Christian Symbolism in Thomas the Rhymer
Thomas the Rhymer was a bard whose supernatural tale was recorded most famously in Professor Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Sir Walter Scott also noted this legend in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. I have quite a liking for this human character on the cusp of faerie, as you may recall from my June 8, 2012 entry and my poems published in Eggplant’s Miscellanea.
Why do some of these legends resonate more deeply than others?
Christian symbolism runs deep in many of the traditional ballads Child collected. The famous “Cherry Tree Carol,” popular at Christmas, features a cherry tree with limbs bending low for a pregnant, craving Virgin Mary and a skeptical suitor Joseph. His anthology also includes popular ballads of Judas and St. Stephen, legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and tales of commoners, lords, and kings. My favorites are his supernatural ballads featuring witches and fairies. But even the supernatural tales are infused with folk Christianity.
In his ballad “Thomas the Rhymer,” True Thomas met a woman so radiant he mistakes her for the “Queen of Heaven”—the Virgin Mary—but no, she is the Faerie Queen. On their way to Faerie, they travel for forty days and forty nights through moonless, sunless skies. They encounter a garden with a distinctive tree but as Thomas reaches for the apple, the Queen cautions against the “very fruit o’ hell.” Instead, she offers him bread and wine.
The forty days are reminiscent of Christ’s prayer and temptation in the wilderness. In saving Thomas from repeating the sin of Adam, the Queen suggests a female counterpoint to Eve who, instead of sharing the forbidden, helps him refrain. Perhaps even the moonless, sunless skies reference the apocalyptic vision of Matthew. The Faerie Queen offering communion? I don’t even want to touch that one.
Eventually, Thomas and the Queen come to a fork in the road which branches three ways. In a tale borrowing one of Christ’s parables, the narrow road of thorns is the path of righteousness which few follow. The “bonny road” is a wide, easy path—the road to hell— “tho’ some call it the road to heaven.” A third path, which they travel, is not mentioned in the gospels and unique to fairie lore. It is the road to Faerieland.
After seven years and a plot against his life, the Faerie Queen sends Thomas back to his earthly realm. He returns to humanity, but not empty-handed. She has given an unexpected gift: unwanted honesty through an inability to lie. Thereafter he is known as True Thomas. At the end of his life, he returns to Faerie—although it is said he is waiting until Scotland needs him again.
In my fiction adaptation of the tale recently published in Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination, I have researched the historical setting of the Thomas the Rhymer tale. He is a folkloric figure like King Arthur who is based in history but has become larger than life. In its day, Thomas’ tongue which cannot lie indicated a prophetic inspiration rather than our modern interpretation of an ethical commitment to truth. Stories of his prophetic honesty were seized by Scottish nationalists in their fight for independence.
Folklorists group tales by related themes, and Thomas the Rhymer’s sojourn in Faerie marks him as a “Hero under the Mountain.” He embodies the “Cultural Hero Expected to Return” archtype, who like King Arthur, will return in the time of his country’s greatest need. Like Jesus Christ, he is coming again.
I do not know if, as commonly supposed, an older tale was Christianized by popular sensibilities, or how much transcendent truth is native to “Thomas” from the start. I’m not sure I care. I’ll leave that to the professional folklorists.
Orthodox priest Fr. Alexander Schmemann has said, “A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds everywhere Christ, and rejoices in Him.”
Read Ash Silverlock’s thorough description of the history and progression of the Thomas the Rhymer mythos, including contemporary literary allusions here.
Listen to British folk band Steeleye Span’s version. Available on their compilation album, Spanning the Years, available for purchase through Amazon.
Read Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border through Project Gutenberg here.
Purchase the issue of Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination to read my historical fiction adaptation here.