The Prophecies of True Thomas

The Rhymer's Stone

The identity of Taliesin in the Welsh literary tradition has been mixed up with his status as the repository of legendary and prophetic material which clearly must be later than the supposed dates for the bard of Urien of Rheged in the sixth or seventh centuries. Much the same is true of Arthur as a legendary chieftain supposed to have lived at around the same time or a little earlier. The real identities of these figures, such as they can be established at all, are therefore uncertain. I find myself reflecting on these matters in the context of a much later case of an historical character who has gained legendary status. Thomas of Ercildoune has for some time been known to me as a character in the Scots ballad of ‘True Thomas’, or ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, who was carried off by the Queen of Faery and given ‘true speech’. During a recent trip to Scotland I visited the place where this is said to have happened. It is possible to follow a trail from the medieval abbey in Melrose up onto the Eildon Hills and then to descend to Huntley Bank by Bogle Burn (‘Goblin Brook’) and down to the ‘Rhymer’s Stone’, a memorial to mark the spot where Thomas sat, according to the ballad, under the ‘Eildon Tree’. A hawthorn has also been planted by the memorial stone to represent this tree.

As well as exploring the physical geography of the ballad I have also been researching its background. It appears in most anthologies of traditional ballads, having featured in Child’s English and Scottish Ballads(1862) and in Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Robert Graves discussed the ballad in his ‘historical grammar of poetic myth’ The White Goddess (1949) and suggested that the true speech conferred on Thomas was the gift of poetic inspiration. He also points out that the ballad was a source of John Keats’ poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. I had for some time, therefore, thought of the ballad as having independent existence arising from an oral tradition and representing a typological expression of a folklore motif of the Faery Queen on a horse. In this way it is possible to link it with other such expressions in, for instance, the ballad of Tamlane and, indeed, other literary formulations of the motif like the arrival of Rhiannon on a white horse in the First Branch of Y Mabinogi. This sort of typological approach enables one to see the use of the motif by poets such as Keats as touching on archetypal themes in both the written and the oral tradition of story telling or, we might say, myth making.

While still being persuaded of the validity of this approach, there is another way of viewing the bare facts. Thomas was an historical character who lived in the thirteenth century in a tower – now a ruin but still partly standing – in the village of Ercildoune (now Earlston) in the Tweed Valley. He was dubbed ‘The Rhymer’ because of his reputation for penning prophetic verses. But like Taliesin before him many later events became attached to his list of prophecies, in the case of Thomas mostly related to conflicts between England and Scotland. He is said to be the author of a work in three ‘fyttes’ or sections containing prophecies in Fytte Two and Three but telling the story of his being carried off by the Faery Queen in Fytte One. Here his acquisition of the gift for ‘true speech’ from the Queen is the validation of his power as a prophet. The earliest of several manuscripts containing this work – the so-called ‘Thornton Manuscript’, a collection of various romance and prophetic writing - has been dated to the decade 1430-1440, over a hundred years after Thomas’s death.

This work, it is believed, is the source of the ballad. But the work is written in a northern dialect of Middle English, not Scots. And while Fytte One contains the same story as the ballad, the details differ. In his edition of various manuscript versions of the ‘Prophesies’ for the Early English Texts Society in 1875, James Murray argues the case for the textual integrity of the whole work in three fyttes in spite of the feelings of Child and others that the story of Fytte One was distinct as a literary product and deserved to be considered separately. Murray also suggests it may not be too much to suppose that “Thomas of Ercildoune may, from his literary tastes, have been the repository of such traditional rhymes” and that he may have known of an independent version of the story in Fytte One and used it as a way of giving “currency to the idea of his own prophetic powers”. Or that a later author put together a compilation of Thomas’s prophecies, adding others of his own, and linked them to the story of his being carried away to Faery in the same way. Indeed, Murray points out that at some stages of its literary reception the prophecies had been regarded with more interest than the folktale. These were common currency in the political discourse of the time and were often used to justify, or whip up support for, particular causes. The author of the Complaynt of Scotland (1529) refers to “diuerse prophane prophesies of merlyne and other ald corruptit vaticinaris the quhilkis hes affirmit in rusty ryme” while James V (of Scotland) was entertained with “prophisies of Rymour, Beid and Marlyng”.

Placing the prophecies alongside those of Merlin, and therefore in the same context as those ascribed to Myrddin and Taliesin, brings the material into focus alongside Welsh texts and predictions of conflicts between the different peoples inhabiting Britain after the Romans left, and throughout the Middle Ages. But we do at least know that Thomas Learmount of Ercildoune existed and that some of the prophecies concerning the area around the Eildon Hills and the valley of the River Tweed provide a setting which make it likely that he was their author. Walter Scott, who was also an inhabitant of this area, may therefore be seen to have had an interest in promoting the ballad and there is some debate as to the previous provenance of the version that he printed in his collection. If it was, indeed, a recent literary production based on Fytte One of the ‘Prophesies’ then the idea that the story had an independent existence in the oral tradition could be questioned. Scott was certainly enthusiastic about Thomas’s legendary status and he even tried to appropriate it by incorporating a ‘Rhymer’s Glen’ into his estate at Abbotsford a few miles away from the spot where the ‘Eildon Tree’ was located. But many have felt that the story has a life of its own beyond the context of the times during which the prophecies were significant. And having a context outside of a particular historical time frame is one indication of a story with the typological, or mythical, significance referred to earlier.

A closer look, therefore, at the ballad, alongside the story in Fytte One of the ‘Prophesies’ is an ongoing project and may feature in a future post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'll look forward to that future post. I've had an interest in Thomas for years but I've never done any research.