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Peeps At Many Lands - Wales
ONCE upon a time, says a famous Welsh legend, a certain witch named Caridwen set to work to brew a cauldron of knowledge that might make her youngest son the wisest man in the world. Now, this cauldron had to boil for a year and a day, and at the end of that time it would yield three drops of precious liquid which would make whoever drank them the wisest of all men. So she set a passing tramp named Gwion Bach to stir the cauldron and to keep it on the boil, and made up her mind to kill him directly the time was up, lest he should learn the secret of the magic liquid.
But she miscalculated the time, and so it happened that one day, in her absence, the three magic drops flew up out of the cauldron and fell upon the finger of Gwion Bach. Feeling his finger thus scalded, he put it to his mouth and sucked it, and immediately he became very wise, and knew what Caridwen meant to do to him.
So he fled to his own people, and the cauldron, left unstirred, burst in two, so that the poisonous liquid that was left, poured out and flowed into a stream near by, and all the cattle that drank of that stream went mad and died.
When Caridwen saw this, she made haste to catch Gwion Bach and put him to death; but he, when he saw her running after him, changed himself into a hare, for the magic potion had given him skill of all kinds. But she immediately turned herself into a greyhound, and had nearly caught him, when he sprang into a river and changed himself into a fish. Then she became an otter, and chased him till, hard pressed, he took the form 'of a bird. Caridwen then became a hawk, and chased him till, dead-beat, he fell into a granary and changed himself into a grain of wheat. The witch promptly became a high-crested black hen, and scratched among the grains till she found him. She was about to swallow him, when he, now almost at the end of his resources, became a beautiful little child. Then Caridwen, not having the heart to kill him, put him into a leathern bag and cast him into the sea, not far from Aberystwith, just below the Weir of Gwyddno, on April 29.
Now, Gwyddno had a most unlucky son named Elphin, who was "always needing and never getting"; and in order that he might gain something for himself, his father granted him all the weir should contain on May-day. So the nets were set, but in the morning they were quite empty save for a leathern bag which had caught in one of them. Then said one of his companions: "Till this day, the weir has been worth a hundred pounds' worth of fish every May morning. Now see how your luck has turned them away, and left you nothing but a skin."
"Nay," said Elphin; "perhaps the skin bag may have something in it that is worth more than a hundred pounds."
So they opened it, and a little lad peeped out.
"See what a bright face!" they cried. And Elphin, heavy with disappointment, said, "Let him be called Taliesin, then" (which means Bright Face), and took him home behind him on his horse. But as they rode along the boy began to sing to him so sweet a song of consolation that Elphin marvelled, and asked where he had learnt a thing so beautiful. Then Taliesin replied that, though he was but little, he was, nevertheless, very wise. When they reached the house, Gwyddno asked his son if he had had a good haul. "Father," replied Elphin, "I have caught a poet-minstrel."
"Alas! What good will that do thee?" asked his father; but Taliesin answered for himself: "It will do him more good than the weir ever did for thee!"
And so it came about; for Taliesin, the magic child, not only saved Elphin's life and liberty when he was in great danger and made him a rich and fortunate man; he also brought high fame to the House of Gwyddno by his very name and connection with it. For Taliesin, the rest of whose wonderful story must be read elsewhere, became the minstrel, and bard, and prophet of the Britain of old days; and this was one of his prophecies made concerning the people of his land :
"Their Lord they shall praise,
Their language they shall keep,
Their land they shall lose
Except Wild Wales."
Let us see how the prophecy has been fulfilled.
When the Romans conquered Britain, they found the hardest part of their task lay in that northwestern part of the island which is now called Wales. The people were more uncivilized than the Britons of the south-east, but they knew how to fight to the death; and the Roman writer paints for us a vivid picture of the grim lines of warriors, urged on by the cries of wild women dancing a witch-dance in the van, and by the words of the white-robed, ivy-crowned Druids, who called down the curses of the sky-god upon the Roman foe.
Even when this part of Britain at length was subdued, the inhabitants were very little influenced by their conquerors. They used the fine Roman roads laid down for the passage of their conquerors' troops from Caerleon to Chester and along the coast; they marvelled at the pretty Roman villas that arose upon their borders; but they kept their own language and their own customs, and were influenced scarcely at all by the civilization which was spreading fast in the south and east of Britain. One thing, however, they eagerly embraced, and that was the Christian faith, and that is one reason why many Welsh words connected with the religious services of the Church are merely Latin words in disguise.
When the rest of Britain, at the end of the fifth century, had fallen into the hands of the English invaders and conquerors, the western part remained free. High among their mountains, these fierce tribes bade defiance to Angle, and Saxon, and Jute, and to them came for protection many of those who had been forced to flee for their lives from other parts of Britain. From that time this region came to be known by the English as Wales, the Land of Strangers; and thus was part of the prophecy concerning the whole people of Britain fulfilled:
"Their land they shall lose
Except Wild Wales."
"Their language they shall keep." We have seen how few Latin words had been borrowed from the Romans, and now that all the rest of the island was fast forgetting its original tongue and learning the language of its conquerors, the men of the West were fulfilling that part of the prophecy also. Up to this time there had been in the land three distinct races, and at least three languages. There were the short, dark-haired Celts, who came originally from the South of Europe, and who became the serfs of the next new-comers, the Irish Celts. These were tall, red-haired people, and very like them were the next to come, the Brythons, or Welsh Celts. While the English were making themselves masters of the rest of Britain, these two latter tribes were at civil war, and in the end the Brythons, or Britons, got the upper hand, and their language became the language of Wales.
It was about this time, too, that the first line of the bardic prophecy began to be fulfilled. Under the stirring influence of Dewi, the Water-drinker, the monk of Dyfed, whom we know as St. David, Wales became caught up in a wave of religious zeal. Monasteries were built, missionaries travelled from end to end of the country, everywhere the Gospel was preached, and the people received it gladly. Countless Welsh "saints," or missionaries, arose, whose names are now only remembered by the churches or places dedicated to them; and while England was sunk in heathen darkness, the light of the Celtic Church was burning brightly in the West. From that time down to the present day religious zeal has been the characteristic of the Welshman.
"Their Lord they shall praise."
The Norman Conquest, five centuries later, brought the Lowlands of Wales—the Borderland, or "Marches," as it was called—under the rule of Norman barons, but the wilder part of the country, though it condescended to borrow something of Norman civilization, remained independent. At the end of the reign of Henry III. Wales was a land of shepherd farmers, who knew well how to use the bow and the spear. They were divided into many tribes, but united by their religion and by their love of music, poetry, oratory, and all those arts which depend upon a vivid imagination for their growth. Even to this day the stories that they told are as fascinating to us as they were to the Welsh boys and girls who first heard them as they sat by the rude hearthstone, and heard the wind skirling down the mountain outside the heavily barred door.
Fortunately for this Celtic spirit of imagination that turns all it touches to gold, the next attempt at conquest shook rather than shattered the independence of Wild Wales. But we shall best understand and enjoy this part of the story of the land if we read it in connection with the particular places at which the more striking events occurred.