Jan 7, 2008

Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner

Ellen Kushner’s novel Thomas the Rhymer is a retelling of the old Scottish ballad of the same name – the story of a Harper who, after kissing the Queen of Elfland (and in some versions, more), is spirited away to Faerie where he lives as her lover/slave for seven years. After that time, he returns to the world of men with two cruel gifts: the gift of foresight, and “the tongue that never lies” – the complete inability to tell lies.

This novel won both the Mythopoeic and the World Fantasy Awards. When I picked it up, the very first thing I saw were the extremely enthusiastic blurbs by people like Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Terri Windling, Charles de Lint and Orson Scott Card, all writers for whom I have the greatest respect. Needless to say, my expectations were very high. And I’m saying this so that you understand how much it means to say that I was not disappointed at all.

Ellen Kushner approaches this familiar story from an original angle. The book is divided in four parts, each with a different first person narrator: Gavin, Thomas, Meg and Elspeth. Gavin and Meg are an old couple who lives in the countryside of a mythical old Scotland – the Scotland of tales and ballads. The story opens with Gavin describing how a Harper, Thomas, asks them for shelter one stormy night. He turns out to be ill, and Meg nurses him back to health. As time goes by, the childless couple becomes very fond of the young man, who begins to visit them regularly. He seems to develop feelings for a local girl, Elspeth, and these also seem to be reciprocated – except that the young man and woman’s loveplay is in the form of constant arguments.

As the years go by, Thomas comes and goes. He visits the courts of powerful men and harps for them, and when he needs a place to rest, or to hide from trouble, he returns to Meg and Gavin’s. Until one day, in the middle of one of his visits, he goes for a walk on the hills alone and doesn’t come back. His possessions, and, most importantly, his harp, are left behind. Meg, Gavin and Elspeth never see him again – not for seven years, anyway.

As you must have gathered, each of these four narrators tells us a piece of the story. Gavin takes it until Thomas’ disappearance; Thomas describes his years in Elfland; Meg narrates Thomas’ surprising return; and Elspeth’s story takes place many years later, when Thomas is an old man. Together, these four narratives form a complete, rich and multilayered whole. Along with the different perspectives, the different narrators bring different moods and emotional tonalities to the story, which complement each other perfectly. Gavin’s tone is matter-of-factly, and his tale is intriguing. Thomas’ story is a deeply sensual one, and a meditation on longing and despair. Meg’s story is tender, and Elspeth’s is both sorrowful and resigned.

As Neil Gaiman put it, this is “an elegant and beautiful book that manages both to create firmly real, breathing people, and to evoke the magic of faerie." Indeed, one of the book’s greatest strengths is the perfect combination of the eerie and the very human – often in the same moment.

This is a novel about Faerie, but it’s also a novel about the human world. It’s a story about the cost and weight of the truth, about the importance of stories, of ballads, of music and of art, and about longing and passion and love and regret. Tom’s acute humanity is made all the clearer by the otherness of Elfland. There he learns things about himself that he never dared suspect – things that are truth of humanity as a whole.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, the novel is also superbly written, and full of passages I’m dying to share, such as:
But the question had been asked; the hole had been opened in the fabric of things, and there is something about a hole, a tear, a rent in anything that is irksome to people of character. One wants to fill it, to mend it, to close it. I have heard Elves say that humans' greatest strength and weakness both is their curiosity, which leads them to invention. Elves are not very good liars; they're not even very good storytellers, as we account storytelling: most of it is not invention, for with the rich stuff of Elfland in their hands, they've no need to invent.
One of my favourite moments in the novel is a brilliant scene in which Tam Lim, another Scottish ballad about a young man and the Queen of Elfland, is sung and played in Thomas’s hall. But of course, explaining the full significance of the scene without giving away the whole plot (which goes beyond the plot of the ballad) would be difficult.

I highly recommend this to fans of books like Stardust, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Lud-In-The-Mist. And also to fans of timeless stories, and good, unputdownable and memorable books.

Reviewed at:
Rhinoa's Ramblings


  1. Wow. That sounds like an amazing book.

    Of course, I've come to expect that from you.


  2. Ohhhhhh...yet another one that sounds amazing. I still have to read Lud-in-the-Mist, though. And Little, Big. And The Book of Lost Things. And-well, you get the picture!

  3. Great review, Nymeth! That sounds like a great book! I will have to add this on my wishlist. ;)

  4. Oh this sounds beautiful...and with recommendations by you and so many incredible authors how can I not read this one. Unfortunately that damn new years resolution's getting in the way :p Oh well, that's what wish lists are for. Who did the cover? It's gorgeous! Is it Kinuko Craft?

  5. It's always nice to hear when someone enjoys a book so much.. and I'd say from what you wrote that it had an impact on you!!

  6. I've had this for a number of years and even read part of it but never got back to it. Looks like I need to correct that error.

  7. Oh, I read this years ago and remember loving it - but it appears I could do with a rereading, because reading your review did not bring very much of it back to mind at all. Ack - new books to read, favorites to reread, help! :-)

  8. Oh Nymeth, this does sound extraordinary! Your review, as always, was so beautifully written. I simply can't resist adding this to the wish list.

  9. oh wow! this looks very exciting! i especially like what gaiman has to say about it, how it makes it all seem real... another find, nymeth!!

  10. This makes three books by Ellen Kushner that I need to read now. I really ought to make an Ellen Kushner month and just read them. It sounds like a great story.

  11. OK you sold it to me! I really like a lot of books that won and were nominated for the Mythopoeic Award and it has recommendations by some of my favourite authors so I will definitely be adding this to my list (which I am being a lot more harsh with this year as I bought tonnes of books last year...).

  12. I love books about the Faerie. I didn't always, but in past years, I've come to really enjoy them. This one is going straight to my wishlist. Thanks, Nymeth, for a great review.

  13. CJ: It is amazing!

    Eva: I think you'll like Lud-in-the-mist. I'm going to read Little Big soon-ish..my expectations are high. But yeah, I do get the picture :P

    Melody: I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Chris: You'd love this one! Check if your local library has a copy :P I love the cover too...and yes, that's the name of the artist. I'd never heard of him, but judging by this, he's really good!

    Deslily: It really did!

    Carl: Yup, you do :P I think you'll enjoy it

    Darla: It's scary how often that happens...remembering loving a book, but little else. There are some favourites of mine that I REALLY need to re-read. But then there are great new books to read too...like you said, help :P

    Debi: Thank you! I hope you enjoy it :)

    JP: The story feels very real, but also fantastic at the same time. That's what's so great about it!

    Melissa: what are the others? After reading this, I really need to read more of her work!

    Rhinoa: Sorry to make you add to the list :P I keep adding books to mine like there's no tomorrow...it's just the actually buying them part that I;m leaving behind :P But yeah, I bet the Mythopoeic challenge will be dangerous that way.

    Literary Feline: You're welcome! I hope you enjoy this one when you get to it :)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.