Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia

Thomas the Rhymer

Thomas de Ercildoun, Thomas de Ercildoune, Thomas Learmont, Thomas Learmonth, Thomas Learmount, Thomas Learmouth, Thomas Rymer, Thomas Rymour de Erceldoune, Thumas, True Thomas

A Scottish laird and prophet from Earlston (historically known as Ercildoune). We don’t know much about his life, he is mentioned in two charters from 1260-1280 and 1294. In the latter charter the following can be read: “Thomas de Ercildounson son and heir of Thome Rymour de Ercildoun.”

Thomas the Rhymer is a figure from Scottish folklore and ballads. He is considered to be the author of the romance Sir Tristrem. He lived in the thirteenth century and was renowned for his prophetic abilities and poetic skills. Thomas the Rhymer is often portrayed as a wandering minstrel and a courtier, known for his encounters with the Queen of Elfland.

According to legend, Thomas encountered a beautiful fairy queen while walking by the Eildon Tree (Eildon Hills) near Melrose in the Scottish Borders. The queen, sometimes identified as the Queen of Elfland, took Thomas to her realm, where he lived for seven years. During his time there, he was granted the gift of prophecy and the ability to compose eloquent poetry. However, he was also bound by a spell that prevented him from telling lies.

His countrymen first knew of his traffic with the fairies when Thomas wandered into the marketplace at Ercildoune, his native hamlet, after an absence of seven years. The villagers had long since given him up for dead, and he answered their insistent questions with a strange tale.

He told of a Fairy Queen who, seven years before, had ridden from among the trees as he lay plucking his lute, in a wood outside Ercildoune. The Queen smiled and drew rein before him; she was as lovely as the dawn, and he played sweet and artful melodies to win her. At last she dismounted, and he made to kiss her. She warned him that the act would bind him to her for seven years, but his heart thrilled with love, and he did not hesitate. Then she climbed on her white horse, wheeled, and with Thomas close behind on foot, set off at an easy canter for another world.

Their journey took them through perpetual night, where an ocean of blood seethed about Thomas’ knees, across an inky heath and into a bright meadow. There the Fairy Queen showed Thomas a manicured path, broad and well-worn, that led to perdition, and a steep, narrow way, choked with briars, that was the way of righteousness. She said:

But for singers and lovers of beauty such as we, there is a third way.

And she led him along a gentle, twisting path, where their steps were hushed by moss and their legs caressed by encroaching ferns. It was the way to Fairyland. And now that the appointed period was up, the Fairy Queen had sent Thomas back to the mortal world to live out his span. When the hubbub of his return died away, Thomas resumed the life of an earthbound mortal. But his poems sang with new eloquence and his highly accurate prophecies brought him renown, for in fairyland he had eaten an apple whose flesh held the power of truth – a parting gift from the Fairy Queen.

Many ballads and tales depict his encounters with various figures, including nobles, clergy, and supernatural beings. His prophecies often revolved around political events and the fate of individuals.

During his time in the mortal world, it was Thomas’ habit to host each year a banquet for kinsfolk and villagers. Strange tidings interrupted the feast that was held in his seventy-eighth year. A crofter’s lad hurried into the hall, and silence fell as the boy stammered his news. A pair of milk white deer, hart and hind, were trotting down the lane toward the house of the poet, he reported. The villagers were unnerved by the report. Surely Thomas, the wisest man in the land, would know what these unnatural creatures signified.

Thomas thanked the boy and rose.

They are come from the fairy world, and I must follow them.

He strode from the hall. In the lane, a silent throng of villagers saw the deer pause at Thomas’ approach, then fall into place at his side. Only the crunch of Thomas’ footsteps sounded as the prophet, his otherwordly companions beside him, paced the length of the village and out into the forest that enclosed it. The little procession flickered briefly behind the dark pines, then it vanished.

Thomas the Rhymer’s story has been passed down through generations in ballads and oral traditions. The most famous ballad about him is “Thomas the Rhymer,” also known as “True Thomas,” which tells the story of his encounter with the Queen of Elfland and his eventual return to the mortal world.

Glennie tells us that many traditions connect Thomas with Arthur, as

the unwilling, and too quickly vanishing guide of those adventurous spirits who have entered the mysterious Halls beneath the Eildons, and attempted to achieve the re-awakening of Arthur … only to be cast forth.

The tradition recorded in Malory has Arthur lying not beneath the Eildons, but in Avilion (Glastonbury). Different spatial relationships, however, may hold in Faery than here on the surface.

See also
Castle of Ercildoune | The Legend of King Arthur