A&S Journey: Thomas the Rhymer & “I Must Be Silent”

Coming back from a wonderful Pennsic, we will take a digression from Elizabethan music this week to focus on a new performance piece that originates from older source material. Feel free to watch or read the new song, “I Must Be Silent”, either before or after the discussion of its sources.

Before we continue, let me take a moment to acknowledge the help and support of my new teacher, Master Peregrine the Illuminator, who helped me shape this piece for performance, and provided some guidance on documenting the work on it.

The roots of this piece are deep and historical. It originates with a man who is rooted in history, but shrouded in legend: Thomas of Ercildoune, popularly called the Rhymer. Contemporary legal documents establish the man by that name as the Scottish poet whose writings, including version of “Sir Tristem” from the Arthur legends and volumes of prophetic verse, were transcribed in 14th century English manuscripts. His prophecies were reputed to have foretold significant historic events, and his fame as a seer would survive in Scotland and England for centuries after his death.

His fame as a seer, which at times rivaled that of Merlin, gave rise to an origin story, recorded in multiple manuscripts between 1430-1547. In this epic poem, The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune, attributed (implausibly) to the Rhymer himself, tells the tale of his abduction by the queen of the fairies into Elfland, as the price of kissing her (and likely further intimacy). She takes him beyond the mortal realm, and shows him marvels, including the paths to heaven, hell, and her own realm, Elfland. (This was an important element to protect the Rhymer’s reputation from those who might interpret the story to mean he had sold his soul to the devil for his gifts–the queen establishes clearly that these are the realms that fall within the Church’s purview, while fairies, derived from older Celtic religions, clearly occupy a separate, if somewhat lesser, place in the medieval Scottish mythos.) Thomas is warned by the queen not to speak to any fairy but herself when they arrive, for fear that her jealous husband the king will uncover her dalliance with the mortal and kill her. Thomas enjoys a few days of celebration, and then to his surprise learns that one or more years of mortal time have now passed and he must return, before hell can claim their tithe from the fairies (which, again, Thomas is completely innocent of). Thomas realizes that he will have to account for his disappearance, and fears he will not be believed without some form of proof of the marvels he has seen (and the queen has urged him not to speak falsely–particularly of her). He asks her to give him a “ferly”–a marvel–and so begins a long series of prophecies she imparts to him, one by one, as he continues to beg for further proof to burnish his claim.

The story of the Thomas the Rhymer and the queen of Elfland was clearly well loved; in addition to the several manuscripts of the romance that survived, the story survived to become part of the Scottish oral ballad tradition by the time Francis Child went collecting them in the 19th century. The 3 different versions of “Thomas Rymer” that become Child Ballad #37, likely come from a writer retelling the tale much later with their own embellishment, for they share points in common which make them considerably different from the romance. Many elements from the romance survive, and make it clear this is a version of the same story: Thomas mistaking the queen for Mother Mary, “Queen of Heaven”, on their first meeting; the fateful kiss; crossing a body of water into the underworld; the three paths to the different realms; the warning that Thomas not speak (now shorn of context); and the passage of years before his return to the mortal world. In place of the prophecies, version 37C introduces a magical device that becomes an essential component of the legend: The queen bids him eat an apple that will give him “the tongue that can never lie.” Though he balks at the idea, she insists, and thus Thomas returns from Elfland with the Rhymer’s Curse.

The Child ballad is rightly beloved, and has been set to music numerous times by modern folk musicians (Steeleye Span’s version may be the most famous, though I admit I’m partial to Pamela Morgan’s bittersweet rendition.) Ultimately, though, what drew me to this tale and its history was Ellen Kushner’s 1990 novel, Thomas the Rhymer. Ellen (my wife and I have gone from fans to friends of hers over the years) took the various sources and combined the different story elements brilliantly, along with other medieval fairy lore and Child ballads. The result is a rich narrative about a talented young man whose pursuit of music, songwriting, fame, and beautiful women would make him a target for the mysterious folk whose tales he sang. The novel starts well before he meets the queen, and continues the story through his return home, reunion with loved ones hurt by his disappearance, and the challenges wrought by the changes he has undergone at the hands of the queen.The piece I debuted this Pennsic draws on all these sources, as I explain in my notes. I have done my best in my annotations to detail how the song is constructed from these parts. For those of you who enjoy such things, the rabbit-hole is yours to explore.

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