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