True to Thomas
I have had a lifelong interest in Thomas the Rhymer. His story is well known in ballad form: while wandering in the forest lands near the Eildon Tree, Roxburghshire, Thomas was captured by the Queen of the Fairies. There follows an ‘otherworld’ journey to her fairy castle, where time has no meaning. The earlier romance-prophecies tell of his eventual return to mortal earth, empowered with the gift of prophecy.
I am a painter and printmaker and since I’ve always been as attracted to words as I am to images, it has meant that over the decades I have worked with text and image together, and whenever possible, produced my own artists’ books. So it was natural that when I eventually decided to do something about Thomas, I chose to create a book. My interest in Thomas was overwhelming. But what was the meaning of this strange story? Very often I have searched out meaning through making images, and this is why my engraving work for the book came first. Wood-engraving is of course ideal for printing with metal type – I intended this to be a small press book, but I had no idea who would be printing it.
My approach has been less academic than from the heart. I needed to know more about Thomas, even though the images of his strange journey were already bright and clear in my mind. It was L.C. Wimberly’s Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads that had first stirred my interest many years ago. Now I re-read some Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves, and went back to George Macdonald’s Phantastes. I also discovered The Secret Commonwealth, Robert Kirk’s account of his abduction by fairies at Aberfoyle in 1692. Through one of Brian Moffat’s reports on the medieval hospital at Soutra in the Borders, I learned that scholars of the traditional ballad had established that Thomas of Ercildoune, who was son and heir of Thomas Rymour, had conveyed by charter his inheritance of ‘the lands of Ercildoun’ to Soutra Hospital. Dr Moffat’s vivid writing about him rekindled my determination.
Until then I was familiar only with the ballad version of the story. I now discovered that it originated from four ancient manuscripts, each of which contains two sections – the story of Thomas meeting the Lady to whom he is in thrall, and a set of prophecies. I decided not to use the ballad form, preferring to seek something closer to the original visionary poem; this I found in the 1654 version of the romance, apparently the first printed text and reprinted many times since.
Transported through the power of the words I ‘saw’ Thomas and the drama of his fantastic journey, and I kept coming back to ‘fairies’, or perhaps it is more true to say that I kept coming across them. I am sensitive to this world and have read widely on the subject. I have always believed Thomas’s story. While I know that it is not ‘true’ in the conventional sense, I suspect that it contains much hard fact dressed in mythological language which belies reality. I had to understand intuitively as well as emotionally and intellectually in order to embrace Thomas’s vision. This is, after all, a visionary poem. That is the power of it.
Human beings have long been enchanted or ‘beglamoured’ by the fairy realm. Glamour was originally a Scots word signifying that a fairy had wielded powers of illusion. It seems to require an open mind to consciously believe in them, as children do. I think our ancestors had more open minds than we do, which was why it was so easy for them to stray into this enchanted world: there was no strong rationale acting as a kind of wall between the human world and other, magical worlds. In pre-Celtic tradition the Goddess takes her consort to the underworld, where she kills him; his death precedes his resurrection as her oracular hero. Thomas’s story echoes this pattern: his Lady saves him from death by leading him back to the mortal world and it is then that he becomes empowered and through her acquires the gift of prophecy and becomes known as True Thomas. Vision or prophecy is a natural outcome of shedding delusions. Thomas sheds the enchantment: in the medieval romance the Lady does not hold him in thrall but lets him go. The insight that Thomas gains from his voyage is spiritual and includes the power of second sight.
So, I had completed the text and illustrations; I had a book. But how could I afford to pay a small private press even though I would attempt to get the money back? It was not suitable for Alan Anderson of the Tragara Press, but he advised me to try Harry McIntosh of Speedspools, who was at that time (1997) thinking of setting up a press with specific regard to Scottish literature. However, he was up to his ears in work. Then, in the summer of 1998, my friend Marjorie Campbell – artist, lecturer, glass designer, Secretary of the Scottish Glass Society – went to the Edinburgh Conference Centre and came upon the work of the McDowalls and The Old Stile Press. She spoke to Frances McDowall about my work, and a couple of days later I went along and gave her a draft copy of the book. Not long afterwards, Nicolas McDowall wrote saying they would like to print it. Our collaboration developed my concept into a fuller, more ambitious creation. The Press commissioned further engraving work, as well as lino-cut borders, which were used on the cased binding. The small landscape calendar engravings that historian and designer Justin Howes had commissioned me to do for him were used to seed the text of the book.
Marjorie Campbell died in November, 1999. She had so looked forward to seeing the book, which I dedicated to her. A year later the finished book arrived on my doorstep – on the day before her memorial concert at St Andrew’s and St George’s church in Edinburgh. I took it along, and Marjorie’s husband Archie mentioned it in his talk, before placing it, open, on the rostrum where it remained throughout the proceedings. That day I felt she was present and did indeed see the book she had helped bring into being. The Journey of Thomas the Rhymer was complete.
Angela Lemaire is a wood-engraver, printmaker, painter and writer based in Jedburgh. The Journey of Thomas the Rhymer was published in 2001 by the Old Stile Press in a limited edition of 220 copies numbered and signed by the artist.