The Truth Behind True Thomas

 

               “True Thomas lay o’er yond grassy bank. . .”

“Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Faerie,” 1852, from The British Museum.

Thomas of Erceldoune was a 13th Century Scottish laird who, so the story goes—popularized by professor F.J. Child in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads—one day met the Fairie Queen, was captivated by her beauty, and consented to accompany her to the Fair Lands—to Faerie. (The Faerie Queen was not exactly forthcoming about her destination him at first, but what else would you expect from Themselves?) She gives him a geas, a prohibition against speaking, and he serves her for seven years. And before being returned to the mortal realm, she gifts him with the power of True Speech. Ever after, he can only speak the truth.

By Katharine Cameron (1874–1965) – MacGregor, Mary; Cameron, Katharine (1874–1965), illus. (1908) Stories from the Ballads Told to the Children (Project Gutenberg), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8720495

The presence of the Faerie Queen would lead the average person to conclude that this tale is fiction, pure fabrication.  Not so fast. So many old tales have their origins in truth . . .

 

Thomas Learmonth of Erceldoune was a real historical person. He lived in Ercildoune, a town now called Earlston, halfway between Edinbourgh and the border of England. Documents from 1294 prove he existed; he is listed as “Thome Rymour de Ercildoun.” Still standing today, although in ruins, is Rhymer’s Tower, his supposed home, (possibly a later building constructed on his land).

“Rhymer’s Tower, Earlston” by Hector MacQueen, 2010. CC2.     https://www.flickr.com/photos/hectormacq/4414896196/in/album-72157623449249579/

 

The Faerie Queen’s gift of True Speech brings to mind school tales of George Washington’s mythical “I cannot tell a lie.” Delving deeper into Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border reveals that Thomas’ truth is equated with prophetic vision. He is said to have predicted the death of King Alexander III, the Battle of Bannockburn, and the union of the English and Scottish crowns—this last did not occur until  1603.

 

I’ve written previously about Thomas the Rhymer and the Christian symbolism in this tale, and the intersections of history and folklore equally fascinate me.

 

I’m pleased to report that my short story “True Thomas” has been reprinted in Fae Wings and Hidden Things, an anthology about faeries.

 

 

Further Reading

F.J. Child’s ballad #37 “Thomas Rymer”

Look at this! There’s a Friends of Thomas the Rhymer local history group in Earlston!

The Legend of Thomas The Rhymer and the Queen of the Fairies

Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border

“Thomas Learmonth of Ercildoune” from Scottish Literary Locations.

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St. Genevieve Defeats Attila

“St. Genevieve, St. Genevieve,
It’s Guenevere!
Remember me?
St. Genevieve, St. Genevieve,
I’m over here
Beneath this tree. . . .”

            For over thirty years, all I’ve known about St. Genevieve is that she was referenced in a song from the Broadway musical Camelot.  I was in Middle School, channel surfing, and one of the pay channels, probably HBO, featured a filmed version of the stage play on repeat all month. The first few times I’d bypassed it with a teenager’s disdain of musicals, but later I must have caught a scene with knights and decided it was cool.  Borrowed the album—yes, yinyl­­—from the public library. Learned all the songs. Never once wondered who St. Genevieve was.

In November 2015, St. Genevieve was all over my Facebook feed in the wake of the terrorism attacks in Paris; my religious friends prayed she would heal and protect her city. I still didn’t give her much thought.

            This is what I’ve learned recently:

St. Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris. She was born ~422 in Nanterre, a region a short distance outside of Paris. As a child she was blessed by a bishop, reportedly St. Germain of Auxerre who was traveling to Britain to refute the Pelagians; he encouraged Genevieve to pursue piety and a life dedicated to God. As a nun in Paris, St. Symeon the Stylite corresponded with her.  She was known for her teachings, for her charity and fasting, and for working miracles. Long after her death, in 1129, an outbreak of the Plague in Paris stopped after a procession was made in her honor.

St. Geneviève watching over the sleeping city of Paris / Sainte Geneviève veillant sur Paris endormi; Painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, French, ~1824-1898

I certainly don’t hold negligent my public school education for failing to mention her; I understand the importance of teaching history without indoctrination.  In 7th Grade we learned that such a thing called the Byzantine Empire existed—barely—and were remotely introduced to the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne (although what exactly they did or why they were important wasn’t stressed.) We learned that generic “barbarians” sacked Rome. (What more detail do you need to offer pre-teens, practically barbarians themselves?) Somewhere along the way, outside of my history classes, I learned about history’s great baddies: Attilla the Hun, Vlad the Impaler, Genghis Khan. (A Listverse article ranks Attila as #2 and Genghis as #1 worst all-time ancient history villains.)

Medieval painting of Huns attacking a city.

So back in 451, Attila “the Scourge of God,” unable to conquer the thick walls of Constantinople, turns to the Western Roman Empire instead. (Sidenote: Emperor Theodosius II built his double walls of Constantinople specifically to keep out Attila—although first he paid Attila tribute.) Attila crosses then-Gaul, closes in on Paris, and St. Genevieve starts to pray.

Map courtesy of Wikipedia

In one version, St. Genevieve criticizes the cowardly men of Paris who had wanted to flee, and emboldens them to stay and fight. In another, she and her nun sisters pray and fast. Perhaps a little of both are true. Either way, Attila and his armies turn away. In June 451, Attila is defeated—the one defeat of his career—at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, somewhere in Gaul. (Wikipedia tells us that the Catalaunian Plains are near Champagne-Ardenne in the northeastern part of present-day France.)

The Epistle of James says that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16), a verse I’ve long believed, even when I didn’t understand it or know what righteousness is. This much I know:

St. Genevieve the unknown-to-me defeated Attila-the-effing-Hun!, the #2 villain and conqueror of the ancient world, and I was robbed of the inspiration of her example by an anti-hagiography Protestant upbringing.

Dearest well-meaning Protestants, sweet brothers and sisters, do you even know the legacy you’ve jettisoned?

“One [he] can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” — St. Cyprian of Carthage.

 

Evie Peoples at Giant’s Causeway, No. Ireland. Photo by Anna Love via Facebook. The Giant’s Causeway is one of my favorite places in the world. I didn’t know Evie personally, but this is how I would like to remember her.

This article is offered in remembrance of Evie Peoples, ~1997-2017. Memory Eternal. Rest in Peace.  

            St. Genevieve of Paris, pray for us, and for all who bear your name.

 

St. Genevieve; Painting ~1500-1599; from the Carnavalet Museum in the Netherlands

Resources / Further Reading

8 Things You Might Not Know About Attila the Hun from the History Channel /History.com

Attila the Hun from Ancient History Encyclopedia

Attila the Hun from Biography.com

Genevieve of Paris from Orthodox Wiki

St. Genevieve from The Catholic Encyclopedia

Venerable Genevieve of Paris from The Orthodox Church in America

 

 

 

Seeing Rightly: In Search of the Little Prince [Book Review]

I finally made time to read In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and I’m glad I did. This picture book biography tells the life of Saint-Exupéry and his never-flagging passion for flying.  It also reveals some of the real-life inspiration for his beloved The Little Prince.

Tonio, as his family called him, delivered mail by plane in Morocco and Northern Africa, and it was on one of those stopovers that he tamed a desert fox.  He loved poetry at a young age and preferred flying to any other job. He called himself “a farmer of the stars.”

The flat, almost one-dimensional watercolor (?) illustrations were not to my personal liking, but delightful photographs of Saint-Exupéry line the front endpapers.

Antoine and his siblings, 1907. Antoine is second from right.

 

Antoine in France, 1921

The best part of the book was this quotation:

 

It’s a short read, intended for children, and the child in everyone will appreciate this book.

 Illustrated by the author.

 

Landmann, Bimba.  In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Books For Young Readers, 2014. Print.