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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436

Thomas the Rhymer was a real thirteenth century figure, Thomas Learmont from Erceldoune, near Melrose in the Scottish borders. He is also the subject of the eponymous ballad, found in many variants in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis J. Child (1882-1898, reprinted 1965). Ellen Kushner clearly has...

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Thomas the Rhymer was a real thirteenth century figure, Thomas Learmont from Erceldoune, near Melrose in the Scottish borders. He is also the subject of the eponymous ballad, found in many variants in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis J. Child (1882-1898, reprinted 1965). Ellen Kushner clearly has done serious research into both these aspects and is reliable in both the names and the feeling of the times.

The most effective part of her preparation is her representation of the ballads. Kushner has distilled a style that is lucid and poetic and adds credibility to her narrative. Employing four narrators is not intrinsically easy to maintain, nor does it aid continuity. Nevertheless, Kushner’s narrators have distinctive tones and rhythms. She also respects their unities without destroying the thread of the plot; much happens offstage, but none of it is vital. These four are superbly realized characters into whom much careful observation, shown in domestic details as well as crises, has been built. After the escape from Elfland and the winning of Elspeth, the narrative force inevitably dips, but the depth of the characterization prevents any loss of interest.

Ballads are judiciously selected and woven into the narrative as examples of Tom’s craft and to make dramatic or ironic points. An example is the use of “Tam Lin,” with its tale of elf abduction and rescue by a fertile mother; this is the duet that an older Tom plays with his newfound son. The most effective selection is that of “The Famous Flower of Servingmen,” which Tom writes to defeat the Hunter. His source is the dove, which contains the soul of the slain knight and which Hunter intends to destroy. Tom creates the ballad as an answer to a riddle, feeding his blood to the bird to give it voice. The result is compulsive, not only because the author is using a superb ballad but also because she conveys the process of creation. She relates to the ballad and explores it in a fine act of criticism.

The description of the Scottish border country is unstinting in its depictions of hard work and dangers but leavened by the good humor that permeates the book. Elfland is much more grim and, from the entry through a river of blood to the exit, the atmosphere is totally alien, with a sinister quality behind its riches and beauties. The author wisely restricts space there, considering that the claustrophobia conveyed by the narrator is so strong. There have been other novels using ballads as a fantasy source, but none with the originality and depth of this work.

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