Sep 23 2010 1:51pm

A cup or a comb or a song: Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer

Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer won the World Fantasy Award. It’s probably the best of her books, while not being my favourite—because I love the Riverside books so much. This is a reimagining of the ballad of “Thomas the Rhymer,” told in first person from four different points of view—an old shepherd and his wife, Thomas himself, and Elspeth, his mortal love. It’s solidly set in southern Scotland in about 1300, and though Kushner is American she doesn’t put a foot wrong on language or landscape. It’s really rooted in place and things, so that when Thomas meets the Queen of Elfland under a tree and goes with her for seven years that feels just as real as the sheep and the mud.

It’s hard to talk about because it’s so perfect, a shining jewel of a book that gets everything right.

The thing I love best about it is the voice, the multiple twining voices that all feel completely real. Kushner’s deep inside their heads and their perceptions, and they’re four such different people that this really works. It angles the story beautifully. It means we see Thomas from outside first, as a brash but talented young harper, and then from inside as the confused mortal in Elfland, and then from outside again, so different, on his return. It ends with Elspeth, dealing with a suitor who was gone seven years and came back changed and unable to lie after experiences that were beyond imagination. Everybody has to deal with a partner’s past, but most people’s pasts don’t include a capricious beautiful magical immortal. The end is heartbreaking.

If it was just the “Thomas the Rhymer” ballad, it would still be a good story, but Kushner has interwoven other ballads and fragments of ballads with it. It feels real and rooted, and it feels deeply connected to something wider and more magical. Elfland, the Queen, the Hunter, and Thomas’s true tongue when he returns all have the inevitable rightness of a rhyming line. If it earworms me with half of Child, well, nothing wrong with that.

Terri Windling edited a whole series of books that were retellings of ballads and fairytales, and Thomas the Rhymer was originally part of it, along with Dean’s Tam Lin and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose and Steven Brust’s The Sun, the Moon and the Stars as well as other wonderful books—this was a series that changed what fantasy was doing. Thomas the Rhymer is one of the best of them.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Liza .
1. aedifica
I should reread this one--I remember being disappointed by it but I can't remember why. I haven't read much else of hers, so if I was comparing it to anything it was the rest of the Fairy Tale series.
R. Emrys
2. R. Emrys
I loved this one. I should try out more of the Fairy Tale series--so far I've read the Dean, the Brust, and this, and been deeply impressed by all of them.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
R. Emrys: They were really something different. I haven't read all of them myself, but I've been very impressed with almost all the ones I have read.
Claire de Trafford
4. Booksnhorses
Which is the Thomas one that's set in an American uni? I bought it but don't think it made the 'being shipped across the world' cut. I have some vague memory of it being written from the girl's point of view. Or am I going mad?
Sol Foster
5. colomon
ClairedeT -- sounds like you're describing Dean's Tam Lin, except for the part where it's Tam Lin instead of Thomas the Rhymer.
Claire de Trafford
6. Booksnhorses
@Coloman. Thanks. That's it! Glad I'm only partially mad (so everything back to normal chez Claire)
R. Emrys
7. Ellen Kushner
Oh, my. Thank you for the beautiful review.

Just to set the record straight: *Thomas* was never actually part of Terri's remarkable Faery Tales series for Tor Books; it just came out (from Wm. Morrow, edited by David Hartwell) at roughly the same time, and with a cover by the same artist, the great Thomas Canty. It was later picked up for paperback by Tor, and given a cover that was more in line with the other FT books, adding to the confusion! (It was originally written to be part of an entirely different series by Terri for another publisher, one on Ballads instead of Faery Tales - but when that fell through, my agent simply took it on the market.)

I just did a number of interviews on all this this summer, as I went to Finland, where *Thomas Riiminiekka* won the "fantasy in translation" Tähtifantasia award - if I can dig them up, I'll post links.
Vincent Ahmed
9. pgconversion
Very attractive! I should read it once again!LoL.....
Liza .
10. aedifica
Ellen Kushner @ 7: My apologies! It was indeed the beautiful Canty cover that gave me the wrong impression (about whether it was part of the series).
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Aedifica: I have the British edition, and I still thought so. It lists it in the Wikipedia article as part of the series, so clearly we're not the only ones.
R. Emrys
12. Michael Grant
I found the central part, telling of Thomas's time in Faerie, unremarkable, but the parts either side, totalling half the length of the book, describing everyday life in a Borders farm in mediaeval times, wonderfully realistic and evocative of what life then must have been like.

The strangest thing was reading this book about a man who gets taken away into Faerie for seven years, and then afterwards going and visiting the ruins of the real Thomas the Rhymer's castle, at Ercildoune Earlston, in the Scottish Borders.

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