Though their land has been many times invaded, the Welsh have never been conquered. Powerful tribes, like the Romans, Saxons and Normans, have…
Even when English and German kings attempted to crush their spirit and blot out their language and literature, the Welsh resisted and won victory.
Among the bullies that tried force, instead of justice, and played the slave-driver, rather than the Good Samaritan’s way, were the Normans. These brutal fellows, when they thought that they had overrun Wales with their armies, began to build strong castles all over the country. They kept armed men by the thousands ready, night and day, to rush out and put to death anybody and everybody who had a weapon in his hand. Often they burned whole villages. They killed so many Welsh people that it seemed at times as if they expected to empty the land of its inhabitants. Thus, they hoped to possess all the acres for themselves. They talked as if there were no people so refined and so cultured as they were, while the natives, good and bad, were lumped together as “the Welshery.”
Yet all this time, with these hundreds of strong castles, bristling with turrets and towers, no Englishman’s life was safe. If he dared to go out alone, even twenty rods from the castle, he was instantly killed by some angry Welshman lying in ambush. So the Normans had to lock themselves up in armor, until they looked like lobsters in their shells. When on their iron-clad horses they resembled turtles, so that if a knight fell off, he had to be chopped open to be rid of his metal clothes.
Yet all this was in vain, for when the Norman marched out in bodies, or rode in squadrons, the Welshery kept away and were hidden.
Even the birds and beasts noticed this, and saw what fools the Normans were, to behave so brutally.
As for the fairies, they met together to see what could be done. Even the reptiles shamed men by living together more peaceably. Only the beasts of prey approved of the Norman way of treating the Welsh people.
At last, it came to pass that, after the long War of the Roses, when the Reds and the Whites had fought together, a Welsh king sat upon the throne of England. Henry VIII was of Cymric ancestry. His full name was Henry Tudor; or, in English, Henry Theodore.
Among the Welsh, every son, to his own name as a child, such as Henry, William, Thomas, etc., added that of his father. Thus it happens that we can usually tell a man by his name; for example, Richards, Roberts, Evans, Jones, etc., etc., that he is a Welshman.
When a Welshman went into England to live, if he were a sister’s son, he usually added a syllable showing this, as in the case of Jefferson, which means sister’s son. Our great Thomas Jefferson used to boast that he could talk Welsh.
So the living creatures of all sorts in Wales, human beings, fairies, and animals took heart and plucked up courage, when a Tudor king, Henry VIII, sat on the throne.
Now it was Puck who led the fairies as the great peacemaker. He went first to visit all the most ancient creatures, in order to find out who should be offered the post of honor, as ambassador, who should be sent to the great king in London, Henry Tudor, to see what could be done for Wales.
First he called on the male eagle, oldest of all birds. Though not bald-headed, like his American cousin, the Welsh eagle was very old, and at that time a widower. Although he had been father to nine generations of eaglets, he sent Puck to the stag.
This splendid creature, with magnificent antlers, lived at the edge of the forest, near the trunk of an oak tree. It was still standing, but was now a mere shell. Old men said that the children of the aborigines played under it, and here was the home of the god of lightning, which they worshiped.
So to the withered oak, Puck went, and offered him the honor of leadership to an embassy to the King.
But the stag answered and said:
“Well do I remember when an acorn fell from the top of the parent oak. Then, for three hundred years it was growing. Children played under it. They gathered acorns in their aprons, and the archers made bows from its boughs.
“Then the oak tree began to die, and, during nearly thirty tens of years it has been fading, and I have seen it all.
“Yet there is one older than I. It is the salmon that swims in the Llyn stream. Inquire there.”
So of the old mother salmon, Puck went to ask, and this was the answer which he received.
“Count all the spots on my body, and all the eggs in my roe—one for each year. Yet the blackbird is older even than I. Go listen to her story. She excels me, in both talk and fact.”
And the blackbird opened its orange-colored bill, and answered proudly:
“Do you see this flinty rock, on which I am sitting? Once it was so huge that three hundred yoke of oxen could hardly move it. Yet, today, it hardly more than affords me room to roost on.
“What made it so small, do you ask?
“Well, all I have clone to wear it away, has been to wipe my beak on it, every night, before I go to sleep, and in the morning to brush it with the tips of my wing.”
Even Puck, fairy though he was, was astonished at this. But the blackbird added:
“Go to the toad, that blinks its eye under the big rock yonder. His age is greater than mine.”
The toad was half asleep when Puck came, but it opened with alertness, its beautiful round bright eyes, set in a rim of gold. Then Puck asked the question: “Oh, thou that carriest a jewel in thy head, are there any things alive that are older than thou art?”
“That, I could not be sure of, especially if as many false things are told about them, as are told about me; but when I was a tadpole in the pond, that old hag of an owl was still hooting away, in the treetops, scaring children, as in ages gone. She is older than I. Go and see her. If age makes wise, she is the wisest of all.”
Puck went into the forest, but at first saw no bird answering to the description given him.
He said to himself, “She is, I wonder, who?”
He was surprised to hear his question repeated, not as an echo, but by another. Still, he thought it might possibly be his own voice come back.
So, in making a catalogue, in his note book, of what he had seen and heard that day, he put down, “To wit—one echo.”
Again came the sound:
“To whit—to who, to whit—to who?” Sounded the voice.
Thinking that this was intended to be a polite question, Puck looked up. Sure enough, there was the wise bird sitting on a bough, above him, as sober as a judge.
“Who! did you ask?” answered Puck and then went on to explain:
“I am Lord of the Fairies in Welshery, and I seek to know which is the most venerable, of all the creatures in the Land of the Red Dragon.
“I am ready to salute you, as the most ancient and honorable of all living things in the Cymric realm. You are desired to bear a message to the Great King, in London.”
Tickled by such delicate flattery, and the honors proffered her, this lady owl, after much blinking and winking, flirting, and fluttering, at last agreed to go to King Henry VIII in London. The business, with which she was charged, was to protest against Norman brutality and to plead for justice.
Now this old lady-owl, gray with centuries, though she had such short ears, kept them open by day and during the night, also, for all the gossip that floated in the air. She knew all about everybody and everything. From what she had heard, she expected to find the new King, Henry VIII, a royal fellow in velvet, with a crown on his head, and his body as big and round as a hogshead, sitting in a room full of chopping blocks and battle axes. Further, she fancied she would find a dozen pretty women locked up in his palace, some in the cellar, others in the pantry, and more in the garret; but all waiting to have their heads chopped off.
For the popular story ran that his chief amusement was to marry a wife one day and slice off her head the next.
It was said also that the King kept a private graveyard, and took a walk in it every afternoon to study the epitaphs, which he kept a scholar busy in writing; and also a man, from the marble yard near by, to chisel them on the tombs, after his various wives had been properly beheaded.
But the owl never could find out whether these fables were wicked fibs, or fairy tales, or only street talk.
Puck and the owl together arrived in London, at the palace, when the King was at his dinner. The butlers and lackeys wanted to keep them out, but the merry monarch gave orders to let them in at once. He made the owl perch over the mantel piece, but told Puck to stand upon the dinner table and walk over the tablecloth. The pepper box was put away, so that he should not sneeze and the King carefully removed the mustard pot, for fear the little fairy fellow might fall in it and be drowned in the hot stuff.
His Majesty said that, for the time being, Puck should be the Prince of Wales. Puck strutted about to the amusement of the King and all the Court ladies, but he kept away from the pepper, which made his nose tingle, and from the hot soup, for fear he might tumble into it and be scalded. When the dessert came on, Puck hid himself under a walnut shell, just for fun.
It would take too long to tell about all that was said, or the questions, which the King asked about his Welsh subjects, and which either the owl or the fairy man answered. According to Puck’s story, Wales was then a most distressful country, though the Welshery, to a man, wanted to be good and loyal subjects of the Tudors.
Several times did Puck appeal to the owl, to have his story confirmed, because this wise bird had lived among the Cymry, centuries before the Normans came. The owl every time blinked, bowed, and answered solemnly:
“To whit, to who. To whit, to who,” which in this case showed that she had learned to speak the Court language.
“Why, bless my soul, the owl speaks good Cockney Hinglish,” whispered one of the butlers, who had been born in Wales.
“Yes, but that is the proper way to address His Majesty, King Ennery the Heighth,” answered the other butler, who was a native-born Londoner.
Puck and the owl returned to Wales. What happened after that, is the A B C of history, that everybody knows, and for which all the Welsh people to this day bless the Tudors, who made the Welsh equal before the law with any and all Englishmen. Even Puck himself had never seen anything like the change that quickly took place for the better, nor did Queen Mab, with her wand, ever work such wonders.
It was better than a fairy tale, and the effects, very soon seen, were even more wonderful. Down went the castles into ruins, for rats to run around in, and wild dogs to yelp and foxes to hide in, or look out of the casements. To-day, what were once banqueting halls are covered with moss, and on the ground grass grows, over which sheep graze and children play; while rooks and crows nest or roost in the tall towers.
Any Englishman’s life was safe anywhere, and Wales became one of the most easily governed countries in all the wonderful British Empire.
And in the great world-war, that even children, who read these stories, can remember, Wales, the Land of the Free, the Home of Deathless Democracy, led all the British Isles, colonies, islands, or coaling stations around the wide world, in loyalty, valor and sacrifice. And the handsome son of the King, George, the Prince of Wales, led the descendants of Welsh archers, now called the Fusileers. They went into battle, singing, “Old Land our Fathers before us held so dear”; or they marched, following the band that played “The Men of Harlech.”
It is because Welsh cherish their traditions, harps, music, language and noble inheritances, with which they feed their souls, that they lead the four nations of the British Isles in the nobler virtues, that keep a nation alive, as well as in the sweet humanities of the Red Cross and in generous hospitality to the refugee Belgian. True to his motto, “I serve,” the Prince of Wales who came to see us in 1919—as did his grandfather, whom the story-teller saw when he visited our Independence Hall in 1860—loved to be the servant of his people.
What was it that wrought this peaceful wonder of the sixteenth century? Was it a fairy spell magic ointment, star-tipped wand, treasures of caves, or ocean depths? Was it anything that dragons, giants, ogres, or even swords, spears, catapults, or whips and clubs, or elves or gnomes could do?
Not a bit of it! Only justice and kindness, instead of brutality and force.
Welsh Fairy Tales
By WILLIAM ELLIOT GRIFFIS