Thomas the Rhymer


According to the legend Thomas was carried off by the Queen of Faery one day as he sat under the ‘Eildon Tree’ in the Tweed Valley in Scotland. The most well-known version of the story is the Ballad which tells briefly of his being carried off by the Queen on a white horse and told that they are taking neither the road to Heaven nor the road to Hell but a third way which leads “over the ferny brae” to “fair Elfland”. When he returns he has a tongue that can never tell a lie and the gift of poetic speech. The text of the Ballad is on another menu on this site HERE->.

Thomas of Erceldoune was a real person who lived in the Tweed Valley in the thirteenth century and had a reputation as a prophet and a versifier. A much longer version of the story about him is contained in a verse romance  in a fifteenth century manuscript which describes the Queen (there called the Lady) in some detail which has a marked resemblance to the description of Rhiannon in the medieval Welsh tales collected as The Mabinogion. This much more extensive account of the story is followed by a series of prophecies relating to the conflicts between England and Scotland. A detailed comparison of the different versions of the story and their sources can be found HERE->.

Both versions contain initiatory elements involving travel underground, through water and even through blood to get to the Otherworld. Like other legendary poets such as Taliesin, Thomas has the power of prophecy as well as poetic inspiration. Other stories about him in Scottish folklore (e.g. THIS ONE->) portray him as a person able to cross the borders between this world and the Otherworld and as acting as an agent for the faërie folk.

In common with other  stories of legendary bards Thomas’s legend has the elements of identity with a real person or authorial presence which develops into something more than the original identity and becomes the definitive type of the inspired poet, prophet or visionary crossing the boundaries between the worlds.  Other elements within the folklore tradition are gathered in an enlarged story about an awenydd, an initiate of the mysteries or the mouthpiece for prophetic visions some of which have social as well as mystical significance, embodying the aspirations of the tribe in the public arena as well as inner spiritual wisdom.

Author: Greg Hill

Awenydd/Poet, Cultural Critic

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