More on True Thomas and the Lady
I want in this post to continue the outline of the narrative of the first part of the ‘Prophecies’ of Thomas of Erceldoune, outlining points of similarity and difference to the Ballad. In the last post I did this up to the point where the Lady turns into a hideous hag-like figure. This incident is not in the Ballad. But the figure of the ‘Loathly Lady’ is well known in medieval literature. Chaucer used it in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Usually, the hero has to kiss the Loathly Lady, or agree to marry her, after which she becomes a beautiful young woman. ‘Kissing the Hag’ is a test, when a hero has to prove himself worthy and these stories are usually interpreted as ‘sovereignty’ themes, the would-be king or leader having to wed the land as winter as well as summer. But the pattern seems to be reversed here. Thomas has done a lot more than kiss the Lady, and the result is that she is transformed from beauty to hideousness. The ‘test’ here, if it is a test, is that Thomas has to accompany the Lady in her hideous form back to her own land, leaving ‘Middle Earth’ behind them . This involves a frightening journey underground and through water.
In the Ballad, after Thomas has kissed the Elfin Queen, she takes him up on her horse and they ride ‘swifter than the wind’ across a desert leaving the ‘living land’ behind them. In the ‘Prophecies’, following the lady’s transformation, Thomas is distraught and reverts to addressing her as the Queen of Heaven, supposing what they have done will bring him great trouble. But in one of the manuscript sources of the ‘Prophecies’ the wording suggests, rather, that he prays separately to the Virgin Mary and although this is less clear in the other manuscripts, it is a possible reading there too. The Lady’s response is to guide him to a ‘secret’ way under the hill where it is ‘dark as midnight mirk’ and where he must wade through a river. He hears nothing but the constant sound of running water for three days before arriving in a fair garden. In guiding him through the terrible ways to the Otherworld, the Lady, though having refused the title, seems to offer him the help and protection he prays for to ‘Mary mild’. Though he is faint with hunger and reaches out to eat some of the fruit in the garden, she tells him not to touch it or he will never return. This is a common theme of visits to the Otherworld and again, here, the lady is his guide and protector.
The briefer narrative of the Ballad dispenses with most of this but does include references to riding through rivers of blood. Both the Ballad and the ‘Prophecies’, though not in the same place in the narrative, have a scene where the Lady tells Thomas to put his head upon her knee while she points out the different road that could be taken. The Ballad has three of these: ‘the road to righteousness’, ‘the road to wickedness, which some call the road to heaven’, and the ‘bonnie road across the ferny brae’ which will take them to Elfland. In the ‘Prophecies’, the five roads identified are to heaven, to paradise, to purgatory, to hell, and to a castle on a hill which is their destination. The Ballad makes its point without these theological distinctions, simply asserting that ‘Elfland’ is different from heaven and hell.
In the version of the Ballad given by Walter Scott (but not in a later, possibly corrupt version) the Elfin Queen, rather than warning Thomas not to eat the fruit, offers him an apple which will give him ‘a tongue that can never lie’. We are then simply told that he returns after seven years wearing a coat ‘of the even cloth’ and ‘shoes of velvet green’. In both the Ballad and the ‘Prophecies’ Thomas is told not to speak while he is in the Otherworld. In the ‘Prophecies’ the reason given for this is that the Lady doesn’t want him to be questioned by her husband in case he reveals what they have been up to. The Ballad has no explanation except that if he does speak he will never return home.
As they ride towards the castle, the Lady’s beauty returns to her. Thomas stays there for what seems like three days but he is told it is three years (compare the Ballad’s seven years). He must leave, the Lady tells him, as the ‘foul fiend of hell’ will come to claim one of the company and if Thomas is there she fears it will be him. There is a parallel here with the story of Tamlane. Fytte One ends with the lady bringing Thomas back to the Eildon Tree. In fyttes two and three she keeps trying to take leave of him with repeated statements like ‘I must wend my way’ and ‘I may no longer dwell’. But Thomas keeps asking her for ‘ferlies’ and a series of prophecies are delivered.
And the Mabinogi? There are no obvious parallels, but consider the ‘penance’ that Rhiannon has to perform at the horse block when she is suspected of killing her son. She doesn’t become a loathly lady, but she has to endure a humiliation and a diminution in status until Pryderi is returned. As for Pwyll, he is ‘tested’ by the incident when Gwawl, the prospective husband Rhiannon does not want, outwits him and he needs Rhiannon’s help to regain the advantage.