Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner

(Shalini hates the inverted commas, it seems, and so: This review was posted 1/24/2006 at wotmania.com. Wotmania closed down at the end of August 2009, and most of the members have since migrated to RAFO. I’m moving the review here because, being normally narcissistic, I do not want to lose it. Also, I am currently somewhat sick, so this has not been edited. I’m sorry: it is informal, possibly ineloquent, and maybe even full of typos.)

Thomas the Rhymer

At Amazon UK

I just reread Ellen Kushner‘s Thomas the Rhymer as a break from Gormenghast, and I realised that I was a bit surprised by how much I liked it.

Thomas the Rhymer is based on one of the Child Ballads – that’s this bunch of ballads, both english and scottish, that were collected into one set by a certain Francis Child, way back in the 1800s.

I had little familiarity with the ballads – I think I knew one or two of them, but hadn’t paid much attention. I did know Thomas Rymer, though – the man who stole a kiss from the queen of the fairies, and lived with her, silent, for seven years… and how he came back with Truth upon his lips so that what he said would be, would be. I’ve provided a link to the ballad here.

What I like about Kushner’s work is that the novel is divided into four parts, only the second of which deals with the ballad-content. Basic plot structure would be:
1. Gavin tells us how he and his wife Meg meet and come to love Thomas as a son, and of his budding romance with Elspeth.
2. Thomas tells us of his time with the queen, the loneliness and dangers and riddles of fairyland. This takes the essential content of the ballad and adds to it, making it more than just a simple I-paid-for-love telling.
3. Meg tells us how Thomas comes back – what he’s like.
4. Elspeth finishes the story – all that we can know of it, anyway.

It’s not a very fascinating story, as stories go. You don’t sit on the edge of your seat, wondering What happens next? I thought at the beginning that the reason I liked the book was because I knew the Child ballads, and had gone and read Thomas Rymer right before I began the novel. And in part, that is the reason. Kushner takes the ballad and gives it the depth that most songs lack. There’s a definite evolution in one’s perceptions regarding Tom and the fairies – though everyone else seems to stay rather static.

I wouldn’t know that I’d recommend the book for everyone. I find it a relaxing read, and easy read with four differing PoVs with differing levels of perception, all focussed around one single person. It flows smoothly, isn’t very big on ideas but is big on feeling – poetic-y feeling, too, none of that mundane stuff that boring people feel. So if you like action and large conflicts and shifts and epics but not graceful sweetness and growth and quiet evolution of character and plot, then this isn’t for you.

It’s a quiet fairy story, set for the most part in the real world. It’s a nice read. Pretty. It won the Mythopoeic Award back in the early 90s and that says something, possibly what I just said myself.

3 responses to “Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner

  1. also, i want to borrow this. i’m willing to (temporarily) barter the children’s book for it.

    there is, apparently, a diana wynne jones book based on thomas too, which i’ve been looking for for years.

    • I think putting our lending and borrowing practices on such a commercial foundation might have consequences, unintended and evil, upon our relationship.

      I’ll bring it along the next time we meet.

  2. for some reason wordpress left out the first part of my comment which was this:

    i cheer for the abandoning of unnecessary quotation marks.

    i still do. really.

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