A Small Book
Thalia and I are having our weekly outing. These outings can be as elaborate as rowing on the Thames, or visiting the Tower of London. They can be as simple as a walk on the Quad, or a stroll in the streets. Today is too cold for much of a walk, and we only get as far as Melissa’s bookstore.
Melissa smiles brightly when we enter the store, but a customer, a woman of scholarly bearing, is taking her attention. Melissa knows Thaila and I can entertain ourselves.
Soon, Thalia sits on the floor in her aisle, a copy of Barrie’s Peter Pan in her lap, and her fairy sitting on her shoulder, her wild black hair floating about, reading along with absorbed interest.
I am in the next aisle reading the spines of books, waiting for one of them to catch my fancy. I take from its shelf a small, thin book, The Welsh Fairy Book, by W. Jenkyn Thomas. I open to the middle of the book and read a few tales. They are all short and many of them not afraid of an unhappy ending.
One story, one that does end happily, disturbs me. Einion and the Lady of the Greenwood.
Einion falls in love with a lady he encounters in the greenwood, her goat hooves being no stop to his affections. Before going off with her, he asks to say goodbye to his wife, who appears to him now to be an old hag. Still, they break a gold ring and each keeps half.
After living with the Lady of the Greenwood, he knows not how long, he sees again his half of the ring and resolves to hide it under his eyelid.
Immediately he sees a man dressed in white, riding a horse. The rider pulls him up behind him in the saddle from where Einion can see more clearly. Giving Einion a white staff the rider requests him to see the one Einion most desires. He wills to see the Lady of the Greenwood, who appears to him in its true, hideous state. As Einion cries out in terror the rider casts his cloak over him and Einion finds himself outside his own home.
The goblin has not been idle, appearing to Einion’s wife as a nobleman, and they are soon to be wed. When Einion enters the hall, she sees him as an old, ragged beggar. It is not until he takes up the family harp, tunes it when none of the other wedding guests could, and plays her favorite tune, does she inquire as to who he is. After giving her his half of the ring, she still does not recognize him. It is not until he hands her the white staff, does she see the horror of the goblin, and she and her husband are reconciled.
The tale ends with the enigmatic line, “There is a moral to this story, but it does not signify.”
Despite the happy ending, it gnaws at me that the goblin used appearances to deceive—he made each of them to appear old to the other.
Old? Wait a minute, I’m old. The tale tells me I am undesirable. Is old a condemnation of character?
I am quite offended.
Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2015 Einion and the Lady of the Greenwood – Part Two
“You know, I thought of you when I shelved it,” Melissa says, reading Einion and the Lady of the Greenwood, as we sit having tea at her table in a nook of her shop, the India print tablecloth reaching down to the floor. I sip my Darjeeling as I wait for her to finish reading.
Melissa raises her eyes to me. “That is a weird tale, shall I ring it up for you?” She holds up the book and nods toward the register.
“You’ve sold me another one, but what do you think about the tale?”
She sets the book down between us. “The first word to come to mind is “deception,” but I think of deception as having to do with falsely spoken words. The word “Appearances” might be more appropriate. The tale focuses on what Einion and his wife thought they saw.”
Melissa pauses. I see her sorting her thoughts before speaking again. “The goblin appears as both a lady and a gentleman, speaking to the goblin’s androgynous nature.”
“Androgynous,” I echo. “The goblin is neither male or female. That does suggest a motive other than malice. It wants to experience being the Lady of the Greenwood and the nobleman with his mistress.”
“There is a sexual undertone,” Melissa agrees, “but, this being a fairy tale, we can never be sure of motives. It is not in the genre to tell us about the subtle thoughts of its characters. By intent, we are left to speculate. That is the power and frustration of these beloved tales.”
“And what of Einion and his wife, what are their motives?” I finish my Darjeeling.
“They don’t have motives. They are victims of their desires, on which the goblin plays. Einion was not looking to leave his wife, the goblin put a glamour upon him.”
“What’s a glamour?” Thalia is beside us.
A glamour,” says Melissa, “is a spell that can made a dark, dripping cave look like an underground, enchanted palace to the beholder.”
“Cool!” Thalia’s eyes glisten.
I feel a twitch in my eyelid. “Are we so shallow that appearances can pull us away from what we know and trust?”
“Apparently,” Melissa says. “It’s happened to me.” Her pleasant countenance sours.
I have a moment of clarity. “You have an X?”
Melissa nods to the affirmative. “But I can’t help wondering if the gold ring they broke was not a wedding ring.”
“Ah, the symbolism would be right, given the broken marriage. His putting his half of the golden ring under his eyelid for safekeeping though, I find strange.”
“It is the ring and the white staff that cut though appearances and allow the humans to see the reality.”
Thalia pulls at my sleeve. We all rise from the table and move to the register for my purchase. Thalia plops Peter Pan on top of my book, giving me her expectant stare.
“Of course,” I say, then turn my attention to Melissa. “What about the ‘old’ thing?”
She glances at me quizzically for a moment, then smiles. “You are not old.”
“But I am.”
Melissa takes my hand, “Not in my eyes.”
She is so dear.
Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2015 Einion and the Lady of the Greenwood – Part Three
Our outing is finished for today; we returned from Melissa’s soaked by a fine drizzle. I noticed Thalia’s raincoat pocket wiggling, from which escaped a wisp of opalescent black hair.
“You baited her with Peter Pan didn’t you?” I speculated.
I am back in my study, standing at the bay window watching the rain coursing down the panes, my pipe in hand. It slowly comes to me how curious is the structure of Einion and the Lady of the Greenwood. I sense two divergent stories coming together to make a whole.
The first half of the story, when the Lady of the Greenwood lures Einion off to her domain, brings to my mind the Irish legend of Oisin in Tír na nÓg. One day, while out hunting with his father Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the other Fianna warriors, Oisin sees the fairy woman Niam of the Golden Hair approach them. She asks Oisin to return with her to the Land of Youth. Her act of asking enamors Oisin, and he leaves his father and fellow warriors behind, never to see them again.
I leave off my musing by my bay window and open up my computer window. With a little research, I come up with a delightful, if entirely spurious, connection between the Irish legend and the first half of my Welsh tale.
Oisin’s father is Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The Irish word “Fionn” is etymologically connected with the Welsh “Gwyn.” Gwyn ap Nudd is king of the Fair Folk, and the prominent member of the Wild Hunt—the trooping of the fairies. All of these characters—Mac Cumhaill, Oisin, Niam, Gwyn—in most parts of the stories, are mounted on horses, usually white horses. Both words, Fionn and Gwyn, mean “fair,” “bright,” or “white.”
Might the man in white, mounted on a horse, who rescues Einion, be Gwyn ap Nudd? In the back of my brain, I hear my friend, Augustus, telling me, if I respect scholarship at all, I cannot make such assertions. To that I say, “Wait, you haven’t heard the half of it.”
Part one ends with Einion waking up, as it were, finding himself back home again. Many stories end here. Not this one.
Part two reflects in many ways part one, yet the situation is different. The goblin, in the guise of a gentleman, has lured Einion’s wife into marriage, the wedding in full tilt, taking place in her hall, when
Einion arrives. This is the first indication that Einion and his wife are of noble bearing.
Einion enters his hall unrecognized, appearing to be a beggar. The goblin/gentleman wishes one of the wedding guests would tune and play the hall’s harp. None can do so except Einion, leading to the reunion with his wife after the additional tests of presenting his half of the ring and having her hold the white staff.
As I re-read this second part, the returning of Odysseus to Ithaca echoes through my otherwise empty head. Odysseus, after an absence of twenty years, returns home to find his hall full of suitors to his wife, Penelope. She has declared whoever can string her husband’s bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe heads will have her hand.
The suitors fail where only Odysseus can succeed. After he wins the contest—and slaughters the suitors—Penelope hesitates to recognize him until he reveals an intimate fact no one else but he and she knew.
Only Einion can tune the harp; only Odysseus can string the bow. Still, in the back of my brain, Augustus shakes his head in dismay. Well, I have convinced myself if nobody else.
4 thoughts on “Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2015 Einion and the Lady of the Greenwood – Part One”
I read the story years ago, but it never attracted me to tell it. I did think that the comment about the moral not signifying was very odd, since it seemed like the apparent moral was quite important.
Barra Jacob-McDowell / January 11, 2016 / Edit
This is one of 11 Welsh harper tales I know and tell, and not the most famous; those are “The Fairy Harp” and “The Harp on the Water.” I think this is one of the most enigmatic tales. The second half of it reminds me of a historical Scottish one about the Campbells of Loch Awe, “The Ring & the Cup.”, Black Colin (so called because of his dark hair and eyes) leaves his young wife to go on pilgrimage, promising to come back within 7 years, and leaving her to oversee the building of a new tower home. Each has half of a ring no one else knows about; he swears that if he dies, his half will be sent to her so that she knows he is truly dead. Confidently expecting to be back within 1 or 2 years, he goes off with some of his men. But there is always another battle to fight, and when he does decide to return, he keeps taking little pilgrimages along the way. Meanwhile, his wife is being pressured by another more powerful clan’s laird to wed him, and who finally sends her a forged letter saying that her husband is dead..Supposedly the token was stolen in transit. She doesn’t really believe it, but promises to wed the other laird when the tower is done–and has her men work on it five days a week (and undo part of what they’ve done on the sixth days). However, it steadily, if slowly, nears completion. A wise woman, who was Colin’s foster mother, sends her son to find him. The son meets him in Rome, and tells him the state of affairs. He hurries home, advised by his foster mother to disguise himself as a beggar. Presenting himself at the door of the now-completed tower with many other beggars, he insists on being given alms in the form of a drink by the lady herself. She had insisted on the feast being served BEFORE the wedding, and brings him a cup of wine. He drinks, asking her to drink from it also. When she does, she finds his half of the ring inside. In this way, he reveals himself,but gives her the option of wedding the other laird, since he broke his word and stayed away so long. Does she still love him? She draws her own half of the ring on a chain out of her robe, and kisses it. Smiling, he strips off his disguise..and his men appear, arrows nocked, on the balconies overlooking the hall, There is a fight, the other laird escapes, Colin and his lady are reunited, and later he buys the other laird’s property. I’m sure you can see the parallels with Penelope and Odysseus in this as well….
Great blog Charles. I’m currently reading The Welsh Fairy Book, and found your blog after reading this tale, and being puzzled by the ending line of the story: “There is a moral to this story, but it does not signify.” Doing a Google search, your site was the only result, other than sites that are just a verbatim reprint of the story.
The line seems confusing to me, because in modern English, “signify” is a verb that is never used alone. It usually means “to indicate”, and I only hear it used when followed by a clause: “signify that XYZ happened.”
Looking it up in the dictionary shows, when used without an object, it has a meaning that at least I wasn’t familiar with: “to be of importance or consequence.”
So, it sounds like modern readers could simply rephrase this as “There is a moral to this story, but it is not important.”
Do you think that’s a fair interpretation of the tale’s concluding line?
Your interpretation is likely. My thought was that the story sounds like there is a moral, but the moral is hard to ferret out.