The Ballad of True Thomas or Thomas the Rhymer exists in five different versions. It tells the story of Thomas of Erceldoune, from a village of that name in Scotland, who was sitting under a tree ‘by Huntley Banks’ at the foot of the Eildon Hills when a woman on a pale horse came riding along and, after some exchanges between them, carried him off to ‘fair Elfland’. He returns with the gift of ‘true speech’ or ‘a tongue that can never lie’.
Three versions of the Ballad as collected by F. J Child in his ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’ (1862) can be found HERE . At least one of these seems to have been derived from the Romance, that itself exists in five different manuscript versions mostly from the fifteenth century, which tells the story in greater detail and which also attaches a series of prophecies that Thomas was enabled to utter as a result of the ‘true speech’ he gained while in the Otherworld. Other versions may have existed independently in the folk tradition, or derived from the same source as the Romance, but show signs of literary editing in their published form, notably the version of Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1883).
The Ballad and the Romance
The Ballad runs to between eighty and ninety lines according to which version is consulted. The corresponding narrative in the Romance runs to 308 lines. The texts from the various manuscript sources for the Romance and Prophecies were published in James Murray’s Early English Texts Society edition in 1875. The earliest manuscript source dates from c.1430.
Here are the opening lines in my translation from the northern dialect of Middle English in which it is written, with the first two in the original:
[Als j me wente Þis Eldres daye
Ffull faste in mynd makand my mone,]
On a merry morning of May
By Huntley Banks my self alone
I heard the jay and the thrush’s song,
The woodpecker and all the birds
Of the woodland that did throng,
The sweetest sounds that could be heard.
As, full of longing, there I lay
Underneath a graceful tree
I was aware of a lady gay
Riding over the long lea.
If I should live till Doomsday
I could not describe her great beauty,
I would never find the words
To tell of what she seemed to me.
Her palfrey was a dappled grey
Such as was never a one
And as the Sun on a summer’s day
That fair lady herself she shone
Her saddle was of rewel bone
A splendid sight it was to see
Stiffly set with precious stones
Jewel be-studded wondrously.
Her hair about her head did hang
As she rode along the lea
Her silks billowed as she sang
Or blew her horn as she rode free.
The first thing to notice here is that, unlike the ballad, this is written in the first person. The ballad is about Thomas. This purports to be written by him, though there are parts of this narrative that change to third person narration. Another difference is that the Ballad launches straight into the action while the Romance spends some time setting the scene. It is a May morning, the birds are singing and, as the Lady come 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.
As the Lady approaches him, Thomas assumes that she is 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 here she simply says that she is 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, specifically distinguishing Elfland from either Heaven or Hell. But in the Romance 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”
After this, as she predicted, she is transformed and she takes on a hideous appearance. All of this is covered by the kiss in the Ballad, which appears to put Thomas under her spell. 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 the Loathly Lady, or agree to marry her, after which she becomes a beautiful young woman. ‘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 hideousness. 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 Romance, following the Lady’s transformation, Thomas is distraught and reverts to addressing her as the Queen of Heaven, supposing what they have done will bring him great trouble. The Lady’s 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. In guiding him through the terrible ways to the Otherworld, the Lady, though having refused the title, seems to offer him the help and protection he prays for to ‘Mary mild’. 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 again, here, the lady is his guide and protector. The briefer narrative of the Ballad dispenses with most of this but does include references to riding through rivers of blood.
In one of the versions of the Ballad the 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’.
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 Ballad of Tamlane.
Associated Faery Lore
Thomas was an historical character who lived in the thirteenth century in a tower – now a ruin but still partly standing – in the village of Erceldoune (now Earlston) in the Tweed Valley. He was dubbed ‘The Rhymer’ because of his reputation for penning prophetic verses. But many later events became attached to his list of prophecies, mostly related to conflicts between England and Scotland. It seems also that a body of traditional faerie lore also became attached to him
In addition to the Ballad and the Romance, there is a body of Scottish folkore associated with his coming and goings from the Otherworld in tales such as this one-> in which Thomas having been recalled to the Otherworld, continues to move between the worlds.
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 Romance , 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 to himself 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.