Saturday, May 14, 2011

Chapter XI. Origins of Welsh Fairies

Chapter XI.
Origins of Welsh Fairies
The Realistic Theory--Legend of the Baron's Gate--The Red Fairies--The Trwyn Fairy a Proscribed Nobelman--The Theory of Hiding Druids--Colour in Welsh Fairy Attire--The Green Lady of Caerphilly--White is the favourite Welsh Hue--Legend of the Prolific Woman -The Poetico-Religious Theory--The Creed of Science
CONCERNING the origin of the Tylwyth Teg, there are two popular explanations, the one poetico-religious in its character, the other practical and realistic. Both are equally wide of the truth, the true origin of fairies being found in the primeval mythology; but as my purpose is to avoid enlarging in directions generally familiar to the student, I have only to present the local aspects of this, as of the other features of the subject.
The realistic theory of the origin of the Tylwyth Teg must be mentioned respectfully, because among its advocates have been men of culture and good sense. This theory presumes that the first fairies were men and women of mortal flesh and blood, and that the later superstitions are a mere echo of tales which first were told of real beings. In quasi-support of this theory, there is a well-authenticated tradition of a race of beings who, in the middle of the sixteenth century, inhabited the Wood of the Great Dark Wood (Coed y Dugoed Mawr) in Merionethshire, and who were called the Red Fairies. They lived in dens in the ground, had fiery red hair and long strong arms, and stole sheep and cattle by night. There are cottages in Cemmaes parish, near the Wood of the Great Dark Wood, with scythes in the chimneys, which were put there to keep these terrible beings out. One Christmas eve a valiant knight named Baron Owen headed a company of warriors who assailed the Red Fairies, and found them flesh and blood. The Baron hung a hundred of them; but spared the women, one of whom begged hard for the life of her son. The Baron refused her prayer, whereupon she opened her breast and shrieked, 'This breast has nursed other sons than he, who will yet wash their hands in thy blood, Baron Owen!' Not very long thereafter, the Baron was waylaid at a certain spot by the sons of the 'fairy, woman, who washed their hands in his warm and reeking blood, in fulfilment of their mother's threat.. And to this day that spot goes by the name of Llidiart y Barwn (the Baron's Gate); any peasant of the neighbourhood will tell you the story, as one told it to me. There is of course no better foundation for the fairy features of it than the fancies of the ignorant mind, but the legend itself is--very nearly in this shape--historical. The beings in question were a band of outlaws, who might naturally find it to their interest to foster belief in their supernatural powers.
The so-called Pwca'r Trwyn, which haunted the farm-house in the parish of Mynyddyslwyn, is some-times cited as another case in which a fairy was probably a being of flesh and blood; and if this be true, it of course proves nothing but the adoption of an ancient superstition by a proscribed Welsh nobleman. There is a tradition that this fairy had a name, and that this name was 'yr Arglwydd Hywel,' which is in English 'Lord Howell.' And it is argued that this Lord, in a contest with the forces of the English king, was utterly worsted, and driven into hiding; that his tenants at Pantygasseg and the Trwyn Farm, loving their Lord, helped to hide him, and to disseminate the belief that he was a household fairy, or Bwbach. It is related that he generally spoke from his own room in this farm-house, in a gentle voice which came down between the boards' into the common room beneath. One day the servants were comparing their hands, as to size and whiteness, when the fairy was heard to say, 'The Pwca's hand is the fairest and smallest.' The servants asked if the fairy would show its hand, and immediately a plank overhead was moved and a hand appeared, small, fair and beautifully formed, with a large gold ring on the little finger.
Curiously interesting is the hypothesis concerning the realistic origin of the Tylwyth Teg, which was put forth at the close of the last century by several writers, among them the Rev. Peter Roberts, author of the 'Collectanea Cambrica.' This hypothesis precisely accounts for the fairies anciently as being the Druids, in hiding from their enemies, or if not they, other persons who had such cause for living concealed in subterraneous places, and venturing forth only at night. 'Some conquered aborigines,' thought Dr. Guthrie; while Mr. Roberts fancied 'that as the Irish had frequently landed hostilely in Wales, 'it was very possible that some small bodies of that nation left behind, or unable to return, and fearing discovery, had hid themselves in caverns during the day, and sent their children out at night, fantastically dressed, for food and exercise, and thus secured themselves.' But there were objections to this presumption, and the Druidical theory was the favourite one. Says Mr. Roberts: 'The fairy customs appeared evidently too systematic, and too general, to be those of an accidental party reduced to distress. They are those of a consistent and regular policy instituted to prevent discovery, and to inspire fear of their power, and a high opinion of their beneficence. Accordingly tradition notes, that to attempt to discover them was to incur certain destruction. "They are fairies," says Falstaff: "he that looks on them shall die." They were not to be impeded in ingress or egress; a bowl of milk was to be left for them at night on the hearth; and, in return, they left a small present in money when they departed, if the house was kept clean; if not, they inflicted some punishment on the negligent, which, as it was death to look on them, they were obliged to suffer, and no doubt but many unlucky tricks were played on such occasions. Their general dress was green, that they. might be the better concealed; and, as their children might have betrayed their haunts, they seem to have been suffered to go out only in the night time, and to have been entertained by dances on moonlight nights. These dances, like those round the May-pole, have been said to be performed round a tree; and on an elevated spot mostly a tumulus, beneath which was probably their habitation, or its entrance. The older persons, probably, mixed as much as they dared with the world; and, if they happened to be at any time recognised, the certainty of their vengeance was their safety. If by any chance their society was thinned, they appear to have stolen children, and changed feeble for strong infants. The stolen children, if beyond infancy, being brought into their subterraneous dwellings, seem to have had a soporific given them, and to have been carried to a distant part of the country; and, being there allowed to go out merely by night, mistook the night for the day, and probably were not undeceived until it could be done securely. The regularity and generality of this system shows that there was a body of people existing in the kingdom distinct from its known inhabitants, and either confederated, or obliged to live or meet mysteriously; and their rites, particularly that of dancing round a tree, probably an oak, as Herne's, etc., as well as their character for truth and probity, refer them to a Druidic origin. If this was the case, it is easy to conceive, as indeed history' shows, that, as the Druids were persecuted by the Romans and Christians, they used these means to preserve themselves and their families, and whilst the country was thinly peopled and thickly wooded, did so successfully and, perhaps, to a much later period than is imagined: till the increase of population made it impossible. As the Druidical was one of the most ancient religions, so it must have been one of the first persecuted, and forced to form a regular plan of security, which their dwelling in caves may have suggested, and necessity improved.'
It will be observed that one of the points in this curious speculation rests on the green dress of the fairies. I do not call attention to it with any Quixotic purpose of disputing the conclusion it assists; it is far more interesting as one feature of the general subject of fairies' attire. The Welsh fairies are described with details as to colour in costume not commonly met with in fairy tales, a fact to which I have before alluded. In the legend of the Place of Strife, the Tylwyth Teg encountered by the women are called 'the old elves of the blue petticoat.' A connection with the blue of the sky has here been suggested. It has also been pointed out that the sacred Druidical dress was blue. The blue petticoat fancy seems to be local to North Wales. In Cardiganshire, the tradition respecting an encampment called Moyddin, which the fairies frequented, is that they were always in green dresses, and were never seen there but in the vernal month of May. There is a Glamorganshire goblin called the Green Lady of Caerphilly, the colour of whose dress is indicated by her title. She haunts the ruin of Caerphilly Castle at night, wearing a green robe, and has the power of turning herself into ivy and mingling with the ivy growing on the. wall. A more ingenious mode of getting rid of a goblin was perhaps never invented. The fairies of Frennifawr, in Pembrokeshire, were on the contrary gorgeous in scarlet, with red caps, and feathers waving in the wind as they danced. But others were in white, and this appears to be the favourite hue of modern Welsh fairy costume, when the Tylwyth Teg are in holiday garb. These various details of colour are due to the fervour of the Welsh fancy, of course, and perhaps their variety may in part be ascribed to a keener sense of the fitness of things among moderns than was current in earlier times. White, to the Welsh, would naturally be the favourite colour for a beautiful creature, dancing in the moonlight on the velvet sward. The most popular pet name for a Welsh lass is to-day exactly what it has been for centuries, viz., Gwenny, the diminutive of Gwenllian (Anglicised into Gwendoline)--a name which means simply white linen; and the white costume of the favourite fairies undoubtedly signifies a dress of white linen. This fabric, common as it is in our day, was in ancient times of inestimable value. In the Mabinogion, linen is repeatedly particularised in the gorgeous descriptions of fabled splendour in princely castles-linen, silk, satin, velvet, gold-lace, and jewels, are the constantly-recurring features of sumptuous attire. In his account of the royal tribes of Wales, Yorke mentions that linen was so rare in the reign of Charles VII. of France (i.e., in the fifteenth century) 'that her majesty the queen could boast of only two shifts of that commodity.' The first cause of the fairies' robes being white Is evidently to be discerned here; and in Wales the ancient sentiment as to whiteness remains. The Welsh peasantry, coarsely and darkly clad themselves, would make white a purely holiday colour, and devise some other hue for such commoner fairies as the Bwbach and his sort:
The coarse and country fairy,
That doth haunt the hearth and dairy.
[Jonson, Masque of 'Oberon.']
So the Bwbach is usually brown, often hairy and the Coblynau are black or copper-coloured in face as well as dress.
A local legend of the origin of fairies in Anglesea mingles the practical and the spiritual in this manner: 'In our Saviour's time there lived a woman whose fortune it was to be possessed of nearly a score of children, . . . and as she saw our blessed Lord approach her dwelling, being ashamed of being so prolific, and that He might not see them all, she concealed about half of them closely, and after his departure, when she went in search of them, to her great surprise found they were all gone. They never afterwards could be discovered, for it was supposed that as a punishment from heaven for hiding what God had given her, she was deprived of them and it is said these her offspring have generated the race called fairies.' ['Camb. Sup,' 118]
The common or popular theory, however, is in Wales the poetico-religious one. This is, in a word, the belief that the Tylwyth Teg are the souls of dead mortals not bad enough for hell nor good enough for heaven. They are doomed to live on earth, to dwell in secret places, until the resurrection day, when they will be admitted into paradise. Meantime they must be either incessantly toiling or incessantly playing, but their toil is fruitless and their pleasure unsatisfying. A variation of this general belief holds these souls to be the souls of the ancient Druids, a fancy which is specially impressive, as indicating the duration of their penance, and reminds us of the Wandering Jew myth. It is confined mainly to the Coblynau, or dwellers in mines and caves. Another variation considers the fairies bad spirits of still remoter origin-the same in fact who were thrown over the battlements of heaven along with Satan, but did not fall into hell--landed on the earth instead, where they are permitted to tarry till doomsday as above. A detail of this theory is in explanation of the rare appearance of fairies nowadays; they are refraining from mischief in view of the near approach of the judgment, with the hope of thus conciliating heaven.
The Prophet Jones, in explaining why the fairies have been so active in Wales, expounds the poetico-religious theory in masterly form. After stating that some in Monmouthshire were so ignorant as to think the fairies happy spirits, because they had music and dancing among them, he proceeds to assert, in the most emphatic terms, that the Tylwyth Teg are nothing else, 'after all the talking about them,' but the disembodied spirits of men who lived and died without the enjoyment of the means of grace and salvation, as Pagans and others, and whose punishment therefore is far less severe than that of those who have enjoyed the means of salvation. But some persons may desire to know why these fairies have appeared in Wales more than in some other countries? to which I answer, that I can give no other reason but this, that having lost the light of the true religion in the eighth and ninth centuries of Christianity, and received Popery in its stead, it became dark night upon them; and then these spirits of darkness became more bold and intruding; and the people, as I said before, in their great ignorance seeing them like a company of children in dry clean places, dancing and having music among them, thought them to be some happy beings, . . . and made them welcome in their houses. . . The Welsh entered into familiarity with the fairies in the time of Henry IV., and the evil then increased; the severe laws of that prince enjoining, among other things, that they were not to bring up their children to learning, etc., by which a total darkness came upon them; which cruel laws were occasioned by the rebellion of Owen Glandwr, and the Welsh which joined with him; foolishly thinking to shake off the Saxon yoke before they had repented of their sins.'
Whatever their locally accepted causes of being may be, it is beyond any question that in the fairy folk-lore of Wales, as of other lands, are to be found thedebris of ancient mythology--scintillant fragments of those magic constellations which glow in the darkness of primeval time, grand and majestic as the vast Unknown out of which they were evolved by barbaric fancy. Through the aid of modern scientific research, 'those ages which the myths of centuries have peopled with heroic shadows ' [Marquis of Bute, address before the Royal ArchaeologicaI Institute, Cardiff meeting.] are brought nearer to us, and the humble Welsh Tylwyth Teg may reach back and shake hands with the Olympian gods.