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Thomas the Rhymer and Gaelan Erceldoune

Those of you who’ve read The Apothecary’s Curse know that the character Gaelan Erceldoune is based on the legend of Lord Thomas Learmont de Ercildoune AKA Thomas the Rhymer. According to legend and ballad, Thomas was kidnapped by the Queen of the Fairies and kept by her for seven years. Upon his return to this side of the divide, near what is now Earlston, Scotland, Thomas, it is said, had the gift of prophecy–and, according to some, immortality. Thomas was a balladeer and poet himself, and the story of Tristram is often attributed to him.

The ballad of “True Thomas” was made famous back in the 1970s by the British Folk-Rock group Steeleye Span:

The ballads have always intrigued me, so much so, that when I was an undergrad, I did several papers on the supernatural elements of the British Isles Ballads (as collected by F.J. Child). As a singer, I found the ancient modal melodies haunting and unique, and I enjoyed (while I’m quite certain I bored my friends) singing the wonderful narrative ballads (sometimes going on 30-40 verses or more!).

One of my favorites, and one I’ve performed over and over, is called “Tamlin” (Child No. 39). The first time I heard it was when British folk singer Frankie Armstrong performed it at the Philadelphia Folk Festival back in the day. She stood there in the middle of the stage, no guitar or piano, and sang all 32 verses acapella. I remember sitting quite entranced, drawn into that world of the magical, mysterious and quite dark forest wherein the fairy folk dwelled.

Folklorists and folkmusicololgists have sometimes speculated that Tam Lin is actually Thomas the Rhymer, and it fits. Like Thomas, Tamlin is abducted by the Queen of the Otherworld and kept for seven years. I’m not going to do a side by side analysis of the two ballads (in their many, many versions), but I’ve been playing with the story for a couple of weeks and have constructed a narrative for the ballad that fits in with the TAC-verse–the world of The Apothecary’s Curse. In the end, I’m thinking it will be a long short story or a novella (not a new novel–I don’t think the story quite justifies it). There is new novel, Alchemy of Glass, and it comes out April 21. So be on the lookout for news!

In the meantime, I had a bit of fun recording the ballad of Tam Lin. Part of the ballad is pretty sexually rough (and vile), but know that my prose treatment of that bit is handled with care, and without losing one bit of the story. It makes sense of it, at least to my satisfaction. But that will be up to you when it’s finished.

So, for now, enjoy (no tomatoes thrown toward me, please) this recording of Frankie Armstrong’s version of Tamlin, sung by…me.

My undying gratitude to the Tam-lin.org for the brilliant resource about all things to do with this ancient, occasionally troubling, ballad.

Barbara Barnett

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