Thomas the Rhymer

Those who have touched the faerie world have sometimes written poetry about it.

Thomas the Rhymer is one of the most famous faerie / fairy poems.

Thomas the Rhymer was a real person, named Sir Thomas Learmount.  He lived during the 13th century, and was known for his prophecies.  Many people thought he was similar to Merlin.

He was nicknamed “True Thomas” because he could not tell a lie.

[Note: The “Eildon Tree” refers to a tree that once stood near the Eildon Hills. Today, a monument to the tree remains, just outside the Scottish town of Melrose.]

Thomas the Rhymer

thomas the rhymer poem illustrationTrue Thomas lay on Huntlie bank
A fairy he spied with his e’e
And there he saw a lady bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree

Her skirt was of the grass green silk
Her mantle of the velvet fine
At each tett of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty silver bells and nine

True Thomas, he pulled off his cap
And bowed low down to his knee
All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven
For thy peer on earth I never did see

Oh no, oh no, Thomas, she said
That name does not belong 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 with me
And if you dare to kiss my lips
Sure of your body I will be

Betide me well, 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 with me, she said
True Thomas, ye maun go with me
And ye maun serve me seven years
Though weal and woe, as may chance to be

She mounted on her milk white steed
She’s taken True Thomas up behind
And aye whenever her bridle rang
The steed flew swifter than the wind

Oh they rode on, and further on
The steed gaed swifter than the wind
Until they reached a desert wide
And living land was left behind

Light down, light down now, true Thomas
And lean you head upon my knee
Abide and rest a little space
And I will show you ferlies three

Oh, see you not yon narrow road
So thick beset with thorn and briars
That is the path of righteousness
Though after it but few enquire

And see you not that broad, broad road
That lies across that lily leven
That is the path of wickedness
Though some call it the road to Heaven

And see you not that bonnie road
That winds about the fernie brae
That is the road to fair Elfland
Where thou and I this night maun gae

But Thomas, you must hold your tongue
Whatever you may hear or see
For if you speak word in Elfin land
You’ll ne’er get back to you ain country

Then they came on to a garden green
And she pulled an apple frae a tree
Take this for thy wages, True Thomas
It will give the tongue that can never lie

My tongue is my own, True Thomas said
A goodly gift you would give to me
I neither dought to buy or sell
At fair or tryst where I may be

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

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

Photo credit
Emily Cahal, Salem, OR, USA

The origins of faerie lore

Where do faeries come from? There are many theories.

Fortunately, faeries appear in stories dating back to ancient times.  We have tremendous information to work with.

The written history of faeries

Faeries appear in literature at least as early as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (approx. 850 BCE), in which he mentions nymphs and dryads. Some translators have romantically used the word “fairies,” as in this Iliad passage quoted by 18th-century historian, Joseph Ritson:

“Where round the bed, whence Achelous springs,
That wat’ry Fairies dance in mazy rings.”
(Iliad, Book XXIV, line 617)

[Note: Mazy means maze-like, or similar to a labyrinth.]

Since that time, there have been many references to faeries, creatures of the middle world, Underworld (or Otherworld), and so on.

The line between the fae folk and other spirits begins to blur, when we delve deeply into this subject.

However, for this page, let’s focus on when faeries in folklore became “little people,” or smaller than humans.

Faeries as “little people”

The first known mention of faeries as tiny beings, is in the 13th century work of Gervase of Tilbury. In his Otia imperialia, he describes “certain daemons, whom the French call Neptunes, the English Portunes,” and are less than “half a thumb” in height.  He’s also quoted as saying they’re as tiny as half an inch, or the size of a small finger.

In the 14th century, Chaucer spoke of a land filled with faeries, in the opening of The Wyf of Bath’s Tale:

“In th’ olde dayes of the kyng arthour,
Of which that britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.”

(In modern English: In the old days of King Arthur,
Of which Britons speak with honor,
All this land was filled with faeries.
The elf-queen with her jolly company
Danced often in many green meadows.)

Next, learn how Shakespeare changed almost everything that we think about faeries.

Or, listen to a podcast about the history of the “little people.”