This essay appears in a revised form in my book An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. Paperback, Hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), other ebook formats
The essay as shown below contains some inadvertantly transphobic language, which has been fixed in the second edition of the book, but which I have left here in order not to try to rewrite my own history. The intro to the second edition reads as follows:
This second edition is identical to the first, except for the alteration of four words which inadvertantly reinforced transphobic ideas. In the description of the comic Camelot 3000 I have replaced the phrase “born female” with “assigned female at birth”, and three descriptions of a character’s pre-transition identity which read “she” have been changed to “he”.
This is not in an attempt to change the historical record, but in an effort to ensure that I do not continue to perpetuate such ideas. I knew better when I wrote the book, just as I know better now, but I was thoughtless. I could and should have done better.
No other changes have been made.
I forbid all young girls
Who have golden hair
To travel down to Carterhaugh
For young Tam Lin is there
From all that pass through Carterhaugh
He will take a fee
Their rings or their green mantles
Or their virginity
True Thomas actually existed. Much of the information on the real True Thomas in this essay comes from here , but note the inaccuracies in there, including the statement that ‘Thomas of Britain’ is ‘evidently our Thomas’, when in fact it’s a poet from a hundred years earlier. The information there is from a public domain book on ‘eminent Scotsmen’ from the mid 19th century, and historical research has advanced since then..
There was a real, verifiable, human being, existing in consensus reality, Thomas Learmouth. He and his prophecies were highly regarded, and he was known as ‘true Thomas’ because he was considered literally incapable of telling a lie. While England’s legendary figures – its Arthurs and Merlins, Robin Hoods and Little Johns, are purely fictional – any pretended connection to real historical figures is so tenuous that even were they the basis of the story, the umbilical cord between reality and fiction has long since been severed – this Scottish legend is rooted firmly in reality. Tom Learmouth – or should we say Thomas Rymer de Erceldun (the Learmouth name appears to have been added later) was a real person.
Not only that, but he has as good a claim as any to being the first real poet of the English language as it is understood today. We don’t have precise dates for his life – he’s referenced in a few documents from ca 1238, as already being an accomplished poet, and he was still alive around 1286 (which would make him extraordinarily long-lived for the time), but definitely dead by 1299 (when his son refers to himself as his heir in a charter). So his work spanned most of the mid-to-late 13th century.
The 14th century is generally considered the time when English (the language, not the country) literature generally began to recover after the Norman invasion several centuries earlier, and in that time the language had changed beyond all recognition. Whereas a typical Old English (pre-Norman) poem might read like:
Næs hie ðære fylle gefean hæfdon,
manfordædlan, þæt hie me þegon,
symbel ymbsæton sægrunde neah;
ac on mergenne mecum wunde
A typical 14th century poem might be:
As hit is stad and stoken In stori stif and stronge,
With lel letteres loken,
In londe so hatz ben longe.
Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde,
ledez of þe best,
Rekenly of þe Rounde Table alle þo rich breþer,
With rych reuel oryℨt and rechles merþes.
(From Sir Gawain And The Green Knight)
Apart from a couple of odd letters (notably ‘þ’ – the ‘thorn’ – which is the letter we now represent as ‘th’), the latter looks basically like English. It might be oddly spelled, but you can pick up roughly what it means, whereas with the earlier one you can’t.
Until the early 19th century, it was generally thought that 14th century works like Sir Gawain And The Green Knight or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were the earliest extant middle English literature. But then a manuscript was discovered – written in the early 14th century, but a transcription of Thomas Learmouth’s 13th century poem – of what is now considered the oldest epic poem in Middle English, Tristram, by Thomas The Rhymer.
Till up then started young Tam Lin,
Says Lady, thou pu’s nae mae.
Why pu’s thou the rose, Janet,
Amang the groves sae green,
And a’ to kill the bonie babe
That we gat us between? ‘
O tell me, tell me, Tam Lin,’ she says,
‘For’s sake that died on tree,
If eer ye was in holy chapel,
Or chirstendom did see?’
Child Ballad version of Tam Lin
Tristram was based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, itself the work of another poet called Thomas – this time ‘Thomas of Britain’, a twelfth-century British poet who wrote in Old French. Like many stories of its time, the story of Tristan and Isolde was rewritten by pretty much every writer who came across it, and no doubt Thomas of Britain wasn’t the first person to write it (there are earlier ur-versions of the same story dating back as far as the eighth century), though he was the first to put it in the form by which it became known.
Also like many stories of the time, the Tristan story soon became entangled with Arthurian myth. By the time of Thomas Rhymer, it had expanded into a thirteen-book series, the Prose Tristan. For those who think that modern fantasy writers have a monopoly on particular excesses, it should be noted that not only was this a thirteen-volume series, but also that it was started by one author (Luce de Gat) and finished by another (calling himself Helle de Boron) who was (or claimed to be, though it’s generally thought this was a lie) a close relative of another famous author of the time (Robert de Boron). And the second author took the story in a completely different direction – turning it into a sequel to the works of his supposed famous forebear.
Because Robert de Boron was the person who came up with the modern Holy Grail story – that it was the cup in which Joseph Of Arimathea collected Jesus’ blood when he was on the cross – as well as linking this story to the Arthurian myth, and significantly expanding the story of Merlin. Robert de Boron’s version of the Grail myth was incorporated into the Vulgate Cycle, a series of five books which is the major source of the Lancelot parts of the Arthur myth. Helle de Boron managed to link this into the Prose Tristan by the simple measure of copying a huge chunk of the Vulgate Cycle right into the middle of it. (This was in the days when everything had to be written out by hand, of course, so this was several orders of magnitude more difficult than these Ctrl-C Ctrl-V days. Of course it was also pre-Google, so this sort of plagiarism was a lot harder to track down. Maybe we should posit a Conservation Law for Difficulty Of Plagiarism?).
The original form of the story of Tristan, before it became entangled in the Arthur mythplex, was a simple one – Tristan was a relative of the King of Cornwall (though his name is a Scottish one, and the area over which he was Prince is probably a French transliteration of Lothian), sent to Ireland to bring back Isolde (or Iseulte) for the King to marry. Unfortunately, Tristan and Isolde take a love potion which causes them to fall in love, and as a result there is a love triangle between the two of them and King Mark, which is resolved in one of several equally tragic ways (most stolen from various classical sources, most obviously in Thomas of Britain’s version, where he just sticks in the end of Theseus And The Minotaur, with the black sails if dead/white sails if alive bit kept intact).
This story has clear parallels with the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle of the Arthurian legend, and it’s that which probably prompted the Prose Tristan’s author to link the two, but even as late as Mallory it was clearly a distinct, different thing – the other seven books of the Morte d’Arthur work as a cohesive whole, while The Fyrste and the Secunde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones dumped into the centre of the story, is more a commentary on its surroundings than an integral part of them.
In such a way did a story about a Cornish Scotsman who fell in love with an Irish woman, as formulated by a Frenchman and retold a century later by a Scotsman, become the oldest surviving poem in English.
Love is impatient.
It ignores traditions and conventions.
It is not bound by human constructs, jurisprudence, and the laws of men.
Love reaches out and holds, open hearted, it demands attention.
It is in a world of its own, yet it connects worlds that will forever be set apart
Tam Lin Retold, The Imagined Village (lyrics by Benjamin Zephaniah)
But we’re not, for now, interested in the story of Tristram or Tristan – though again, this is one of the many things we may come back to, in the fullness of time. We’re interested in the story of Tristram’s author, Thomas the Rhymer.
While the actual life of Thomas Learmouth/Thomas the Rhymer/Thomas Rymer de Erceldun/True Thomas is only known to us through a handful of mentions plus his own poem, as a symbol for Scottish independence he is far more potent.
Learmouth was known during his life as an extraordinarily accurate, as well as truthful, prophet, and it was believed that everything he said would eventually come true. For this reason, many prophecies, including those about the future independence of Scotland, have been attributed to him, not all of which are by him.
(Or at least, if they were, he was a much better prophet even than he’s given credit for. One of the prophecies accredited to him, “Bithidh muileann air gach alt, agus ath air gach cnoc, tombac aig na buachaillean a’s gruagaichean gun naire.” (“There shall be a mill on every brook, a kiln on every height; herds shall use tobacco, and young women shall be without shame.”) is both in Gaelic, a language of which there’s otherwise no record of him speaking, and mentions tobacco, which wouldn’t be heard of in Scotland until some three hundred years after his death, so a bloody good guess all things considered…)
I really don’t know why I was going on about Sir Tristan at all. I mean, yes, Sir Tristan does appear in DC Comics, but it’s in Camelot 3000, and there he’s not only a time traveller to the future, but one with gender identity problems because he was born a she:
(From Camelot 3000 by Mike W Barr and Brian Bolland. You’ll be pleased to know that despite Tristan and Isolde both being female in the year 3000, they eventually get over this slight problem and their love affair lasts. While this comic was published by DC Comics, like the rest of the comics I’m discussing here, unlike those it’s copyright © 1985 Barr and Bolland.)
Obviously Thomas Rhymer’s poetry isn’t what we should be looking at and has no possible relevance…
Nor should we, in all honesty, be looking at his real life. We don’t know much about that, all things considered – just that he was considered the greatest poet and most honest person of his age.
Rather, we should be looking at a poem that has survived to this day, that was first known of during Thomas’ lifetime, but whose authorship we don’t yet know. The Ballad Of Thomas The Rhymer purports to tell the true story of Thomas’ life, and how he gained his prophetic powers.
According to this story, True Thomas met, and kissed or slept with, the Queen of Elfland, while she was out riding on a hunt. Riding with her to a party in Fairyland, he spends the night at the party, only to realise that seven years have passed in the real world for the one night he’s spent there. Returning to the real world, he asks for something to remember the Queen by, and she gives him the gift of prophecy. Eventually tiring of the real world, he returned to Elfland, and remains there to this day.
The passage from this ballad which is quoted in the comic, is part of a section in which the Queen tells Thomas of two roads – one less travelled by, strewn with thorns, but which is the path of righteousness, and another “braid braid road” which is the path of wickedness down which many travel. She then offers him a third choice – the road to Elfland.
(Quite why someone so virtuous, so utterly incapable of telling a lie, is shown taking any road other than the road of righteousness, I wouldn’t want to say).
By the way, when Thomas sleeps with the Queen, she’s already married, and her King is sleeping and knows nothing. Just like Lancelot with Guinevere. Just like Tristan with Isolde. (In Camelot 3000, interestingly, Tristan is about to get married when she realises she’s really a man. There Tristan becomes the Isolde figure, fought over by two lovers. Camelot 3000’s main character is named Tom, and he also falls in love with Tristan, but Tristan is a straight man and so uninterested).
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 Elfland,
And I’m come here for to visit thee.
But ye maun go wi me now, Thomas,
True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
For ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro weel or wae as may chance to be.’
Child Ballad version of Thomas The Rhymer
(Morgana, the Queen of Faerie, tempts Sir Tristan in Camelot 3000. I know several people who’ve managed a similar transition with much less effort. Obviously 40th century gender reassignment surgery is less advanced than its early-21st century equivalent. Knowledge can get lost so easily.)
However, the Thomas The Rhymer ballad isn’t the most famous version of this story. It’s much more familiar – and more detailed – in another ballad from roughly the same time, Tam Lin.
Tam is a Scots abbreviation for Thomas (while TAM is something completely different – Tivoli Access Manager, a proprietary network authentication program. I mention this only because I’ve had lots of emails referring to TAM at work this week while planning this piece, and it’s been very confusing) so we can assume that Tam Lin and Thomas Rhymer were the same character, give or take.
But the Tam Lin story is both more complicated and more ambiguous, and shows up better the themes of temptation and sexuality that are mere undercurrents in the Thomas The Rhymer story.
At the start of the story, we’re told that all women with blonde hair are advised not to go to Caterhaugh, for Tam Lin, who lives there, will take a fee from all of them, be that fee their jewellery, their clothing, or their virginity. However Janet, our heroine, ventures there to pick the roses. Tam Lin tells her that she needs his permission to pick the roses, Janet says she doesn’t, and then he ‘takes her by the hand’ (with various different connotations, ranging from the romantic to the violent. We’ll pick the romantic one here because why not?)
On her return home, it’s suggested that she’s pregnant, which she denies, because she claims never to have had sex with a man (only with a fairy). However, just to make sure, she returns to Caterhaugh, because the herbs that grow there are natural abortifacents and she’s a liberated, modern 13th century woman who wants control of her own body.
Tam Lin stops her and asks her if she’s trying to kill their baby, at which point she asks him if he’s really a fairy or a human – and if a human if he’s a Christian. He answers that he is, in fact, a human and a Christian, but that he’s been living in fairyland since being kidnapped by the Fairy Queen, and enjoying it there.
However, every seven years the fairies make a sacrifice to the Devil, and they’re going to do the next one on the very next night – Hallowe’en – and he’s afraid it will be him because he’s so very pretty. But she can save him.
So she turns up the next night, and he tells her to hold him. The fairy queen turns him into a variety of things Janet wouldn’t want to hold – a lion, a snake, a rod of hot iron – but she keeps tight hold, and the fairy queen leaves, saying as she goes that she wished she’d torn out Tam Lin’s heart and replaced it with wood.
Syne they came on to a garden green,
And she pu’d an apple frae a tree:
‘Take this for thy wages, True Thomas,
It will give the tongue that can never lie.’
From the Child Ballad versions of Thomas The Rhymer
This last part of the story of Tam Lin is actually a much, much older story – in classical mythology, Thetis, the sea-nymph mother of Achilles, was supposed to marry a mortal, Peleus, but refused. However, Peleus bound her when she was asleep, so she couldn’t escape by changing shapes, even though she changed into many forms (in Sophocles’ version, into a lion, a snake, fire and water), and eventually she calmed down enough that she consented to marry him.
(See, this is what you have to do if a woman says no. Just tie her up in her sleep and wait til she calms down and says ‘yes’. Who says the ancient Greeks were misogynist?)
It’s at the marriage of Peleus and Thetis that the seeds for the Trojan war are laid. Eris, the goddess of discord (who says the ancient Greeks were misogynist?) is annoyed at not being invited, so she makes an apple out of gold and rolls it into the wedding party. The apple has written upon it “for the prettiest one”. Of course, all the goddesses thought it should go to them, and had a big fight over it (who says the ancient Greeks were misogynist?), before they decided that only a mortal man could possibly decide which was the real prettiest. (This is believed also to be the origin of the story of Sleeping Beauty).
So who was the fairest of them all? Paris had to decide. Unfortunately for him, all the goddesses tried to bribe him. Even more unfortunately, he was stupid enough to accept a bribe rather than offer his honest opinion. On the upside of this, he did get the most beautiful woman in the world as his reward. On the downside, because he’d upset the other goddesses, Helen had already been married, to another King (like Isolde, like Guinevere…) and her husband was slightly peeved by this. So peeved, in fact, that he beseiged Troy, the city over which Paris was a prince, for ten years, before burning the entire city to the ground and slaughtering all its inhabitants except for a small number of women and children who were sold as slaved. Paris lied, thousands died.
He has gotten a coat of the even cloth
And a pair of shoes of velvet green
And til seven years were gone and past
True Thomas on Earth was never seen
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds version of Thomas The Rhymer
Seven Soldiers #0 is all about reinvention, about shifting shape, about becoming something new. I, Spyder, who has passed through the higher realms of reality inhabited by the Seven Unknown Men, has actually been reborn as something new (and in the process had to undergo an initiation ritual, be stripped of all his clothes and his whole identity, like Ishtar, of whom more later). The rest are all trying to reinvent themselves, but they’re concentrating on the surface – on the costumes, on remaking their bodies into ‘temples’ (to the extent of wearing wigs), on power rings bought off the internet – rather than changing who they really are. They’re also weirdly sexualised – most obviously our viewpoint character The Whip, who is introduced to us in what looks like bondage gear before jumping at us crotch first, and who has sex with I, Spyder even though she despises him, but all of them to a greater or lesser extent.
The plot also has echoes of Stephen King’s It – a team of seven who end up six teaming up to fight a giant spider that is something much more – but mostly it introduces us to a team who are promptly killed off (SPOILER: the good guys lose), and to the ‘gods who hunt superheroes’, to the harrowing, and to the seven unknown men of Slaughter Swamp. We’ll talk more about Slaughter Swamp when we get to talking about Frankenstein, but for now just remember that Slaughter Swamp has a history of death and rebirth, of change, in the DC Universe. And the Seven Unknown Men – the Time Tailors – all look a little like Grant Morrison…
the very first thing they turned him into
is a lion that runs so wild
but she held him fast, she feared him not
he’s the father of her child, my boys
he’s the father of her child
and the very next thing they turned him into
it was a loathsome snake
he says hold me fast, fear me not
for i’m one of god’s own make, my love
oh i’m one of god’s own make
Current 93 version of Tam Lin
So the first issue proper – or the zeroth – of Seven Soldiers, manages on its most basic level to introduce a number of new themes that weren’t apparent in JLA: Classified – lust, a journey to another world from which you come back changed, and a desire to change oneself. When you combine these with the poem it most directly references, you can see many of the resonances from JLA:C reappear – the apple, in particular – and following those references even slightly further takes us into the realms of Arthurian mythology, of the Queen of the Fairies and her jealousy, of Sleeping Beauty and, especially, Snow White. Of Arthurian knights with gender identity crises. Of humans who are just the playthings of Gods. Of stories repeating over time with only the names changing.
Comic issue Seven Soldiers Of Victory #0
Artists J.H. Williams III (line art), Dave Stewart (colours)
Other credits Todd Klein (letters), Harvey Richards (asst editor), Peter Tomasi (editor)
Connected Morrison works For the most part this references forward, rather than backward – there are several small lines of dialogue that only make sense when read in the larger context.
Look Out For Teams of Seven. Reinvention. Surfaces not matching reality. Writers writing about themselves. Legacies.
Still to come in Seven Soldiers How to escape from a black hole! Why you can get what you wish for and still not be very happy! Horses that speak!