‘Thomas the Rhymer’ by Ellen Kushner

Thomas the Rhymer

★★★★★

Kushner has taken a historical figure, the minstrel Thomas from 13th century Scotland, and turned him into the centre of a part historical fiction, part fantasy masterpiece! Thomas is charming, musically talented and ambitious to become harpist to the king. One day he is taken away to Elfland by the Elf Queen herself, leaving behind a woman who loves him and kind hearted older couple for whom Thomas is the closest they have to a son. When Thomas finally comes back after seven years, their lives have moved on, and Thomas has changed too – becoming a magical figure. This is not just a book about how the endowment of magical abilities changes the life of one person (which is what most fantasy books are about), but also about the lives of those around the hero are altered. It is a fresh take!

Kushner’s book has four narrators: Gavin, Thomas, Meg and Elspeth. Thomas walks into Gavin and Meg’s life on a stormy night as they old couple sits by the fireside, with his harp broken on his back and a cold in his lungs. Gavin is very much a down-to-earth, reliable crofter who prefers people around him to be as sensible as himself, but he takes to the cocky and ambitious Thomas. The young boy does not only entertain the crofters with fantastic tails and beautiful music, but enjoys engaging in battles of wit with Gavin’s clever wife Meg – and if Meg is happy then Gavin is as well. Meg has fun with Thomas, but also feels a deep tenderness for this young man, who prefers to lie rather than tell the truth if he can, and wants so much to make his mark in the world. Over the next years, Thomas return to the poor crofters, bringing gifts, an extra pair of working hands and accounts of his exploits and courts of noblemen and kings.

Thomas is not the only young person in Gavin and Meg’s life; there is Elsbeth too, the sharp-tongued and adventerous girl who comes by whenever she needs a break from churning butter, changing nappies and cooking on her older brother’s farm. Of course the girl becomes smitten with the elegant and charming minstrel who treats her as an intellectual equal! When suddenly Thomas disappears, she assumes he is dead. For why would he leave her, his harp and money behind?

Turns out Thomas left when he ran into the Queen of the Elfland out there in the Scottish Highlands and followed her into her incredible world. There the memories of the people dear to him become distant and vague. Soon he has lost grip how long he has been in Elfland. But after years he does return, but not as the same man who left. When he comes back, Thomas cannot lie anymore, he cannot provide untrue flattery and he is a seer – he can see future if he wants to. How will these abilities change Thomas’ life? How will they alter his previously close bond to Meg and Gavin? And even if Elspeth forgives him for the seven lost years, how can you build a future with a man who could potentially know everything but cannot lie?

What is so surprising about the book, is how short it is. So action and conflict is packed in there, without the plot feeling forced. It is really impressive that each storyline actually gets room to breath and is explored fully. Kushner also manages to give each of her four narrators a distinct voice and just by reading their inner monologues do you get a strong feeling of who they are as people. Of course, Thomas is the centre of the other narrators’ tales, but we know next to nothing about his background or family; all we know is that he longs for a home.

The book manages to balance the fantastical elements and dream like world of a fairytale, with the grit and hardship of medieval Scotland. The characters all smell, age quickly, freeze in the winter and never seem to wash their clothes. When we enter the halls of the Scottish king, the colours and abundance of food really strike you as different from the muddy everyday life of the crofters in the Highlands.

I read the book in one sitting and have been returning to it since, enjoying snippets of Kushner’s lovely prose. This author has a lovely way of writing elegantly without making her text feel pretentious or fake.

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