Thursday, August 19, 2010

Thomas the Rhymer (Ellen Kushner)

I did some emotional spring cleaning, realized that there were some issues in my life that I needed to fix, and began running away from things instead of facing them. Ran away from home. Ran away from friends. Even ran away from my blogs, as if that were possible. Now I know better--or think I do--so it is only fitting that I let a tale of disappearances herald me back.

Ellen Kushner opens her lush Thomas the Rhymer from Gavin's perspective, a farmer who lets a bedraggled harper into his home. He and his wife Meg find Thomas charming and spontaneous, an unabashed flirt, but the childless couple soon learn to look upon him fondly as if he were their own wayward son. Thomas doesn't stay for long, though, which Gavin understands: 'Madmen and dreamers, your rhymers don't live in the world like the rest of us do (p. 24).'

But despite his wanderlust, Thomas eventually finds his way back to Gavin and Meg, and it is in the quiet days he spends with them that he meets Elspeth. Something blossoms between them, and it would seem that the harper has found his match until one day, Thomas goes for a walk in the Eildon Hills and never returns.

Ms Kushner shifts her perspective from Gavin to Thomas himself, who recounts seven years of silence in the enchanting and opulent prison called Elfland where Thomas finds himself both pet and pawn in elven court. Enamored by the Elf Queen yet determined to find his way back to Middle-Earth, Thomas uses his wits to win his freedom. When he finally returns, he is a changed man, and finds that the world has also changed without him.

I have nothing but praise for Ms Kushner's craft. She deftly moves from one narrator to the other: Gavin's deliberate speech, Thomas' passion, and later, Meg's motherly observations and Elspeth's recollection. Each emotion is clear-cut and tangible, despite the unfamiliarity of the characters' situations. Ms Kushner inserts ballads and rhymes into the text but far from making it sound disjointed, the narrative becomes richer for it.

When Thomas and Elspeth meet after his seven-year sojourn, the exchange is bitter, unguarded, electric. I find it one of the most moving scenes I've read in recent memory. Elspeth recounts later, 'but then I became glad that he was there for me to ignore, to pass in the hall, to not ask for the salt (p.247).' For all its encounters with the fantastic, Thomas the Rhymer is replete with moments like this: a glimpse into lives that are not unlike our own.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I read this years ago. I remember feeling resentful over Thomas's fixation over the Faery Queen. I wanted him for Elspeth, who I felt was too good for him. I also felt that the girl was shortchanged in the love department, as Thomas only settled with her until he can be with his Queen again.

dementedchris said...

YES. I really felt for Elspeth. I really admired her: she was such a strong character for me, without having to wield a sword or rule a kingdom.