1 AUGUST 2019
THE RHYMER'S TALE
SERIES · I EPISODE ·I
Now I’ll tell you a tale of a Britain that is almost gone; a Britain of stone circles, and barrow hills, of giant’s graves and fairy rings. The Britain of the Beltane fires, the greenwood, the enchanted isle. The Britain of the sidhe (shee); the fae; The Hidden People; the people of the barrows; the lordly ones; the good people; the woodkind; the fair folk; the story folk. Of grimms, boggarts, bogles and imps, of goblins and pucks, dwarfs and brownies and bugbears, the elf-kin, and the erl king...
The story of Thomas the Rhymer is derived from a legendary figure of the thirteenth century, whose story is recorded in a fifteenth century medieval verse poem and a series of folk ballads first collected and published in the nineteenth century.
Sir Thomas of Erceldoune – modern day Earlston in Berwickshire, on the Scottish border with Northumberland – is recorded in medieval charters from the thirteenth century which mention his name as ‘Thome Rymour de Ercildoun’. There are five medieval manuscripts containing the romance poem about his encounter with the Elf Queen in full or in fragments. The popular ballad of True Thomas tells the same story, and is listed as number 37 in the Child Ballads collection. There are many versions, the first of which were collected and published in the early 1800s. Additional stories and folklore about Thomas can be found in accounts of Scots historians, including various prophetic verses attributed to him and said to have been proven true by future events.
The story is set around the Eildon Hills in Melrose, Berwickshire, which has been occupied since the Bronze Age and was the site of a Roman hill fort in the first century AD. Archaeological evidence suggests the site may have been considered holy since prehistoric times, and the legend of True Thomas is intimately associated with beliefs that Eildon was a ‘hollow hill’ and possible entrance to the faery world. It is also associated with another figure prominent in Scots folklore, the medieval scholar and reputed magician Michael Scot, who was said to have used his magic to cleft the peak into three pieces.
Our own version of this tale is derived from readings of the romance poem, different versions of the ballad, and later versions presented by folklorists which translated the poem, the ballad and other fragments of folklore about Thomas into a prose story.
Our tale also uses the device of cante fable, the practise of ocassionally interjecting verse into the narrative. Our cante fable verses have been adapted from the poem and the ballads and re-worked to fit into our interpretation of Thomas’ journey. For this series of Lore & Legend, the ballad verses play a key roll as a framing device, a larger tale which functions as a container or a chorus for the other stories in this series. As Thomas follows the Queen into Elf land, she relates to him tales about others who have become entangled with the Other world and it’s denizens. Our verses are largely drawn from or inspired by this edition of the romance poem, and versions of the True Thomas ballad as collected by Frances James Child, interpreted by Walter Scot, and sung by Andrew Calhoun among others.
The identification of the mystical tree on Eildon Hill as an Elder tree (rather than the more common idea that it was a Hawthorne) and the mention of elderberry wine is inspired by commentary on an article on the subject by historian Lee Ray, as is our portrayal of Thomas as something of a drunk and vagabond before his encounter with the Elf Queen.
IN FOLK SONG
You'll find versions by folk legends Ewan McColl and Steeleye Span, a Scots recital by C.RM. Brooks, and atmospheric recitations by Carl Peterson and Andrew Calhoun. They are all available through Spotify.
Thomas, the Rhymer, 1220?-1297?; Murray, James Augustus Henry, Sir, 1837-1915 The romance and prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune : printed from five manuscripts, with illustrations from the prophetic literature of the 15th and 16th centuries, Published 1875
Songs & Ballads
"Thomas Rymer, no. 37", Child's Collected Ballads by Francis James Child
"Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland" in Jamieson, Robert, 1780?-1844, Popular ballads and songs, from tradition, manuscripts, and scarce editions; with translations of similar pieces from the ancient Danish language, and a few originals by the editor, Volume 2, Published 1806
"Thomas the Rhymer" in Scott, Walter, Sir, 1771-1832, Minstrelsy of the Scottish border; consisting of historical and romantic ballads, Volume 2, Published 1802
"Thomas the Rhymer/True Thomas" on Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music
"Erceldoune, Thomas of" by Henry Richard Tedder, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 17
Lee Raye, "The Eildon Tree in ‘The Romance of Thomas of Erceldoune’ (Thomas the Rhymer)", Natural History Blog, Wordpress, Posted on May 18, 2014
"Thomas the Rhymer, Melrose" on The Fiary Folklorist, Posted Tuesday, 14 June 2011