For a small country, Wales is rich in beauty and in stories
As the poet Brian Harris wrote in his 1967 poem In Passing, “To be born in Wales… with music in your blood / And with poetry in your soul, / Is a privilege indeed. / Your inheritance is a land of Legend, / Of love and contrast.”
From the proliferation of castles to its myth-filled mountains, from its patron saint, St David, who caused a hill to rise beneath him as he spoke to his followers, to the huge red dragon on its flag, one doesn’t need to know much about Wales to suspect it might have a story or two up its sleeve. Visit Wales has designated 2017 the Year of Legends and it promises to unfold as an eventful 12 months, with Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which was filmed in and around Capel Curig in Snowdonia, opening in cinemas in May, legends of sport coming together in Cardiff’s National Stadium of Wales for the UEFA Champions League Final, and Hay Festival, one of Britain’s best loved literary gatherings in the Brecon Beacons, celebrating its 30th anniversary.
“Where else do you get the chance to sit down and have the best historians in the world, the best politicians, the best authors come and talk to you?” asks musician and broadcaster Cerys Matthews, a vice president of Hay Festival Council.
“Such a deep and rich vein of legendary stories, literature, art and history runs through Wales,” she adds. “All my life I’ve been learning about these legends. There are so many it’s difficult to know where to begin.”
As a start point, Matthews cites The Mabinogion, a collection of magical Celtic tales found in manuscripts dating from the late 14th and early 15th centuries. It is one of the richest sources of Welsh stories featuring King Arthur as a recurrent character, though it is earlier, in a Welsh poem dating to AD 600, that he first appeared.
Wales’s most famous poet, Dylan Thomas, also owes The Mabinogion his name, which was taken from a character in the collection.
Poets and madmen
So richly inspiring is the Welsh landscape, and so many writers and artists hail from – and flock to – its hills and valleys, that ancient bardic traditions tell of foolhardy souls sleeping on the slopes of Cader Idris in Snowdonia National Park, where, it is said, you’ll wake up as a madman or a poet, or, alarmingly, possibly not at all.
Such stories say something about Welsh identity. (“We are a sad people,” wrote Harris. “Our sadness being wrapped in harps and music.”) There’s the bittersweet tale of St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of love, who after a bad experience (the man she loved was turned into a block of ice) decided she didn’t ever want to get married and spent her life as a nun on Llanddwyn Island, off the coast of Anglesey, praying that all lovers from then to eternity would be looked after. Today lovers can visit Dwynwen’s well on the tidal island where the sight of active fish augurs a faithful partner.
Even sadder is the tale of Gelert, the faithful canine friend of Llywelyn the Great, the 13th-century Prince of Gwynedd, who returned from hunting to find his dog covered in blood.
Believing Gelert had torn apart his infant son, Llywelyn killed the dog only to find his child safe with a dead wolf, seen off by Gelert, lying next to him. Today Beddgelert, meaning “Gelert’s grave”, is one of the prettiest villages in north Wales with a monument to the faithful hound. Llywelyn,
it is said, never smiled again.
For something more cheerful, Matthews cites the tale of the goddess Rhiannon as one of her favourites from The Mabinogion. “She’s an early example of a female with a great sense of humour in literary history.” The story goes that Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, spots a beautiful woman on a gleaming white horse. “He thinks, ‘I like the look of her,’” says Matthews, “and tries to catch her up, but the faster he goes, the distance doesn’t get any less and this goes on forever until eventually he gets close enough to say, ‘Will you stop?’ And she said, ‘Why didn’t you say that earlier? My horse is knackered.’”
Another feisty heroine appears in the myth of the Lady of the Lake. “It’s connected with the stories of the fairies, the otherworldly creatures who, according to some legendary traditions, were the inhabitants of these islands before the Celts came,” explains Dr Aled Llion Jones, senior lecturer at the School of Welsh at Bangor University. “The idea is that they were driven away, in this case,
under the water, which is where gifts to the water – throwing coins in and so on – come from.”
The most famous version of the story is connected with a lake, Llyn y Fan Fach, in the Brecon Beacons under the ‘Black Mountain’, from which emerges a beautiful enchantress with whom a local farmer falls in love. Unions between mortals and immortals don’t tend to end happily and so it is that the Lady of Lake, ultimately, returns to the water, taking her cattle with her, but, oddly, not her children – though she does pass on to them the secrets of herbalism and medicine and they become the famous Physicians of Myddfai.
Here be dragons
Perhaps the ultimate Welsh myth is that of the dragon. “We have the best flag in the world,” says Matthews proudly. “Who else has got a red dragon? And you can chase that dragon back through history.”
A symbol of King Arthur and Wales through the ages, the dragon is particularly closely associated with the legends surrounding Dinas Emrys in northwest Wales. “It is the story of a king who wants to build a castle and overnight it falls down and so the wizard Merlin comes along and explains that, under the foundation, there are two dragons fighting,” says Professor Raluca Radulescu, co-director of the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Bangor University. “Lo and behold, when they look, it is the Welsh dragon fighting the Saxon dragon.”
The latter dragon is white; the Welsh one, of course, red. There is another layer to the story, adds Llion Jones: “In this context the dragon is the prophetic symbol of sovereignty of the isle of Britain”. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century book, The History of the Kings of Britain, the red dragon also presages the coming of Arthur.
“He was one of the last British warriors resisting the Anglo-Saxons,” says Llion Jones, “so this whole story is connected with the origins of nation and nationality in Wales coming out of that period. “Dinas Emrys is a very striking part of the landscape. It’s an old Iron Age fort, which is another thing: many of the places that became associated with the legend of Arthur were either Roman sites or sites of previous fortresses and fortifications,” he continues, citing Caernarfon in the north and Caerleon in the south as examples. (The latter, claimed Geoffrey of Monmouth, was, in fact, Camelot, Arthur’s legendary court, and today boasts the only Roman legionary barracks in view in Europe.)
Yet no Arthurian site is more dramatic than Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. The region of Snowdonia claims to harbour the watery resting place of Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, either in Llyn Llydaw, Llyn Dinas or Llyn Ogwen, and the great mountain itself is said to be where Arthur slew Rhita Gawr, a giant so fearsome he wore a cloak made from the kings he had vanquished. “Arthur was responsible for dispatching and burying him and raising the cairn on top of the grave, which became the mountain,” says Llion Jones.
“Yr Wyddfa, the Welsh name for Snowdon, means ‘burial place’.” Arthur himself is rumoured to be buried in a number of places in Wales (and also in England too), but one of the most notable sites associated with him is Bardsey Island, off the Llyˆn Peninsula, hailed as the Isle of Avalon, where Arthur sleeps in a cave until his return in Wales’s most dire hour of need. Merlin’s early Welsh roots are as a prophet poet. The famous Arthurian wizard has a particularly close link with Carmarthen, his birthplace in southwest Wales. The earliest surviving Welsh manuscript, The Black Book of Carmarthen, featuring tales of Arthur and Merlin, was compiled in the town and a well-known rhyme predicts, “When Merlin’s oak comes tumbling down, down shall fall Carmarthen town.” The oak in question stood in the town until it befell a series of misfortunes – poison and, in one version of the story, fire.
“They cut it down and immediately Carmarthen was flooded,” smiles Llion Jones. Today a fragment of tree branch remains in Carmarthenshire County Museum.
“Merlin becomes associated with Arthur later,” explains Radulescu, “so the two separate legendary strands get brought together in the 12th century, which is when the Arthurian legend becomes popular across Europe.”
Later still, Owain Glyndwr, the last self-proclaimed native Prince of Wales who lived and fought in the late 1300s and early 1400s, captured the public imagination. Taking over from King Arthur as the
ultimate Welsh warrior-hero, Glyndwr can be remembered today by walking Glyndwr’s Way, a national trail that follows his story through mid-Wales, or by visiting Conwy Castle in north Wales, which was held by Glyndwr’s forces for several months.
Snowdonia’s Harlech Castle also played a key role as his residence and court. Today the heroism of his cause is associated with the stirring “Men of Harlech”, though in truth the song was inspired by a later siege at the castle. Nevertheless, listening to the rousing tune sung in glorious Welsh voices at sports matches, or even pubs afterwards, no doubt with the flag making an appearance nearby, it is hard to resist. So enduring are Welsh legends they can be found in every corner, and sometimes in the most unlikely of places.