THE TOUCH OF IRON – Welsh Fairy Tales by William Elliot Griffis

Ages ago, before the Cymry rowed in their coracles across the sea, there was a race of men already in the Land of Honey, as Great Britain was then…

These ancient people, who lived in caves, did not know how to build houses or to plow the ground. They had no idea that they could get their food out of the earth. As for making bread and pies, cookies and goodies, from what grew from the soil, they never heard of such a thing. They were not acquainted with the use of fire for melting copper, nor did they know how to get iron out of the ore, to make knives and spears, arrow heads and swords, and armor and helmets.

All they could do was to mold clay, so as to make things to cook with and hold milk, or water. When they baked this soft stuff in the fire, they found they had pots, pans and dishes as hard as stone, though these were easily broken.

To hunt the deer, or fight the wolves and bears, they fashioned clubs of wood. For javelins and arrows, they took hard stone like flint and chipped it to points and sharpened it with edges. This was the time which men now call the Stone Age. When the men went to war, their weapons were wholly of wood or stone.

They had not yet learned to weave the wool of the sheep into warm clothing, but they wore the skins of animals. Each one of the caves, in which they lived, was a general boarding house, for dogs and pigs, as well as people.

When a young man of one tribe wanted a wife, he sallied out secretly into another neighborhood. There he lay in wait for a girl to come along. He then ran away with her, and back to his own daddy’s cave.

By and by, when the Cymry came into the land, they had iron tools and better weapons of war. Then there were many and long battles and the aborigines were beaten many times.

So the cave people hated everything made of iron. Anyone of the cave people, girls or boys, who had picked up iron ornaments, and were found wearing or using iron tools, or buying anything of iron from the cave people’s enemies, was looked upon as a rascal, or a villain, or even as a traitor and was driven out of the tribe.

However, some of the daughters of the cave men were so pretty and had such rosy cheeks, and lovely bodies, and beautiful, long hair, that quite often the Cymric youth fell in love with them.

Many of the cave men’s daughters were captured and became wives of the Cymry and mothers of children. In course of ages, their descendants helped to make the bright, witty, song-loving Welsh people.

Now the fairies usually like things that are old, and they are very slow to alter the ancient customs, to which they have been used; for, in the fairy world, there is no measure of time, nor any clocks, watches, or bells to strike the hours, and no almanacs or calendars.

The fairies cannot understand why ladies change the fashions so often, and the men their ways of doing things. They wonder why beards are fashionable at one time; then, moustaches long or short, at another; or smooth faces when razors are cheap. Most fairies like to keep on doing the same thing in the old way. They enjoy being like the mountains, which stand; or the sea, that rolls; or the sun, that rises and sets every day and forever. They never get tired of repeating to-morrow what they did yesterday. They are very different from the people that are always wanting something else, and even cry if they cannot have it.

That is the reason why the fairies did not like iron, or to see men wearing iron hats and clothes, called helmets and armor, when they went to war. They no more wanted to be touched by iron than by filth, or foul disease. They hated knives, stirrups, scythes, swords, pots, pans, kettles, or this metal in any form, whether sheet, barbed wire, lump or pig iron.

Now there was a long, pretty stretch of water, near which lived a handsome lad, who loved nothing better than to go out on moonlight nights and see the fairies dance, or listen to their music. This youth fell in love with one of these fairies, whose beauty was great beyond description. At last, unable to control his passion, he rushed into the midst of the fairy company, seized the beautiful one, and rushed back to his home, with his prize in his arms. This was in true cave-man fashion. When the other fairies hurried to rescue her, they found the man’s house shut. They dared not touch the door, for it was covered over with iron studs and bands, and bolted with the metal which they most abhorred.

The young man immediately began to make love to the fairy maid, hoping to win her to be his wife. For a long time she refused, and moped all day and night. While weeping many salt water tears, she declared that she was too homesick to live.

Nevertheless the lover persevered. Finding herself locked in with iron bars, while gratings, bolts and creaking hinges were all about her, and unable to return to her people, the fairy first thought out a plan of possible escape. Then she agreed to become the man’s wife. She resolved, at least, that, without touching it, she should oil all the iron work, and stop the noise.

She was a smart fairy, and was sure she could outwit the man, even if he were so strong, and had every sort of iron everywhere in order to keep her as it were in a prison. So, pretending she loved him dearly, she said: “I will not be your wife, but, if you can find out my name, I shall gladly become your servant.”

“Easily won,” thought the lover to himself. Yet the game was a harder one to play than he supposed. It was like playing Blind Man’s Buff, or Hunt the Slipper. Although he made guesses of every name he could think of, he was never “hot” and got no nearer to the thing sought than if his eyes were bandaged. All the time, he was deeper and deeper in love with the lovely fairy maid.

But one night, on returning home, he saw in a turf bog, a group of fairies sitting on a log. At once, he thought, they might be talking about their lost sister. So he crept up quite near them, and soon found that he had guessed right. After a long discussion, finding themselves still at a loss, as to how to recover her, he heard one of them sigh and say, “Oh, Siwsi, my sister, how can you live with a mortal?”

“Enough,” said the young man to himself. “I’ve got it.” Then, crawling away noiselessly, he ran back all the way to his house, and unlocked the door. Once inside the room, he called out his servant’s name—”Siwsi! Siwsi!”

Astonished at hearing her name, she cried out, “What mortal has betrayed me? For, surely no fairy would tell on me? Alas, my fate, my fate!”

But in her own mind, the struggle and the fear were over. She had bravely striven to keep her fairyhood, and in the battle of wits, had lost.

She would not be wife, but what a wise, superb and faithful servant she made!

Everything prospered under her hand. The house and the farm became models. Not twice, but three times a day, the cows, milked by her, yielded milk unusually rich in cream. In the market, her butter excelled, in quality and price, all others.

Meanwhile, the passion of the lover abated not one jot, or for an instant. His perseverance finally won. She agreed to become his wife; but only on one condition.

“You must never strike me with iron,” she said. “If you do, I’ll feel free to leave you, and go back to my relatives in the fairy family.”

A hearty laugh from the happy lover greeted this remark, made by the lovely creature, once his servant, but now his betrothed. He thought that the condition was very easy to obey.

So they were married, and no couple in all the land seemed to be happier. Once, twice, the cradle was filled. It rocked with new treasures that had life, and were more dear than farm, or home, or wealth in barns or cattle, cheese and butter. A boy and a girl were theirs. Then the mother’s care was unremitting, day and night.

Even though the happy father grew richer every year, and bought farm after farm, until he owned five thousand acres, he valued, more than these possessions, his lovely wife and his beautiful children.

Yet this very delight and affection made him less vigilant; yes, even less careful concerning the promise he had once given to his fairy wife, who still held to the ancient ideas of the Fairy Family in regard to iron.

One of his finest mares had given birth to a filly, which, when the day of the great fair came, he determined to sell at a high price.

So with a halter on his arm, he went out to catch her.

But she was a lively creature, so frisky that it was much like his first attempt to win his fairy bride. It almost looked as if she were a cave girl running away from a lover, who had a lasso in his hand. The lively and frolicsome beast scampered here and there, grazing as she stopped, as if she were determined to put off her capture as long as possible.

So, calling to his wife, the two of them together, tried their skill to catch the filly. This time, leaving the halter in the house, the man took bit and bridle, and the two managed to get the pretty creature into a corner; but, when they had almost captured her, away she dashed again.

By this time, the man was so vexed that he lost his temper; and he who does that, usually loses the game, while he who controls the wrath within, wins. Mad as a flaming fire, he lost his brains also and threw bit and bridle and the whole harness after the fleet animal.

Alas! alas! the wife had started to run after the filly and the iron bit struck her on the cheek. It did not hurt, but he had broken his vow.

Now came the surprise of his life. It was as if, at one moment, a flash of lightning had made all things bright; and then in another second was inky darkness. He saw this lovely wife, one moment active and fleet as a deer. In another, in the twinkling of an eye, nothing was there. She had vanished. After this, there was a lonely home, empty of its light and cheer.

But by living with human beings, a new idea and form of life had transformed this fairy, and a new spell was laid on her. Mother-love had been awakened in her heart. Henceforth, though the law of the fairy world would not allow her to touch again the realm of earth, she, having once been wife and parent, could not forget the babies born of her body. So, making a sod raft, a floating island, she came up at night, and often, while these three mortals lived, this fairy mother would spend hours tenderly talking to her husband and her two children, who were now big boy and girl, as they stood on the lake shore.

On his part, the father did not think it “an ideal arrangement,” as some modern married folks do, to be thus separated, wife and husband, one from the other; but by her coming as near as could be allowed, she showed her undying love. Even to-day, good people sometimes see a little island floating on the lake, and this, they point out as the place where the fairy mother was wont to come and hold converse with her dear ones. When they merrily eat the pink delicacy, called “floating island,” moving it about with a spoon on its yellow lake of eggs and cream, they call this “the Fairy Mother’s rocking chair.”

Welsh Fairy Tales