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Book: Thomas The Rhymer

May 15, 2009
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This is the illustration on the book cover of the edition I have from the library. The illustration by Thomas Canty, whom I have discovered I love. Combining two things I love: fairy-tale imagery and the style of Art Nouveau.

The book is by Ellen Kushner and is a retelling of a story that dates from the 13th century. Not that I knew that when I chose the book. Frankly, I just liked the cover, and the sample page I read wasn’t too bad, so I thought I would give it a try as a fairy-tale candidate for Once Upon A Time III. It was a good example of the random-book-selection technique for choosing books, which is sometimes pretty hit-or-miss.

Anyway. This read like an extended fairy tale, which of course it is. Thomas, a harper and storyteller, is building his reputation as a musician of extraordinary ability (and of extraordinary charm to women). He makes friends with some simple country people and soon falls in love with a neighboring girl, Elspeth. However, he makes the mistake of kissing the Elf Queen, who visits him one day while sitting on a hill, and he disappears for seven years, serving his time with her in Elfland. When he comes back, he has been ‘gifted’ with the Tongue That Cannot Lie (or something like that). Basically, he cannot tell a lie, and he can see into the future. So he becomes a harper and a seer. He makes amends with Elspeth, lives his life, and so on.

It was pretty good. It was respectable. But… what’s the point?

It completely read like a fairy tale, like I said, however — most fairy tales have some kind of lesson or moral, or a way of linking back to the beginning of the story, or some kind of universal truth. This, while definitely using fairy-tale structure and many fairy-tale elements, did not really have an overarching lesson. Not that I could see, anyway. What — don’t kiss the Elf Queen? All he loses is seven years on Earth, and the ability to lie. He gets his true love, a great life, a son, a daughter, respect, etc. Where’s the harm? What’s the lesson?

That said, it was enjoyable. Perfect for reading before bed (although the chapters were very long so I had a hard time finding a place to stop for the night). I enjoyed the character of Elspeth, a fiery woman with an opinion of her own. Thomas was also a good character and you are left to decide whether he’s of strong or weak constitution. I think he was just flawed, as all good protagonists are.

The Elf Queen was a little flat for me. She played a major role, yet somehow her role always seems minor. The time in Elfland was actually the low point in the book. Much is made about some mystery involving a dead king who is transformed in a dove (?), and the fulfillment of some oath, or something, and how Thomas trades his voice f0r the remaining time he has left in Elfland to save the dove (or something). It was all a little confusing and there were many ballads written out, which for some reason I never bother to read, so I probably missed a lot of information. However, it didn’t seem to matter because once he left Elfland, he left all that behind, so my not ‘getting it’ didn’t harm the rest of the story for me. Which I think is actually a point against the story — I think that all loose ends should be tied up and all storylines should lead somewhere — but it didn’t really matter.

I wonder if some of these storylines, and the main story itself, felt a little rootless because it’s based on an old story — the kind that people just know about, not the kind that has any lesson or main point to be made. There was his man, his name was Thomas, he was a seer, that’s that. We tell stories about him. No lesson needed.

Oddly, this story also reminded me of The Time Traveller’s Wife, because of the relationship between Thomas and Elspeth, and because of how Thomas was always in and out of Elspeth’s life, to some degree out of his control. So that added another dimension that I enjoyed.

So, it was a great read for the challenge, and perfectly enjoyable, and reminded me that I must get out my old thick book of Grimm tales and read some of my favorites again, particularly the one about the princess who must wear tattered cloaks and work in the kitchens to regain her place, and slips golden hooks and rings into the King’s soup, and throws off her cloaks to show beautiful dresses made of the sun, and the moon, and the stars. I can’t remember the name of that one, but I loved it so much. I always wanted a dress made of the stars. Maybe that’s where my thing about stars and sparkles stems from.

A perfectly lovely fairy-tale romance, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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