John D. Batten
After a long four-hour drive, mostly down the M4, we find ourselves a little beyond the hamlet of Blaenau in Caermarthenshire, at the car park for Lake Llyn Y Fan Fach.
Wales, of course.
This sojourn, undertaken at Melissa’s insistence with no explanation, leaves Thalia and me bemused. Still, the Welsh landscape compensates for our confusion.
We put on our walking shoes and head up the straight, steep, long, very long path to the peak of Picws Du, which overlooks the lake. I am pleased to rest as we get to the top.
The clouds are thick overhead, but not stormy. We are so high up that the red kites—the birds I mean—circle in their flight below us, as we gaze at the lake sitting at the foot of the Black Mountains.
Melissa pulls from her small backpack a copy of Joseph Jacobs’ Celtic Fairy Tales. Thalia settles beside her.
“The Shepherd of Myddvai,” Melissa announces. “Up in the Black Mountains in Caermarthenshire lies the lake known as Llyn Y Fan Fach.”
A young shepherd is tending his flock when three maidens rise out of the dark water. One comes near him and he offers her some bread, which she finds too hard and leaves him. On the next day he offers softer bread, which she also refuses. On the third day he offers her bread he found floating on the lake. This she accepts and also his proposal of marriage if he can pick her out from among her sisters the next day. This he does by observing the sandals she wears.
She becomes his wife under the condition that he not strike her three times. The love-besotted shepherd could not imagine ever striking her. She brings with her, from the dark water, cows, oxen, and a bull as a dowry.
Things go well for some time, time enough for them to have three sons. But, one day, he slaps her on her shoulder with a pair of gloves to get her attention. That is the first strike.
The second strike comes when they attend a wedding, in the middle of which she breaks into lamentation. He taps her on the shoulder to tell her to stop. She says she laments for the couple’s unborn child that will live in pain and die an early death, and that he has delivered the second blow.
The child she predicted is born, suffers, then dies. While the shepherd and his wife attend the infant’s funeral, she breaks into a joyous laugh. Shocked, the shepherd, again, tries to stop her with too heavy a touch.
The wife explains that she knows the child is in heaven and free from earthly pain, but his woes are about to begin. That was the third strike.
She calls her animals to follow her. Even a black calf, slaughtered and hanging on a hook, follows her back into the dark water.
She appears one more time, years later, to bestow upon her sons the gift of healing, with which they became known as the Physicians of Myddvai.
As Thalia and I come out of the story trance, our eyes return to the lake below us where it all happened.
Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2017 The Shepherd of Myddvai – Part Two
The King’s Head Inn is our reward for scaling the heights around Lake Llyn Y Fan Fach. We were told that parts of this building are of medieval construction. I enjoy the ambience of stone walls and red carpet with fireplaces here and there.
I order the ox cheek Wellington to the chagrin of Melissa and Thalia, who both order white bean and tomato bruschetta. I suspect Melissa is quietly turning Thalia into a vegetarian. In any case, I intend to have sticky toffee pudding for dessert.
As we wait for our meal, I ask Melissa, “Are not mermaids connected to the sea, not lakes?”
“Mermaids are connected to the sea. The maiden in The Shepherd of Myddvai is one of the Ladies of the Lake.”
“Like King Arthur?” Thalia’s attention—which had wandered to the other dinner guests—is drawn back to our conservation.
“Only in that they are all Welsh. Sir Thomas Malory, in his Le Morte D’Arthur, seems to describe two Ladies of the Lake, but our lady is pretty distinct from her Arthurian counterparts.”
Melissa turns to me. “Are you familiar with the Physicians of Myddvai?”
“Not until this story.”
“They appear in recorded history, a family of physicians steeped in herbal lore, starting around the thirteenth century and continuing as a family of physicians for five hundred years. Our Lady of the Lake’s three sons are the founders of that family.”
“Cool,” says Thalia.
I look around, but haven’t seen our waitress for a while.
“The three strikes are interesting,” I say.
“Yes, it is what distinguishes the fey marriages from the animal brides.”
“What?” exclaims Thalia somewhat startled, expressing what I am wondering.
“I’ve been doing my research,” says Melissa staring at her hands and not at us. “And I see a pattern. An animal bride from the sea—that is a mermaid, who is half fish, or a silkie, who appears to be a seal until she sheds her skin—is trapped into marriage when a man steals her sloughed-off scales or skin. The marriage lasts as long as it takes her to reclaim what he took from her.
“A Lady of the Lake—a fresh water fey I might add—is not part animal, does not shed something of herself to be stolen, and is always agreeable to the marriage, but with conditions that invariably end the marriage in a similar way as the animal bride’s marriage ends.
“I am certain the Ladies of the Lake are fey—fairies that is.” Melissa nods to Thalia. “Other fairy wives of mortals follow the same pattern, though the condition tends to be that they cannot be touched by iron or they will be forced to leave their husbands.
“In one such story the fairy wife and her husband are trying to catch a colt, and the husband, in frustration, throws the bridle at the horse, but strikes his wife. The bridle is made of leather straps connected by iron links.”
“There is no winning,” I say.
“Not in the case of marriages between mortals and fairies.”
“What about the nixie?” Thalia pipes up.
“She is a third category. Nixies abduct young men to be their consort and there is never a priest around.”
“Ohh, naughty.” Thalia frowns.
“Quite,” Melissa and I chorus.
Our food arrives just in time to keep our conversation from descending further into topics forbidden to young ears.
Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2017 The Shepherd of Myddvai – Part Three
Johannes Vermeer (detail)
On our long drive home—and after the sticky toffee pudding to sustain us—I ask Melissa about the bread thing.
“Yes,” Melissa perks up from her driver hypnosis as she sits behind the wheel. “Events at the start of a story tend to be forgotten by the end. I am sure the bread in this story gets overlooked.”
“It appears,” I suggest, “that the shepherd offering the maiden bread is some sort of test, and she refuses him in rhyme, a taunt, actually.”
“But then,” Melissa continues, “he finds bread floating on the maiden’s own lake, offers that to her, and she accepts.”
“Where is that coming from?” I never heard the like.
“Ecclesiastes is tempting to cite as a source, ‘Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.’”
“Meaning?” I ask.
“That’s hard to say. Ecclesiastes can be poetic and dense, but I doubt it relates to our story.”
Melissa pauses a while as we merge onto another highway. “I think the bread is more of a needed ceremony. The maiden likes the shepherd, but he isn’t getting the etiquette right. So she gives him some help on the third try.”
“That is followed by a real test,” I say.
“Yes, choosing her from among her sisters.”
“Then follows the marriage condition,” I put in. “I see three stages to the courtship: the bread offering, the test, and the condition.”
“It does really follow the pattern of threes,” says Melissa. “Three stages of courtship, three sons, and three strikes.”
“And three loaves of bread,” says Thalia, “Aren’t these stories full of bread.”
“Oh,” says Melissa, “let’s play the naming game. How many fairy tales can we name with bread in them? I’ll start. I am thinking of The Three Little Men in the Wood, where the heroine shares her bread with the gnomes.”
Thalia’s attention turns from watching the passing countryside. “The Gingerbread Man!”
“Hmmm,” Melissa contemplates, “is gingerbread really bread?”
“I’m thinking,” I say, “of Hansel and Gretel. Besides the breadcrumbs it has a gingerbread house.”
“Ok, I’ll allow it. How about Mother Holle in which the heroine passes a bake oven and the loaves of bread cry out to her to take them out before they burn.”
“Little Red Hen,” shouts Thalia in triumph.
“Oh, that’s a good one. ‘Who will help me bake my bread?’” Melissa nods in approval.
“Do you know God’s Food?” I ask.
Melissa grimaces. “Oh, what a horrid little tale with its bloody loaf.”
“Ugh” Thalia agrees.
“How about The Children of Famine?” I impishly suggest.
“No better,” says Melissa. “I am remembering a story called The Baker’s Daughter. An old woman comes begging to a bakery where the baker’s daughter is minding the shop, and asks for a little bit of dough. Reluctantly the daughter bakes the little bit of dough, but it turns into a large loaf. Three times the daughter puts smaller and smaller amounts of dough in the oven for the old woman and larger and larger loaves come out. The old woman loses patience when the daughter will not give her the larger loaves and turns the girl into an owl.”
Thalia is thinking. “Brave Little Tailor.”
“Good,” says Melissa. “The flies are attracted to the jam on the bread.”
I can tell this little game may last for hours, and will take us all the way home.