Thomas the rhymer is a fictional take on the quasi-historical figure of the same name. The Thomas the rhymer ballad shares a decent amount, historically, with the ballad of Tam Lin.
Brief plot summary
Thomas the rhymer tells the story of the minstrel Thomas, his seven yeras of captivity in Faerie, and his eventual return to the mortal world. Taken in by an elderly couple both before and after his imprisonment, each segment of the story is told from the point of view of a different character.
When I read Thomas the rhymer, I interpreted it as a less problematic retelling of Tam Lin. My first exposure to Tam Lin (and my first exposure to the Child ballads in general, or at least the first time I actively recognized them as such) was in the ongoing followups to Neil Gaiman’s Books of magic miniseries (which I recommended in my previous post (which was, incidentally, my first exposure to Neil Gaiman and, in my mind, is much superior to Sandman)). It wasn’t, however, until the Current 93 album SixSixSix: SickSickSick that I became familiar with the ballad in its more-or-less traditional form, where I learned that the incident that sets off the whole story is the hero raping the heroine. So romantic! (sarcasm)
For some reason, the story stuck with me and despite how troublesome I find the opening it’s still something of a well-loved tale for me. So when I read Thomas the rhymer I immediately saw the parallels, not realizing that Thomas the rhymer was actually a different ballad until later when I did some outside reading.
In fact, when I sat down to write this post it was originally entirely about Tam Lin because I forgot that this wasn’t a retelling of that story. My brain remembers it as a working-class version of Tam Lin, turning Lady Margaret/Janet into a farmer’s daughter and omitting the rape.
So how is it?
I like it, but I happen to have a weird love of the Child ballads, and what I’m going to call “gentle fiction”, a genre I just made up. Pardon me while this power to arbitrarily invent new genres goes to my head.
Thomas the rhymer isn’t an exciting book – it only has 5 real characters, 3 of whom are farmers and one of the remaining two is a wandering minstrel. It’s not a book about giant battles or world-shattering events. The comparison that immediately springs to mind is to Way station by Simak. They are both tightly focused books, telling a largely pastoral story with a small cast of characters, where the actual plot is secondary to the other elements of the book.
Jo Walton of Tor calls it a perfect book. I don’t know if I’d go that far (weirdly, the most “exciting” part – Thomas’s time in Faerie – is actually the weakest) but it’s certainly a good book. Thomas is not exactly a hero – he’s arrogant, vain, and kind of a lothario, but his development throughout the book is interesting to watch, especially as we get to see him from multiple points of view. The final point of view represented is Elspeth, his mortal love interest, as we get to see her reaction to the sudden return of the suitor who apparently abandoned her seven years previously.
Readers looking for a save-the-world type adventure or a low fantasy Conan-steals-the-secret-treasure kind of adventure are going to be disappointed. It’s not that kind of a book. If you can handle reading a book without epic fight scenes then you’ll probably be okay.
What I’m going to call “The Tam Lin variations” because it amuses me appears elsewhere too. The October Daye books I mentioned in my previous post feature a variation in the third book, An artificial night. It gets more-or-less reversed in Singer of Souls, because it’s a trope that’s lasted more then 500 years, even if it’s less common now.
This is a book that could theoretically have crossover appeal. Historical fiction aficionados who don’t mind a little fantasy will enjoy Kushner’s painstaking recreation of medieval Scotland. The fact that the fantasy is rooted entirely in contemporary folklore helps to add an additional layer of appeal.
Books I recommended with my previous post
Honestly I don’t have a lot of confidence in these recommendations. None of these exactly fit the “feel” of this novel, but I haven’t read anything quite like it in recent memory. I’d like to read more like this though, and am totally open to suggestions.