The Island of the Mighty

Harlech Castle: Four Square to All the Winds That Blow (1898) by Henry Clarence White (National Museum of Wales)

W J Gruffydd:
Folklore and Myth in The Mabinogion
University of Wales Press 1958

This slim booklet (with a little under 30 pages of text) reproduces a lecture given at the National Museum of Wales in 1950. However, despite a slightly misleading title discussion ranges a little more widely than it implies: it doesn’t deal exclusively with the several native Welsh tales in the collection commonly called the Mabinogion, nor is it limited to folklore and myth — fairytale is also involved (sometimes argued as a subgenre of folklore, other times as distinct), and literature too of course, the texts having come to us in written form with evidence of substantial editing.

In fact, a large part of the lecture is taken up with discussion of the nature of fairies in Welsh traditions; but I’m leaping ahead, as poet and academic William John Gruffydd begins with an attempt at defining what ‘folklore’ actually is.

He asserts that folklore consists of the traditional beliefs and legends of ‘the folk’. No particular problem here, except that ‘legend’, from the Latin meaning ‘things that may be read’, may imply a degree of literacy among the folk that they may not all have had. Still, we may accept a general definition of folklore as a mix of tenets, customs and stories held in common by a community.

More contentiously, Gruffydd goes on to declare that folklore per se is less respectable than those beliefs and legends “which are accepted as facts, and which are called Theology and History respectively.” Unless he has his tongue firmly in his cheek, he asserts that the theology and history of the past (now minus initial capital letters) which make up the “greater part of folklore” have therefore come down to us in a less ‘respectable’ form, having lost most indications of any original significance.

Let us allow that he has expressed himself in a way that may have been acceptable seventy years ago, and instead agree that it is difficult now to exactly know the significance of stories written down a thousand years ago, let alone the significance of the oral elements that preceded them, and then move on. At least when he talks of such traditions as being primitive we know that he refers to their “priority in time and custom” and not as an assessment of their value (that is, they aren’t of necessity undeveloped or inferior).

He excludes a whole range of folklore from his discussion, concentrating on what the “bulk of Welsh folklore is concerned with, namely the Tylwyth Teg,” usually translated as the Fair Folk. He argues, probably correctly, that this term didn’t come into literary use until the early 15th century, no doubt due to contamination from the Latin fata via French féerie and English feiri (a collective noun meaning “fairies”, the plural of “fay”, French fée).

What the Tylwyth Teg were called earlier is not known, and Gruffydd postulates that this is because they are a compound of three different strands. One is a folk memory of aboriginal peoples, he suggests, who were connected with lakes and other bodies of water and proved shy when confronted with later intruders to the land. The hypothesis that fairies were aboriginals has received less traction in more recent times, but it is an attractive notion.

Another strand may come from fairies conceived as pixies, irresponsible and/or mischievous beings who accepted gifts in return for household services or, more sinisterly, substituted changelings. A common term in South Wales was Bendith y Mamau or “Blessing of the Mothers”, perhaps a euphemism designed to fend off the likelihood of being cursed by these beings.

The third strand considered by Gruffydd seems to be rooted in an earlier mythology, concerned with a Celtic otherworld (known as Annwfn in Welsh). This is the aspect that at times looms largest in the Mabinogion, particularly in the Four Branches, less so in the other native tales associated with the figures Culhwch, Macsen, Lludd and Llefelys, and Ronabwy. The latter group exhibit many of the themes associated with lake fairies and pixies, while the Four Branches (Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math) focus more, though not exclusively, on what we recognise as mythic themes, with divine or semi-divine personages, along with the more nebulous concept known as the Land of Youth, the Land of Promise or Tír na nÓg.

A lot of what Gruffydd argues, with plentiful examples, is born of an intimate knowledge of Welsh tradition and language, and as a reader severely deficient in both I hesitate to utter any note of caution; but I must. I know from Rhiannon, his study of the first and third branches, that he was not averse to reconstructing what he believed to be the original structure of the mythic narratives, muddled up by the author, redactor or copyist of these tales in their final forms. He argued that his reconstructions solved inconsistencies, explained lacunae and rendered the narrative more plausible by exposing motivations. I felt though that he often went too far in ‘correcting’ the texts as we have them. Here there is a little bit of his reconstructing tendencies.

In this lecture he ranges widely but when it comes to what he characterises as the Celtic Elysium he at least grants that discussion of its “anthropological significance […] is highly speculative”. But when he comes to the depiction of this Otherworld in the Four Branches, often shown in a negative light as being full of menace, or forgetfulness, or even as a prison, he does also note positive attributes — it can be a land of music, of feasting, of timelessness, as in the case of Harlech or Gwales in the story of Bran the Blessed — though it remains coupled with a taboo that, if transgressed, will “destroy the enchantment.”

Seven decades on, Gruffydd’s lecture is a compound of informative details, acceptable speculation and possibly debatable conclusions. As a historical document in its own right it is interesting, but I would prefer to follow what modern scholarship has to offer. That’s not to say, however, that Gruffydd has nothing of merit to say: I certainly enjoyed his insights.


This is my last official post for the inaugural Wales Readathon dreamt up by the wonderful Paula alias Book Jotter. Dewithon has provided opportunities for visiting (and occasionally revisiting) the culture, history and traditions of the Principality where I’m now resident, and it will hopefully prove to be a recurring event!


21 thoughts on “The Island of the Mighty

  1. earthbalm

    All is revealed, the post is in. Interesting to read what people think the origins of fairies in folk culture might be.

    1. Thanks, Dale–I was setting up the post on my phone, got distracted, something happened and the post got published.

      The relict ‘aboriginal’ hypothesis to explain beliefs about fairies has been around for some time but isn’t much supported by scholars now, as far as I know, but it is very attractive: the thing about fairies shunning iron, for example, is supposed to reflect pockets of Bronze Age people, but I’m not sure anybody accepts this any more.

      As for pixy-like behaviour (naughty brownies, for example, insular Rumpelstiltskins or human baby snatchers) I think Gruffydd held this was a cultural import, not original to insular Celtic culture; again, rather a contentious view.

      Which just leaves the divine or semi-divine figures of the Four Branches. I think fans of Tolkien’s elves would rather favour this interpretation. Probably Welsh fairy origins lies in amalgamations of these three strands (and others?) over time, as Gruffydd suggests?

      1. How fascinating, thank you!

        I am guessing that it’s this aboriginal theory that Diana Wynne Jones drew upon in The Power of Three…

        1. Thanks! It was a long review for a short paper, but I thought it was important to summarise Gruffydd’s main points.

          The aboriginal theory in the novel? Yes, very likely, Helen. I’ve started a process of rereading DWJ’s early works, especially those I haven’t got round to reviewing, and The Power of Three is one high in my priorities. I confess I was was quite a way into it before I sussed the significance of the ‘giants’ as they related to the protagonists!

        1. Thanks so much, Paula! And belated thanks for the generous mention in your recent WUTW post, I was so excited when you first broached the idea of Dewithon, and so grateful to have an annual focus on Wales-inspired literature and culture. Looks to have been a successful inaugural event, da iawn ti!

          1. Oh, you’re very welcome, Chris. I’ve been so grateful for all your support – and your posts have been fabulous. All things considered it went very well and I’m hoping to make more of the event next year. 😊

    1. Yes, I assumed that’s what you meant! Last time I was in the Amgueddfa Cymru in Cardiff I took some snaps of paintings, including the Harlech one, just for occasions like this review. 🙂 Hope you enjoying the fine weather, it’s all change soon, I understand… 😁

  2. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2019 – Book Jotter

  3. I had something useful to say, but then Blondie came out crying from some sort of nightmare and I needed to help her clean her dog Sledgehammer of boogers.

    Regardless, your post is wonderfully thorough as always. A blessed Easter to you!

    1. Thanks, Jean, and hope you have a lovely family Easter too! I’m off soon to sing with an acapella choir at a Tenebrae service for Good Friday, with lots of Renaissance choral music (Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd, Lassus) and some modern works in a local medieval church, an uplifting start to the holiday weekend!

      And thank you, as always, for your likes and retweets, it’s very much appreciated — and I try to do the same whenever one of your posts particularly hits the spot for me. It’s good to support each other in our love of good fiction (and even non-fiction, as here!). 🙂

      1. Indeed! 🙂 And as Holy Week would have it, I’m singing with our choir for Tenebrae as well. It sounds like your music will be AMAZING. Ugh, my church….no no, I am NOT ranting about that….

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