True Thomas : What Can We Say About Sources?

The Remains of Thomas of Erceldoune's Tower in modern-day Earlston

Having looked at the parallel narratives of the ‘Prophecies’ and the Ballad, what can now be said of the likely source of each of them? We know that the earliest manuscript of the ‘Prophecies’ is from the 14th century and that it is supposed to be the work of the historical Thomas of Erceldoune who lived over a hundred years earlier. There are two reason to think that the four extant manuscripts stem from an earlier version rather than being accurate copies of an earlier text. The first is that, although the story seems to have originated in Scotland, the language suggests that the author was from the North of England. This suggests an adaptation of a Scottish tale. Some commentators have felt that the change from the First Person to the Third Person, and then back again, also suggests a source in an earlier version. The tales begins “As I went out …” and continues using ‘I’ until Thomas sees the Lady. The narration then changes with “He said …” and remains in the Third Person through all the central events until “My lovely lady said to me” when she informs Thomas that they are to return. It then remains in the First Person. Was there an earlier version entirely in the First Person, told by Thomas of Erceldoune, and if so was he relating on his own account a story already known to him? This trail ends here.

What of the Ballad? We can trace the record back a little beyond its first emergence in print. Two version appeared early in the Nineteenth Century, one from Walter Scott and the other from Robert Jamieson. Information about how their versions were obtained is contained in the letters of Robert Anderson, a doctor from Edinburgh who was also a literary historian. He published Lives of the English Poets in 1795 and a critical edition of the works of Samuel Johnson in 1815. He carried on an extensive correspondence with other literary men including Bishop Percy, whose Reliques of Ancient English Poetry had been published in 1765. (*) In communicating with Percy about Scottish border ballads in September 1800, Anderson refers to “a pretty large MS collection of old Scottish ballads, communicated by Mrs Brown, wife of Dr Brown, minister of Falkirk”. He reports that Mrs Brown “learned them all when she was a child by hearing them sung by her mother and an old maid-servant”. Mrs Brown had also been visted by Robert Jamieson earlier that year. Anderson then relates that, together with Robert Jamieson, he visited Walter Scott and they discussed the Ballad of True Thomas which had been obtained from Mrs Brown. Anderson spoke of his "suspicion of modern manufacture, in which Scott had secretly anticipated me”, as Mrs Brown was fond of ballads and herself wrote verse. But he concluded that “her character places her above the suspicion of literary imposture”, a view which James Murray, the editor of the ‘Prophecies’ treated with some skepticism.

But it should be noted that, in December 1800, Anderson again wrote to Percy about some ballads that had been passed to Wm Tytler by Professor Thomas Gordon of Aberdeen in 1783. Gordon was Mrs Brown’s father. These ballads had come from the same woman later identified by Mrs Brown, together with an aunt, a Mrs Farquharson, although Gordon does not mention his wife as a source. Mrs Brown herself later wrote to Tytler’s son who had enquired about the ballads, saying “I do not pretend that these ballads are correct in any way as they are written down entirely from my recollection, for I never saw one of them in print or manuscript”.

As Mrs Brown seems to have communicated a large number of ballads to a variety of different people, all apparently from memory, it is possible that she did not give all of them exactly the same versions. But this does not explain the considerable difference between Scott’s and Jamieson’s versions. And it does seem odd that she is the only source for the Ballad. We might wish to consider here that Anderson also reported to Percy that Jamieson proposed to publish his own collection of old ballads “with interpolated stanzas written by himself”. These later appeared as Popular Ballads and Songs
(1806). We might think that Jamieson was more likely to anglicize the ballad in order to popularise it, or that Scott would be more likely to want to keep the Scottish flavour. Jamieson’s version certainly has all the indications of an adaptation by him in line with his stated intentions. Scott, however, was clearly also working from the ‘Prophecies’. He set out his version of the Ballad followed by a second section by himself but based on the ‘Prophecies’ and a third section in which he imaginatively created an epilogue. These are scrupulously separated. But could he have been influenced, or more than influenced, by the ‘Prophecies’ in transcribing a text of the ‘traditional’ Ballad obtained from Mrs Brown’s dictation?


* For Anderson’s correspondence, see 
Illustrations of Literary History of the Eighteenth Century by J B Nicholls (1848)

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