she fears it will be him. There is a parallel here with the story of Tamlane. Fytte One ends with the lady bringing Thomas back to the Eildon Tree. In fyttes Two and Three she keeps trying to take leave of him with repeated statements like ‘I must wend my way’ and ‘I may no longer dwell’. But Thomas keeps asking her for ‘ferlies’ and a series of prophecies are delivered.
There are five extant manuscripts of the ‘Prophecies’, the earliest from the 14th century. Although the story seems to have originated in Scotland, the dialect of Middle English used indicates that the author of the versions we have was from the North of England. This suggests an adaptation of a Scottish tale. The change from the First Person to the Third Person, and then back again, also suggests a source in an earlier version. The tales begins “As I went out …” and continues using ‘I’ until Thomas sees the Lady. The narration then changes with “He said …” and remains in the Third Person through all the central events until “My lovely lady said to me” when she informs Thomas that they are to return. It then remains in the First Person. Was there an earlier version entirely in the First Person, told by Thomas of Ercildoune, and if so was he relating on his own account a story already known to him?
Two versions of the Ballad appeared early in the Nineteenth Century, one from Walter Scott and the other from Robert Jamieson. Both originated from a Mrs Brown of Falkirk who knew many ballads “which were sung to her when she was a child by an old maid-servant”. There are some differences between Scott’s and Jamieson’s versions. Scott may also have been influenced by the ‘Prophecies’. Elsewhere he wove the Ballad together with some pieces of his own devising based on the ‘Prophecies’ into a creative sequence of his own. He was certainly enthusiastic about Thomas’s legendary status and he even tried to appropriate it by incorporating a ‘Rhymer’s Glen’ into his estate at Abbotsford a few miles away from the spot where the ‘Eildon Tree’ was located.
Associated Faery Lore
In addition to the Ballad and the ‘Prophecies’ of True Thomas, there is a body of Scottish fairy lore associated with Thomas. His coming and goings from the Otherworld feature in many tales in which Thomas continues to move between the worlds after being called back to the Otherworld when a white hart and hind came walking down the village street. Thomas, who was at the time engaged in some sort of revelry, knew what this meant and left immediately. These tales tell that he would appear, for instance, to engage musicians and take them back to play in dances held under the hills. When they return after a long night’s playing, they find that a hundred years or more have passed. Time, in Faery, runs on a different scale.
Whether these stem from the Ballad, or are a parallel development with the Ballad, is difficult to establish. Just as it is difficult to be certain whether either or both of these came from the tale that opens the ‘Prophecies’ or whether all stem from a common earlier source.
What is likely is that Thomas became a magnet for the folklore of the Otherworld, attracting stories whose themes are also expressed elsewhere. He became a typical figure of the Otherworld journeyer, moving backwards and forwards across the borders of the two worlds.
The full text of the ‘Prophecies’ with manuscript variations is contained in an edition by James Murray in an Early English Texts Society edition published in 1875.
Walter Scott’s version of the Ballad is contained in his Border Minstrelsy (1802)
Robert Jamieson’s version appeared in his Popular Ballads and Songs (1806)
Three different versions of the Ballad as collected by Child can be found HERE
For an account of the circumstances of both Walter Scott and Robert Jamieson obtaining the Ballad from Mrs Brown of Falkirk see: Illustrations of Literary History of the Eighteenth Century by J B Nichols (1848)