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One sometimes has the experience of knowing two apparently unrelated bits of information--sometimes for years--until suddenly it occurs to one that they are in fact related and indeed illuminate each other in quite startling ways. I have had the good fortune to teach some of the Scots ballads for the last decade or so and have taught "Thomas Rhymer (A)" and 'Tam Lin (A)" as exemplars of Scots Other World balladry. It is a truism (and the first piece of information) that the worldview of these ballads differs quite markedly from the medieval Catholic worldview that was current when these ballads may have originated and the Scots Presbyterian one that was the dominant ideology in the time and place when they were collected. Few ballad scholars would dispute this claim.
It is also a commonplace (and the second piece of the puzzle) that ballad collectors in the age when ballads were still a living part of Scots folk tradition repeatedly insist that those ballad singers who were part of the traditional Scots folk community "believed" the ballads to be historically true accounts of real experience. I quote a particularly forceful expression of this viewpoint from the great ballad collector William Motherwell:
It is well known by all who have personally undergone the pleasant drudgery of gathering our traditionary song, that the old people who recite these legends attach to them the most unqualified and implicit belief. To this circumstance may be ascribed the feeling and pathos with which they are occasionally chaunted; the audible sorrow that comes of deep and honest sympathy with the fates and fortunes of our fellow kind. In the spirit, too, with which such communications are made, in the same spirit they must be received and listened to. The audacious skeptick, who in the plenitude of his shallow worldly wisdom, dared to question their being matter of incontrovertible fact, I may state for the information of those who may hereafter chose to amuse themselves in the quest of olden song, would eventually find the lips of every venerable sybil in the land most effectively sealed to his future inquiries. (1) [*From no discourteous motive, but from sheer ignorance of this important article of belief, I have, unfortunately for myself, once or twice notably affronted certain aged virgins by impertinent dubitations touching the veracity of their song, an offence which bitter experience will teach me to avoid repeating, as it has long ere this, made me rue the day of its commission.]
Motherwell's comment on this problem seems particularly credible since he is not making a polemical point about the naivete of the folk but simply offering advice to prospective ballad collectors. The whole issue of folk belief in the truth of folktales and ballads is an issue that has been extensively discussed by folklorists, and I cannot summarize in any detail the debate here. (2) What is important for the present argument, however, is that even if one accepts a relatively weak form of the claim that the folk singers and narrators believed their stories to be true--a claim that "some" ballad singers and auditors believed that ballads were true, a claim for which there is substantial support--then a very interesting question emerges. If some singers thought that ballads such as "Tam Lin" and "Thomas Rhymer" were true, then the theological content of these ballads is of great interest--from the perspective of intellectual history at the very least. These are ballads--particularly "Thomas Rhymer (A)"--which make theological claims about God, man, woman, and creation, (3) and if these ballads were more than simple fantasy for the ballad master who composed them, the ballad singers who sang them, and audience who listened to them, then what do we make of the implicit theological content of these ballads?
For present purposes I propose to concentrate upon the A version of "Thomas Rhymer" as a ballad focused almost exclusively on cosmology. Much of this argument is generally relevant to the other versions of the ballad as well, but this specific version of the ballad illustrates these ideological and cosmological issues particularly clearly. If ballads are narrative poems, the story that "Thomas Rhymer" tells is frustratingly abbreviated. Thomas Rhymer encounters a beautiful lady who is the queen of elf land. They become lovers. She takes him to the borders of her realm, shows him a vision, forbids him speech, and seven years later he returns. As a narrative the ballad is unsatisfactory since just at the point when we as readers or auditors expect to hear about marvels and adventures at the border of elf-land, the narrative breaks off, and we hear nothing about Thomas Rhymer's seven years in the Other World. But if "Thomas Rhymer" is unsatisfactory as an adventure story--there are no adventures, and if his sexual encounter with the elf queen is clearly implied, it is not elaborated upon--from a theological viewpoint the content of the ballad is very interesting indeed.
The ballad opens with a theological gesture--Thomas Rhymer is alone in the countryside when he sees a lady who is so beautiful that Thomas mistakes her for the Virgin Mary:
True Thomas he took off his hat, And bowed him low down till his knee: 'All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven! For your peer on earth I never did see.' 'O no, O no, True Thomas,' she says, 'That name does not belong to me; I am but the queen of fair Efland, And I'm come here for to visit thee. (4) (stanzas 3-4)
Even if we did not have the Middle English romance Thomas of Erceldoune, (5) which is certainly related to "Thomas Rhymer" in one way or another, (6) …