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Variations on Storycrafting: Thomas the Rhymer
Part 6: True Thomas: A Year Later
by Alan Irvine

ended my first article, Thomas The Rhymer: A Tale of the Artist, with the idea that what had started as an exercise for discussing the process of crafting a story had grown into a story that I found intriguing and to work up and tell. Over the next few months, I did, indeed, go to work. So how does the finish version compare with my initial thoughts on the story?

The first thing that happened as I started working on the tale was that, after all that effort to find what, for me, is at the heart of the story, I found those ideas too restrictive. That is, I found myself trying to force everything about the story to somehow fit into the theme of art and Thomas's encounter with it. Time after time I would examine some detail or event and ask how it commented on the theme. The piece was quickly developing into one of those dreary allegories where absolutely everything is symbolic of some big idea. It was boring drudgery to work on. Once I realized the problem, I knew that I had to forget about the theme. Not get rid of it altogether, but set it aside and not think about it any more. Once I started to simply tell the story about Thomas's journey, things went more smoothly. My ideas about what the story is about continue to inform it, but no longer forced it along.

Much of what I had originally pegged as important did, in fact, end up in the final story. The Faerie Queen's appearance is a fine set piece of description; she is beautiful and sensual, and Thomas does indeed hesitate to speak to her. Their meeting is no longer happenstance, however, for it is clear that she has sought him out. Their journey to faerie land is also a key part of the story. (The Queen's realm has also acquired a name now: "The Land of Summer's Twilight," a name coined by writer Neil Gaiman which has long haunted me.)

As I worked on that part of the story, however, I soon found that the vision of the three roads, so crucial to most versions, no longer fit. It added nothing (other than about 3 minutes) to my version of the tale and so I decided to drop it altogether. I was surprised at how easily it vanished from my tale, given how important it is in all the earlier versions. In its place, the next key seen is now when Thomas and the Queen arrive at the entrance to her lands, and pause to gaze across the border wall and down into the vast, deep valley wrapped in summer's twilight. (The vision of this land is once again influenced by Charles Vess, and even more so the view from my in-laws' front porch looking down a long mountain valley as it fades into summer's twilight.) It is here the Queen plucks the apple from the tree and offers it to Thomas. She tells him exactly what the consequences will be if he eats of it, ("It will burn all falsehood from your lips, and everafter your tongue shall speak nothing but the truth.") and offers him once last chance to back out. But she also tempts him onward (a conscious, if not completely deliberate echo of Eve) and he willingly accepts.

As in other versions, I spend little time on what happens in the faerie realm, but move on to Thomas's return home. And here I found myself adding a considerable chunk of new material. Thomas discovers his new state (of only telling the truth) slowly, and is not at all comfortable with it. But gradually, he learns how to live with it, and ultimately how to use it, how to create something powerful and beautiful out of his truth-tellings. The underlying idea is that his change is not immediate; he has to learn. This section also gives me a chance to discourse on the idea that "truth is more than simply cold, hard facts," and to explore the other sorts of truth that exist.

Finally, I do end with Thomas' return to faerie. I changed the vision of the two white deer, however. Since the king of faerie does not figure into the story anywhere else, it made no sense to suddenly bring him in. Instead, only the Queen comes, not in disguise, but reprising her appearance at the tale's beginning.

Somehow, Thomas's departure at this point felt too abrupt, however. Something more was needed. A suggestion from Pittsburgh storyteller Scott Pavelle prompted me to think through this problem. Although Scott's suggestion ultimately did not fit the tale, it did lead towards a scene that did. Before he departs, Thomas gives his young apprentice the uneaten portion of the apple from long ago. Repeating the Queen's words from earlier in the tale, Thomas tells the young man what the apple will do for him if he eats of it. He challenges the apprentice to eat of it, if he dares, if he truly wishes to compose words of beauty and truth. And then, leaving the apprentice, and the audience, to decide what to do with the apple, Thomas rides off with the Queen and is "never seen by mortal eyes again."

—posted January 2004

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