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Thomas the Rhymer

[tom-uhs uhv ur-suhl-doon]
Not to be confused with Thomas Rymer, a 17th century English historian.

Thomas Learmont (c. 1220 – c. 1298; also spelled Learmount, Learmonth, or Learmounth), better known as Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas, was a 13th century Scottish laird and reputed prophet from Earlston (then called "Erceldoune"). He is also the protagonist of the ballad "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child Ballad number 37). He is also the probable source of the legend of Tam Lin.

Historical figure

Thomas was born in Erceldoune (also spelled Ercildoune - presently Earlston), Berwickshire, sometime in the 13th century, and has a reputation as the author of many prophetic verses. Little is known for certain of his life but two charters from 1260-80 and 1294 mention him, the latter referring to the "Thomas de Ercildounson son and heir of Thome Rymour de Ercildoun".

Popular esteem of Thomas lived on for centuries after his death, to the extent that several people have fabricated Thomas' "prophecies" in order to further the cause of Scottish independence. His reputation for supernatural powers for a time rivalled that of Merlin. Thomas became known as "True Thomas" because he could not tell a lie. Popular lore recounts how he prophesied many great events in Scottish history, including the death of Alexander III of Scotland.

Prophecies attributed to Thomas

  • "On the morrow, afore noon, shall blow the greatest wind that ever was heard before in Scotland."

This prophecy predicted the death of Alexander II; the exact nature of the blow only became apparent with the king's death the next day.

  • "As long as the Thorn Tree stands

Ercildourne shall keep its lands."
Of this prophecy, Barbara Ker Wilson writes: In the year the Thorn Tree did fall, all the merchants of Ercildourne became bankrupt, and shortly afterwards the last fragment of its common land was alienated.

  • "When the Cows of o' Gowrie come to land

The Judgement Day is near at hand"
The Cows of Gowrie, two boulders near Invergowrie protruding from the Firth of Tay, are said to approach the land at the range of an inch a year.

The biggest and bonniest o' the three"

  • "At Eildon Tree, if yon shall be, a brig ower Tweed yon there may see."

Ballads

Musicologists have traced the ballad, "Thomas the Rhymer", back at least as far as the 13th century. It deals with the supernatural subject matter of fairy-folk. The theme of this song also closely relates to another song, that of Tam Lin, which follows the same general topical lines. Its more general theme relates to temptation and mortal pleasures. There is also a 14th century romance "Thomas of Erceldoune", with accompanying prophecies, which clearly relates to the ballad, though the exact nature of the relationship is not clear.

Several different variants of the ballad of Thomas Rhymer exist, most having the same basic theme. They tell how Thomas either kissed or slept with the Queen of Elfland and either rode with her or was otherwise transported to Fairyland. One version relates that she changed into a hag immediately after sleeping with him, as some sort of a punishment to him, but returned to her originally beautiful state when they neared her castle, where her husband lived. Thomas stayed at a party in the castle until she told him to return with her, coming back into the mortal realm only to realise that seven years (a significant number in magic) had passed. He asked for a token to remember the Queen by; she offered him the choice of becoming a harper or a prophet, and he chose the latter.

After a number of years of prophecy, Thomas bade farewell to his homeland and presumably returned to Fairyland, whence he has not yet returned.

Motifs

Thomas' gift of prophecy is linked to his poetic ability, although it is not clear if the name Rhymer was his actual surname or merely a soubriquet. He is often linked with Sir Tristrem, a version of the Tristram legend, and some lines in Robert Mannyng's Chronicle may be the source of this association. Sir Tristrem though, is an adaptation of a mid-12th century, Anglo-Norman romance ascribed to Thomas of Britain and it may be the two Thomases are being confounded.

Music

The German version of Tom der Reimer by Theodor Fontane was set as a song for male voice and piano by Carl Loewe, his op. 135. The following have each made recordings of the ballad in recent times:

An outstanding earlier recording, in German, is by Heinrich Schlusnus, on Polydor 67212, of 1938 (78 rpm).

Literature

  • Criticism: Composer and teacher R J Stewart provides a full esoteric exegesis of the ballad in his book The UnderWorld Initiation.
  • Works about:
    • Rudyard Kipling's poem The Last Rhime of True Thomas features Thomas Learmounth, and a king who's going to make Thomas his knight.
    • Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer is a full-length novel based on the ballad and associated folklore.
    • Scottish author Nigel Tranter's 1981 novel True Thomas is based on the known facts and legends of Thomas the Rhymer.
    • Thomas is a major character in Alexander Reid's play The Lass wi the Muckle Mou.
    • "Erceldoune", a novella by Holy Blood, Holy Grail co-author Richard Leigh, is based on Thomas the Rhymer, and features a folk-singer named Thomas "Rafe" Erlston. Found in Erceldoune & Other Stories. ISBN 978-1-4116-9943-4
    • William Croft Dickinson wrote a children's book titled "The Eildon Tree" about two modern children meeting Thomas the Rhymer and traveling back in time to a critical point in Scottish history.
  • Books referring to:
    • Patricia Wrede's Snow-White And Rose-Red makes use of elements of the ballad, with the Queen of Elfland and two of Thomas's sons appearing as major characters.
    • The character True Tom (also Thomas Learmont, Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas the Rhymer) makes an appearance in Raymond E. Feist's popular 1988 fantasy novel Faerie Tale.
    • Other fantasy novels, including Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock, use elements from, and allusions to, the ballad.
    • Thomas appears as True Thomas in the comic book Aria: Summer's Spell. He is the lost love of the series' protagonist, Kildare, and finally reunites with her in 1960s London.
    • True Thomas has a brief appearance in The Books of Magic, Book III, "The Land of Summer's Twilight".
    • Thomas 'Tom' Learmont is a major character in Mark Chadbourn's fantasy series The Age of Misrule. The character returned in the Kingdom of the Serpent series. He is often referred to in the stories as True Thomas or Thomas the Rhymer.
    • In the novel Final Watch by Sergey Lukyanenko Thomas Rhymer appears as the Grand Light Mage Thomas 'Foma' Lermont, head of Scottish Night Watch in Edinburgh.
    • Seven Soldiers of Victory, a graphic novel series by acclaimed author Grant Morrison, quotes extensively from the ballad and features an alternate depiction of the Queen of Faerie; Spyder, the protagonist to whom the poem is read (who is later employed by the Queen) is named Thomas.
  • Authors named/related:

Thomas Learmont is character in Elizabeth Hand's novel Mortal Love.

Art

References

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