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Thomas the Rhymer

From Thomas the Rhymer (retold by Mary MacGregor, 1908) "Under the Eildon tree Thomas met the lady," illustration by Katherine Cameron

Thomas of Erceldoune, sometimes styled Thomas Learmonth (fl. c. 1220 – 1298;[1] also Learmount, Learmont, or Learmounth), was a 13th-century Scottish laird and reputed prophet from Earlston (then called "Erceldoune").,[2] perhaps better known by the sobriquets Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas.[1] In literature he appears as protagonist to the tale about Thomas the Rhymer who was carried off by the "Queen of Elfland" and returned having gained the gift of prophecy, as well as the inability to tell a lie. The tale survives in a medieval verse romance in five manuscripts, as well as in the popular ballad "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child Ballad number 37).[3][4] The original romance ca. 1400 was probably condensed into ballad form ca. 1700, though there are dissenting views on this.

Sir Walter Scott expanded the ballad into three parts, adding a sequel which incorporated the prophecies ascribed to Thomas, and an epilogue where Thomas is summoned back to Elfland after the appearance of a sign, in the form of the milk-white hart and hind. Numerous prose retellings of the tale of Thomas the Rhymer have been undertaken, and included in fairy tale or folk-tale anthologies; these often incorporate the return to Fairyland episode that Scott reported to have learned from local legend.


  • Historical figure 1
  • Prophecies attributed to Thomas 2
    • Popular folkloric prophecies 2.1
  • Ballad 3
    • Ballad synopsis 3.1
    • Ballad sources 3.2
      • Mrs. Brown's ballads 3.2.1
    • Walter Scott's ballads in three parts 3.3
  • Medieval romance 4
    • Manuscript sources 4.1
    • Relationship between romance and ballad forms 4.2
    • Literary criticism 4.3
      • Influences 4.3.1
  • Popular culture 5
    • Retellings 5.1
    • Music adaptation 5.2
    • Literary adaptation 5.3
  • Fine arts 6
  • See also 7
  • Footnotes 8
    • Explanatory notes 8.1
    • Citations 8.2
  • References 9

Historical figure

The Eildon Hills, where Thomas supposedly entered Elfland.

Sir 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 "Thomas de Ercildounson son and heir of Thome Rymour de Ercildoun".[5]

Thomas became known as "True Thomas", supposedly because he could not tell a lie. Popular lore recounts how he prophesied many great events in Scottish history,[5] including the death of Alexander III of Scotland.

Thomas' gift of prophecy is linked to his poetic ability. It is not clear if the name Rhymer was his actual surname or merely a sobriquet. He is often cited as the author of the English Sir Tristrem, a version of the Tristram legend, and some lines in Robert Mannyng's Chronicle may be the source of this association.[6]

Popular esteem of Thomas lived on for centuries after his death, and especially in Scotland, overtook the reputation of all rival prophets including Merlin,[7] whom the 16th century pamphleteer of The Complaynt of Scotland denounced as the author of the prophecy (unity under one king) which the English used as justification for aggression against his countrymen.[7] It became common for fabricated prophecies (or reworks of earlier prophecies) to be attributed to Thomas to enhance their authority,[7] as seen in collections of prophecies which were printed, the earliest surviving being a chapbook entitled "The Whole Prophecie of Scotland, England, etc." (1603).[7][8][10]

Prophecies attributed to Thomas

Descriptions and paraphrases of Thomas's prophecies were given by various Scottish historians of yore, though none of them quoted directly from Thomas.[11][2]

  • "On the morrow, afore noon, shall blow the greatest wind that ever was heard before in Scotland."[12]
This prophecy predicted the death of Alexander III in 1286. Thomas gave this prediction to the Earl of Dunbar, but when there was no change in weather patterns discernible at the ninth hour, the Earl sent for the prophet to reprove. Thomas replied the appointed hour has not come, and anon, the news came reporting of the king's death.
The earliest notice of this prophecy occurs in Bower's 15th-century Scotichronicon, written in Latin.[13][3] An early English vernacular source is John Bellenden's 16th century Croniklis of Scotland, a translation of Hector Boece.[13]
  • "Who shal rule the ile of Bretaine / From the North to the South sey?"
"A French wife shal beare the Son, / Shall rule all Bretaine to the sey,
that of the Bruces blood shall come / As neere as the nint degree."[14]
The lines given are structured in the form by one man's questions, answered by another, who goes on to identify himself: "In Erlingstoun, I dwelle at hame/Thomas Rymour men calles me."[15]
Printed in the aforementioned chapbook The Whole Prophecie of 1603, published upon the death of Elizabeth I, the prophecy purports to have presaged Scottish rule of all of Britain (by James I).[16]
This "became in the sequel by far the most famous of all the prophecies,"[17] but it has been argued that this is a rehash of an earlier prophecy that was originally meant for John Stewart, Duke of Albany (d. 1536)[18] Words not substantially different are also given in the same printed book, under the preceding section for the prophecy of John of Bridlington,[19] and the additional date clue there "1513 & thrise three there after" facilitating the identification "Duke's son" in question as Duke of Albany, although Murray noted that the Duke's "performance of .. doubty deeds" was something he "utterly failed to do".[20]

Popular folkloric prophecies

Walter Scott was familiar with rhymes purported to be the Rhymer's prophecies in the local popular tradition, and published several of them.[21] Later Robert Chambers printed additional collected rhyme prophecies ascribed to Thomas, in Popular Rhymes (1826).

  • "At Eildon Tree, if yon shall be,
a brig ower Tweed yon there may see."[22]
Scott identifies the tree as that on Eildon Hill in Melrose, some five miles away from today's Earlston.Scott 1803, Minstrelsy II, pp.343 Three bridges built across the river were visible from that vantage point in Scott's day.
  • "This Thorn-Tree, as lang as it stands,
Earlstoun sall possess a' her lands."[23]
or "As long as the Thorn Tree stands / Ercildourne shall keep its lands".[24] This was first of several prophecies attributed to the Rhymer collected by Chambers, who identified the tree in question as the one that fell in the storm in either 1814[25] or 1821,[23] presumably on the about the last acre that was left that belonged to the town of Earlstoun. The prophecy was lent additional weight at the time, because as it so happened, the merchants of the town had fallen under bankruptcy by a series of "unfortunate circumstances".[23] According to one account, "Rhymer's thorn" was a huge tree growing in the garden of the Black Bull Inn, and its proprietor named Thin, had its roots cut all around, leaving it vulnerable to the storm that same year.[25]
  • "When the Yowes o' Gowrie come to land,
The Day o' Judgment's near at hand"[26]
The "Ewes of Gowrie" are two boulders near Invergowrie protruding from the Firth of Tay, said to approach the land at the rate of an inch a year. This couplet was also published by Chambers, though filed under a different locality (Perthshire), and he ventured to guess that the ancient prophecy was "perhaps by Thomas the Rhymer."[26] Barbara Ker Wilson's retold version has altered the rhyme, including the name of the rocks thus: "When the Cows o' Gowrie come to land / The Judgement Day is near at hand."[24]
the biggest and the bonniest o' a' the three"[27][28]
Collected from a 72-year-old man resident in Edinburgh.[26]
  • "Fyvie, Fyvie thou'se never thrive,
lang's there's in thee stanes three :
There's ane intill the highest tower,
There's ane intill the ladye's bower,
There's ane aneath the water-yett,
And thir three stanes ye'se never get."[29][30]
Tradition in Aberdeenshire said that Fyvie Castle stood seven years awaiting arrival of "True Tammas," as the Rhymer was called in the local dialect. The Rhymer arrived carrying a storm that brewed all around him, though perfectly calm around his person, and pronounced the above curse. Two of the stones were found, but the third stone of the water-gate eluded discovery.[29] And since 1885 no eldest son has lived to succeed his father.[30]
  • "Betide, betide, whate'er betide,
Haig shall be Haig of Bemerside.[22]
This prophesized the ancient family of the Haigs of Bemerside will survive for perpetuity. Chambers, in a later editions his Popular Rhymes (1867) prematurely reported that "the prophecy has come to a sad end, for the Haigs of Bemerside have died out."[31][32] In fact, Field Marshal Douglas Haig hails from this family,[33] and was created earl in 1919, currently succeeded by the 3rd Ear (b. 1961).


The ballad around the legend of Thomas has been catalogued Child Ballad #37 "Thomas the Rymer," by Francis James Child (1883). Three versions, A, B, C were originally printed by him. Child later appended two more variants in a subsequent Volume 4 (1892).[4] Some scholars refer to these respectively as Child's D and E versions.[34] Version A is Mrs. Brown's recitation, and C is Walter Scott's rework of it, together classed as the 'Brown group' by C. E. Nelson, while versions B, D, E are all considered by Nelson to be descendants of an archetype that reduced the romance into ballad form ca. 1700, and classed as the 'Greenwood group'. (See §Ballad sources).

Child provided a critical synopsis comparing versions A, B, C in his original publication, and considerations for the D, E versions have been augmented below.

Ballad synopsis

The brief outline of the ballad is that Thomas was lying outdoors on a slope by a tree in the Erceldoune neighborhood, when the queen of Elfland appeared to him riding a horse, and beckoned him to come away, and when he consents, shows him three marvels, the road to Heaven, to Hell, and to her own world. After seven years, Thomas is brought back into the mortal realm, and asking for a token to remember the queen by, is offered the choice of the gift of a harper or a prophet, at which he chooses the latter option.

Music score to the ballad of "True Thomas", from Scott's Minstrelsy.

The scene of Thomas's encounter with the elf-queen is "Huntly Bank" and the "Eildon Tree" (versions B, C, and E)[35][36] or "Farnalie" (version D)[4] All these refer to the area of Eildon Hills, in the vicinity of Earlston: Huntly Bank was a slope on the hill and the tree stood there also, as Scott explained,[37][38] while Emily B. Lyle was able to localize "farnalie" there as well.[39]

The queen wears a skirt of grass-green silk and a velvet mantle, and is mounted on either a milk-white steed (A), or a dapple-gray horse (B, D, E and R (=romance)). The horse has nine and fifty bells on each tett (Scots English. "lock of matted hair"[40]) on its mane in A, nine hung on its mane in E, and three bells on either side of the bridle in R, whereas she had nine bells in her hand in D, offered as a prize for his harping and carping (music and storytelling).

Thomas mistakenly addresses her as the "Queen of Heaven" (i.e. the Virgin Mary[41]), which she corrects by identifying herself as "Queen of fair Elfland" (A, C). In other variants, she reticently identifies herself only as "lady of an unco land" (B), "lady gay" (E) much like the medieval romance. But since the unnamed land of the queen lies in a path leading neither Heaven nor Hell, etc., it can be assumed to be "Fairyland," to put it in more modern lingo.[42]

In C and E, the queen dares Thomas to kiss her lips, a corruption of Thomas's embrace in the romance that is lacking in A and B though crucial to a cogent plot since "it is contact with the fairy that gives her the power to carry he paramour off" according to Child. Folorn in the ballads also is the motif of the queen losing her beauty ( 

  • Albrecht, William Price (1954). The loathly lady in "Thomas of Erceldoune"; with a text of the poem printed in 1652. University of New Mexico publications in language and literature ; no. 11. University of New Mexico Press.  
    • — "A seventeenth-century text of Thomas of Erceldoune" (1954), Medium Ævum 23
    • Chambers, Robert (1842). Popular Rhymes, Fireside Stories, and Amusements of Scotland. William and Robert Chambers.  [1]
    • Chambers, Robert (1870). The Popular rhymes of Scotland: New Edition. W. & R. Chambers. 
  • Child, Francis James (1884), The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Houghton Mifflin), 1 (Part 2): 317–329  
  • Child, Francis James (1884), The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Houghton Mifflin), 4 (Part 8): 454–5  
  • Jamieson, Robert (1806). Popular Ballads and Songs: From Tradition 2. A. Constable and Company. pp. 3–43. : "True Thomas and Queen of Elfland"
  • Laing, David; Small, John, eds. (1885), "Thomas off Ersseldoune", Select remains of the ancient popular poetry of Scotland (W. Blackwood and Sons) 
  • Murray, James A. H., ed. (1875). The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune: printed from five manuscripts; with illustrations from the prophetic literature of the 15th and 16th centuries. EETS O.S. 61. London: Trübner. 
  • Scott, Walter (1803). Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border 2. James Ballantyne. pp. 262–321. : "Thomas the Rhymer in Three Parts"
  • Burnham, Josephine M. (1908). "A Study of Thomas of Erceldoune". PMLA 23: 375–.  
  • Lakowski, Romuald I. (2007), Croft, Janet Brennan, ed., Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language (McFarland): 60–78,   13-ISBN 9780786428274
  • Lyle, Emily (1967). A Study of 'Thomas the Rhymer' and 'Tam Lin' in Literature and Tradition (Ph.D.). University of Leeds. }
  • Lyle, Emily (1969). "A Reconsideration of the Place-Names in'Thomas the Rhymer'". Scottish Studies 13: 65–71. }
  • Lyle, E. B. (2007). Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition (snippet). Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier. p. 10.  
  • Nelson, C. E. (1966). """The Origin and Tradition of the Ballad of "Thomas Rhymer. New Voices in American Studies (Purdue University Press): 138–.  
  • Utz, Richard. "Medieval Philology and Nationalism: The British and German Editors of Thomas of Erceldoune". Florilegium 23 (2): 27–45. 
  • Dictionary of National Biography



  1. ^  
  2. ^ Chambers 1826, p. 73; Chambers 1842, p. 6
  3. ^ Child Ballad #37. "Thomas the Rymer", Child 1884, Pop. Ball. I, 317–329
  4. ^ a b c d e Child 1892, Vol. 4, p.454–5
  5. ^ a b Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v. 1, p. 317, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  6. ^ Scott, Minstrelsy, vol.2, p.309. "Robert de Brunne" here is another name for Robert Mannyng. Scott goes on to quote another source from a manuscript in French, but Thomas of "Engleterre" is likely Thomas of Britain.
  7. ^ a b c d Murray 1875, p. xxx
  8. ^ s/n, ed. (1603). The Whole prophecie of Scotland, England, and some part of France and Denmark, prophesied by meruellous Merling, Beid, Berlington, Thomas Rymour, Waldhaue, Eltraine, Banester, and Sybilla, all according in one. Containing many strange and meruelous things. Edinburgh: Robert Waldegraue.  (Repr. Edinburgh: The Bannatyne Club 1833; Later edition: Edinburgh: Andro Hart, 1615)
  9. ^ a b c Murray 1875, Appendix I, p.48–51)
  10. ^ In The Whole Prophecie (1603), the first three section are the prophecy of Merlin, Bede, and John of Bridlington (analyzed in Murray 1875, pp. xxx–xl), followed by prophecy of Thomas the Rhymour (printed in entirety in Appendix[9]
  11. ^ "His prophecies are alluded to by Barbour, by Wintoun, and by Henry, the minstrel, or Blind Harry.. None of these authors, however, give the words of any of the Rhymer's vaticinations" (Scott 1803, vol.2, pp.281–2)
  12. ^ This particular rendition from Latin into English can be found in, e.g.:Watson, Jean L. (1875). The history and scenery of Fife and Kinross. Andrew Elliot. 
  13. ^ a b Murray 1875, pp. xiii-
  14. ^ Whole Prophecie, "The Prophecie of Thomas Rymour" vv.239–244[9]
  15. ^ vv. 247-8[9]
  16. ^ Cooper, Helen (2011), Galloway, Andrew, ed., "Literary reformations of the Middle Ages", The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Culture (Cambridge University Press): 261– 
  17. ^ Murray 1875, pp. xxxiv
  18. ^ Murray 1875, p. xxxiv, citing Lord Hailes, Remarks on the History of Scotland (1773), Chapter III, pp.89–
  19. ^ "How euer it happen for to fall, / The Lyon shal be Lord of all./The French wife shal beare the sonne, /Shal welde al Bretane to the sea, And from the Bruce's blood shall come. /As near as the ninth degree." (Murray 1875, p. xxxvi)
  20. ^ Murray 1875, p. xxxv
  21. ^ Scott 1803, Minstrelsy II, pp.300– "sundry rhymes, passing for his prophetic effusions, are still current among the vulgar"
  22. ^ a b Scott 1803, Minstrelsy II, pp.301-
  23. ^ a b c Chambers 1826, pp. 78–79
  24. ^ a b Wilson 1954, p. 17
  25. ^ a b Murray 1875, pp. xlix, lxxxv. Murray received detailed report on the tree from Mr James Wood, Galashiels.
  26. ^ a b c Chambers 1826, p. 96
  27. ^ Chambers 1826, p. 81
  28. ^ Modernized as: "York was, London is, and Edinburgh shall be / The biggest and bonniest o' the three" Wilson 1954, p. 17
  29. ^ a b Chambers 1842, p. 8
  30. ^ a b Modern variant "Fyvie, Fyvie thou'll never thrive / As long as there's in thee stones three;/There's one in the oldest tower,/There's one in the lady's bower/There's one in the water-gate,/And these three stones you'll never get." in: Welfare, Simon (1991). Cabinet of Curiosities. John Fairley. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 88.  
  31. ^ Murray 1875, p. xliv
  32. ^ Chambers 1870, p. 296
  33. ^ Benet, W. C. (April 1919). "Sir Douglas Haig". Caledonian 19 (1): 12–14. 
  34. ^ Lyle 2007, p. 10
  35. ^ Child 1884, Pop. Ball. I, 320
  36. ^ Child 1892, Pop. Ball. IV, pp. 454–5
  37. ^ Scott 1803, Minstrelsy II, pp.343
  38. ^ "Huntley Bank, a place on the descent of the Eildon Hills," Scott, Walter (1887). Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. G. Routledge and sons. p. 112. 
  39. ^ She identified it with farnileie on the Eildon Hills which appears in a document" of 1208 about a land dispute "between the monasteries of Melrose and Kelso". Scott had failed to make this identification. (Lyle 1969, p. 66; repr. Lyle 2007, p. 12)
  40. ^ Tait (sometimes written tate and tett), a lock of matted hair.Mackay's dict (1888); Tate, tait, teat, tatte 2. "Lock, applied to hair" John Jamieson's Dict. (Abridged, 1867)
  41. ^ Child 1892, Pop. Ball. I, p.319
  42. ^ Murray, James A. H., ed. (1875). The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune: printed from five manuscripts; with illustrations from the prophetic literature of the 15th and 16th centuries. EETS O.S. 61. London: Trübner. p. xxiii. 
  43. ^ Child 1884, Pop. Ball. I, 320ab, and footnote §
  44. ^ Child 1884, Pop. Ball. I, 320b
  45. ^ Child 1884, Pop. Ball. I, 321b
  46. ^ Child 1884, Pop. Ball. I, 321a, note *
  47. ^ Leven, "a lawn, an open space between woods"; Lily leven "a lawn overspread with lilies or flowers" John Jamieson's Dict. (Abridged, 1867)
  48. ^ Scott 1803, Vol. 2, pp. 269–273: "Part 1, Ancient" which is prefaced "never before published"
  49. ^ Jamieson 1806, Vol. 2, pp. 7–10: "procured in Scotland.. before [he] knew that he was likely to be anticipated in its publication by Mr Scott" (p.7)
  50. ^ Jamieson and Scott's printed in parallel in Murray 1875, pp. liii–
  51. ^ Child 1884, Pop. Ball. I, 317a "C being compounded of A and another version.."
  52. ^ a b Scott 1803, Vol. 2, p.268
  53. ^ Nelson 1966, p. 140
  54. ^ a b c Nelson 1966, p. 142
  55. ^ Nelson adds "at Marchomount House, Berwickshire.[54]
  56. ^ a b c d e Nelson 1966, p. 143
  57. ^ a b Bronson, Bertrand H. (1945). "Mrs. Brown and the Ballad". California Folklore Quarterly 4 (2): 129–140.  JSTOR 149567
  58. ^ a b c d Rieuwerts, Sigrid (2011). The Ballad Repertoire of Anna Gordon, Mrs Brown of Falkland. Scottish Text Society.  ; Reviewed by Julie Henigan in Journal of Folklore Research Reviews and by David Atkinson in Folk Music Journal (Dec 23, 2011)
  59. ^ a b Letter of Robert Anderson who compiled The Works of the British Poets to Bishop Percy, (Murray 1875), taken from Nicholl's Illustrations of Literature, p.89
  60. ^ Perry, Ruth (2012). "The Famous Ballads of Anna Gordon, Mrs. Brown" (pdf). A Cultural History of Women 4. 
  61. ^ Quoting from letter from Thomas Gordon: "In conversation I mentioned them to your Father [i.e. William Tytler], at whose request my Grandson Mr Scott, wrote down a parcel of them as his aunt sung them. Being then but a meer novice in musick, he added in his copy such musical notes as he supposed.."; and later: "The manuscript that was being passed around among Anderson, Percy, Scott, and Jamieson had been penned by Anna Brown's nephew, Robert Scott, who took down the words and music to the ballads as his aunt sung them at William Tytler's request in 1783."Perry 2012, pp. 10–12
  62. ^ Murray 1875, pp. liii
  63. ^ Murray 1875, pp. lxix–l
  64. ^ Richard Utz, "Medieval Philology and Nationalism: The British and German Editors of Thomas of Erceldoune,” Florilegium: Journal of the Canadian Society of Medievalists 23.2 (2006), 27–45.
  65. ^ Murray 1875, p. xxiii
  66. ^ "als the story sayes" v.83 or "als the storye tellis" v.123Child 1884, Pop. Ball. I, 318b
  67. ^ Murray 1875, p. xlvii
  68. ^ a b Murray, p. lxxxi
  69. ^ Murray 1875, pp. lvi–lxi
  70. ^ Murray 1875
  71. ^ Murray 1875, pp. 2, 47,
  72. ^ Murray 1875, p. 18
  73. ^ Murray 1875, p. 46
  74. ^ a b Cooper 2005, p. 172 and n5
  75. ^ a b Child 1884, Pop. Ball. I, 320a "the earliest version (A) can be traced at furthest only into the first half of the last century. Child's comment in volume 1 did not include the Greenwood text he appendixed in Vol. IV, but Nelson has assigned the same 1700–1750 period ("early to mid-eighteenth-century text") for the Greenwood text.[56] Cooper prefers to push it back to a "text whose origins can be traced back to before 1700"[74]
  76. ^ Scott 1803, Minstrelsy, vol.2, pp.274-. This commentary comes under Scott's "Appendix to the Thomas the Rhymer", where he prints an excerpt from the romance (version with an Incipit, i.e., the Cotton MS, as spelled out by Murray in his catalog of "Printed Editions," Murray 1875, p. lxi)
  77. ^ Scott goes on to say it was "as if the older tale had been regularly and systematically modernized by a poet of the present day." (Scott 1803, Minstrelsy, vol.2, pp.274), and Murray, seizing on this statement, comments that "the 'as if' in the last sentence might be safely left out, and that the 'traditional ballad' never grew 'by oral tradition' out of the older, is clear.." Murray 1875, p. liii
  78. ^ "Dismissed by Ritson as new-fangled and by Scott as inauthentic, Mrs. Brown’s ballads were considered exemplary by both Robert Jamieson and, later, Francis James Child, who gave her variants pride of place in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads" in Henigan's review of Rieuwerts' book.[58]
  79. ^ a b Nelson 1966, p. 147
  80. ^ Nelson 1966, pp. 142–143
  81. ^ a b Briggs, Katherine M. A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language Part B: Folk Legends. 
  82. ^ "The various forms of the ballad of True Thomas all seem to be based on the medieval romance, 'Thomas of Ercidoun'"[81]
  83. ^ Knight, Stephen Thomas (1999), Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism (Boydell & Brewer Ltd): 73–4,  
  84. ^ Utz 2006 surveys post-1950s scholarship on Thomas.
  85. ^ Lyle, E. B. (1970). "The Relationship between Thomas the Rhymer and Thomas of Erceldoune". Leeds Studies in English NS 4: 23–30. 
  86. ^ Cooper, Helen (2005), Saunders, Corinne J., ed., Saunders (preview) (DS Brewer): 171–,  
  87. ^ Cooper, Helen (2004). The English Romance in Time : Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth the Death of Shakespeare (preview). Oxford University Press.  , p.467 n17: "[Lyle's paper] suggests that an early form of the ballad may underlie the romance. "
  88. ^ Green, Richard Firth (1997), Gray, Douglas; Cooper, Helen; Mapstone, Sally, eds., The Long Fifteenth Century: Essays for Douglas Gray (Oxford University Press): 168 
  89. ^ "only some kind of hypothetical conspiracy between Brown and Scott could explain how she might have been able to fabricate her ballad from the hitherto unprinted romance. Green 1997, p. 168
  90. ^ a b Child 1884, Pop. Ball. I, p.339a
  91. ^ Tolkien refers to this as follows: "The road to fairyland is not the road to Heaven; nor even to Hell, I believe, though some have held that it may lead thither indirectly by the Devil's tithe," and subsequently quoting stanzas of the ballad "Thomas Rymer" beginning ""O see you not yon narrow road/" (text from Jamieson 1806, p. 9). In essay "On Fairy Stories" (orig. pub. 1947), reprinted in p.98 of Tolkien, JRR (2002) [1947], A Tolkien Miscellany (doc) (SFBC): 97–145  
  92. ^ Stewart, Susan (2002). Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. University of Chicago Press. p. 126.  
  93. ^ Irving, Washington (1861). The Crayon Miscellany. G.P. Putnam. pp. 238–240. 
  94. ^ Myers, Andrew B. (1976). A Century of commentary on the works of Washington Irving, 1860–1974 (snippet). Sleepy Hollow Restorations. p. 462. 
  95. ^ Humphrey, Richard (1993). Scott: Waverley. Cambridge University Press. p. 23. 
  96. ^  
  97. ^ Grierson, Elizabeth Wilson (1930) [1906], Stewart, Allan, 1865-1951, illus., Tales from Scottish Ballads (A. & C. Black): 195–213   Project Gutenberg (Children's Tales from Scottish Ballads 1906)
  98. ^ Wilson, Barbara Ker (1954), Scottish Folk-tales and Legends (Oxford University Press)  ; Repr. Wilson, Barbara Ker (1999) [1954], Fairy Tales from Scotland (Retold by) (Oxford University Press): 8–17,  
  99. ^ Macleod, Donald Alexander (1906), Walker, A. G. (Arthur George 1861-1939), illus.; Dowden, Edward, intro., A Book of Ballad Stories (London: Wells, Gardner, Darton): 94–107   (original printing: New York : F.A. Stokes Company, [188-?])
  100. ^ anonymous (1889), Scottish Fairy Tales, Folklore, and Legends (London: W. W. Gibbings & Co.): 93–97  
  101. ^ Reprinted:anonymous (1902), Strahan, Geoffrey, illus., Scottish Fairy Tales, Folklore, and Legends (London: Gibbings & Co.): 93–97   . Also cf. the first tale "Canobie Dick and Thomas of Ercildoun"
  102. ^ MacGregor, Mary (1908). Stories from the Ballads Told to the Children. Cameron, Katharine (1874–1965), illus. London: T. C. & E. C. Jack. 
  103. ^ Mackenzie, Donald Alexander (1917), Duncan, John, illus., Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend (New York: Frederick A Stoke): 147–160 
  104. ^ Douglas, George (c. 1920), Torrance, James, illus., Scottish Fairy Tales (New York: W. Scott Pub. Co.),  
  105. ^ Paterson, Judy (1998). Thomas the Rhymer, retold by. Collins, Sally J. , illus. The Amaising Publishing House Ltd.  
  106. ^ Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 393.
  107. ^ John Leyden. "Lord Soulis". British Literary Ballads Archive. Retrieved April 8, 2014. 
  108. ^ David Ross. "Hermitage Castle". Britain Express. Retrieved April 3, 2014. 
  109. ^ Nichols, Beverley (1934). A Book of Old Ballads. Brock, H. M. (Henry Matthew), 1875–1960 , illus. London: Hutchingson & co., ltd.,. 


  1. ^ He is also known as Thomas Rhymer, Thomas Rymour, Thomas Rymer, Thomas de Erceldoune, Thomas Rymour de Erceldoune
  2. ^ Scott undertook creative exercise of writing in verse his own of what Thomas's prophecy might have been: "Thomas the Rhymer: Part Second" by Scott 1803, vol.3. Scott prefaced his creation with copious notes to fend off "the more severe antiquaries."
  3. ^ Bower, Scotichronicon Book X, Ch. 43: "..qua ante horam explicite duodecimam audietur tam vehemens ventus in Scotia, quod a magnis retroactis temporibus consimilis minime inveniebatur." (footnoted in Murray 1875, pp. xiii-)
  4. ^ Or at least "Farnalie" is given as the spot to where the queen returned Thomas in the final stanza of the D version. Child 1892, Pop. Ball. IV, pp. 454–5
  5. ^ who learned them at the estate of her husband called Allan-a-quoich, by the waterfall of Linn a Quoich, near the source of the River Dee in Braemar, Aberdeenshire
  6. ^ Or, to be more precise: "The narrative begins in the first person, but changes to the third, lapsing once for a moment into the first." (Burnham 1908, p. 377)

Explanatory notes


See also

  • Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Faerie (1851), by Joseph Noel Paton
  • Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Faerie print by John Le Conte, after Sir Joseph Noel Paton, published W & A K Johnston (1852).
  • Beverly Nichols's A Book of Old Ballads (1934) reprints the Greenwood version of the ballad, with a print of "Thomas the Rhymer" by H. M. Brock[109]
  • Beneath the Eildon Tree is a painting by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law depicting Thomas the Rhymer and the Faery Queen.

Fine arts

  • Rudyard Kipling's poem, The Last Rhyme of True Thomas (1894), features Thomas Learmounth and a king who's going to make Thomas his knight.
  • John Geddie, Thomas the Rymour and his Rhymes. [With a portrait of the author], Edinburgh: Printed for the Rymour Club and issued from John Knox's House, 1920.
  • William Croft Dickinson wrote a children's book titled "The Eildon Tree" (1944) about two modern children meeting Thomas the Rhymer and travelling back in time to a critical point in Scottish history.
  • Thomas is a major character in Alexander Reid's play The Lass wi the Muckle Mou (1950).
  • Nigel Tranter, Scottish writer, wrote novel True Thomas (1981).
  • Ellen Kushner's novel Thomas the Rhymer (1990).
  • Bruce Glassco's short story "True Thomas", in Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling's fairy tale anthology Black Swan, White Raven (1997), posits Thomas' prophetic powers were a gift of alien abduction – the Queen of Faerie from the ballad was the Queen of an extraterrestrial Hive sworn to protect Languages.
  • "Erceldoune", a novella by Holy Blood, Holy Grail co-author Richard Leigh, features a folk-singer named Thomas "Rafe" Erlston, in: Erceldoune & Other Stories (2006) ISBN 978-1-4116-9943-4
  • In Sergey Lukyanenko's novel The Last Watch, Thomas is described as an actual person, a prominent Other, which has survived until today and currently occupies the post of the Head of the Scottish Night Watch.
  • Thomas appears in John Leylands ballad "Lord Soulis", where after failing to bind William II de Soules with magical ropes of sand, he determines that the sorcerer must be wrapped in lead and boiled.[107][108]

Literary adaptation

The British country/acid house band Alabama 3 drew upon the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer in a 2003 recording entitled Yellow Rose. Alabama 3's lyrics give the ballad a new setting in the American frontier of the 19th Century, where an enchanting woman lures the narrator to a night of wild debauchery, then robs and finally murders him. Yellow Rose was released as Track 11 of Alabama 3's 2003 album Power in the Blood (One Little Indian / Geffen).

The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams left an opera by the title of Thomas the Rhymer incomplete at the time of his death in 1958. The libretto was a collaboration between the composer and his second wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams, and it was based upon the ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin.[106]

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

Recent versions of the "Thomas the Rhymer" ballad include renditions by the electric folk act Steeleye Span which recorded two different versions for their 1974 album Now We Are Six and another for Present--The Very Best of Steeleye Span, released in 2002. Singer Ewan MacColl was also recorded his version of the ballad.

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.

Music adaptation

  • Donald Alexander Macleod (ed.), [99]
  • Gibbings & Co., publishers (1889).[100][101]
  • Mary MacGregor (ed.), Katharine Cameron (illus.) (1908).[102]
  • Donald Alexander Mackenzie (ed.), John Duncan (illus.), "Story of Thomas the Rhymer" (1917).[103]
  • George Douglas (ed.), James Torrance (illus.), in Scottish Fairy Tales (sans date, ca. 1920).[104]
  • Judy Paterson (ed.), Sally J. Collins (illus.) (1998).[105]

Additional, non-exhaustive list of retellings as follows:

Barbara Ker Wilson's retold tale of "Thomas the Rhymer" is a patchwork of all the traditions accrued around Thomas, including ballad and prophecies both written and popularly held.[98]

John Tillotson's version (1863) with "magic harp he had won in Elfland" and Elizabeth W. Greierson's version (1906) with "harp that was fashioned in Fairyland" are couple of examples that incorporate the theme from Scott's Part Three of Thomas vanishing back to Elfland after the sighting of a hart and hind in town.[96][97]

There have been numerous prose retelling of the ballad or legend.


Popular culture

Washington Irving while visiting Walter Scott was told the legend of Thomas the Rhymer,[93] and it became one of the sources for Irving's short story Rip van Winkle.[94][95]

It has been suggested that John Keats wrote the poem La Belle Dame sans Merci having borrowed the motif and structure from the legend of Thomas the Rhymer.[92]


In the romance, the queen declares that Thomas has stayed three years but can remain no longer, because "the foul fiend of Hell will come among the (fairy) folk and fetch his fee" (modernized from Thornton text, vv.289–290). This "fee" "refers to the common belief that the fairies "paid kane" to hell, by the sacrifice of one or more individuals to the devil every seventh year."[68] (The word teind is actually used in the Greenwood variant of Thomas the Rymer: "Ilka seven year, Thomas, / We pay our teindings unto hell,.. I fear, Thomas, it will be yerself".[4]) The situation is akin to the one presented to the title character of "Tam Lin" who is in the company of the Queen of Fairies, but says he fears he will be given up as the tithe (Scots: teind or kane) paid to hell.[90] The common motif has been identified as type F.257 "Tribute taken from fairies by fiend at stated periods"[81] except that while Tam Lin must devise his own rescue, in the case of the Rymer, "the kindly queen of the fairies will not allow Thomas of Erceldoune to be exposed to this peril, and hurries him back to earth the day before the fiend comes for his due."[90] J. R. R. Tolkien also alludes to the "Devil's tithe" as concerns the Rhymer's tale in a passing witty remark[91]

Literary criticism

On the opposite side of the camp, Child did express the opinion that the ballad "must be of considerable age" though the earliest available to him was datable only to ca. 1700–1750.[75] E. B. Lyle, a researcher prolific on papers on Thomas,[84] hypothesizes the existence of an earlier form of the ballad, which predated the romance and was the source of it.[85] One proponent of the view is Helen Cooper who says that the "has one of the strongest claims to medieval origins,"[86][87] and another is Richard Firth Green who states "continuous oral transmission is the only credible explanation".[88] However Cooper and Green drawn these conclusion under the mistaken assumption that the "romance.. had not yet been printed at the time of Mrs Brown's performance".[74][89]

Additional books that had anything to say about the interrelationship, that pronounce that romance is the basis of the ballad include Katharine Mary Briggs's folk-tale dictionary of 1971,[82] and others.[83]

C. E. Nelson argued for a common archetype (from which all the ballads derive), composed around the year 1700 by "a literate individual of antiquarian bent" living in Berwickshire.[79] Nelson starts off with a working assumption that the archetype ballad, "a not too remote an ancestor of [Mrs.] Greenwood['s version]" was "purposefully reduced from the romance"[56] The linchpin that makes his argument plausible was his reminder that the romance was in fact "printed as late as the seventeenth century"[56] (a printing of 1652 existed, republished Albrecht 1954), a point missed by a number of commentators, and failed to be accounted in Murray's "Published Texts" section. Localizing the archetype to Berwickshire is natural, since the Greenwood group of ballads that closely abide by the romance belong to this area,[80] and it is the "home area" of the traditional hero, Thomas of Erceldoune.[56] After his examination, he pronounced his assumptions justified by evidence, leading him to conclude the "eighteenth-century origin and the subsequent tradition of [the ballad of] 'Thomas Rhymer'",[79] which covered not just the Greenwood group but extendable to the Brown group also.

Walter Scott stated that the romance was "the undoubted original" and the ballad version being corrupted "with changes by oral tradition".[76] Murray flatly dismissed this oral transmission notion, characterizing the ballad as modernization by a contemporary versifier.[77] In fact Scott too privately held his "suspicion of modern manufacture."[59][78]

The romance dates from late 14th to early 15th century (see below), while the ballad texts available do not antedate ca. 1700-1750 at the earliest.[75] The preponderance of opinion seems to be that the romance spawned the ballads (as we know them) at a relatively late period, though there are detractors.

Relationship between romance and ballad forms

The Cotton MS. gives an "Incipit prophecia Thome Arseldon" and an "Explicit prophetia thome de Arseldoune,[71] thus this was the version that Walter Scott excerpted as Appendix. The Sloan MS. begins the second fytte with: "Heare begynethe þe ijd fytt I saye / of Sir thomas of Arseldon,"[72] and the Thornton MS. gives the "Explicit Thomas Of Erseldowne" after the 700th line.[73]

All these texts were edited in parallel by J. A. H. Murray in The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune (1875).[70]

  • Thornton MS. (olim. Lincoln A., 1. 17) - ca. 1430–1440.
  • MS. Cambridge Ff. 5, 48 - mid 15th century.
  • MS. Cotton Vitellius E. x., - late 15th century.
  • MS. Landsowne 762 - ca. 1524–30
  • MS. Sloane 2578 MSS. - 1547. Lacks first fitt.

The medieval romance survives complete or in fragments in five manuscripts, the earliest of which is the Lincoln codex compiled by Robert Thornton:[69]

Manuscript sources

The prophecies of battles continue into Fytte III, but the language turns symbolic. Near the end Thomas asks why Black Agnes of Dunbar (III,660) imprisoned him, and she predicts her death. The mention of Black Agnes here is noted as being an anachronism, Thomas of Erceldoune living a whole generation earlier, and presumably was a confusion with an earlier Countess of the March.[68]

Fytte II is mostly devoted to prophecies. In the opening, Thomas asked for a token to remember the queen by, and she offered him the choice of becoming a harper or a prophet ("harpe or carpe") and rather than the "instrumental" gift, Thomas opts for the "vocal (rather oral) accomplishments."[67] Thomas asks her to abide a bit and tell him some ferlys (marvels). She now starts to tell of future battles at Halidon Hill, Bannockburn, etc., which are easily identifiable historic engagements. (Murray tabulates them in his intro.)

Like ballad C, Huntley banks is the locale where Thomas made sighting of the elfin lady. The "Eldoune, Eldone tree (Thornton, I, 80, 84)" is also mentioned as in the ballad. Thomas is captivated by her, addressing her as queen of heaven, and she answers she is not so lofty, but hints she is of fairy kind. Thomas makes proposition, but she warns him off saying the slightest sin will undo her beauty. Thomas is undaunted, so she gives the "Mane of Molde" (of Earth, mortal man)" ( I,117) consent to marry her and accompany her. And "seven tymes by hyr he lay," (I, 124), but She transforms into a hideous hag immediately after sleeping with him, and declares he shall not see "Medill-erthe" (I,160) for twelvemonth ("twelmoneth", "xij Mones" vv.152, 159). Like the ballad, the lady points one way towards heaven and another towards hell before they arrive in her dominion. (ca.200–220). The lady is followed by grayhounds and raches (=scent dogs) (249–50). Thomas is entertained with food and dancing, but the lady tells him he must now leave. It seemed threed days to Thomas, but the lady says three years ("thre ȝere") or seven years ("seuen ȝere," depending on manuscript) have passed (284–6), and he is brought back to the Elidon tree.

The romance is written in the first person,[6] but probably is not genuinely Thomas's own work: Murray dated the authorship to "shortly after 1400, or about a hundred years after Thomas's death,",[65] but more recent researchers set the date earlier to the (late) 14th century. The romance does often refer to "the story," and Child has opined if the "older story," if any such thing actually existed, "must be the work of Thomas".[66]

The surviving medieval romance is a lengthier account which confirms the content of the ballad.[64]

Medieval romance

In Walter Scott's "Third Part" to the ballad, Thomas finds himself in possession of a "elfin harp he won" in Fairyland in a minstrel competition, which is a departure from either the traditional ballad or the medieval romance, where the queen tells Thomas to choose wither "to harpe or carpe," that is pick a choice of either the gift of music or speech. The "hart and hind" is now being sung as being "white as snow on Fairnalie" (Farnalie has been properly identified by Lyle, as discussed above). Some prose retellings incorporate some features derived from this third part (See §Retellings).

In Minstrelsy, Walter Scott published a second part to the ballad out of Thomas's prophecies, and yet a third part describing Thomas's return to Elfland. The third part was based on the legend Scott said he was familiar with, that "while Thomas was making merry with his friends in the Tower of Ercildoune," a news "a hart and hind.. was parading the street of the village," at which Thomas got up and left, never to be seen again. The popular belief being that he had gone to Fairyland but is "one day expected to revisit earth."[52] Murray cites Robert Chambers's suspicion this may have been a mangled portrayal of a living local personage, and himself recounts a more pedestrian traditional rumor of Thomas's disappearance given by an informant.[63]

Walter Scott's ballads in three parts

Mrs. Brown, aka Anna Gordon or Mrs. Brown of Falkland (1747–1810),[57][58] who was both Scott's and Jamieson's source, had maintained she heard them sung to her as a child.[59] She had learned to sing a repertoire of some three dozen ballads from her aunt, Mrs. Farquheson.[5][57][60][58] Mrs. Brown's nephew Robert Eden Scott transcribed the music, and the manuscript was available to Scott and others.[58][61] However different accounts have been given, such as "an old maid-servant who had been long as the nursemaid being the one to teach Mrs. Brown."[62]

Mrs. Brown's ballads

Child B is taken from the second volume of the Campbell manuscripts entitled "Old Scottish Songs, Collected in the Counties of Berwick, Roxburgh, Selkirk & Peebles", dating to ca. 1830.[4][55] The Leyden transcript, or Child "D" was supplied to Walter Scott before his publication, and influenced his composition of the C version to some degree.[54] The text by Mrs. Christiana Greenwood, or Child "E" was "sent to Scott in May of 1806 after reading his C version in the Minstrelsey,[54] and was dated by Nelson as an "early to mid-eighteenth-century text".[56] These two versions provided to Scott and were among his papers at Abbotsford.

The ballad was first printed by Walter Scott (1803) then by Robert Jamieson (1806).[48][49][50] Both used Mrs. Brown's manuscript as underlying source. Child A is represented by Mrs. Brown's MS. and Jamieson's published version (with only slight differences in wording). Child C is a composite of Mrs. Brown and another version,[51] in fact, 13 of the 20 stanzas are the same as A, and although Scott claims his version is from a "copy, obtained from a lady residing not far from Ercildoun" corrected using Mrs. Brown's MS.,[52] Nelson labels the seven different stanzas as something that is "for most part Scott's own, Gothic-romantic invention".[53]

Ballad sources

The queen instructs Thomas not to speak to others in Elfland, and leave her to do all the talking. In the end, he receives as present "a coat of the even cloth, and a pair of shoes of velvet green" (A) or "tongue that can never lie" (B) or both (C). Version E uniquely mentions the Queen's fear that Thomas may be chosen as "teinding unto hell"[4] that is to say the tithe in the form of humans that Elfland is subjected to pay periodically. In the romance, the Queen explains that the collection of the "fee to hell" draws near, and Thomas must be sent back to earth to spare him of the peril. (See § Literary criticism for further literary analysis).

The queen now tells Thomas to lay his head to rest on her knee (A, B, C), and shows him three marvels ("ferlies three"), which are the road to Hell, the road to Heaven, and the road to her homeland (named Elfland in A). It is the road beyond the meadow or lawn overgrown with lilies[47] that leads to Heaven, except in C where the looks deceive and the lily road leads to Hell, while the thorny road leads to Heaven.

Then she wheels around her milk white steed and lets Thomas ride on the crupper behind (A, C) or she rides the dapple-gray while he ran (B, E). He must wade knee-high through a river (B, C, E), exaggerated as an expanse of blood (perhaps "river of blood"), in A.[45] They reach a "garden green," and Thomas wants to pluck a fruit to slake his hunger but the queen interrupts, admonishing him that he will be accursed or damned (A, B, D, E). The language in B suggests this is "the fruit of the Forbidden Tree;" [46] and variants D, E calls it an apple. The queen provides Thomas food to sate his hunger.

but overstays more than three (or seven) years. [44] If he chooses to go, Thomas is warned he will be unable to return for seven years (A, B, D, E). In the romance the queen's warning is "only for a twelvemonth"[43]

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