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.


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