The Tylwyth Teg of Wales by Tom Williams

Dip deep enough into the folk history of any European country and you will find stories about another folk who share our natural world. A race who must be respected and who are best avoided, the Fairie.

The Welsh Tylwyth Teg, or Fair Family, have much in common with the fairies of other cultures but also have some important differences. Most strikingly they look like beautiful humans in miniature, no wings, no flying, no fairy dust. They do their best to avoid humans, preferring the dark, out of the way places to dance and make their rings on the ground. Some live in caves, others in lakes, though not lakes and caves open to us, or not without help, that is. The Fair Family live in a parallel dimension, close to but not the same as our own, where time moves more slowly.

Writing came to Wales with the Romans more than 2000 years ago. Until then, the Druids and Bards held the stories and poems of the country orally. But as soon as writing began, so stories of the Tylwyth Teg were told, and for almost two millennia, the canon of fairy stories has been growing. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, new sightings and contacts with fairies were being documented. Perhaps the most famous documented contact with the Fair Family was recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) (1146-1223), Archbishop of Brecon. Giraldus travelled the length and breadth of Wales, looking for recruits to join the Third Crusade and writing up his travels as he did so. In 1191, he published “Itinerary through Wales” in Latin.

Making his way from Swansea to Neath his party met a priest called Elidorus who vouched the following:

“When a youth of twelve years, and learning his letters…he ran away, and concealed himself under the hollow bank of a river.  After fasting in that situation for two days, two little men of pigmy stature appeared to him, saying ‘If you will come with us, we will lead you into a country full of delights and sports.’  Assenting and rising up, he followed his guides through a path, at first subterraneous and dark, into a most beautiful country, adorned with rivers and meadows, woods and plains, but obscure, and not illuminated with the full light of the sun.  All the days were cloudy, and the nights extremely dark, on account of the absence of the moon and stars.  The boy was brought before the king, and introduced to him in the presence of the court; who, having examined him for a long time, delivered to him his son, who was then a boy. These men were of the smallest stature, but very well proportioned in their make; they were all of a fair complexion, with luxuriant hair falling over their shoulders like that of women.  They had horses and greyhounds adapted to their size.  They neither ate flesh nor fish, but lived on milk diet, made up into messes with saffron.  They never took an oath, for they detested nothing so much as lies. As often as they returned from our upper hemispheres, they reprobated our ambition, infidelities, and inconstancies; they had no form of public worship, being strict lovers and reverers, as it seemed, of truth.

The boy frequently returned to our hemisphere, sometimes by the way he had first gone, sometimes by another: at first in company with other persons, and afterwards alone, and made himself known only to his mother, declaring to her the manners, nature and state of the people.  Being desired by her to bring a present of gold, with which that region abounded, he stole, while at play with the king’s son, the golden ball with which he used to divert himself, and brought it to his mother in great haste; and when he reached the door of his father’s house, but not unpursued, and was entering it in a great hurry, his foot stumbled on the threshold, and falling down into the room where his mother was sitting, the two pigmies seized the ball which had dropped from his hand, and departed, shewing the boy every mark of contempt and derision.  On recovering from his fall, confounded with shame, and execrating the evil consul of his mother, he returned by the usual track to the subterraneous road, but found no appearance of any passage, though he searched for it on the banks of the river for nearly the space of a year…”

The theme of taking human children runs through many of the Welsh tales, and frequently, the fairies would exchange the infant for a fairy child, a changeling, who would grow up with his human family. Changelings would be small, half human size but handsome and sometimes with special powers.

Welsh Fairies not only looked like their human counterparts but infrequently married them, producing children who were part fairy, part human. The most famous offspring of a human and fairy were the Physicians of Myddfai, the sons of a farmer and a fairy mother. The fairy eventually left the farmer and returned to the lake she came from, but before she did, she shared all her knowledge of the local plants with her two or, according to some, three young sons.

The boys grew up to be famous in the medieval world for cures they were able to achieve with plants. They were given lands by the local Prince so that Myddfai became an international centre for herbalism and medicine in the twelfth century, and the tradition was maintained up to 1739 when John Jones, the last physician died. Fortunately, all 170 of their medicines were recorded in the “Red Book of Hergest” written in the fourteenth century and currently kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Given the ancient and intimate relationship the Welsh had with the Tylwyth Teg, it is fitting that Welsh Fairies should be the stars of the greatest fairy story ever told, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Several scholars have asserted that the play is set in Cwm Pwca, or Valley of the Goblin in Clydach. Pwca is pronounced in English as Puck, and as additional evidence the Valley itself has a cave known as Shakespeare’s Cave. The fairies themselves are much more in the Welsh mould than their insect—like English counterparts, and Shakespeare is likely to have developed them from the excerpt of Geraldus Cambrensis produced above and his talks with the many Welsh actors he used in his company.

So let’s leave it to Shakespeare, via Oberon, King of the Fairies, to bring us to the end with this blessing:

 

Now, until the break of day,

Through this house each fairy stray.

To the best bride-bed will we,

Which by us shall blessed be;

And the issue there create

Ever shall be fortunate….

And each several chamber bless

Through this palace with sweet peace;

And the owner of it blest,

Ever shall in safety rest.

 

Tom Williams did all those things grown-ups are supposed to do, with quite a lot of success, but after working in an office for too long, he stopped and devoted himself to writing. Tom’s new story, “Jack and Jill” will be published in the After the Happily Ever After anthology on December 15th.

Photo Source: Gold by Uzuhiro

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