There are many examples of the Fool’s Journey in literature, myth and even art. One of the simplest is the short poem called “The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer.” Thomas, who was also known as Lord Learmont, Thomas of Ercledoune and ‘True Thomas,’ lived in Scotland during the 13th century. He was renowned as a prophet during his lifetime. His predictions were largely accurate and some were still active until the 19th century. He is also said to be the author of the earliest version of Tristram and Iseult. He lived during the time of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, with whom he was associated; he is thought to have been a nationalist agent (a spy for Scotland), as was Wallace. He was either murdered for political reasons by the followers of the Earl of March, or still lives on in the hollow Eildon hills of his home region in the Lowlands, like Merlin and Arthur.

The following poem is called “The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer.”(There is also a longer, related poem called “The Romance of Thomas the Rhymer.”) In the Ballad, Thomas meets the Queen of the Underworld, who takes him on a multidimensional journey, a process that illustrates several aspects of the Fool’s Journey.

This Lady does not appear explicitly in the Tarot archetypes, although she suffuses much of it. She is related to the figure on the World card, although she rightly denies to Thomas that she is the Queen of Heaven. Instead, she is an aspect of the Universal Spirit presented to us in archetypal form.

Two versions of the poem are presented side by side. Their slight differences help to describe the nature of the journey in more detail.

The ballad can be found online at http://cctr.umkc.edu/user/cgladish/thomas.html.  Also see The Living World of Faery, RJ Stewart, and The Faerie Way by Hugh Mynne. It is presented below, one version on the left and an alternate version on the right. A short analysis of the poem from the point of view of our journey follows.

True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank
A fairy he spied with his e'e
And there he saw a lady bright
Come riding down by the Eildon [hawthorn] Tree

True Thomas lay on a grassy bank,
And He beheld a lady gay,
A lady that was brisk and bold,
To come riding o’er the ferny brae.

Her skirt was of the grass green silk
Her mantle of the velvet fine
At each tett of her horse's mane
Hung fifty silver bells and nine

 

[lock]

True Thomas, he pulled off his cap
And bowed low down to his knee.
“All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven
For thy peer on earth I never did see.”

 

[virgin Queen]

“Oh no, oh no, [True] Thomas,” she said
“That name does not belong to me.
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland
That am hither come to visit thee.”

“Harp and carp, Thomas,” she said,
“Harp and carp along with me
And if you dare to kiss my lips
Sure of your body I will be.”

Betide me well, betide me woe
That weird shall never daunton me
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips
All underneath the Eildon Tree

 

[Since]

“Now, ye maun go with me,” she said,
“True Thomas, ye maun go with me.
And ye maun serve me seven years
Though weal and woe, as may chance to be.”

She mounted on her milk white steed,
She's taken True Thomas up behind.
And aye whenever her bridle rang
The steed flew swifter than the wind.

Oh they rode on, and further on
The steed gaed swifter than the wind
Until they reached a desert wide
And living land was left behind

For forty days and forty nights
They wade through red blood to the knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon,
But heard the roaring of the sea.

Oh they rode on and further on,
Until they came to a garden [apple] tree,
“Light down, light down, you lady fair,
And I’ll pull of that fruit for thee.”

“Oh no, oh no True Thomas,” she says,
“That fruit may not be touched by thee,
For all the plagues that are in hell
Are upon the fruit of this country.”

“But I have bread here in my lap,
Likewise a bottle of red wine,
And before that we go further on,
We shall rest, and you may dine.”

“Light down, light down now, True Thomas
And lean you head upon my knee.
Abide and rest a little space
And I will show you ferlies three.

When He had eaten and drunk his fill,
She said, “Lay your head down on my knee,
And before we climb yon high, high hill,
I will show you wonders three.”

“Oh, see you not yon narrow road
So thick beset with thorn and briars?
That is the path of righteousness
Though after it but few enquire.

“And see you not that broad, broad road
That lies across that lily leven?
That is the path of wickedness
Though some call it the road to Heaven.

“And see you not that bonnie road
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

“But Thomas, you must hold your tongue
Whatever you may hear or see
For if you speak word in Elfin land
You'll ne'er get back to you ain country.”

Then they came on to a garden green
And she pulled an apple frae a tree.
”Take this for thy wages, True Thomas
It will give the tongue that can never lie.”

“My tongue is my own,” True Thomas said.
“A goodly gift you would give to me.
I neither dought to buy or sell
At fair or tryst where I may be.

“I dought neither speak to prince nor peer
Nor ask of grace from fair lady.”
“Now hold thy peace,” the lady said,
“For as I say, so it must be.”

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth
And a pair of shoes of velvet green
And ‘till seven years were gone and past
True Thomas ne’er on earth was seen.

[woven cloth]

A Short Analysis

The poem begins with Thomas seeing a lady with his e’e (eye). It is important that the poem says he sees her with a single eye, for this eye is symbolic of the third eye that corresponds to the brow charka, which when opened, gives sight into the subtle realms, an ability anyone can develop with practice. A similar idea appears in the story of the Norse god Odin, who symbolically “loses” the sight of one eye so as to apprehend the secrets of the cosmos with a single eye.

He is sitting beneath a hawthorn tree, which symbolizes, in Celtic lore, a doorway between the mundane world and the Underworld, in this instance, the world of Faery. The hawthorn tree is considered a tree of bad luck by those who are not suitably prepared, for without guidance, the inner realms can be confusing and frightening. It is important to keep in mind that Thomas’ journey is an inner journey or experience; it has no physical counterpart or analog. That being said, the journey is also an outer one into a realm that is both personal and impersonal, perhaps the word transpersonal is appropriate. This fact is one of the fundamental Mysteries of the Fool’s experience, which this Tarot spread helps make clear.

A bright Lady comes riding up to Thomas on her milk white steed. She is wearing a dress of green silk and velvet; the color green is emblematic of the Underworld realms. After Thomas’ journey of initiation, he too will don green clothes and shoes. This Lady is a real being, albeit a changeable one. With practice in the meditative state, she gradually develops a particular and distinctive appearance which varies with each person; she may also change her appearance as the journeying Fool advances along his path. We can conclude by this that Thomas is not a complete beginner and has prepared himself for the coming stages of his journey.

Thomas pays his respects and calls her the “Queen of Heaven.” She corrects him, saying she is merely the Queen of Elfland or Faery. This is an important distinction, perhaps primarily because as a mortal, to even experience the Faery Underworld, Thomas could not withstand the brilliance of such a being as the “Queen of Heaven.” But just as important, different aspects of Universal Spirit appear in different guises at different times. This Queen, also known as the Virgin Queen, is analogous to the pagan White Goddess, the Gnostic Sophia, the Egyptian Isis, Shakti in Hindu tradition, and many other cultural aspects. In the Fool’s Journey she appears as the Virgin Priestess. No single personification, however bright and brilliant, could encompass all Her aspects, and it would be a mistake to try to personify Her at all; She is a very real entity, but She can no more be pictured than Mother Nature could be represented by a woman in a pretty dress.

She next dares Thomas to kiss her on the lips, which he does. Since the Lady is not a physical being, this act cannot be a real, physical kiss. Instead, it represents his commitment to go with Her wherever She leads; the kiss is a symbolic token of Thomas’ desire for spiritual union and Her acceptance of becoming, thereby, his teacher. She says that because of this agreement, he must go with Her and serve Her for seven years. The term “seven years” is symbolic of the seven stages of the journey he will undertake. She warns him that the journey may be difficult: “Through weal and woe, as chance may be.” It will be Thomas’ inner resistance that will determine the difficulties – how easily or not he will be able to make the sacrifices She requires; we might use the modern term “programming” to represent the concepts he will need to give up along the way.

The agreement being made, she takes him up behind her on her white horse and they swiftly cross a “desert wide” and leave behind the land of the living – our mundane world. In many myth traditions crossing water, flying through the air, or, as here, crossing a desert, represents a change of consciousness. Thomas does not sleep or merely dream, but arrives at an inner state via meditation and concentration. This is a very real state of consciousness or non-physical realm of awareness; it is described in many different traditions, but is internally consistent, albeit highly variable in experience. We might call it a symbolic realm, where the symbols (archetypal images) are alive and interact with those like Thomas who arrive “there.” The composite image of the Queen as she appears to Thomas might be composed of archetypal femininity, motherhood, regality, mortal danger, chastity, erotic desire and strict disciplinarian, and perhaps many others as Thomas’ journey proceeds.

The number “forty” is often used as another symbolic signal that an altered realm of consciousness has been entered. (Recall how many times forty days appears in the Bible.) We are told that Thomas and the Queen ride through “red blood to the knee,” which further symbolized that his physical body is being left behind: it “dies” by losing its own blood. This symbolic—or metaphorical—death is a common and necessary component of Thomas’ journey and all others like it. Thomas’ physical body does not actually die, but instead a different kind of mysterious transformation is alluded to here which will occur again and again in our inquiry.
Their journey ended, Thomas gets off her horse and, seeing they are now in a garden (which is symbolic of the new realm they have arrived in), he offers to get an apple for her, and perhaps one for himself. She tells him he must not do that, lest he loose all the plagues in hell.

The Fool enters the realm of the Queen of Elfland in the Moon card, as the crab enters the water, for hers is a subterranean realm – an inner realm. Thomas goes with her for “forty days and forty nights,” the same symbolic length of time Jesus spent in the wilderness. As we have seen, this is symbolic of an altered state of consciousness.
Not everyone will have the same experiences described in the poem, of course. Each person’s experience will be different, but it does give a picture of a (very symbolic) journey. What each of the symbolic elements might signify, each venturing Fool will have to discover.

When Thomas is asked not to eat or drink, this represents a symbolic abstinence, which allows him not to fall asleep. this is denying, giving up the desires of, and letting go of the desires of the physical “I” and body, a necessary step in the Journey.