The following extract is the foreword for a brief book that forms a joint project by a couple of Grove members, one of the aims of which is to show how these ancient tales pre-date the Christian era in Britain.
The Tylwyth Teg
By Maurice Paul Stafford-Bower
AMONG the wild hills and lush green valleys of Wales there exists a tremendously rich tradition of long-remembered and no doubt heavily embroidered tales of mysterious fairy folk populating the mountains, forests, lakes, streams and shores of this most beautiful of lands.
The far history of this ancient collection of kingdoms and its people, the Cymry – who today still speak their own time-honoured language and perhaps have as good a claim as any to being the original inhabitants of the British Isles – remains etched on the landscape in standing stones and the remnants of hut circles; in deep, damp, bone-cold and long-forgotten mines; and in sacred chambers built into the Earth where the ancestors were accorded their due and considerable honours.
Tales abound of mythic drowned cities, of dragons, of magic and of legendary kings as, indeed, they may in a place now recognized as the last stronghold of the ancient Druids, whose much-sought-after wisdom was preserved and passed down the generations in the bardic form of poetry and song committed to memory rather than written down – perhaps at least in part as a test of the initiate’s intellectual mettle and fitness for his eventual high office of trusted chief adviser to his tribal king.
The enigmatic cycle of tales collected together as The Mabinogion, though first written down long after the original Druids had been vanquished to the depths of time, provides fascinating glimpses of some of the high legends of a long-lost Welsh culture, as well as deep insights into the lives and beliefs of the people.
But the everyday folk stories of the ordinary inhabitants are easily as rich in colour and mystery, with a magnificent ‘cast list’ of characters and creatures each with its own broadly-defined culture and associated tales.
The Ellyllon or Elven folk, the Bwbachod or house fairies, the mountain cave-dwelling Coblynau – perhaps the original Goblins – and the rest of this colourful parade of magical folk each seems to be quite distinct in its habits and appearance, yet all share a wealth of common ground and traits within the mystery of their traditions.
It is hard to escape the notion that these magical, mythic peoples are the remnants of old pagan gods and goddesses. Like those ancient deities, offerings were made to them and their wishes had to be respected to avoid dire consequences. Descriptions of these enigmatic creatures are often quite vivid, too, provoking the seductive idea that perhaps they are, at least in part, the race memory of real-life tribes now long vanished and all but forgotten.
It has also been suggested that perhaps in these tales lie the last vestiges of real memory of the highly-revered ancient pagan Druids, driven into hiding and conceivably even quite literally underground with the destruction by conquerors and colonisers of their powerbase, their last strongholds – such as Aberffraw on Anglesey (Mon, Mam Cymru, the Mother of Wales) – and their age-old way of life.
It would seem quite possible and perhaps even probable that these folk tales were, at least at some stage in their now distant and intangible history, strictly the preserve of adults reflecting the moralities, dreams and fears of their communities, before being eventually consigned largely to the role of cautionary tales for children as the adults began to turn their backs on the Old Ways in favour of the rather less nature-attuned and much more prosaic style of modern life. Some still have elements rather more grim than, perhaps, might have been the case if they had been originally devised especially for children.
In the end it is quite possible that these tales are simply no more than localised flights of fancy, perhaps originally conceived to teach morality lessons or to graphically underline acceptable rules for communal living. Yet it is also tantalisingly possible to infer that human need and belief in their time gave these characters a life utterly as real as any in the world we perceive today.
And there is another possibility, requiring a rather more open heart and mind – indeed, a major leap of faith in the pragmatic and rather more secular world we currently inhabit – but nontheless valid if all options are to be considered.
What if the Fair Folk really do exist and always have and it is simply that our way of life and, perhaps also, our mental biology has changed so much, removing us so far from the natural world in which the human race first learned to crawl and ultimately to walk upright, that we are now no longer able to perceive them?
If this last should – by whatever twist of fate or evolutional serendipity – be the case, the Tylwyth Teg could, at least theoretically, one day again be glimpsed amidst the pinnacles and valleys and before the warm and glowing open hearths of Wales.
Perhaps, if ever again humankind should somehow return to living within and with nature instead of insulated from and against her, the human heart and spirit might once more rediscover the acuity to embrace the worlds our far-distant ancestors would seem to have accepted so easily as an everyday part of their reality.
Once more, just maybe, we will walk with the Old Gods.
* The picture shows a view from Anglesey across the Menai Straits towards the cloud-shrouded mountains of mainland North Wales. Photograph by DAVID BOWER