The Tree planted at the 'Rhymer's Stone' to mark the spot of the 'Eildon Tree'
The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer runs to between eighty and ninety lines according to which of the several versions are consulted. The corresponding narrative in Fytte One of the ‘Prophecies’ of Thomas of Erceldoune runs to 308 lines, with a partial extension into Fytte Two. So the material in the ‘Prophecies’ is obviously more detailed. This will need several posts to cover the different things I’d like to discuss, though I might eventually put them all together elsewhere.
The Ballad is widely available in different versions. My standard reference in these discussions will be to the version that appeared in Walter Scott’s Border Minstrelsy(1802). A slightly anglicized version of this can be found HERE
The texts from the various manuscript sources for the ‘Prophecies’ were published in James Murray’s Early English Texts Society edition in 1875. The earliest manuscript source dates from c.1430, a little more than a hundred years after the historical Thomas of Erceldoune died.
Here are the opening lines of the ‘Prophecies’ in their transcribed original form. I give this for a flavour of the text, but will after this quote from the text in my translation from the northern dialect of Middle English in which it is written.
Als j me wente Þis Eldres daye
Ffull faste in mynd makand my mone,
In a mery mornynge of Maye
By huntle bankkes my selfe alone,
I herde Þe jaye & Þe throstyll cokke,
The Mawys menyde hir of hir songe,
Þe wodewale beryde als a belle
That alle Þe wode a-bowte me ronge.
Allonne in longynge thus als j laye
Vndre-nethe a semely tree,
J was whare [of] a lady gaye
Come rydynge ouer a longe lee.
If j solde sytt to domesdaye,
With my tongue, to wrobbe and wrye,
Certanely Þat lady gaye
Neuer bese scho askryede for mee.
Hir palfraye was a dappill graye
Swylke one ne saghe j neuer none
Als dose Þe sonne on someres daye
Þat faire lady hir selfe scho schone.
Hir selle it was of roelle bone
Full semely was Þat syghte to see
Stefly sett with precyous stones
And compaste all with crapotee,
Stones of Oryente, grete plente,
Hir hare abowte hir hede it hange;
Scho rade ouer Þat lange lee
A whylle scho blewe, a-noÞer scho sange.
The first thing to notice here is that, unlike the Ballad, this is written in the first person. The Ballad is about Thomas. This purports to be written by him, though there are parts of the narrative that change to third person narration and I will discuss these in a future post. Another difference is that the Ballad launches straight into the action while the ‘Prophecies’ spend some time setting the scene. It is a May Morning, the birds are singing and, as the Lady comes riding towards him, she is described in great detail. Thomas is overwhelmed. He says, ‘If I were to live until Doomsday, I couldn’t describe her splendour’. She is ‘shining like the sun on a summer’s day’ as she approaches with her jewel be-studded trappings. As she comes, she sings out and blows upon her horn like a hunter. It takes 72 lines to describe her approach. The Ballad does it in eight lines.
Now, for comparison, consider this from the First Branch of Y Mabinogi:
“As they were sitting on this hill a woman dressed in shining gold brocade and riding a great pale horse approached the highway which ran past them. Anyone who saw the horse would have said it was moving at a slow steady pace as it drew adjacent to the hill. "Men," said Pwyll, "does anyone know that horsewoman?" "No, lord," they answered. "Then let someone go and find out who she is." A man rose to go after her but by the time he reached the highway she had already gone past. He tried to follow her on foot, but she drew farther ahead of him. When he saw his pursuit was in vain he returned and told Pwyll, "Lord, it is pointless for anyone to follow her on foot." "All right. Go to the court and take the fastest horse you know and go after her." The man fetched the horse and set out after her. Once he reached open country his spurs found his mount, but no matter how much he urged the steed onward the farther ahead she drew, all the while going at the same pace as before.”
These and other parallels will be considered later.
As the Lady approaches him, Thomas assumes that she is must be the Virgin Mary and he addresses her as such, but she informs him he is mistaken. She is, rather, as the ballad has it, The Queen of Elfland, though in the ‘Prophecies’ she simply says that she is from ‘another country’. Rhiannon, in Y Mabinogi is clearly of a faery nature from the outset and not mistaken for Mary, though she only identifies herself by her name and her father’s name.
In the Ballad, the Queen invites Thomas to give her a kiss and then almost immediately carries him off to Elfland after identifying other possible roads they could take. But in the ‘Prophecies’ much more happens. After being told that she is not Mary, Thomas begins to suggest that they ‘lie down’ together. At first she refuses, saying that it would ‘mar’ and ‘spill’ her beauty. But Thomas persists and she then agrees:
Down then came that lady bright
Underneath the greenwood spray
And if the story tells it right
Seven times with her he lay.
She said ‘man you like your play'
But after this, as she predicted, she is transformed and her appearance is hideous. All of this is covered by the kiss in the Ballad, after which he is under her spell. In Y Mabinogi, Rhiannon tells Pwyll she has come because she wants him for a husband and he agrees to visit her to formalize the arrangement.
At which point, I’ll pause and postpone more until the next post.