Thomas the Rhymer by Mary MacGregor

It is six hundred years ago since Thomas the Rhymer lived and rhymed, and in those far-off days little need was there to tell his tale. It was known far and wide throughout the countryside.

Thomas was known as Thomas the Rhymer because of the wonderful songs he sang. Never another harper in all the land had so great a gift as he. But at that no one marvelled, no one, that is to say, who knew that he had gained his gift in Elfland.

When Thomas took his harp in his hand and touched the strings, a hush would fall upon those who heard, were they princes or were they peasants. For the magic of his music reached the hearts of all who stood around him. Were the strains merry, gleeful? The faces of those who heard were wreathed in smiles. Were they sad, melancholy? The faces of those who looked upon the harpist were bathed in tears. Truly Thomas the Rhymer held the hearts of the people in his hand.

But the minstrel had another name, wonderful as the one I have already told to you.

Thomas the Rhymer was named True Thomas, and that was because, even had he wished it, Thomas could not say or sing what was not true.

This gift too, as you will hear, was given to him by the Queen of Elfland.

And yet another name had this wonderful singer.

He was born, so the folk said, in a little village called Ercildoune. He lived there, so the folk knew, in a castle strongly built on the banks of a little river. Thus to those who dwelt in the countryside the Rhymer was known as Thomas of Ercildoune. The river which flowed past the castle was the Leader. It flowed broader and deeper until two miles beyond the village it ran into the beautiful river Tweed. And to-day the ruins of an old tower are visited by many folk who have heard that it was once the home of the ancient harpist.

Thomas of Ercildoune, Thomas the Rhymer, and True Thomas were thus only different names for one marvellous man who sang and played, never told an untruth, and who, moreover, was able to tell beforehand events that were going to take place.

Listen, and I will tell you how Thomas of Ercildoune came to visit Elfland.

It was one beautiful May morning that Thomas felt something stirring in his heart. Spring had come, spring was calling to him. He could stay no longer in the grim tower on the banks of the Leader. He would away, away to the woods where the thrush and the jay were singing, where the violets were peeping forth with timid eyes, where the green buds were bursting their bonds for very joy.

Thomas hastened to the woods and threw himself down by the bank of a little brook.

Ah yes! spring has come. How the little birds sing, how the gentle breezes whisper! Yet listen! what is it Thomas hears beyond the song of the birds, the whisper of the breeze?

On the air floats the sound of silver bells. Thomas raises his head. Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle! The sound draws nearer, clearer. It is music such as one might hear in Elfland.

Beyond the wood, over the lonely moors, rode a lady. So fair a lady had Thomas never seen.

Her palfrey was dapple-grey and she herself shone as the summer sun. Her saddle was of pure ivory, bright with many precious stones and hung with cloth of richest crimson.

The girths of her saddle were of silk and the buckles were each one a beryl. Her stirrups of clear crystal and adorned with pearls hung ready for her fairy feet. The trappings of her palfrey were of finest embroidery, her bridle was a chain of gold.

From the palfrey's mane hung little silver bells, nine-and-fifty little silver bells. It was the fairy music of the bells that had reached the ears of Thomas as he lay dreaming on the bank of the little brook.

The lady's skirt was green, green as the leaves of spring, her cloak was of fine velvet. Her long black hair hung round her as a veil, and her brow was adorned with gems.

By her side were seven greyhounds, other seven she led by a leash. From her neck hung a horn and in her belt was thrust a sheath of arrows.

It seemed as though the lady gay were on her way to the hunting-field.

Now she would blow her horn until the echoes answered merrily, merrily; now she would trill her songs, until the wild birds answered gaily, gaily.

Thomas of Ercildoune gazed, and Thomas of Ercildoune listened, and his heart gave a great bound as he said to himself, 'Now, by my troth, the lady is none of mortal birth. She is none other than Mary, the Queen of Heaven.'

Then up sprang Thomas from the little woodland brook and away sped he over the mountain-side, that he might, so it were possible, reach her as she rode by the Eildon tree, which tree grew on the side of the Eildon hills.

'For certainly,' said Thomas, 'if I do not speak with that lady bright, my heart will break in three.'

And in sooth, as she dismounted under the Eildon tree, Thomas met the lady, and kneeling low beneath the greenwood, he spoke, thus eager was he to win a benison from the Queen of Heaven.

'Lovely lady, have pity upon me, even as thou art mother of the Child who died for me.'

'Nay now, nay now,' said the lady gay, 'no Queen of Heaven am I. I come but from the country thou dost call Elfland, though queen of that country in truth I am. I do but ride to the hunt with my hounds as thou mayest hear.' And she blew on her horn merrily, merrily.

Under the Eildon tree Thomas met the lady Under the Eildon tree Thomas met the lady

Now Thomas did not wish to lose sight of so fair a lady.

'Go not back to Elfland; stay by my side under the Eildon tree,' he pleaded.

'Nay,' said the Queen of Elfland, 'should I stay with thee, a mortal, my fairness would fade as fades a leaf.'

But Thomas did not believe her, and, for he was a bold man, he drew near and kissed the rosy lips of the Elfland Queen.

Alas, alas! no sooner had he kissed her than the lady fair changed into a tired old woman.

She no longer wore a skirt of beautiful green, but a long robe of hodden grey covered her from head to foot. The light, bright as the summer sun that had shone around her, faded, and her face grew pale and thin. Her eyes no longer danced for joy, they gazed dull and dim before her. And on one side of her head the long black hair had changed to grey.

It was a sight to make one sad, and Thomas, as he gazed, cried, as well he might, 'Alas, alas!'

'Thyself hast sealed thy doom, Thomas,' cried the lady. 'Thou must come with me to Elfland. Haste thou therefore to bid farewell to sun and moon, to trees and flowers, for, come weal, come woe, thou must e'en serve me for a twelvemonth.'

Then Thomas fell upon his knees and prayed to Mary mild that she would have pity upon him.

But when he arose the Queen of Elfland bade him mount behind her, and Thomas could do nought save obey her command.

Her steed flew forward, the Eildon hills opened, and horse and riders were in the caverns of the earth.

Thomas felt darkness close around him. On they rode, on and yet on; swift as the wind they rode. Water reached to his knee, above and around him was darkness, and ever and anon the booming of the waves.

For three days they rode. Then Thomas grew faint with hunger and cried, 'Woe is me, I shall die for lack of food.'

As he cried, the darkness grew less thick, and they were riding forward into light. Bright sunlight lay around them as they rode toward a garden. It was a garden such as Thomas had never seen on earth.

All manner of fruit was there, apples and pears, dates and damsons, figs and currants, all ripe, ready to be plucked. In this beautiful garden, too, there were birds, nightingales building their nests, gay popinjays flitting hither and thither among the trees, thrushes singing their sweetest songs.

But these Thomas neither saw nor heard. Thomas had eyes only for the fruit, and he thrust forth his hand to pluck it, so hungry, so faint was he.

'Let be the fruit, Thomas,' cried the lady, 'let be the fruit. For dost thou pluck it, thy soul will go to an evil place, nor shall it escape until the day of doom. Leave the fruit, Thomas, and come lay thy head upon my knee, and I will show thee a sight fairer than ever mortal hath seen. And Thomas, being fain to rest, lay down as he was bid, and closed his eyes.

'Now open thine eyes, Thomas,' said the lady, 'and thou shalt see three roads before thee. Narrow and straight is the first, and hard is it to walk there, for thorns and briars grow thick, and spread themselves across the pathway. Straight up over the mountain-tops on into the city of God runs this straight and narrow road. It is named the path of Goodness. And ever will the thorns prick and the briars spread, for few there be who tread far on this rough and prickly road.

'Look yet again, Thomas,' said the lady. And Thomas saw stretching before him a long white road. It ran smooth and broad across a grassy plain, and roses blossomed, and lilies bloomed by the wayside. 'That,' said the lady, 'is named the path of Evil, and many there be who saunter along its broad and easy surface.'

Thomas said no word, but lay looking at the third pathway as it twisted and twined in and out amid the cool, green nooks of the woodland. Tiny rills caught the sunlight and tossed it back to the cold, grey rock down which they trickled; tiny ferns waved a welcome from their sheltered crevices. 'This,' said the lady, 'this is the fair road to Elfland, and along its beauteous way must thou and I ride this very night. But speak thou to none, Thomas, when thou comest to Elfland. Though strange the sights you see, the sounds you hear, speak thou to none, for never mortal returns to his own country does he speak one word in the land of Elfs.'

Then once again Thomas mounted behind the lady, and hard and fast did they ride until they saw before them a castle. It stood on a high hill, fair and strong, and as it came in sight the lady reined in her white steed.

'See, Thomas, see!' she cried, 'here is the castle that is mine and his who is king of this country. None like it is there, for beauty or for strength, in the land from which thou comest. My lord is waited on by knights, of whom there are thirty in this castle. A noble lord is mine, nor would he wish to hear how thou wert bold and kissed me under the Eildon tree. Bear thou in mind, Thomas, that thou speak no word, nay, not though thou art commanded to tell thy tale. I will say to my courtiers that I took from thee the power of speech ere ever we crossed the sea.'

Thomas listened, and dared not speak. Thomas stood still, still as a stone, and gazed upon the lady, and lo! a great wonder came to pass.

Once more the lady shone bright as the sun upon a summer's morn, once more she wore her skirt of green, green as the leaves of spring, and her velvet cloak hung around her shoulders. Her eyes flashed and her long hair waved once more black in the breeze.

And Thomas, looking at his own garments, started to see that they too were changed. For he was now clothed in a suit of beautiful soft cloth, and on his feet were a pair of green velvet shoes.

Clear and loud the lady fair blew her horn, clear and loud, and forward she rode toward the castle gate.

Then down to welcome their queen trooped all the fairy court, and kneeling low before her, they did her reverence.

Into the hall she stepped, Thomas following close at her side, silent as one who had no power to speak.

They crowded around him, the knights and squires; they asked him questions about his own country, yet no word dared Thomas answer.

Then arose great revelry and feasting in the castle of the Elfin Queen.

Harps and fiddles played their wildest and most gladsome tunes, knights and ladies danced, and all went merry as a marriage bell.

Across the hall Thomas looked, and there a strange sight met his glance. Thirty harts and as many deer lay on the oaken floor, and bending over them, their knives in their hands, were elfin cooks, making ready for the feast. Thomas wondered if it were but a dream, so strange seemed the sights he saw.

Gaily passed the days, and Thomas had no wish to leave the strange Elfland. But a day came when the queen said to Thomas, 'Now must thou begone from Elfland, Thomas, and I, myself, will ride with you back to your own country.'

'Nay now, but three days have I dwelt in thy realm,' said Thomas, 'with but little cheer. Give me leave to linger yet a little while.'

'Indeed, indeed, Thomas,' cried the Queen of Elfland, 'thou hast been with me for seven long years and more, but now thou must away ere the dawn of another day. To-morrow there comes an evil spirit from the land of darkness to our fair realm. He comes each year to claim our most favoured and most courteous guest, and it will be thou, Thomas, thou, whom he will wish to carry to his dark abode. But we tarry not his coming. By the light of the moon we ride to-night to the land of thy birth.'

Once again the lady fair mounted her white palfrey, and Thomas rode behind until she brought him safe back to the Eildon tree.

There, under the leaves of the greenwood, while the little birds sang their lays, the Queen of Elfland said farewell to Thomas.

'Farewell, Thomas, farewell, I may no longer stay with thee.'

'Give me a token,' pleaded Thomas, 'a token ere thou leavest me, that mortals may know that I have in truth been with thee in Elfland.'

'Take with thee, then,' said the lady, 'take with thee the gift of harp and song, and likewise the power to tell that which will come to pass in future days. Nor ever shall thy tales be false, Thomas, for I have taken from thee the power to speak aught save only what is true.'

She turned to ride away, away to Elfland. Then Thomas was sad, and tears streamed from his grey eyes, and he cried, 'Tell me, lady fair, shall I never meet thee more?'

'Yea,' said the Elf Queen, 'we shall meet again, Thomas. When thou art in thy castle of Ercildoune and hearest of a hart and hind that come out of the forest and pace unafraid through the village, then come thou down to seek for me here, under the Eildon tree.'

Then loud and clear blew she her horn and rode away. Thus Thomas parted from the Elfin Queen.

On earth seven slow long years had passed away since Thomas had been seen in the little village of Ercildoune, and the villagers rubbed their eyes and stared with open mouth as they saw him once again in their midst.

Ofttimes now Thomas was to be seen wandering down from his grim old castle down to the bonny greenwood. Ofttimes was he to be found lying on the bank of the little brook that babbled to itself as it ran through the forest, or under the Eildon tree, where he had met the Elf Queen so long before.

He would be dreaming as he lay there of the songs he would sing to the country folk. So beautiful were these songs that people hearing them knew that Thomas the Rhymer had a gift that had been given to him by no mortal hand.

He would be thinking, too, as he lay by the babbling brook, of the wars and dangers that in years to come would fall upon his country. And those who hearkened to the woes he uttered found that the words of True Thomas never failed to come to pass.

Seven long years passed away since Thomas had parted from the Elfland Queen, and yet another seven.

War had raged here and there throughout the land, when on a time it chanced that the Scottish army encamped close to the castle of Ercildoune where Thomas the Rhymer dwelt.

It was a time of truce, and Thomas wished to give a feast to the gallant soldiers who had been fighting for their country.

Thus it was that the doors of the old castle were flung wide, and noise and laughter filled the banquet-hall. Merry were the tales, loud the jests, bright the minstrel strains that night in the castle of Ercildoune.

But when the feast was over Thomas himself arose, the harp he had brought from Elfland in his hand, and a hush fell upon the throng, upon lords and ladies, and upon rough armed men.

The cheeks of rugged warriors that day were wet ere ever Thomas ceased to sing. Nor ever in the years to come did those who heard forget the magic of his song.

Night fell, those who had feasted had gone to rest, when in the bright moonlight a strange sight was seen by the village folk.

Along the banks of the Leader there paced side by side a hart and a hind, each white, white as newly fallen snow.

Slowly and with stately steps they moved, nor were they affrighted by the crowd which gathered to gaze at them.

Then, for True Thomas would know the meaning of so strange a sight, then a messenger was sent in haste to the castle of Ercildoune.

As he listened to the tale the messenger brought, Thomas started up out of bed and in haste he put on his clothes. Pale and red did he grow in turn as he listened to the tale, yet all he said was this: 'My sand is run, my thread is spun, this token is for me.'

Thomas hung his elfin harp around his neck, his minstrel cloak across his shoulders, and out into the pale moonlight he walked. And as he walked the wind touched the strings of the elfin harp and drew forth a wail so full of dole that those who heard it whispered: 'It is a note of death.'

On walked Thomas, slow and sad, and oft he turned to look again at the grim walls of the castle, which he knew he would never see again.

And the moonbeams fell upon the grey tower, and in the soft light the walls grew less grim, less stern, so thought Thomas.

'Farewell,' he cried, 'farewell. Nor song nor dance shall evermore find place within thy walls. On thy hearthstone shall the wild hare seek a refuge for her young. Farewell to Leader, the stream I love, farewell to Ercildoune, my home.'

As Thomas tarried for a last look, the hart and the hind drew near. Onward then he went with them toward the banks of the Leader, and there, before the astonished folk, he crossed the stream with his strange companions, and nevermore was Thomas the Rhymer seen again.

For many a day among the hills and through the glens was Thomas sought, but never was he found. There be some who say that he is living yet in Elfland, and that one day he will come again to earth.

Meanwhile he is not forgotten. The Eildon tree no longer waves its branches in the breeze, but a large stone named the Eildon-tree stone marks the spot where once it grew. And near to the stone flows a little river which has been named the Goblin Brook, for by its banks it was believed that Thomas the Rhymer used to talk with little men from the land of Elf.