I Must Be Silent (Thomas the Rhymer)


This is a retelling of one of my favorite stories, by one of my favorite authors. The song was written in July of 2019, and was first performed at Pennsic 48 (seven years after my introduction to the Bardic community, as fate would have it).

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I Must Be Silent © 2019 by Eric Schrager

Once again, here it is I stand, [1]
In this hall with my harp in hand [2]
And the Queen calls out, “Come, Rhymer, play a tune.” [3]
That’s my leave, so a song I start,
My strings weaving the minstrel’s art [4]
In the odd blue light, but without stars or moon… [5]

When I finish, they all drink deep. [6]
(Feels like days since I last knew sleep!) [7]
Then she waves me off; my feasting seat I find. [8]
Only touch what is on my plate. [9]
Speak with no one, for that’s my fate.
These are not my kin; I know they’re not my kind… [10]

I must be silent, as I live among the Fae.
I must be patient, as I serve these years away.
Though I harp for the hall, still I never can be heard.
Though I sing to the host, still I cannot speak a word. [11]

I think back to the Eildon tree, [12]
Where this strange lady came to me.
There were silver bells hung from her horse’s mane. [13]
Queen of Heaven I called her then—
“Thomas, no, you must guess again.” [14]
Next to her, all women of this earth seemed plain… [15]

“I, good Rhymer, am Elfland’s Queen.
I must warn you that if you’re keen
For a kiss, your body follows. Do you dare?”
I leaned in, didn’t count the cost,
My head swimming, my senses lost.
And she smiled, because she had me in her snare… [16]

“You must be silent, and my lips you shall obey.
You must patient, seven years you’ve kissed away.
You’re a minstrel, I know, but on earth you won’t be heard.
You belong to me, Rhymer, and I’ll have not a word.” [17]

On her horse did we then we descend
To a cavern that had no end;
Through a pitch-black sea; I held on tight for days. [18]
We alight in an orchard strange.
I look round as the seasons change. [19]
There is golden fruit I spy through hunger’s haze…

“Thomas, that’s not for you to eat.”
“But, my lady, it smells so sweet!”
“That was Adam’s folly; would you lose your soul? [20]
I’ve a basket with bread and wine,
Mortal food that is safe to dine. [21]
Then we’re off at last, to Elfland and our goal… [22]

“You must be silent, for your tongue’s the price you pay.
You must patient, seven years and then a day.
You will sing for the hall; only then shall you be heard.
Answer only to me; to all else speak not a word.” [23]

So her weird I may not dispute:
I, the Rhymer, must play the mute!
In the songs and tales, I’ve not heard such a doom. [24]
Now upon me the Faerie court,
Bright or hideous, tall and short. [25]
When they tease and pry, I’m silent as the tomb…

They hunt mortals to play their games, [26]
Drawn to us like a moth to flames. [27]
They ignore me now, as if I were a hound. [28]
With closed lips and with open ears,
With no measure to count the years, [29]
Learning secrets while I cannot make a sound… [30]

I must be silent, for it is my price to pay.
I must be patient, as I serve my life away.
Oh, they wish me no harm, but it chafes to not be heard.
Oh, the things I would tell them, if I could say a word. [31]

We arrive (is the journey done?)
In the orchard where we’d begun,
Then she plucks an apple and lets out a sigh.
“Seven years, Thomas, you’ve been true.
Now you’ve earned what I kept from you.
Have a taste, and know the tongue that cannot lie.” [32]

“This is how you would say farewell?
Bind my tongue in a lifelong spell,
Like a deadly blade? I think this fate is worse.”
“You’ll accept the reward I planned.
Eat it now, heed your Queen’s command!” [33]
As I take a bite, she leaves me with my curse… [34]

I must be silent, for I fear what I may say. [35]
I must be patient, for I’ve been so long away. [36]
I have marvels to tell, but my tale cannot be heard. [37]
I can speak only truth, and they won’t believe a word… [38]

I shall be silent, taking care in what I say.
I shall be patient, as I find my part to play. [39]
I can see ev’ry truth, choosing how to make it heard… [40]
In my silence I learned, there is power in ev’ry word. [41]


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Notes

This song is an attempt to weave together distinct parts of my artistic persona. It is based on a Fae story from the medieval period, carefully researched; it is an original song that relates a narrative in the SCA bardic tradition; and it is an expression of personal and emotional truths, in the manner of a modern singer-songwriter.

To create this retelling, I drew on the following sources:

I studied the romance, reviewing Murray’s parallel text edition, which displays the four manuscripts side by side down the page, allowing me to compare the different lines to help me piece the Middle English story together. I read through the 3 extant ballad versions from Child, examining which elements of the story they had in common with each other and the earlier work. Professor Child’s notes, comparing the ballad versions against the romance and their similar and distinct plot points, was invaluable for this.

I built the narrative of the song wherever possible from elements that could be cited directly back to the romance or the ballad, as shown in the annotations. When reconciling the different versions of scenes and events, and expanding on the story to include Thomas’s emotional journey in Elfland, I drew on the novel, and have annotated accordingly.

The careful sourcing above notwithstanding, the intention with this song was a piece that fits into the SCA folk tradition, rather than using period forms. This song is in first person, like the novel but unlike the earlier sources, because Thomas’s point of view provided the emotional access I wanted the song to have. Similarly, the tune, meter, and rhyme scheme were all chosen to suit the mood I was after, rather than Celtic or Elizabethan music sources.

In addition to Ellen Kushner, who is now a friend, I must express thanks to my wife Jessica (my reading this book to her was an essential part of our courtship) for her feedback (and for introducing us to Ellen), as well Master Peregrine the Illuminator, who offered vital feedback on shaping the piece.

Journey into creating the song

My debt as an artist to Ellen’s novel has been well documented on this website. My fascination with Fae stories and ballads, including the Child ballads, but pre-1600 pieces wherever possible, starts with that book and the rich research Ellen put into it. The influence of that work shows up in a significant amount of my bardic work, including “Tam Lin of the Elves”, “Call Me Will”, “Changeling”, and some of the stories I’ve researched and told, such as the Fenian/Ossian cycle (particularly “Oisín in the Land of Youth”).

Nevertheless, while I had long intended to do a song adaptation of the Rhymer’s story (and Ellen’s version in particular), it took years to get to it. The biggest reason was simply the that I had done “Tam Lin of the Elves” first, and that song (and the recording with Heather Dale) quickly became one of my signature pieces. The challenge is that the two stories have so much in common structurally, because Tam Lin derives from Thomas. In each, the Queen of Elfland captures a mortal man named Thomas from the Scottish Highlands, and keeps him prisoner in her domain for seven years, before he is returned to human world. Both stories have strong suggestions that the mortal is her lover, and in both the Queen performs feats of magic that demonstrate her power over him and strip him of agency. Indeed, in neither version is he able to leave Elfland of his own volition–in Tam Lin, he requires Janet’s help to escape, and in Thomas, the Queen returns him voluntarily. In at least some version of both stories, it is suggested or stated that the mortal is at risk of being the Queen’s “tithe to hell” if he remains in Elfland more than seven years. So I held off on tackling Thomas in song form for a few years, lest I be accused of repeating myself.

In the end, however, despite their commonalities, the two ballads tell very different stories. Thomas the Rhymer is primarily concerned about the journey into Elfland, while Tam Lin is primarily about the escape from it. Thomas’s Elf Queen is irresistible and seductive, but ultimately benevolent (to the Rhymer, at least), while Tam Lin’s Queen is jealous, angry, and vengeful. Nearly all of Thomas’s ballad is a dialogue between him and the Queen, while most of Tam Lin is told form Janet’s perspective, or a dialogue between Tam Lin and her (even in my version, which is narrated by Tam Lin, only has the Queen show up at the end to hurl curses).

As I examined it over the years, I found another difficulty in retelling Thomas the Rhymer: the source material, either the romance or the ballad, has very little in the way of dramatic action. That’s because Thomas’s tale isn’t so much a story, as it is a legend: the origin myth of how Thomas of Ercildoune, the famed 13th-century seer and Scottish national hero, acquired the abilities that fueled his volumes of prophetic verse. It has been set to music and recorded by any number of folk musicians (probably most famously Steeleye Span), and these songs capture the charm and magic of the ballad.

But a charming story fragment about magic and kisses and mysterious marvels wasn’t what made me fall in love with Fae stories, or with the idea of being a minstrel. Ellen Kushner’s book adaptation did. Because she gave the story what (I felt) the sources lacked: compelling emotional stakes. Pain, loneliness, isolation, a tragic sense of inevitability, and the struggle to win past overwhelming obstacles and forge connection with others. Personal transformation, success and failure. Love, yearning, bitterness, forgiveness, reconciliation. Reflections on what it means to be human, the difference between status born of work and talent and status that is inherent and unearned, how to hone and use one’s own gifts when they are the only power one possesses.

At the same time, as a Scadian, “Thomas the Rhymer” has something “Tam Lin” and many other stories do not have: unimpeachably documentable period sources. There are no fewer than four manuscripts dating to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for the romance. Thomas of Ercildoune himself is established by historical legal documents that tell us he lived and died in the thirteenth century. The similarities between the romance and the extant versions of the ballad are overwhelmingly clear, giving this Child Ballad clear and tangible roots in period. It’s exciting to be able to bring so much accessible research material to a piece. (The evidence for “Tam Lin” in period is slight and circumstantial at best, a reference in a sixteenth century document to a song that has a very similar name, and may or may not be the ballad that made it to Child.)

I had gotten permission from Ellen to use her book as source material for a song some time in 2018. I had had ideas and tunes for the song treatment for years. In pretty much all of them, I focused on the relationship between Thomas and his mortal love Elspeth, who mourns him for dead and is less than thrilled to discover that he has been alive and well, living a life of comfort and great privilege, for seven years. To me, it was the heart of the book. Ellen takes us past Thomas’s return to Elfland, and reckons with the thorny questions of how he can return to his mortal life given the Queen’s parting gift. Indeed, the final section, narrated by Elspeth after their marriage, is my favorite section. Only a handful of books can bring me to tears on repeated readings: just rereading some of the passages of Thomas and Elspeth’s reconciliation for the annotations on this page made me well up multiple times.

So I wrote a complete first very rough draft that attempted to retell the broader four-part story of Ellen’s novel, titled “The Tongue that Cannot Lie”, a little over a month before writing “I Shall Be Silent”. I was very excited, I loved the tune I was working with…and when I finished it, I looked it over, and I put it away. I never even shared it with my wife Jessica. It just wasn’t compelling. If you had read the book, you might appreciate a Cliff’s Notes thumbnail summary of it…but, why? And if you weren’t a fan of the book, what was there in this song that would grab you? A hint at different characters who are never fleshed out beyond a line or two? This wasn’t it.

A month or so later, I was struggling with some emotional stuff, like you do. I was very aware that I hadn’t written a new original song in nearly a year, and feeling very blocked. I found myself thinking of Thomas as Ellen presents him in her novel. The time he spends feeling out of his depth. The demand that he hold his tongue, and confine his words, even as he is under the scrutiny of the Faery court. His frustration, his venting of his temper privately with the Queen, which invariably results in her showing him, time and again, that he will not get any of what he wants by wanting it, much less by demanding it. By the time he returns home, he has been molded and changed by his experience. He is very much the better man for it. But he has to face people he cares about, who initially will not take him at his word when he tries to explain himself. And it leaves him, and Elspeth, with scars that may or may not ever heal.

Ultimately, that was the hook–Thomas’s journey into Elfland, into silence, and what it cost him, and what it yielded for him. In the end, focusing on that story meant leaving out Elspeth and the other characters in the novel that don’t appear in the sources. It saddens me a little, but this was the right version of this story for Drake to tell.


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Annotations

[1] “I Must Be Silent” draws primarily from Ellen Kushner’s novel Thomas the Rhymer (with her gracious permission), as well as the Child ballad and the medieval romance that were her sources. The novel is broken into four parts with four different narrators; in the second and longest section, “Thomas”, the Rhymer describes his own experiences in Elfland, which only he can recount firsthand. (The other sections, where Kushner adds the story of the couple who fostered him and farm girl he fell in love with before these adventures, with whom he must reconnect and reconcile when he reappears after seven years presumed dead, are outside the scope of this retelling, but I recommend the book highly.)

Kushner describes in detail Thomas’s seven years of servitude, weaving in material from other folk ballads to create a sojourn in the Faerie realm rich with incident, atmosphere, and character. The source poem and ballad are full of marvelous details about his journey to Elfland, and his departure from it, all of which Kushner ingeniously incorporates into her prose retelling, and most of which I attempt to include in my piece. But the Child ballads skip over his time in actual service completely, while the romance touches on it briefly, saying Thomas experienced it as a few days from his point of view (see note below).

But by spending time in Elfland, Kushner gives the tale narrative coherence, its protagonist compelling character development, and the rules to which he is bound emotional weight and relatable stakes. This song is my attempt to impart a hint of the richness Kushner brought to the story, into a new song version.

Thomas’s section of the novel opens with a general reflection of the strangeness of his situation in Elfland, a storyteller and singer trying to entertain the mystical beings who are themselves the subject of so many of the stories and songs he is famed for telling—and the challenge he faced being unable to speak to them, before he steps back and begins to recount his adventures from his first meeting with the Queen. I emulate that “cold open” approach in the first verse of the song, dropping the listener into Elfland in medias res.


[2] Kushner’s telling has Thomas as a harper, and a singer and songwriter. (The story of a court musician seeking his place in both the mortal and Faery world, were a significant influence on my conception of my SCA bardic persona from the beginning.) Only in researching this song, did I discover that the source material specifically says that Thomas didn’t play the harp. This clearly ran contrary to Kushner’s desire for the novel to explore folk music and ballads, and the creative process of a songwriter. Ultimately, she chose to reconcile the contradiction between her story choice and the well-known words of the romance with self-referential Easter Egg that absolutely delighted me when I finally uncovered it while writing my song.

While “harp or carp” is a refrain the Queen says to Thomas in virtually every version of the romance and the ballad, Thomas responds, if at all, with a denial that he is interested in playing music:

‘Gyff me a tokynynge, lady gaye, / That I may saye I spake with the.’

‘To harpe or carpe, whare-so þou gose, / Thomas, þou sail hafe þe chose sothely’: / And he salde, ‘Harpynge kepe I none, / Ffor tonge es chefs of mynstralsre.’

(Thornton MS II.1-4)

Thomas asks for a parting gift, so he may prove back in the world that he really visited Elfland. The Queen offers him a choice of speech or music, and Thomas chooses speech. This will lead in the romance to the Queen imploring Thomas not to lie or speak ill of her, and then to sharing prophecies with him as his proof. (This will evolve in the ballads, the Kushner’s novel, into the enchanted of the “tongue that cannot lie”.)

Kushner ultimately puts part of this passage in Thomas’s mouth, but he is quoting (apparently) some other minstrel or poet. It happens when his host, Gavin, responds to Thomas’s frustration that his harp is damaged, so he cannot sing for Gavin and his wife:

“You know”, says I, “I’ve been thinking, Thomas. Here you are a minstrel and all. But you cannot sing without your harp. Are they all like that, minstrels?”

He flashed me a look, but a mild one. “You’ve been talking to Murray of Thornton:

‘And now, my friend, you must be gone;
Harp or carp as you choose soothely,’
And he said, ‘Harping ken I none,
For tongue is chief of minstrelsy.’

“Wretched doggerel. Of course I can sing without the harp. What would you like to hear?”

(Kushner, p. 15-16)

So Thomas says the words, but actually disparages them as “wretched doggerel” to make it clear that they don’t govern his behavior.

The question I was left with when I realized what the passage meant was: who on earth was this “Murray of Thornton” that Thomas was quoting? And that was the punchline: Kushner is referencing Robert Thornton, the fifteenth-century amateur scribe whose manuscripts included the oldest surviving version of the romance, and James A.H. Murray, the Scottish scholar who edited The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Ercildoune (1875), presenting the Thornton, Cotton, Lansdowne and Cambridge manuscripts of the romance side by side to allow comparison and interpretation between them.

Thomas is quoting (and refuting) himself in his own story. Kushner has a lot of fun playing with the various conflicting sources for this story, but I suspect, never with more glee than here.


[3] Royalty is royalty everywhere.

“Give us a tune,” said the queen, like all the others I have ever known.

(Kushner, p.89)

[4] This verse briefly incorporates details from Kushner’s description of the first Faerie feast Thomas attends after the Queen brings him to Elfland, though I set the verse at some indeterminate point later in his stay. I also want to tackle a subtle but key loophole in the Queen’s rules (Thomas is here as an entertainer, so he is permitted to sing and play his harp) and dispense with it from the outset. Yes, he is allowed to sing and make music for the court. We will establish for the remainder of the song that his voice and his agency are nonetheless stripped from him by the Queen.


[5] The first hint in the scene (aside from the name “Rhymer”) that this is no ordinary court or queen, and that Thomas is far from home:

Inside I beheld a night-scene: a great hall full of Elven feasting, with music of all kinds… and all brightly lit by the cold blue torches. It gave the whole scene a sea cast, as though they were feasting underwater.

(Kushner, p. 86)

[6] An Easter Egg for lovers of the book:

“Drink! Drink! I’ve the red thirst on me!”

…Behind me the whole hall was crying hard for drink… there was no merriment in their cries, but the desperation of the parched. Even the queen took a deep draught from her chalice…

(Kushner, p. 90)

“You will want to know,” she said, “why your harping took them as it did last night.”

Now that I remembered it, I wanted to know what had been poured in their drinking cups. Not all the old tales of Elfame concern lovers; some are very grim.

Kushner, p. 95)

[7] The Fae do not experience time as mortals do, but create a simulacrum of it:

“I’m tired, too: this feast has gone on for days. Oh, yes, I know about mortal time, not like some I could mention…”

I was indeed terribly weary, as though I had spent days at the feast instead of a few hours.

(Kushner, p. 92-93)

“I’ve done what I can to let you live in our time here. but you can’t expect to grow accustomed all at once. I’ve made your room always be morning when you wake up, though–that should be nice for you.”

(Kushner, p.94)

…and then I…watched the light grow stronger, felt it glow golden warm on my skin, until it was as hot and bright as high noon. The water of the fountain pool sparkled, dazzling. But there was no sun reflected in it.

(Kushner, p. 97)

[8] While he is permitted to speak to the Queen, all their conversations are in private, with one exception late in the story, where he addresses her in front of her court.

So, before her court I was to be her minstrel—but her favored minstrel, seated at her table if not at her right hand.

(Kushner, p. 90)

[9]

“And since you are so well versed in Faery lore, I need not add that mortals are under weird to eat no food of Elfland. But never fear — you will be well provided for.”

(Kushner, p.75)

Celtic Fae mythology reflects the Greek myths from which it has been borrowed, as in the myth of Persephone escaping Hades, but being required to return 6 months out of the year because she ate pomegranate seeds while she was there. Note this example, which mixes elements of that myth with that of Orpheus’s attempt to rescue Eurydice from Hades:

He told us one of a heathen king, Orfeo, whose wife was stolen away to Elfland by the king of the fairies. But this Orfeo being a great harper, he followed his wife down to Elfland, and there harped tears of pity from the Queen of Elfland’s eyes. So his wife was allowed to return to Middle-Earth with him–only she’s eaten seven hazelnuts in Elfland, which is fairy food that mortals may not safely touch; so seven days out of each year she is bound to stay in that other land.

(Kushner, p. 22-23)

[10] I couldn’t resist a poetic (if anachronistic) allusion to Shakespeare: “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (Hamlet, Act 1, scene 2), Hamlet throwing shade on his uncle Claudius, who is calling him “son” in public having taken his father’s throne and wife.

I looked out over that sea of wonder, and I was alone. I could speak to no one, and no one could say anything familiar to me: there was no link of blood or breeding between me and these folk. Even the simple kinship of bread and wine was denied us. The beauties, the antlered, the winged ones, all awash in their sea of blue light….I thought, God help me, seven years of this, and this the first night….

(Kushner, p. 91)

Meg was right: the Elves are not like us. A g*psy tinker is your own dear brother next to an Elf.

(Kushner, p. 128)

[11] This first refrain hints at his years-long servitude, and the peculiar constraints the Queen has placed upon him. Variations on this will be played out in subsequent refrains. For a six verse song, I determined that a repeating chorus would slow down the action (much as it’s a great place to have the audience join in singing), and instead use the refrains to keep the story moving forward, reflecting on the events of the latest verse and how they shape Thomas’s freedom (or lack of it).


[12] The Eildon Tree (which, I now know, should be pronounced “EEL-don”, and is rendered variously in the the editions of the medieval romance as “Eldone” (Thornton), “Elden” (Lansdowne), and “eldryn” (Cambridge)) was a famous Scottish landmark, closely associated with the historic Thomas of Ercildoune, aka the Rhymer. Thomas has been revered as a prophet and Scottish hero for centuries. Trees are often depicted in folklore as gateways to and from Faerie, and the Eildon is one of the most famous, probably because Thomas was reputed to have written much of his prophetic verse there. The tree was, sadly, cut down in Details about the tree, the historic Thomas, and the medieval romance written to explain how he got his prophetic powers can be found here.


[13]

At ilka tett o’ her horse’s mane / Hung fifty siller bells and nine.

(Child 37A.2)

[14]

‘All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven! / For your peer on earth I never did see.’ / ‘O no, O no, True Thomas,’ she says, / ‘That name does not belong to me; / I am but the queen of fair Elfland, / And I’m come here for to visit thee.’

(Child 37A.3-4)

He knelyde downe appone his knee, / Vndir-nethe þat grenwode spraye, / And sayd, Lufly ladye, rewe one mee, / Qwene of heuene, als þou wele maye ! / Then spake þat lady milde of thoghte: / Thomas, late swylke wordes bee; / Qwene of heuene ne am I noghte, / Ffor I tuke neuer so heghe degre.

(Thornton MS, I.14-15)

[15]

And as the sonne in somerys day, / Forsouthe the ladye here sylffe shone.

(Landsdowne MS, I. 47-48)

Her face blurred before me: all the women I had ever had were there in it, all my moments of ecstasy and fulfillment–and they seemed dry next to her promised fulfillment, stale next to her excitement, sad next to her pleasure.

(Kushner p. 65)

[16]

…And if ye dare to kiss my lips. / Sure of your bodie I will be.’ / ‘Betide me weal, betide me woe, / That weird shall never daunton me;’ / Syne he has kissed her rosy lips, / All underneath the Eildon Tree.

(Child 37C.5-6)

I have read carefully through the different versions of the romance for this section. I am not a student of Middle English, but Thomas is clearly the one being assertive here, crying out at her beauty and asking to lie with her. The Queen’s response is probably intended to be coy, but it is certainly plausible to read that she is annoyed (though certainly not frightened) by his intentions. She tells him that he can have his way with her (quite obviously more than a kiss), but makes it clear that she has warned him thrice to desist, and that he will spoil her beauty if he will not be deterred. He of course persists.

Her beauty and her rich apparel (which perhaps has been a Fae illusion) drop away as a result, and she becomes old and ugly. At this point she informs Thomas he must go with her for “this twelvemonth”. A case can be made that she is imprisoning Thomas for violating her person. (Ultimately, she is revealed to be answerable to her King, from whom she wishes to hide her contact with Thomas, but that would not explain why she risks discovery by taking the Rhymer to her castle.)

Kushner once again masterfully weaves these different versions into a narrative that honors the varying sources. The Queen dares Thomas to kiss her, he has a moment of hesitation, and kisses her then takes her in the grass, with her enthusiastic consent. (In the novel, the Queen will keep him as her lover throughout his service.) Later, in the garden, amused but slightly exasperated that Thomas cannot seem to stop pawing at her when she wants to show him something important, she changes to an aged crone to teach him a lesson and sober him up. She also points out to him later on that his human willpower would never have been a match for her magical allure.

I was hoping to include the Queen’s transformation in this song adaptation, but left it out in the interest of time and flow.


[17]

“A bargain made is a bargain made. You must be mine for seven years. I shall mount now,” the queen said, “and you will come up behind me. Or you will stand here on the cold hillside, and watch me ride away. Either way, you will be mine. Despite your pleas, it were pity on you to take you with me.”

(Kushner, p. 66)

[18] The crossing out of the mortal realm, which establishes that events are going to happen on timetables not suited to Thomas’s mortal body. The trip across the river in various versions takes 3 or 40 days during which Thomas has not eaten, and this will set him up to be starving when they reach the orchard:

The montenans of dayes three, / He herd hot swoghynge of þe flode ; / At þe taste he sayde, Full wa es mee ! / Almaste I dye, for fawte of f[ode.]

(Thornton MS I.31)

In some versions of the ballad, the river is actually made of blood: “It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light, / And they waded thro red blade to the knee; / For a’ the blude that’s shed on earth / Rins thro the springs o that countrie.” (Child 37C.16) This was included in the novel. It is a startling image, and in an earlier draft I adapted it, which made the passage take up half a verse unto itself:

Thus my fate, and I’m filled with fright.
Down we ride, and I hold her tight.
Now our knees are wet; we ford a river’s flow.
Warm and red, I can feel the flood,
Earth above shedding so much blood,
More than it can hold, the rest runs down below…

Ultimately, Peregrine the Illuminator suggested, when we workshopped the piece together, that this adds a full extra “scene” to a song that is packed with many. Unlike, say, the fruit in the orchard to follow, we never see the river/sea again, so it becomes a lot for the audience to keep track of. Ultimately, I took out the blood imagery, and shortened the passage to three lines. That let me shift the orchard episode to fill the rest of the verse, and allowed me to cut out an extra refrain, since I was able to capture the substance of it at the end of the verse.

“You must be silent, and attend to what I say.
You must patient, or your soul you’ll cast away.
I have wine and some bread from your home, if you’d not heard.
Come and eat mortal food, and for now speak not a word.”

This freed space to excise an additional verse (explained below) which was also distracting from the main narrative.


[19] Kushner’s description of changing seasons in the orchard I cannot find in any other source (perhaps it comes from other folklore), but it helps establish that Thomas is no longer in the reality with which he is familiar, and I couldn’t resist alluding to it:

It made me ache for the orchards of my childhood…then I realized that this one was nothing like them. The grass here was too green, the trees’ bark shone with silver; their pink and white blossoms–no, they were fresh green leaves–were summer-rich boughs of peaches and apricots–were the ripe tang of autumn fruit…. Every time I looked, I saw and breathed a different season. It dizzied my senses.

(Kushner, p. 68)

[20]

O they rade on, and further on, / Until they came to a garden green: / ‘Light down, light down, ye ladie free, / Some of that fruit let me pull to thee.’ / ‘O no, O no, True Thomas,’ she says, / ‘That fruit maun not be touched by thee, / For a’ the plagues that are in hell / Light on the fruit of this countrie.

(Child 37A.8-9)

Sche said, ‘Thomas, let that stonde, / Or elles þe dewele wole the Ateynte: / Yf þou pull there of Asay, / Thowe myght be damned into Hell; / Thowe commyst neuer owte agayne, / But euer in payn þou shalt dwell.

(Landsdowne MS ln 187-192)

Kushner makes this exchange part of the Queen’s tutelage of Thomas, who is going to be forced to learn humility and self-control through his service and trials in her realm:

“And do you mean to let me die of hunger, here in Elfland?” I snapped, the smell of the fruit tempting in my hand.

“This is not Elfland,” she said sternly, like one reprimanding a wayward child. “In a moment, I will show you. But first, you had better learn to control your appetites. Your forefather Adam also thought it would be a fine thing to eat of the fruit of the Tree–I see here merely set the mode for mortals, and taught you nothing to profit by his example.”

(Kushner, p. 70)

[21] The first time, chronologically, that Thomas is warned that he must restrict himself to food grown on his earth, and the one time in this song that this dietary limitation will be made explicit.

‘But I have a loaf here in my lap, / Likewise a bottle of claret wine, / And now ere we go farther on, / We’ll rest a while, and ye may dine.’

(Child 37A.10)

[22]

‘And see not ye that bonny road, / Which winds about the fernie brae? / That is the road to fair Elfland, / Whe[re] you and I this night maun gae.’

(Child 37A.14)

In the romance, all the Child ballads, and Kushner’s novel, the Queen actually shows Thomas three “ferlies” (wonders), after they cross out of the mortal realm. These are the three paths to Heaven, Hell, and Elfland, making it clear that the Fae in this piece are neither divine nor diabolical in nature (they come from the older Celtic tradition, which has been supplanted partly, but not entirely, by the teachings of the Church). In an earlier draft of the song, I had adapted this passage into an extra verse after the garden section:

“Lay your head, Thomas, on my knee.
Look as I show you wonders three.
No one else but you shall e’er this choice be shown.
That rough path through the briars thick,
Twisting, dark, cut by ev’ry prick,
That is Heaven’s path, if you can cross alone…

“Now let’s turn to this avenue,
Broad and gentle, a lovely view!
It would lead you into Hell without a fuss.
Fin’lly, there, through the forest green,
Distant towers can just be seen.
That is Elfland fair, and that’s the road for us…”

Master Peregrine the Illuminator suggested to me that this verse, like the longer version of the sea/river crossing, was perhaps a distracting detail from the story I was telling, which was primarily about Thomas’s loss of agency to the Queen and his enforced silence. After some reflection, I determined he was right, and the song works better without this passage.


[23]

‘But, Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue, / Whatever ye may hear or see, / For, if you speak word in Elflyn land, / Ye’Il neer get back to your ain countrie.’

(Child 37C.14)

‘… It’s be seven years, Thomas, and a day. / Or you see man or woman in your am countrie.’

(Child 37B.5)

“But I lay this weird on you: that you speak no word in Elvin land, or you’ll never win back to your own country. You may speak to me, Thomas, and to me alone–and you may sing to the hosts in my hall, for that is why I have brought you from your land. But whatever the others may say to you, in forest, field or in hall, look that you answer none but me.”

(Kushner, p. 74)

In the medieval romance, the Queen’s ban on Thomas’s speech appears more directed and self-serving. She answers to her King, and does not wish him to know of her dalliance with Thomas or he will punish her. She asks him to not respond to questioning by any male, and will tell them she took his voice from him before they crossed over into Elfland:

‘ffor sothe, Thomas, ȝone, es myne awenne, / And þe kynges of this countree; / Bot me ware leuer be hanged & drawene, / Or þat he wyste þon lave by me. / When þou commes to ȝone castelle gay, / I pray þe curtase mane to bee; / And whate so any mane to þe save, / Luke þou answers none bott mee. / My lords es seruede at ylk a mess / With thritty knvghttis faire & free; / I sall saye, standing at the desse, / I tuke thi speche by-ȝonde the see.’

(Thornton MS. I.43-45)

[24] This verse, like the first, is drawn from Kushner’s novel, and alludes to adventures she sets for Thomas that source from other folklore. Having chosen Thomas’s binding to silence as my emotional point of entry for my version of the story, I want to give some of the space the novel provided for him to feel alienated and lost, before his sojourn ends, and for us to experience him actually being silent.

To go into Elfland speechless? This was an ill condition for a man of words to bide! If it was a joke, it did not amuse me.

“Lady,” I protested, “I know the songs. In all the tales, I’ve never heard of such a fate.”

She smiled warmly. “But this is your tale, Thomas, whose end you do not know.”

(Kushner, p. 74-75)

[25] Kushner draws in the breadth of fairy lore in describing the Queen’s subjects:

There was not a plain creature among them. The beautiful ones were beautiful beyond belief: hearty or ethereal… And the ugly ones rivaled the whimsy of a stonemason in any cathedral...

But the Elvinkind soon discovered me.

“The queen’s new mortal,” announced a bluff-looking fellow with oak leaves in his hair.

“Is this a wise one, or a fool?” asked a languid lady with ivy dripping from her fingers. (Shrubbery seemed to be the fashion of the day.) “He surely wasn’t chosen for his looks, this time.”

I felt coarse, grimy, clumsy among these Elvin folk. I hoped I could hold onto my temper as well as my tongue.

A radiant creature with vast folded wings fingered a lock of my hair. “Bright,” it said. “Rich.”

“Aye,” said a short, squat man with a voice like falling rocks. “Give him leave to speak.”

(Kushner, p. 81-82)

[26]

“The Wild Hunt rides tonight.” Meg’s eyes glinted with her eerie tale. “They ride on horses with nostrils like burning coals, chasing the souls of the wicked, than cannot rest…”

(Kushner, p. 6)

“Now, brother”, she said to Hunter, “your challenge is met and answered, the players determined. Begin. But if you fail, know that my wrath shall be terrible on you.”

…”You chose the players yourself, sister; and by your own words you doomed them. Your latest reign has been marked by an…unnatural interest in things mortal. A fascination, perhaps, that is a weakness. They do not play by our rules; they don’t even recognize the game when it is played. You know that; but do you know that they have rules of their own? I challenge only humbly to show you that, in the end, those mortal must betray you.”

(Kushner, p. 156)

[27]

“As you will have gathered from songs and from your own experience,” she lectured, still lying naked on her back, “mortals and the mortal world are very attractive to us, although we also despise them…. When you harp, Thomas, the heat comes off you with a great radiance–no, that’s wrong: it isn’t heat, it’s…it’s…it’s like gold. Like sweet air. It’s the sun, Thomas. The sun of life that burns gold at zenith, and the molten red sun that sinks into the earth, red as the blood flowing out of you when you die….”

…”Tell me about death,” the queen said. “The heart stopping in you, the breath stopping in you, the cold and the dark.”

(Kushner, p. 95-96)

[28]

…the Elves accorded me a kind of honor, treating me as kindly as they could, some even with respect. At the same time, they spoke more freely in my presence, as though I were a hound at their feet. Silent, ever silent, I listened to the words of the Elves, their riddles and their poems, quarrels and counsels, games and flirtations… I pieced together more from their fragments, I think, than they intended… and if I weave that truth into songs, who will believe me?

(Kushner, p. 168)

[29] The romance explains that Thomas only experiences his time in Elfland for a few days from his point of view, though years (in this case, at least three) have passed on earth:

‘Do buske the, Thomas, þe buse agayne, / Ffor þou may here no lengare be; / Hye the faste, with myghte and mayne, / I sall the brynge till Eldone tree.’

Thomas sayde pane, with beuy chere, / ‘Lufly lady, nowe late me bee; / Ffor certis, lady, I hafe bene here / Noghte hot þe space of dayes three.’

‘Ffor sothe, Thomas, als I þe tells, / þou base bene here thre ȝere and more; / Bot langere here þou may noghte duelle; / The skylle I sall þe tells whare-fore.’

(Thornton MS I.54-56)

Kushner, while giving Thomas a full years-long experience in Elfland, hints early on at the challenges of time in Elfland. By putting the dialogue from the romance in the Elf’s mouth, Kushner slyly has her cake and eats it too:

“Lady,” I said, “those seven years will pass as seven days.”

“Think you?” she asked gravely. “I can make it so. The ballads should have taught you that–or have you learned nothing from your own songs? We arrive: seven days of pleasure pass, seven nights of feasting and delight–and then it’s ‘Up and away, Thomas! It’s time to return to your own country!’ ‘Oh, but, lady, I’ve been here but one short week….’ ‘Oh, no, Thomas. It’s full seven years since your feet have trod the Earth. While you have reveled here, your friends have aged, and missed you–but now you shall be reunited with them–so!'”

(Kushner, p. 73)

[30] In the novel, Thomas ultimately offers up his own voice to allow a mortal soul to carry a message and escape doom in a Faery challenge. It is not returned to him until the end of his service.

I found I didn’t want to harp. My loss was too raw to turn to other sound as a half-measure.

(Kushner, p. 166)

For the remaining years, I made not a sound.

(Kushner, p. 168)

[31]

Useless, my anger turned on Hunter. Voiceless, I could not charge him with the vile names he deserved, but I needed to hurt then as never in my life.

I slammed my fist into his belly–and found it circled with living flame….

The fire was all around me–somehow I had stepped into it, although I felt nothing. “Looking for my name, Rhymer? If I tell it to you now, how will you speak it?”

(Kushner, p. 163-164)

[32]

Syne they came on to a garden green, / And she pu’d an apple frae a tree / ‘Take this for thy wages, True Thomas, / It will give the tongue that can never lie.’

(Child 37C.17)

‘If þou will spells, or tales telle, / Thomas, þou sall neuer lesynge lye; / Whare euer þou fare, by frythe or felle, / I praye the spoke none euyll of me…’

(Thornton MS II.3)

[33]

‘My tongue is mine ain,’ Tree Thomas said / ‘A gudely gift ye wad gie to me! / I neither dought to buy nor sell, / At fair or tryst where I may be. / ‘I dought neither speak to prince or peer, / Nor ask of grace from fair ladye:’ / ‘Now hold thy peace,’ the lady said, / ‘For as I say, so must it be.’

(Child 37C.18-19)

Nevertheless I joked, “‘The tongue that cannot lie?’ Won’t that be a bit awkward for anyone trying to do a bit of buying or selling? I should be hated of princes and merchants everywhere, and women with ugly hats.”

The queen tried not to smile. “Refuse it if you will, Thomas. But you’ll have wasted seven years of silence: it was for this I laid the ban on you to speak to none but me, that your words might store up power in Elfland.”

(Kushner, p. 171)

[34]

“Now, do as I say,” she snapped suddenly, “and eat.”

I sank my teeth into the crisp white flesh. I don’t remember really chewing or swallowing, just being engulfed in the smell and texture of the fruit. But when I was done, I was holding a very small applecore.

“Nothing happened,” I said, because I had to say something.

“You may think that,” she answered briskly, “until you know better…”

(Kushner, p. 172)

[35] The later sections of the novel explore the unintended consequences of the queen’s gift:

“The best harper in the land is a madman!” he flared. “How can I speak to anyone now? How can I appear before the king or the Earl of Dunbar, absent seven years, and tell them where I’ve been? They’ll ask me questions, and I’ll sound like a fool. I can’t bear to be laughed at,” he said wretchedly.

“Laughed at?! When you can tell them where the next raid is coming from, and when?”

“Oh, yes; I can start predicting everyone’s death. That’ll make me very popular, too.”

(Kushner, p. 206)

“Dear friends,” the French queen said to us… “I rejoice to see an old friend.”

“Madam”–Thomas made a bow–“it rejoices me to hear it.”

Again she seemed to be waiting for more. This time she said, “Ah, Rhymer, the years seem to have blunted your tongue–or is it your life among the settle folk the…farmers and the villagers, that has changed you?”

“Neither, madam,” he had to answer. And suddenly everything was not all right anymore…

Our inquisitive queen went on, half mocking, “I cannot think the court of Elfland so barbarous a place that you learned these manners there. Were you used to answer the elf lords thus?”

I really think she meant no harm: a light-spirited woman who was used to being indulged and deferred to. But I could feel all of Thomas’s body clenching against the truth waiting to come out of him. It would take some time to relearn the knack of turning direct questions aside with light answers; they could still catch him unaware, and freeze him between speech and silence.

(Kushner, p. 221)

“At least we’re not afraid of you. That time at Yule, you told poor Ned his sweetheart was come, and in walked his brother’s wife! You’ll note he did not stay to supper.”

“I can’t help it. It’s getting harder and harder not to know.”

(Kushner, p. 253-254)

[36] I desperately wanted to include references to his mortal family of choice from the novel (his foster parents, Gavin and Meg, and his sweetheart Elspeth) in this song, but there was no space. In Kushner’s telling, the weight of his time away from Earth is felt hardest when he is reunited with them:

“I didn’t say when I’d be back, did I? I suppose…I suppose I’ve been gone a while?”

I felt cold, to hear him speak so. “It’s full seven years, my heart,” I answered him, “since you walked out into the Eildon Hills and never returned; seven long years almost to this very day.”

(Kushner, p. 179)

“I understand,” she says, “that you left without a word to us, and that now you think a few fine phrases will make it all right. You act as though you think no time has passed, and nothing has changed.”

(Kushner, p. 200-201)

[37]

“Elspeth,” he said to her, “I have something to tell you.

She waited, as I did.

“You were right.” He laughed again, a little shamefacedly. “There are marvels. I only though tthere should be but you knew there were, so you were right. In Elfland–“…

“Stop that,” she said, not moving. “I want none of your rhyming now.”

(Kushner, p. 199-200)

“No stories, Thomas.” Her face was red and puffy, but her mouth fixed firm. “Not this time. I know how good you are. But this time you went too far, and stayed away too long. I’ve no stomach for them now.”

(Kushner, p. 203)

[38] “’Fare wele, Thomas, I wend my waye, / I may no lengare stande with the:’ / ‘Gyff me a tokynynge, lady gaye, / That I may saye I spake with the.’” (Thornton MS II.1)

“Fine.” Gavin was breathing hard through his nose. “And if I call you liar?”

Thomas flung up one hand, as though he’d been struck. But he forced himself to answer clearly, “Then there’s nothing I can do.”

“You can tell me the true story, boy.”

Thomas drew a deep breath. “Right. Fine. I was with the–with the Queen of Elfland–I was–” He whirled violently. “I’ve told you the true story! It’s all I can do; I can’t lie even when I want to. Don’t you think it would be easier for me to make you a tale that you’d swallow more easily than truth?”

(Kushner, p. 193-194)

“You’re such a stinking liar, Thomas. Isn’t that the story we all want to tell?… We all dream that, Thomas–but you… for you we must believe it happened!”

(Kushner, p.202)

[39] Thomas’s chosen foster mother, Meg, reflects on his re-integration after his return in the novel:

Like so many of us, Thomas the Rhymer knew the truth about everything but himself. In the world, his music was still loved. Those he told he’d been in Elfland could believe him or not, as they chose. After a few fistfights, Thomas learned to settle back and smile when the question came up. No one thinks of rhymers and great music-makers as quite like themselves, anyway–such as man was as like to have been in Elfland as anywhere else.

We knew he was all right when rumors of a new seer in the kingdom began to reach us, even in the hills. They said that he predicted the flooding of Wark, and the fate of young Traquair.

(Kushner, p. 208)

[40] The romance concludes with lengthy accounts as Thomas persuades the Queen to tell him of “ferlies” or wonders, and she proceeds to supply him with the prophecies that will make the Rhymer famous.

In Kushner’s account, the tongue that cannot lie works magic upon Thomas, as Meg and Gavin discover.

The leader of the force reined up before the Rhymer…

“What’s this?” he cries. “A prince of the hills, or a herald, or a poet?”

“All of those things,” said the minstrel pleasantly, “and more besides.” He did not move, but suddenly his voice seemed to be coming from a much larger man: “Woe unto you, Blackwell, for your reiving will never thrive, and you’ll be dead ere you see Carlisle. And your young son, that sits on his nurse’s knee, is the chief of all your kin: for only his sons will bear your name.”

…Thomas said, “Turn your horse and go your ways. We will not see your face again this side of Tweed Water. So speaks the tongue that cannot lie.”

…Gavin, all curiosity now–for how he loves a wonder!–said, “Why didn’t you tell us you were become a seer?”

“I didn’t know,” Thomas said, cheerful with relief.

(Kushner, p. 184-185)

It will profoundly affect his fortune, and his marriage to Elspeth.

And so they began coming to our tower at Ercildoun, to consult with the Rhymer, as far as his truth would take them. Some went away glad, some sorry, and some merely confused at his riddling answers. For, said Thomas, he’d answer any question truthfully, if he’d a mind to answer at all–but he’d not always tell all he knew.

(Kushner, p. 230)

“Do you know what I like?” Thomas spoke softly, almost to himself. “You never expect me to know what you’re thinking– To use my gift to know.”

“I don’t want you to know what I’m thinking,” I said. “Not like that.”

“Good,” he said. “Because I don’t. I don’t try. So be generous, all right? And don’t try to use magic to find out what I’m thinking either.”

“I wasn’t! I just want to be able to ask– You don’t understand.”

“I don’t understand you, not always. But I understand myself. And that’s how questioning feels to me.”

“Like people working spells on you?”

“Something like.”

(Kushner, p.248-249)

[41]

With even the illusion that words were weapons against her gone from me, I learned what it was to bear another’s choices, and have none myself.

(Kushner, p. 168)

“…[I]t was for this I laid the ban on you to speak to none but me, that your words might store up power in Elfland…”

“Did you think to return home unchanged? You, who have ridden the steed of Elfame, and waded the mortal river, and sat in the Oldest Orchard at dawn, with the Elf Queen combing your hair? And listened for seven years to the counsels of our court?”

“No,” I said. “I am not who I was.”

(Kushner, p. 171)

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