Thomas the Rhymer

by Ellen Kushner

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: 1990
Printing: June 2004
ISBN: 0-553-58697-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 262

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Thomas the Rhymer, or Thomas of Erceldoune, is a soothsayer from Scottish history best known as the protagonist of the balad by the same name (Child Ballad number 37). Popularly acclaimed as a prophet, he was widely known in 13th century Scotland. The ballad claims that he encountered the Queen of Fairyland and spent seven years in her service, outside the mortal realms. Kushner's book is a retelling of his story from the ballad and other expansions of it.

The plot is very straightforward. Thomas is a harper and philanderer who befriends an older couple who live in the country. He visits them periodically between trips to court and falls in love with a woman who lives nearby, but continues his travelling life until he encounters the Queen of Elfland and falls desperately in love with her. He kisses her and then sleeps with her, and pays the price by being taken away to Elfland. After serving for seven years, and he returns to the world and has to come to terms with how he has changed in his time there.

On its surface, this is not particularly remarkable nor apparently has much depth. There are some complexities added in Elfland, a fairy puzzle that Thomas has to work through, but the plot isn't what carries the book. Rather, the deep characterization and beautiful complexity of their reactions carries this book, and does so quite well.

There are four sections of the book, each told in the first person by a different character. The first was the hardest going for me. Told by the older man whose home Thomas stumbles into in the middle of a storm, it is written in a rustic dialect that I found a touch awkward to read. It also sets up background that doesn't become important until towards the end of the book, which was a bit slow in places. In the second part, thought, told from Thomas's perspective and covering his time in Elfland, I started warming to the book. Thomas develops more depth away from the mortal world, and the pleasures and terrors of the elves are nicely ambiguous and occasionally enigmatic.

By the third and fourth parts, I was delighted. Kushner avoids making anything too simple or black and white. No characters are good or evil, just people (or elves); decisions have consequences, and no path is obviously right, just different and carrying different tradeoffs.

The exploration of Thomas's ability once he returns from Elfland raises intriguing ideas, but despite that and the elven puzzle this is not much of an idea book. The typical fantasy novel will pack in quite a bit more world-building and gosh-wow magical concepts. This is, rather, a quiet story about people, how they interact, the decisions they make, and the effect they have on each other's lives. The ending is just note-perfect and made the book for me, taking only a final five paragraphs to make me rethink the relationships of the whole book and see Elfland and its Queen in a different light.

Thomas the Rhymer is rather unlike the sort of book I normally recommend, but it's about as good of an expansion of a traditional story as I've ever seen. It made me believe in the characters. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-04-07

Last modified and spun 2016-05-06