Ellen Kushner


"A minstrel lives by telling tales. Rhymers live in their fancy. He'd speak of dead heroes in the same breath as porridge, you might say, as if they were his own dear companions. Madmen and dreamers, your rhymers don't live in the world like the rest of us do."

-- Ellen Kushner

  In Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Walter J. Ong reminds us that oral-based cultures ascribed "magical potency" to words; the ability to name something gave one power over it; words were understood to command things into being.

Ellen Kushner's 1990 novel Thomas the Rhymer seeks to reclaim the transforming power of words and to teach modern readers to respect the magic of song and story-telling. Kushner takes as the core of her novel a story drawn from a 13th century Scottish Ballad about Thomas of Erceldoune who encounters the Queen of Elfland while walking in the hills and is carried away by her. Thomas is forced to serve her for seven years before being returned to his people bearing the gift of a magic harp and the power to deliver prophecies. The novel has won both the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Society Award.

Kushner has taught at Northeastern University. Currently, she teaches writing at the Clarion Workshop and the Odyssey Workshop in New Hampshire. She has carefully researched the ballad's roots and its significance in Scottish folklore. Embellishing this oft-told story, she has constructed a deceptively simple novel about the power of words. Several times in the story, Kushner describes the process of "robbing dead men's songs," of making new stories from old, or of drawing on familiar patterns and formulas for the composition of new works. She might also have been describing the process of writing this novel which is fresh and original, even as it draws extensively on a full range of traditional ballads. Like a bard, she weaves her story from borrowed materials while finding ways to transform them into powerful new images which speak to contemporary audiences.

Along the way, she tells us about the nature of stories, songs, and memory, and about the diverse roles words play in an oral-based culture ˜ as oaths, riddles, curses, proverbs, and gossip. She is fascinated by the thin line that separates stories from lies. And she is fascinated by the ways in which skill at crafting words can become a source of power in human affairs. A quick wit and nimble tongue can help win the favor of kings or court one's love. She writes, for example, of the ways that Thomas must shape his words to fit the Elf Queen's moods: "When she was melancholy, or on edge, I must choose my words with care. When she was feeling easy, I could say almost anything. I scolded her, teased her, made demands; once I even asked her for her own name."
She tells us of how a riddle can work its way into your mind and torment you: "The question had been asked; the hole had been opened in the fabric of things, and there is something about a hole, a tear, a rent in anything that is irksome to people of character. One wants to fill it, to mend it, to close it."

From the book's opening lines, Kushner asks us to think about what it means to be a storyteller:

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; not 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.

Gavin, the simple peasant who narrates the first part of the novel, recognizes that "a good song's as honest as a well-made wheel, or a pot," but he would just as soon keep his feet firmly planted in the dirt.

Confronted with a story about Jock who trades his cow for a magic harp that brings him great fortune and even greater pain, Gavin would just as soon hold onto his cow. Yet, Gavin inhabits a world where stories from far-away villages, sometimes turned into the stuff of legend, are what passes for news and a warm song on a cold night can be a great comfort. Gavin trusts little of what he hears: "He could have told us the king's daughter had borne a two-headed calf, and who among us could have disproved it?" Yet he takes great pleasure in listening to a well-forged tale.

For Thomas, words come easily and he plans to use them to make his fortune. Yet, he is also brash with his words, unafraid to sing songs in court which are likely to offend his rich patrons, and willing to speak aloud the forbidden names of the "Good Folk," refusing to recognize that there are things which can be said in song that should never be put into spoken words. Meg warns him, "Someday you'll talk yourself into something you can't get out of."

 
  Through his adventures, Thomas will learn the value of his words and will learn to think carefully before he speaks. The Elf Queen demands that Thomas speak only to her, though he may sing where he pleases. And, he finds this enforced silence, in the face of taunts and challenges from the Elfen folk, in the face of injustices which demand his intervention, a painful curse. The Elf Queen has the power to command his speech, to draw from his body every story and every memory, as she seeks to satisfy her unquenchable thirst for humanity itself. Yet he no longer can control when and where he speaks.

A mute dove cries tears of blood because he can not speak, and Thomas learns to feed him his own blood so that phrase by phrase, his woeful story can be heard. Thomas crafts a song which will allow the dove to insure the happiness of his lady-love from beyond the grave and sacrifices his own singing voice so that the dove (actually an enchanted knight) may speak his truths.

Without the power to speak, Thomas is treated with patience and respect - "as though I were a hound at their feet." And in the company of the Queen, he learns much more:

"With even the illusion that words were weapons against her gone from me, I learned what it was to bear another's choices, and have none myself. It was she who chose the topics and let them go.....The queen's body was a great solace to me; but even the sweetness of her flesh scarcely compensated for the loss of her conversation. It was company I had craved, I knew now, as much as I had craved her bed. Denied true companionship, I took the carnal for what it could offer. In the process I came to know her every mood and need, as a monk knows his letters. With her I could lose myself in a complex tangle of desire and fulfillment, intricate and well shaped as music.....I touched her face, her hair, her lips, letting my hands speak for me. Touching her, my hands grew another sense, a deeper one beyond the daily touch that tells us if something be hot or cold, smooth or rough. Her body had a thousand textures, and each of them spoke to me."

The Elfland sequence, then, involves a complex series of substitutions ˜ blood for words, sensuality for speech, carnality for communication ˜ as people struggle to speak the truths that are trapped within them. Kushner never allows us to forget that words have a value - and a price.

When Thomas returns to the world of the mortals, he is blessed (or cursed) with the "tongue that cannot lie," with the power to see the future and the obligation to speak always the truth. Thomas is frightened by the power this gives others to command truths from him and he comes to resent the questions which force him to speak. Having learned to hold his tongue, the storyteller becomes a gifted listener: "He had learned how to be a quiet companion....so I found myself telling him things I would never have dream of before."

As a storyteller, Kushner chooses her own words carefully and precisely, making each paragraph a joy to read. Here, for example, is her description of Thomas's forging of a river of blood as the Elf Queen leads him into the underworld:

"My legs were dark with what I took to be the stream's water, but as the light grew, I saw its color, a deep and plangent red, dripping onto the dust of the ground....'The earth cannot hold all the blood that's shed on it. And so the stream flows below. We have passed through it now; soon it will be gone from you.' On my legs the blood of battles from that river we had been riding through, running with the blood of births and maidenheads, the finger-pricks of children's blood-brotherhood and the deeper wounds of brothers' strife; the murder of travelers for gold, and the careless scrape of a nettle in summer's fields."

Here, the flood of images suggests a human hunger for stories which might give shape and meaning to the bloodshed.

She depicts a landscape overflowing with stories, a world where narratives speak to us in the sounds of brooks, in the threads of a tapestry, or in the stitches of an old woman's needle point. Her protagonists turn to pre-existing verses and narratives to make sense of their daily lives, as when Elspeth, Thomas's wife, compares her vow never to get angry with him for speaking the truth to the man who promises the Seal Wife that he will never beat her, or when Thomas, a captive of the Elf Queen, translates his memories of Elspeth into the stuff of fairy tales. In such a world, it is often hard to separate the stories we tell from the lives we lead: "My memories of our time together flowed vivid through my mind, clear with the distance of fair legend, of song." Gavin, at another point, describes how Thomas's songs become the stuff of legend, his gifted performances ascribed to "an enchanted harp," his songs attributed to Merlin. And Elspeth speaks of the stories of the Elf folk as something more than fairy tales, having "been brought up in the shadow of the Eildon Hills, that were cleft in three with a blow of the giant's sword."

Kushner tells the story through the voices of four distinctive characters and she thus saves her most vivid descriptions and most flowery language for the passage which Thomas narrates. Through her pen, we learn of the sensations which bind him to the world of mortals even as he is incapable of resisting the Elf Queen's seductive charms:

"She was sliding into my arms in a hissing shiver of silk. I was enveloped in green and gold, while the red of her lips took me into the heart of flame. We lay in the dry sedge, and where it pricked my bare skin I felt only the caresses of the earth; and when rocks and roots dug into me, they were her fingers, the heels of her feet and hands. She was wind and rain, making me safe from all elements forever by making me part of them. When passion exploded in me, I felt my body disintegrate into the numberless jewels under the hills, the stars in darkness....Never had my senses so reveled in the pureness of the air, the tang of grass, the very molding of the earth my body rested on, roots stretching deep into its core. To leave it now would be to tear out the heart of me."

Kushner's writing is appropriately sensuous, capturing the Queen's "enchantment" over him and his discovery that mortal words can never fully express his new experiences: "Words were brittle and unreal, next to the hot blood that sang in my ears."

 
  Through her female narrators, Kushner interrogates the primacy of the familiar male adventure story with its fascination with seducing beautiful women and of journeying to unfamiliar spaces. She reminds us that when Thomas disappears for seven years, he leaves behind the women who cared about him.

When Thomas seeks to narrate his experiences to Elspeth, the woman he has loved and wooed, she refuses to listen, telling her own story instead:

"No stories, Thomas....Not this time. I know how good you are. But this time you went too far and stayed away too long. I've no stomach for them now. I've stories of my own: of winters on the Ridge, children screaming without peace, dirty pots without end, splinters from rough wood; and a man's weigh every night binding you to the mattress because you made your vow and you've taken his food for your belly and his clothing for your back and his roof for your shelter."

The story of women's experiences may be harder to spin into the rich tapestry of adventure stories, yet Kushner helps us to understand their truths and to feel the call of the hearth as much as we feel the wanderlust that draws the minstrel from his familiar surroundings.

While this novel is clearly Thomas's story, Kushner never allows us to forget the impact his adventures have upon women, who must bear the children he has left behind, who must make a home to await his return. If Thomas, we are told, "knew the truth about everyone but himself," he must depend upon Meg, the farmer's wife, and Elspeth, his own bride, to speak the truth to him and to force him to recognize the consequences of his own words and actions. Elspeth must bear the burden of a man who can speak no lies but who may withhold from her much of what he knows about their future together; she must help him to reconcile himself to his bastard son and to deal with the death that he knows awaits the boy; she must nurse him in his dying moments, never daring to ask when she or her children might join him.

A graduate of Bryn Mawr and Columbia, Kushner has worked as an artist's agent and as a writer of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels. She started out after college working as a science fiction/fantasy editor in New York City for Ace, and then, Pocket Books, worked as an artist's agent and as a writer of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels, and then in 1987 found her way to public radio on WGBH 89.7FM in Boston, and has been on the air ever since, hosting programs of classical, world, and folk music.

A number of her stories, including her most recent book, St. Nicholas and the Valley Beyond the World's Edge, are written with a "family audience" in mind. Her most recent fiction is a string of adult fantasy short stories, almost all of which have been reprinted in the anthology series The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, ed. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (St. Martin's Press) Her new collaboration, co-written with historical fantasist Delia Sherman, "The Fall of the Kings," appeared in the queer fantasy anthology Bending the Landscape (ed. Griffith/Pagels). Her latest publication is The Horns of Elfland: Original Stories of Music and Magic, edited by Ellen Kushner, Donald G. Keller, and Delia Sherman.

Kushner's fascination with the realm of stories and song finds ample expression on her weekly radio series, Sound and Spirit, produced by WGBH in Boston and is distributed nationally by Public Radio International. As the program website explains, "Sound and Spirit blends classical, traditional and world music with myth and history, stories and poetry, and commentary from composers, theologians and writers, to provide insight into various aspects of the human experience. Each week the program explores connections between world cultures and examines different approaches to universal questions." A characteristic episode might juxtapose harvest songs from Africa and the Georgian Caucasus, Sukkoth celebrations from ancient Israel, and stories from the British Isles. She is fascinated with the ways that humans have turned to music and storytelling to express fundamental aspects of their experiences and seeks to share these classical materials with modern audiences, whether through her broadcasts or her stories.

"Words are real," Thomas the Rhymer reminds us, and stories contain truths that we forget at our own peril.

 

Selected Works
 

  1980 Basilisk
1985 Outlaws of Sherwood Forest
1986 The Enchanted Kingdom
1986 Statue of Liberty Adventure
1986 The Mystery of the Secret Room
1986 Knights of the Round Table
1987 Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners
1990 Thomas the Rhymer
1994 St. Nicholas and the Valley Beyond the World's Edge
1997 Horns of Elfland

--H.J.

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