Thomas the Rhymer, Ellen Kushner’s retelling of the myth of the 13th century Scottish laird, is a beautifully written fantasy fairytale, full of pastel prose, sweet poetry and cheeky, charming characters. While at this point I expect nothing less of Kushner’s writing, I’m still spellbound by her imagery and her ability to place me right beside the characters, no matter how fanciful the story is. There are no bloody battles or life or death struggles in this book, but nonetheless, Kushner makes her readers’ hearts pound with nothing more than the spooks and desires of the heart.
The book is split into four parts: the first part told by Gavin, a farmer in the Scottish countryside; the second by Thomas, the titular character; the third by Meg, Gavin’s wife; and the fourth by Elspeth, the ultimate retainer of Thomas’ wayward heart.
The story opens with Gavin and Meg sitting in their home one rainy night when they happen to receive and unexpected visitor. The young man at the door is travel worn, soaked through and in need of a fire and some rest. Within a short while they adopt the harper who is called Thomas into their home, care for him, feed him and listen to his outlandish stories. Of course they don’t believe half of them but he’s endearing enough that they don’t mind the embellishments. Thomas stays with them for a season before heading off back to the life of a traveling minstrel.
When he returns again months later, we meet Elspeth, a spirited young woman who lives near Gavin and Meg, and with whom Thomas takes a fancy. The two of them strike up a sort of cat and dog relationship in which the pleasure they receive from each other’s company is carefully hidden under the hissing, growling bickering their interactions tend to dissolve into. After staying for yet longer than before, Thomas heads off again, into the life of court favor, shiny gold rewards and lose noble women.
In this way he comes and goes, always seeming torn between the comfortable, quiet, settled life of Gavin, Meg and Elspeth, and the grand, flamboyant, debauched life of court. During his final visit to the country, however, Thomas seems to be on the cusp of making up his mind when a meeting with the supernatural changes his life forever.
So begins the second part of the book, with Thomas’s encounter with the Queen of Elfland. She has heard of his fame and offers to take him with her to Elfland for seven years of fairy court, food, music, sex—and silence. Thomas agrees with almost shocking haste, given his recent events with Elspeth, and off they go. During the journey, Thomas is given the rules of Elfland: he must not eat the fairy food and he must not speak to anyone but the Queen herself. Thomas is thrilled to be going to the place of his childhood dreams, and with so beautiful and royal a lover attending him, he thinks that the seven years won’t be nearly long enough.
Thomas is pampered by the Queen, and treated like a curious new pet by all the other members of Elfland court, but when he’s not playing in the days-long feasts, or sleeping with his royal lover, Thomas has altogether too much time on his hands. This puts him in conflict with Hunter, the Queen’s brother, who poses a riddle to Thomas and all but dares him to solve it. Thomas, who has taken an instant dislike to Hunter because of the siblings’ exchange over the life or death of a dove, can from that moment on, think of nothing but solving Hunter’s riddle, just to shove it in his face.
That selfish motivation quickly changes when Hunter’s target, the dove drinks a bit of Thomas’ spilt blood and reveals that it is the answer to Hunter’s riddle. Then it is only a matter of writing the best song he has ever sung, and bask in Hunter’s reaction at the defeat of his riddle. When the moment finally comes, Hunter literally erupts into flames, but since the victory is Thomas’ and his Queen’s, Thomas is permitted to have his wish, to give the dove his voice so that it may right the wrongs done to it in life as a mortal man. Thus, Thomas must serve out the rest of his seven years with no voice at all, not even to speak to his queen.
But when that time is over, when he’s finally brought to leave Elfland, the Queen gives him back his voice, along with a final boon of the tongue that cannot tell a lie. Not only must Thomas be entirely truthful with his spoken words, but he also gains the gift of prophesy, for good or for evil. And this concludes part two.
Part three brings us back to Meg and Gavin, now seven years aged and thinking their harper dead and gone for not seeing hide nor hair of him for all these years passed. So when Thomas comes knocking on their door again, changed yet unchanged and spouting the most fanciful stories of seven years in Elfland, Meg is naturally skeptical, and Gavin downright offended that after all this time, Thomas can’t do anything but hand them a pack of lies.
Nothing could be further from the truth, though, and after some painful absolution, Thomas is once again fully embraced by the couple. Of course, he also has to learn about the fate of Elspeth, who married a widower and now takes care of his young, screaming children at the cost of her sanity and happiness. This affronts Thomas who tries convince her to run away with him. Naturally, Elspeth is livid with him, though between fighting and wooing, wooing wins and in the end. Elspeth marries Thomas.
The book then skips years ahead in time to Elspeth, sitting with Thomas on his death bed. In this final part of the book she takes us back to some of their most notable adventures together, mostly centering around Thomas’ ability to read the future, and the success and heartache it brought them both. True to the original story, Thomas’ reunion with the Queen of Elfland is foretold by the sighting of two pure white deer, and Thomas is eased into death by his once lover, concluding the story in sorrowful sweetness.
At 258 pages, Thomas the Rhymer isn’t a long read, and is in fact sped up by the easily digestible prose. There were times when I had to stop reading and go back a few pages, just to re-absorb what I’d read, because I felt like I was getting through it too fast.
I loved the opening part, so much so that I felt a bit disappointed when the point of view switched in the second part. I had got to the point where I didn’t care about the adventures in Elfland, I just wanted to read more about Gavin and Meg and Thomas and Elspeth, all having their little micro-adventures. It didn’t take long for me to get into the Elfland arc, though, especially since Hunter is such an immediately intriguing character. (What can I say, I like them tall, dark, handsome and murderous.)
At times it felt like maybe Thomas knew some things that the reader didn’t. Perhaps it came from being unfamiliar with the real-life myths and ballads of Thomas the Rhymer, but things like who the ghost king at the well was, why Thomas immediately trusted him, and how Thomas was able to figure out certain rules at Elfland court were a bit inadequately explained for me.
I was also a bit disappointed by the reveal of Ermine, but only because after having the character invisible for so long my imagination drew up all sorts of images and fantasies, which I’ll just have to tuck away in the closet in my brain to giggle girlishly over in the future.
Finally, the inclusion of the last part of the book made me put it down for a little while before I could continue reading. I wasn’t ready to read about Thomas’ death, just then. I liked him far, far too much by that point to want him to go away forever. But Kushner writes deaths into her stories with wonderfully sweet emotion, and the death of Thomas the Rhymer is no exception. It was the beautifully painful closure the book needed, and though I wiped a tear away at the end, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy every word of it.
The next book on my reading list is Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist.