Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Blog twenty four o Gymru – a word on Welsh fairy tales

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I haven’t blogged for a while. The reason – I’m desperate to get this pre-submission draft of my manuscript finished before heading back to Melbourne. If you know anything about my novel, you will know it is a historical novel set in 1841 on board an emigrant vessel bound for colonial Australia. It has two English viewpoint characters and a Welsh one. My Welsh viewpoint character is a storyteller. His traditional Welsh fairy tales both mirror and affect the other character’s journeys. A tall order for a first novel, perhaps? Or outright ridiculous? In polite literary circles, you may hear it called an ‘ambitious project.’

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As a consequence of this ‘ambitious project,’ I’ve read countless Welsh myths, legends, and fairy tales, primarily in the English language. One of my aims for this time in Wales was to increase my Welsh language understanding of these stories. You can therefore imagine my delight when Gwin Dylanwad advertised a series of Welsh language talks on the Mabinogi. The series wasn’t an event for Welsh language learners. I was definitely the least fluent speaker in the room. But I spent four pleasurable evenings listening to Dr Gwilym Morus-Baird discuss the amazing body of medieval Welsh literature that is known to the English speaking world as the Mabinogion.

The Medd a Mabinogi series was followed by a session on the Tylwyth Teg ( fair family), by Gwyn Edwards. Half way through the evening, Gwyn started talking about Llyn y Fan Fach, the story of a mysterious lake woman who married a mortal. Her father’s only condition being that his daughter mustn’t be struck causelessly, for on the third blow she and all of her dowry would return to the lake (at this point, the feminist in me is compelled to add that it should have been the first blow, causeless, or otherwise).

I recognised the story immediately (yes! a significant comprehension milestone). It is one of the stories I’ve used in my novel. I have walked the rocky mountain path to Llyn y Fan Fach (lake of the small place) a tiny mountain top lake at the northern end of the Black Mountain. I’ve read multiple versions of the story, know it like the back of my hand. At least…I thought I did. Except, the fairy father’s condition in Gwyn Evans’ version of the tale was different. Three causeless blows had been replaced  by three blows with a piece of iron.

The change wasn’t inconceivable. Welsh fairies don’t like iron. They don’t have wings either. They often dress in green. But that’s irrelevant. I glanced about the room, wondering what my class mates thought about this iron addition to the tale. They didn’t seem too perturbed (savages). Then again, they mightn’t have had so much riding on the situation. I on the other hand, sat in a heart pounding, cold sweat, thinking, OMG, the Welsh language version of the story is different. I’m going to re-work whole segments of my novel, just when I thought I was close to finishing.

Half way through his explanation of the tale, Gwyn Evans stopped, smiled, shook his head. ‘O mae’n ddrwg gen iDw i wedi gwneud camgymeriad – Oh, I’m sorry. I have made a mistake.

Mistake! I held my breath.

‘Nid oedd haern un o’r amodau – iron wasn’t one of the conditions. Dim ond tri trawiad heb achos – only three causeless blows.’

No iron! I found myself melting in a warm puddle of relief.

After they had finished wiping me off the floor, the remainder of the evening passed without further trauma. Here are some of the things I have learned about Welsh fairies:

  • They don’t have wings (as mentioned)
  • Neither do they like iron
  • Some people think they are human sized
  • Others that they are diminutive
  • They live beneath the earth
  • Time in fairy land is different to human time
  • If you get caught in a fairy circle it is hard to escape
  • Though their are methods
  • This by the way is a serious topic – and not hypothetical
  • Some believe fairy tales are the remnant of a folk memory harking back to a previous time – when trees, and stones and cairns had spirits
  • Others that they are simply the way to explain the inexplicable
  • Others still, that they are inherently evil
  • You must never try to steal from the fairies, or double cross them
  • They have been known to steal children
  • Reward people’s virtue
  • But whatever the case, you must always be careful
  • And even if you don’t believe in fairies, the tales are worth listening to

 

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18 Comments

  1. Bronwen Jones

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  2. ‘Her father’s only condition being that his daughter mustn’t be struck causelessly, for on the third blow she and all of her dowry would return to the lake (at this point, I am compelled to add that it should have been the first blow, causeless, or otherwise).’

    Which sounds reasonable, until you discover that a tap on the shoulder gets counted as a ‘trawiad heb achos’! The tylwyth teg aren’t big believers in playing fair…;-)

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      Well, yes! But I didn’t like to spoil the story. 🙂

  3. Llinos Rowlands

    Isn’t it all fascinating! I’m looking forward to reading your novel.

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      Yes, it’s amazing. I feel like I know nothing.

  4. Rachel Holden

    Diddorol iawn Elizabeth. By the way, the ‘fan’ in Llyn y Fan Fach is the ‘ban’ meaning hill, peak etc – as in Bannau Brycheiniog/ Brecon Beacons.

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      Oh no, is that right? Thanks for telling me. 🙂

  5. You might be interested to know that my husband, Malachy Doyle, wrote a version of that story, ‘Lake of Shadows’ illustrated by Jac Jones. Published by Pont. It was one in a series published by Pont where each title was illustrated by JJ and written by 2 authors, with the same illustrations – one in English (Pont) and one in Welsh (Gwasg Gomer)
    Both versions are probably in the library in Machynlleth in the picture books section

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      Wow! That’s amazing. I’ll have to look it up. But I’d be terrified that I might encounter yet a another variation of the tale. Ask him what he thinks of the iron addition.

      • Will do! PS he also wrote ‘the changeling’ for the same series – also illustrated by JJ
        The Mabinogion has of course spawned 100 of versions of all the stories 🙂

        • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

          Indeed! A thought that both terrifies and encourages me. 🙂

  6. Philip Anderson

    Diolch yn fawr.

    The third blow is often an accidental touch with an iron bridle.

    Walking down from Llyn y Fan Fach once, I passed a farm entrance with the name Blaen Sawdde in white paint on a tyre, the name of the farm the young man came from. Rather like seeing Camelot. It is typical of a Welsh story to include a farm name but not the hero’s – that is what would have meant something to the listeners.

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      Yes, I’ve read versions with a bridle and the riding gloves. The lake is amazing, isn’t it? I can see why people wrote stories about it, and still feel the need to refer to them.

  7. Graham Williams

    Thanks Liz. You’ve apparently taken a different tack from that which you’d outlined in the early Melbourne classes. That, too, had an absorbing storyline.

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      Hi Graham! Wow! Nice to hear from you. I still haven’t bought that castle in Wales. But the invite is still there, when I do. 🙂 Yes, the story has changed a great deal. It had to, the early drafts were all over the place.

  8. Helen Hall

    You may be relieved to know that there are different versions of the story and more than one lake has been the source of a fairy bride. In some versions, originating in North Wales around Beddgelert and Dolwyddelan, iron is involved. Also, most of the stories have the blows be accidental, such as unintentionally striking the fairy woman with the iron bit while the husband was struggling to bridle a difficult horse.

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      Yes, I’d gathered there were regional variants. Which means I can relax, there are no absolutely correct versions. The March ap Meirchion story has a SW version too, I believe.

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