Award-winning author and radio personality Ellen Kushner's inspired retelling of an ancient legend weaves myth and magic into a vivid
contemporary novel about the mysteries of the human heart. Brimming with ballads, riddles, and magical transformations, here is the timeless tale of a charismatic bard whose talents earn him a two-edged otherworldly gift.
A minstrel lives by his words, his tunes, and sometimes by his lies. But when the bold and gifted young Thomas the Rhymer awakens the desire of the powerful Queen of Elfland, he finds that words are not enough to keep him from his fate. As the Queen sweeps him far from the people he has known and loved into her realm of magic, opulence--and captivity--he learns at last what it is to be truly human. When he returns to his home with the Queen's parting gift, his great task will be to seek out the girl he loved and wronged, and offer her at last the tongue that cannot lie.
Based on the famous ballad of the medieval minstrel who was abducted by the Queen of Elfland, this romantic fantasy is a happy blend of discreet scholarship and literary style. A Boston-based radio producer, Kushner ( Swordspoint ) is at ease in Middle-Earth where Thomas, insouciant harper and rhymer, appears at the humble dwelling of a weathered crofter and his wife. Dazzling them with stories of the king's court, the damsels he's won and the sights he's seen, he also enthralls young Elspeth, a neighbor. Their mutual attraction is frustrated when Thomas suddenly disappears, and for seven years is held captive by the silken Queen of Elfland, who releases him with a questionable gift, the inability to speak anything but the truth. As Thomas renews his earthly life with Elspeth, the gift leads to interesting complications. Kushner creates a lavish microcosm where riddles and runes and magical transformations govern.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 31, 2004
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Excerpt from Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner
I'm not a teller of tales, not like the Rhymer. My voice isn't smooth, nor my tongue quick. I know a few tunes, everyone does, but nothing like his: from me you'll never hear songs of gentle maidens fording seven rivers for their false lover so bittersweet as to make the hardest old soldiers weep; nor yet merry ones of rich misers tricked out of their gold, with the twist of a word and a jest so neatly turned that the meanest old uncle that ever pinched a dowry still laughs without offense. Well, it's a power, surely, that music and those words, and I just haven't got it.
Not that I'm sure I'd take it, even if it were offered me. One of Tom's very tales is of Jock of the Knowe, that was coming home from Mellerstain Fair with a long face, for he'd walked all that way with his old shorthorned cow to sell at the fair, but not a man would have her. So here's Jock returning to his goodwife with no money nor goods, and winter coming on. Jock's going on down Mellerstain road with his cow, and he starts in railing at her, in a temper, like: "What wouldn't I give to be quit of you, and good money in my purse?"
Well, just then he sees a cloaked man by the side of the road. And the man says, "Good even to you, Jock of the Knowe. And how's the milk from your shorthorned cow?"
Taking the stranger for some man from the fair, Jock answers, "Why, this cow gives half cream and half honey. And if she gives one bucket at morning, she gives two at evening."
They fall to bargaining over the price of the cow. It seems to Jock that anyone wandering the roads after the fair in search of a cow must be in a hard case, so he's setting the price high. Then the tall stranger says, "Well, silver is silver, but I can offer you something worth twice that, cow and all." And he pulls out a fiddle.
Jock says he can't even play, but the stranger says never mind, this fiddle does the playing for you.
With that Jock sees that this twilight man must be one of Elvenkind. The cow's milk is wanted for some human child they've stolen. Now the fairy gold, if he takes it, could turn to grass and leaves tomorrow. But a magic fiddle's a magic fiddle; wherever you go people will give good money for music. So he says, "I'll take the fiddle."
And, sure enough, when the exchange is made, the fairy takes the cow, and walks right up to the side of the hill, and raps with his staff three times. And the hill opens up, and fairy and cow disappear into it, right into Elfland.
As for Jock with his fiddle, he never knows a day's hunger--but he never knows a day's rest, neither, with folk from one end of the country to the other calling on him for music for dances and weddings and such. His goodwife sees only his money, for he's never at home now. Oh, and every Beltane night, which is Fairies' Holiday, Jock goes to that same hillside and plays, and out come a host of gorgeous folk that are the lords and ladies of Elfland, and they dance to Jock's fiddle all night long, until his arms ache and his fingers are sore.
The way I see it, that's no way to live. He'd have done better to keep the cow.
But, then, I'm a plain man. A crofter, living high in the hills above Leader Water with one wife, many sheep, few neighbors. I don't even see a cow but twice a year at Earl's Market.
I'd never seen anything like the Rhymer before he appeared on our doorstep.
It was one of those dismal autumn nights, with the wind whistling like a mad huntsman calling up the Hounds of Hell, and you know there's rain toward. And sure enough it came, battering at the roof and shutters, and not a little down the chimney so the fire smoked up the place. But there sat my Meg, nice as you please, sewing at a shirt for her niece's eldest down Rutherford way. I was doing a bit of basketmending, glad that the flock were well penned up already this rough night. Between the rushlight and the fire's glow we could see to work, or maybe it was our fingers remembering the way of it. Lately, light's not as bright as once it was.
Then the dog at my feet, Tray it would be, son of old Belta that was, Tray goes stiff like he's heard something, though my ears caught nothing over the racket of wind and rain. "Soft, there, lad," I say, like you do to a dog that's spooking. "Easy, lad. Silly hound, scared of a bit of weather."
My Meg looks up. "Oh, Gavin," she says, her voice strong against the noise of storm. "Gavin, it's a night for the dead to ride, and no mistake."
She sounded like she was readying to tell one of her tales. Tales go well with dark nights; like the one of that restless spirit, the Lord of Traquair, that rides on stormy nights seeking the wife he murdered in a jealous rage, looking to beg her innocent pardon . . . but her body's long, long in the mold, and her blessed soul in Heaven. It happened not a day's walk from here, across the river, some years gone by.