Thomas Rhymer: An Exploration of A Faery Ballad

Child Ballads:

One of the things that drew me to the Faery Tradition was my love of the old Child Ballads. these were collected throughout the British Isles by a folklorist Francis James Child in the late 19th century.

This definition Of the Child Ballads comes from Wikipedia:
“The Child Ballads are a collection of 305 ballads from England and Scotland, and their American variants, collected by Francis James Child in the late 19th century. The collection was published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads between 1882 and 1898 by Houghton Mifflin in 10 volumes. The ballads vary in age; for instance, a version of “A Gest of Robyn Hode” was printed in the late 15th or early 16th century, and the manuscript of “Judas” dates to the 13th century. The majority of the ballads, however, date to the 17th and 18th century; although some probably have very ancient influences, only a handful can be definitively traced to before 1600. Moreover, few of the tunes collected are as old as the words. While many of them had been individually printed, e.g. as broadsides, Child’s collection was far more comprehensive than any previous collection of ballads in English. (However, there were comprehensive ballad collections in other languages, like the Danish collection Danmarks gamle Folkeviser, which Child referred to in his comments.) One Child number may cover several ballads, which Child considered variants of the same story, although they may differ in many ways (as in “James Hatley“). Conversely, ballads classified separately may contain turns of phrase, and even entire verses, that are identical.
The Child Ballads deal with subjects typical to many ballads: romance, supernatural experiences, historical events, morality, riddles, murder, and folk heroes. On one extreme, some recount identifiable historical people, in known events. On the other, some differ from fairy tales solely by their being songs and in verse; some have been recast in prose form as fairy tales. A large part of the collections is about Robin Hood; some are about King Arthur. A few of the ballads are rather bawdy.”

Initiatory Ballads:

I discovered the ‘fairy tale’ ballads when I heard Joan Baez sing song like ‘House Carpenter’ and loved the haunting Elizabethan tunes she sang whether from England or Appalachia where they were brought with the early settlers to Virginia Colony — named after the Virgin Queen herself by Sir Walter Raliegh.  It was  pretty clear to me as child with the witchblood, that some of these ballads were talking about the Otherworld, about visitors to the Otherworld and the things that could be expected to happen there.
As an example, I have posted below the Childe Ballad of Thomas Rhymer. This is based on a true story of Thomas of Ercildoun, who was lazing about on a Faery Mound when the Queen of the Faeries approached him and whisked him off to her Otherworld Realm. He was not seen by the villagers for seven years. When he mysteriously returned, he was a changed man: a poet with the gift pf prophecy. He might have been thought a little mad, away with the faeries, due to his gift of the Second Sight.
Thomas Rhymer is what is known as an ‘Initiatory Ballad’. In other words, the ballad describes how the Faery Realm is entered, what its main features are, and how one is advised to behave if one finds oneself there. There is a warning given very clearly be the Faery Queen: “Don’t speak or eat when you are in Faery, or you will not return home for seven years.”
Of course Thomas does all of it.
Another feature of this ballad are the descriptions of the Underworld Sea, the Sun and the Moon that shine in the Underworld, the location of the Queen’s domain in an apple orchard, and the twin rivers of blood and tears.

Origin of the Faeries:

Faery is the Underworld because it is the realm of the ‘ancestors’, or more bluntly, the immortal dead. Christians would see it as a kind of purgatory where souls go after death when they were decent people but did not  become baptized Christians. In Irish Faery Tradition, there is  a story of the war in Heaven described by John Milton in his epic poem, Paradise Lost. The Archangel, Lucifer,proud of his shining beauty,  led a rebellion against God for creating the human race and expecting the angels to look after it. The angels took sides, either with Archangel Michael, champoin of God, or were Lucifer the rebel. Some stayed neutral, neither siding with Lucifer nor Michael the Archangel, but were cast down to Earth for lack of devotion along with the Prince of Darkness and his minions. These neutral angles became the Faeries. They are neither good nor evil, but neutral, like most of nature which is their expression and their love.
Thus, at an early stage, the Feary Realm was not yet consigned to Hell, but was a land between Heaven and Hell. Yet it was also not a place of purgation, but of magic, feasting, dancing — mostly to encourage the fertility of the Earth and maintain the balance of nature.
This is expressed very well in the ballad Thomas Rhymer when the Faery Queen points out three roads: The broad easy road leading to Hell, the narrow thorny road leading to Heaven, and the lovely lane winding among the trees is the road to Faeryland.

Image: War in Heaven: Gustave Dore

The Underworld Sun, Moon, and Stars:

The Faeryland is described as being in the Underworld, which most of us imagine as a land inside the Earth, underground. So how can there be Sun. Moon, and Stars, and an ocean down there?
I have two theories on that.

1: Having done many Shamanic journeys into the Underworld over the years, I immediately became aware that the heart of the Mother Earth glows like a sun at the core of the planet. This experience is very easy to access with the right intention.

2: Back in the days when the Earth was believed to be flat, being underground was probably perceived as a layer just below the surface of the Earth where the dead were buried, over which grew trees and flowers. These plants were often consulted when the living wished to speak to the dead as can be seen in fairy tales like the Juniper Tree. In other words, the Realm of Faery was physically much closer to the living, more familiar and accessible. Once the earth was known to be a sphere, it was possible to imagine a vaster realm at the center of the Earth. Now after seeing images from space, we know that the Earth is one of many stars and floats in the sea of the cosmos.

The true Faery Seer would always have seen the stars and celestial bodies below the surface of the Earth with his Second Sight. he may not have known he was seeing through the body of the planet, or sensing its place among the Heavens, but he would have seen the Sun, Moon, and, Stars and the celestial sea deep in the Underworld kingdom.
When one travels to Faery, these images resonate deeply, for the Sun.Moon, and Stars and the Underworld Sea also live inside of us as the rhythms and tides in our blood, where the ancestors ‘wake up’ to guide us deeper into our primal selves.

photo: Moonlight, Park Sadr’s photoblog

The Rivers of Blood and Tears:

The twin rivers of blood and tears are an indication of Faery as a domain of the dead, “for all the blood that was shed on earth flows through the springs of that country…”
Where mortal blood is shed so  tears of sorrow and grief. The rives of blood and tears thus flow together through the Realm of the Faery watched over by the Immortal Dead who are nourished by them.
Within this construct is tinge of the primal fertility rites involving blood sacrifice, for the blood and tears water the Earth creating the fertile conditions that allow nature to flourish. “The Earth must have blood.” This old notion still lives within us and exerts a strange power when we hear or read a tale involving the sacrificed King who gives his life for the land as in the Grail Legends.

The Apple Orchard:

In Irish Ogham the Apple has the quality of beauty. It is also the fruit of the Goddess, who is the Faery Queen. Part of the reason is that when an apple is cut form side to side and opned the figure of a five=pointed star, or pentagram appears with seeds within its points. the apple is also associated with Eve’s first transgression: disobeying God in order to satisfy her desire for knowledge, especially sexual knowledge, the basis of Earthly creation, and the generation of life, making her an equal to God.

Thanks to R.J.Stewart for crystalizing these insights for me.

Thomas Rhymer: Child Ballad 37C

Thomas Rymer

TRUE Thomas lay on Huntlie bank,
A ferlie he spied wi’ his ee,
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

2 Her shirt was o the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o the velvet fyne,
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hang fifty siller bells and nine.

True Thomas, he pulld aff his cap,
And louted low down to his knee:
‘All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.’

‘O no, O no, Thomas,’ she said,
‘That name does not belang to me;
I am but the queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.

‘Harp and carp, Thomas,’ she said,
‘Harp and carp along wi me,
And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your bodie I will be.’

‘Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunton me;’
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips,
All underneath the Eildon Tree.

‘Now, ye maun go wi me,’ she said,
‘True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro weal or woe, as may chance to be.’

She mounted on her milk-white steed,
She’s taen True Thomas up behind,
And aye wheneer her bridle rung,
The steed flew swifter than the wind.

O they rade on, and farther on-+-
The steed gaed swifter than the wind-+-
Untill they reached a desart wide,
And living land was left behind.

‘Light down, light down, now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies three.

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.

‘And see not ye that braid braid road,
That lies across that lily leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.

‘And see not ye that bonny road,
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

‘But, Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue,
Whatever ye may hear or see,
For, if you speak word in Elflyn land,
Ye’ll neer get back to your ain countrie.’

O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded thro rivers aboon the knee,
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.

It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light,
And they waded thro red blude to the knee;
For a’ the blude that’s shed on earth
Rins thro the springs o that countrie.

Syne they came on to a garden green,
And she pu’d an apple frae a tree:
‘Take this for thy wages, True Thomas,
It will give the tongue that can never lie.’

‘My tongue is mine ain,’ True Thomas said;
‘A gudely gift ye wad gie to me!
I neither dought to buy nor sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.

‘I dought neither speak to prince or peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair ladye:’
‘Now hold thy peace,’ the lady said,
‘For as I say, so must it be.’

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth,
And a pair of shoes of velvet green,
And till seven years were gane and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen

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