Ellen Kushner,
Thomas the Rhymer
(Tor, 1990; Spectra, 2004)

Ellen Kushner chose her narrators for the four sections of Thomas the Rhymer well.

The book, based on a well-known Scottish ballad and a little bit of known history, begins from the perspective of Gavin, an old crofter who, with his wife, hosts the wandering harper Thomas in hard times. As the years pass, the Rhymer's fame as a harper grows in noble circles, but he still makes time to visit and live with the doting couple, who treat him like a far-roving son.

Despite his various courtly flirtations and encounters with high-born ladies, Thomas pays suit to Elspeth, a young girl from the rural countryside who, orphaned and living with her brother, has also latched onto Gavin and his wife Meg as surrogate parents. The Rhymer's future seems secure, both in matters of his occupation and his heart, until one day he walks into the hills and doesn't return.

It is here the book's perspective changes, and for the first time we see the story unfolding through the Rhymer's own eyes. Swept away by passion upon meeting the Queen of Elfland, Thomas agrees to sell seven years of his life to be her consort and minstrel. The price is his voice; while he may sing in any company, he may speak only to the queen or his freedom is forever forfeit.

Thomas describes his years of captivity in tones of awe and frustration. His happiness in Elfland is never complete, his misery is never overwhelming. Instead, he exists in a sort of half-life, at times consumed by his desire to stay with his Queen and lover, while at other times he yearns for the life and people he left behind him. Through Kushner's evocative and highly detailed storytelling, we are able to fill in the gaps of the old ballad as Thomas is introduced to the wonders and weirdness of his otherworldly home. We feel his frustrations, we empathize with his fixations.

In his time there, Thomas experiences amazement, anger, loneliness, passion, pity and more in beyond-human extremes. He meets characters from legend, where he himself is destined to remain. He matches wits with elvish foes whose malice has no root beyond simple amusement. And through it all, his love and need for the Lady grows into an obsession he cannot control -- so much so that he eventually ceases to recall that which he left behind in the time-heavy world of Gavin, Meg and Elspeth.

And then it is over. His seven years have passed and he is returned to a world where everyone he knew presumes him dead. He also carries with him the gift/curse of the Queen, to know the future and speak only the truth.

Again switching to a new point of view, Kushner gives us the Rhymer's return and readaptation through Meg. She, like Gavin, tells the tale in the pragmatic, no-nonsense manner of hardworking rural folk, and their voices are both perfectly suited for grounding the magical nature of his disappearance, bookending his experiences with the simple stuff of normal life.

The final section describes the final 21 years of the Rhymer's life. Married to Elspeth, raising children, earning fame and fortune for both his minstrel skills and his prognostications, he still seems at times beyond the reach of simple happiness. There is a tragedy in the tale, for all that Thomas has seen and done things most folks can only dream of.

Weaving a hint of "Tam Lin," another Scottish ballad involving a mortal man and the Queen of Elfland, into the Rhymer's tale is a clever stroke.

In Thomas the Rhymer, Kushner has taken the bare framework of an ancient ballad and built a glorious structure around it. Her people seem real, her beautiful imagery nearly visible through the pages. She keeps her story firmly based in its origins, avoiding the common trend in recent years of recasting old stories in new settings, and in the process has created a modern classic of storytelling prose.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Thomas the Rhymer, Kushner's second novel, won both the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Award for best novel of 1990.


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