THOMAS THE RHYMER

It is the thirteenth century and Thomas Learmont, laird of the castle of Ercildoune, is having a walk around Huntly burn in his grounds one fine May morning. The scene was beautiful, tender leaves bursting from their sheaves, covering all the forest with a mantle of green, bluebells forming a carpet of blue haze underfoot. Thomas sat down on the root of a large oak to take it all in.

It was then he heard a horse in the distance, coming closer he could make out the features of a beautiful lady, with golden hair and jewels sparkled all over her spring green cloak. She stopped by him and introduced herself as the Queen of Fairyland. He begged her for a kiss and it was this that was to change his life forever.

For it was at this point she changed into an old crone and sentenced him to seven years in Fairyland. It should be noted at this point that the woman has changed into the hag aspect of the Celtic muse. The Fomorian side or darker aspect of the queen is that which is bringing Thomas down into realms strange and unknown to him, yet it is here where he shall learn more than in all his years in the world above. Also it should be noted that the author of the story starts specifically in summertime. So the contrast to the subterranean realm where he is about to journey is even more stark. It is as if his life up until this point has been too much summer, he has spent too much time appreciating the summertime of life. He will now learn of the way life truly is and in this way he will gain wisdom.

It is intriguing to note that the start of his descent or fall is marked by the kiss of a beautiful maiden. He is positively intoxicated, perhaps a mark of his naivety, showing his willingness to go head on into a situation and obviously not realising or indeed having any inkling of the outcome. However, it is only after his commitment to this fool's path does he uncover the true identity of this mysterious rider.

A couple of the Fool's attributes are naivety and intoxication. People on this path are often oblivious to situations harmful to them, and often pursue foolish endeavours of this nature wholeheartedly and with abandon. Often a short, sharp shock is necessary to sober them up. Enter the Faerie Queen.

Poor Thomas is beckoned onto the back of the Queen's horse and with much ado and deliberation he does so, knowing now that he is about to embark on a journey which has been decreed by fate and apparently he cannot avoid. Then he is taken by this hag like being to a place where three paths are possible to continue this journey. It is at this point I think we realise that the hag herself is most definitely a guide and teacher as opposed to the hideous crone first described which hinted at some form of malevolent influence. For she tells him of the three paths ahead and explains the meaning to him whereas she could easily have left him to the winds of fate, blown precariously along instead of taken in hand.

Back to the story. The first path is almost desert, flat, wide and straight as far as the eye can see. This path, the hag says, has an unhappy and fruitless ending. Although easy to journey on it is of absolutely no consequence. A reference most definitely to an occupation of study that is easy and so has no rewards at the end of it, expanding neither knowledge nor skill and certainly not spiritual value.

The second path is narrow, winding and treacherous with thorny hedges encroaching on both sides. Definitely some risk of wounding or injury here. Altogether unsavoury! This the hag informs him is the path of righteousness. Hazardous in the extreme, yet at the end there is a good ending. Obviously worthwhile on all levels. For at its end is the city of the kings. Again here some explanation is required for as we know the king is always at the centre and in control. It suggests that after all the trials and tribulations of endangering oneself and surviving on a path that is not at all easy, and upon which many obstacles are encountered, and enemies met and defeated, we have proven ourselves to be righteous and are permitted entrance to the king, an honour indeed.

The third path is a very green path, lush with foliage and vegetation, meandering into forest and glade. A wild place where one could easily get lost. The hag gives no explanation of this and quite simply says "This is the path to Fairy Land, and do not utter a word whilst in this land, or you end up staying forever." This suggests that anything spoken in the otherworld is to be taken very seriously indeed.

So they set off, though shortly after the journey begins they ride at full pelt into a river valley and from there into a cave where no sunlight can penetrate. Thomas sees strange things from the corners of his eyes in this dark passage and he is in desperate need of nourishment when suddenly so many tempting juicy fruits start appearing along the way.

Some analogies then. Again poor Thomas has no real choice in his direction, careering along into the river. Here we see an association with Celtic myth, with water being associated with the west and usually denoting that a later stage in a journey has been reached. Leading into a cave which is associated with earth in Celtic myth frequently signifies the final stage in a journey. It is the abode of the Ancient Ones whom the Rhymer is about to encounter.

He is told not to eat any of the fruits he sees or he will remain in this realm forever which will be to his detriment, showing us that this is a phase to experience for the mortal and it would not be natural for him to stay. He would be back on the Fool's path, only much further along it and with no return possible. However, he is told that his hunger for sustenance will be satisfied with an apple in a short while.

Apples appear to be a common theme within myth also, symbolic of spiritual nourishment. The hero or character is often led to, or introduced to such apples by an otherworld woman. A main tie in here with Celtic myth is when Niamh brought a branch from the Apple tree of Emhain Abhlach to Bran. These otherworld apples, like the three golden apples of the garden of Hesperides brought by the sons of Tuirenn from the edge of the Western world, when a bite was taken out of them they would instantly become whole again. It is as if one can be fulfilled by them yet their goodness will always be there, as long as we are fortunate enough to know where they are.

The old hag in the story reaches a certain spot and climbs down off the horse and offers Thomas an apple from a small yet perfectly formed tree laden with fruit. She tells him that after eating it he will be graced with the gift of Truth. His endurance once more rewarded. Though Tom has had many frightening experiences up until this point and has been places few mortals have seen, perhaps it is only now that his perception has widened. Is he ready for Truth? Again proof that the hag has been his teacher.

The queen's castle was at hand now, and a transformation took place with the hag once more turning into a beautiful maiden. Perhaps she was beautiful all along and indeed the inner beauty of her wisdom and gifts would certainly signify this. Thomas too has his attire transformed into that of a nobleman, while with the divine gift of Truth he is indeed a noble man.

Thomas and the queen enter the castle together and for three days and nights he witnesses the continual feasting of those beings who know only pleasure or pain. He has never seen such a colourful people; although he was fascinated he was at the same time lonely, for he knew these people were not quite of his race.

The queen told him it was time to leave, and said the seven years were over. Tom looked astonished at this but was informed that time moves quickly in the queen's realm. he was given the gifts of foresight and also poetry before he left. His teaching was now complete.

The only material thing Thomas was given on his journey was an enchanted harp and it was used as a link between this world and the otherworld, showing its timeless and mystical qualities. Thomas utilised this and all his other gifts and became a very wise laird. Truthful and noble and poetic. So he remained until he was called back to the realms of the Sidhe by two white deers, forest children, who came to take their new brother back home. Home it must have been, for he was never seen again.

~

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Copyright 1998 The Sacred Fire. All rights reserved.
Revised: October 31, 1998.