Thomas the Rhymer, also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas Learmont and True Thomas, may or may not have been a Scottish poet and prophet who lived between 1220 and 1297. I say ‘may’ because in many ways Thomas is as much myth as man. He is mentioned in the chartulary (1294) of the Trinity House of Soltra as having inherited lands in Erceldoune, a Berwickshire village now known as Earlston. He is said to have predicted the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland, and the battle of Bannockburn, as well as being the traditional source of many (fabricated) oracles, one of which ‘foretold’ the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. He is also the reputed author of the poem Tristrem, based on the romance of Tristan and Isolde, which no less an authority than Sir Walter Scott considered genuine (it probably in fact emanated from a French source). What Thomas is best known for, however, is the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, included by Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), which tells of his visit to the land of faerie and his imprisonment there by a fey enchantress. In popular lore he was often coupled with Merlin and other British seers. An elusive, inspiring figure, Thomas the Rhymer slipped in and out of the Otherworld, creating new myths and legends that have only grown in the telling in the many centuries since his seeming ‘death’. He is also the probable source of the legend of Tam Lin.
The glittering Otherworlds of Celtic myth are the invisible realms of gods and spirits, fairies, elves and misshapen giants. Some are sparkling heavens and some are brooding hells. The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul. Bards, like druids, were thought to possess supernatural powers of prophecy and inspiration when seized by Awen, the divine muse. Their power to satirise with the glam dicin, an undermining song, made them more feared in their time than many mighty warriors. Like all inspired bards, Thomas the Rhymer paid several visits to the Otherworld, drawing on divine sources of inspiration for his poetry. Common gateways to the otherworld are by water and across narrow bridges, beneath mounds or wells which hide sparkling underground caverns or dark purgatories. It was on the eve of Samhain, October 31 just past, that all of the gates of the Otherworld would open and wondrous spirits would emerge from the hollow hills. It was said of Thomas that he was oft visited by one of these spirits, who was possibly his divine muse. He eventually earned the soubriquet ‘True Thomas’, supposedly because he could not tell a lie.
The prophecies of True Thomas first appeared in literary form in the early 15th century Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune. The 19th century Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov was one of many writers and artists who subsequently claimed Thomas as his ancestor. Several different variants of the ballad of Thomas Rhymer exist, most having the same basic theme. They tell how Thomas either kissed or had sex with the Queen of Elfland and either rode with her or was otherwise transported to the fairy realm. One version relates that she changed into a hag immediately after sleeping with him, as some sort of a punishment to him, but returned to her originally beautiful state when they neared her castle, where her husband lived. Thomas stayed at a party in the castle until she told him to return with her, coming back into the mortal realm only to realise that seven years had passed. He asked for a token to remember the Queen by; she offered him the choice of becoming a harper or a prophet, and he chose the latter. After a number of years of prophecy, Thomas bade farewell to his homeland and presumably returned to the land of faerie, whence he has not yet returned.
Despite being a figure of ancient myth, appearances by and references to Thomas the Rhymer are surprisingly prevalent in today’s fantasy literature. Patricia Wrede’s Snow-White And Rose-Red makes use of elements of the ballad, with the Queen of Elfland and two of Thomas’s sons appearing as major characters. The character True Tom makes an appearance in Raymond E Feist’s popular 1988 fantasy novel Faerie Tale. Other fantasy novels, including Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, use elements from, and allusions to, the ballad. Thomas even appears as ‘True Thomas’ in the graphic novel Aria: Summer’s Spell, in which he is the lost love of the series’ protagonist, Kildare, and finally reunites with her in 1960s London. Thomas also makes a brief appearance in Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic, Book III, The Land of Summer’s Twilight, while Thomas ‘Tom’ Learmont is a major character in Mark Chadbourn’s urban fantasy series The Age of Misrule. The character – re-imagined as an ageing hippy – then returned in the Kingdom of the Serpent series. In the concluding novel of the Night Watch series, Final Watch, by Sergey Lukyanenko, ‘Thomas Rhymer’ appears as the Grand Light Mage Thomas ‘Foma’ Lermont, head of Scottish Night Watch in Edinburgh. Seven Soldiers of Victory, a graphic novel series by acclaimed author Grant Morrison, quotes extensively from the ballad and features an alternate depiction of the Queen of Faerie; Spyder, the protagonist to whom the poem is read (who is later employed by the Queen) is named Thomas. Thomas the Rhymer (here with the alternative name Tom-lin) also appears in Sheri S. Tepper’s novel Beauty and ‘Sir Thomas Learmont de Ercildoune’ is a character in Elizabeth Hand’s novel Mortal Love. Perhaps the finest modern retelling of the legend that I have read, however, is the classic Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner – the book that got me interested in the character in the first place!
See also: an extract from my very own Thomas-inspired short story The Haunted Forest