One of the books that I picked up during the Borders liquidation sale was Ellen Kushner’s “Thomas the Rhymer.” I thought that before reading it I would like to take a look at the legend upon which it was based.
There are many different versions of the ballad, but they all follow the same general storyline. Generally, Thomas encounters the queen of Elfland. Upon kissing her, he follows her to a point where three roads intersect. One is the path of righteousness, one is the path of wickedness, and the third is the road to fairyland. He goes with the Queen to fairyland, where he spends the next seven years. Upon leaving, he is given the gift of truthfulness/prophecy.
One of the things that sets this ballad apart from “Tam Lin” is that the fairy Queen isn’t malicious, and doesn’t really mean Thomas any harm. She isn’t sacrificing him to unknown powers, but rather holding him prisoner for seven years sort of in the same manner that Odysseus was held captive by Circe. It’s like a magical vacation that comes with visions as souvenirs.
For a more modern version of the ballad, one can listen to this song by the group Steeleye Span. I’m not sure how I feel about their vocals, but I do like seeing the modernized lyrics, as they are far more readable than the original text.
The “Thomas the Rhymer” legend, like “Tam Lin,” has had much influence throughout fantasy literature.