"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 world of men. 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 novel 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.