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Chapter VIII
Fairy Rings

The Prophet Jones and his Works--The Mysterious Languages of the Tylwyth Teg--The Horse in Welsh Folk-Lore--Equestrian Fairies--Fairy Cattle, Sheep, Swine etc.--The Flying Fairies of Bedwellty--The Fairy Sheepfold at Cae'r Cefn.


THE circles in the grass of green fields, which are commonly called fairy rings, are numerous in Wales, and it is deemed just as well to keep out of them, even in our day. The peasantry no longer believe that the fairies can be seen dancing there, nor that the cap of invisibility will fall on the head of one who enters the circle; but they do believe that the fairies, in a time not long gone, made these circles with the tread of their tripping feet, and that some misfortune will probably befall any person intruding upon this forbidden ground. An old man at Peterstone-super-Ely told me he well remembered in his childhood being warned by his mother to keep away from the fairy rings. The counsel thus given him made so deep an impression on his mind, that he had never in his life entered one. He remarked further, in answer to a question, that he had never walked under a ladder, because it was unlucky to walk under a ladder. This class of superstitions is a very large one, and is encountered the world over; and the fairy rings seem to fall into this class, so far as present-clay belief in Wales is concerned.


Allusion has been made in the preceding pages to the Prophet Jones, and as some account of this personage is imperatively called for in a work treating of Welsh folk-lore, I will give it here, before citing his remarks respecting fairy circles. Edmund Jones, 'of the Tranch,' was a dissenting minister, noted in Monmouthshire in the first years of the present century for his fervent piety and his large credulity with regard to fairies and all other goblins. He was for many years pastor of the congregation of Protestant Dissenters at the Ebenezer Chapel, near Pontypool, and lived at a place called 'The Tranch,' near there. He wrote and published two books, one an 'Account of the Parish of Aberystruth,' printed at Trevecca; the other a 'Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the County of Monmouth and the Principality of Wales,' printed at Newport; and they have been referred to by most writers on folk-lore who have attempted any. account of Welsh superstitions during the past half-century; but the books are extremely rare, and writers who have quoted from them have generally been content to do so at second-hand. Keightley ['Fairy Mythology,' 412] quoting from the 'Apparitions,' misprints the author's name 'Edward Jones of the Tiarch,' and accredits the publication to 'the latter half of the eighteenth century,' whereas it was published in 1813. Keightley's quotations are taken from Croker, who himself had never seen the book'; but heard of it through a Welsh friend. It is not in the library of the British Museum, and I know of but a few copies in Wales; the one I saw is at Swansea. The author of these curious volumes was called the Prophet Jones, because of his gift of prophecy--so a Welshman in Monmouthshire told me. In my informant's words, He was noted in his district for foretelling things. He would, for instance, be asked to preach at some anniversary, or quarterly meeting, and he would answer, "I cannot, on that day; the rain will descend in torrents, and there will be no congregation." He would give the last mite he possessed to the needy, and tell his wife, "God will send a messenger with food and raiment at nine o'clock tomorrow. " And so it would be.' He was a thorough-going believer in Welsh fairies, and full of indignant scorn toward all who dared question their reality. To him these phantoms were part and parcel of the Christian faith, and those who disbelieved in them were denounced as Sadducees and infidels.


With regard to the fairy rings, Jones held that the Bible alludes to them, Matt. xii. 43 'The fairies dance in circles in dry places; and the Scripture saith that the walk of evil spirits is in dry places.' They favour the oak-tree, and the female oak especially, partly because of its more wide-spreading branches and deeper shade, partly because of the 'superstitious use made of it beyond other trees in the days of the Druids. Formerly, it was dangerous to cut down a female oak in a fair dry place. 'Some were said to lose their lives by it, by a strange aching pain which admitted of no remedy, as one of my ancestors did; but now that men have more knowledge and faith, this effect follows not.' William Jenkins was for a long time the schoolmaster at Trefethin church, in Monmouthshire, and coming home late in the evening, as he usually did, he often saw the fairies under an oak within two or three fields from the church. He saw them more often on Friday evenings than any other. At one time he went to examine the ground about this oak, and there he found the reddish circle wherein the fairies danced, 'such as have often been seen under the female oak, called Brenhin-bren.' They appeared more often to an uneven number of persons, as one, three, five, &c.; and oftener to men than to women. Thomas William Edmund, of Hafodafel, 'an honest pious man, who often saw them,' declared that they appeared with one bigger than the rest going before them in the company. They were also heard talking together in a noisy, jabbering way; but no one could distinguish the words. They seemed, however, to be a very disputatious race; insomuch, indeed, that there was a proverb in some parts of Wales to this effect: 'Ni chytunant hwy mwy na Bendith eu Mammau,' (They will no more agree than the fairies).


This observation respecting the mysterious language used by fairies recalls again the medieval story of Elidurus. The example of fairy words there given by Giraldus is thought by the learned rector of Llanarmon [Rev. Peter Roberts, 'Cambrian Popular Antiquities,' 195. (1815)] to be 'a mixture of Irish and Welsh. The letter U, with which each of the words begins, is, probably, no more than the representative of an indistinct sound like the E mute of the French, and which those whose language and manners are vulgar often prefix to words indifferently. If, then, they be read dor dorum, and halgein dorum, dor and halgein are nearly dwr (or, as it is pronounced, door) and halen, the Welsh words for water and salt respectively. Dorum therefore is equivalent to "give me," and the Irish expression for give me" is thorum; the Welsh dyro i mi. The order of the words, however, is reversed. The order should be thorum dor, and thorum halen in Irish, and in Welsh dyro i mi ddwr, and dyro i mi halen, but was, perhaps, reversed intentionally by the narrator, to make his tale the more marvellous.' [Supra, p. 67]


The horse plays a very active part in Welsh fairy tales. Not only does his skeleton serve for Mary Lwyds [See Index] and the like, but his spirit flits. The Welsh fairies seem very fond of going horseback. An old woman in the Vale of Neath told Mrs. Williams, who told Thomas Keightley, that she had seen fairies to the number of hundreds, mounted on little white horses, not bigger than dogs, and riding four abreast. This was about dusk, and the fairy equestrians passed quite close to her, in fact less than a quarter of a mile away. Another old woman asserted that her father had often seen the fairies riding in the air on little white horses; but he never saw them come to the ground. He heard their music sounding in the air as they galloped by. There is a tradition among the Glamorgan peasantry of a fairy battle fought on the mountain between Merthyr and Aberdare, in which the pigmy combatants were on horseback. There appeared to be two armies, one of which was mounted on milk-white steeds, and the other on horses of jet-black. They rode at each other with the utmost fury, and their swords could be seen flashing in the air like so many penknife blades. The army on the white horses won the day, and drove the black-mounted force from the field. The whole scene then disappeared in a light mist.


In the agricultural districts of Wales, the fairies are accredited with a very complete variety of useful animals; and Welsh folk-lore, both modern and medieval, abounds with tales regarding cattle, sheep, horses, poultry, goats, and other features of rural life. Such are the marvellous mare of Teirnyon, which foaled every first of May, but whose colt was always spirited away, no man knew whither the Ychain Banog, or mighty oxen, which drew the water-monster out of the enchanted lake, and by their lowing split the rocks in twain; the lambs of St. Melangell, which at first were hares, and ran frightened under the fair saint's robes; the fairy cattle which belong to the Gwraig Annwn; the fairy sheep of Cefn Rhychdir, which rose up out of the earth and vanished into the sky; even fairy swine, which the hay-makers of Bedwellty beheld flying through the air. To some of these traditions reference has already been made; others will be mentioned again. Welsh mountain sheep will run like stags, and bound from crag to crag like wild goats; and as for Welsh swine, they are more famed in Cambrian romantic story than almost any other animal that could be named. Therefore the tale told by Rev. Roger Rogers, of the parish of Bedwellty, sounds much less absurd in Wales than it might elsewhere. It relates to a very remarkable and odd sight, seen by Lewis Thomas Jenkin's two daughters, described as virtuous and good young women, their father a substantial freeholder; and seen not only by them but by the man-servant and the maid-servant, and by two of the neighbours, viz., Elizabeth David, and Edmund Roger. All these six people were on a certain day making hay in a field called Y Weirglodd Fawr Dafolog, when they plainly beheld a company of fairies rose up out of the earth in the shape of a flock of sheep; the same being about a quarter of a mile distant, over a hill, called Cefn Rhychdir; and soon the fairy flock went out of sight, as if they vanished in the air. Later in the day they all saw this company of fairies again, but while to two of the haymakers the fairies appeared as sheep, to others they appeared as greyhounds, and to others as swine, and to others as naked infants. Whereupon the Rev. Roger remarks:

'The sons of infidelity are very unreasonable not to believe the testimonies of so many witnesses.' [Jones 'Apparitions,' 24.]


The Welsh sheep, it is affirmed, are the only beasts which will eat the grass that grows in the fairy rings; all other creatures avoid it, but the sheep eat it greedily, hence the superiority of Welsh mutton over any mutton in the wide world. The Prophet Jones tells of the sheepfold of the fairies, which he himself saw--a circumstance to be accorded due weight, the judicious reader will at once perceive, because as a habit Mr. Jones was not specially given to seeing goblins on his own account. He believes in them with all his heart, but it is usually a, friend or acquaintance who has seen them. In this instance, therefore, the exception is to be noted sharply. He thus tells the tale:

If any think I am too credulous in these relations, and speak of things of which I myself have had no experience, I must let them know they are mistaken. For when a very young boy, going with my aunt, early in the morning, but after sun-rising, from Hafodafel towards my father's house at Pen-y-Llwyn, at the end of the upper field of Cae'r Cefn, ... I saw the likeness of a sheepfold, with the door towards the south, ... and within the fold a company of many people. Some sitting down, and some going in, and coming out, bowing their heads as they passed under the branch over the door. ... I well remember the resemblance among them of a fair woman with a high-crown hat and a red jacket, who made a better appearance than the rest, and whom I think they seemed to honour. I still have a pretty clear idea of her white face and well-formed countenance. The men wore white cravats. . . . I wondered at my aunt, going before me, that she did not look towards them, and we going so near them. As for me, I was loth to speak until I passed them some way, and then told my aunt what I had seen, at which she wondered, and said I dreamed. . . . There was no fold in that place. There is indeed the ruins of some small edifice in that place, most likely a fold, but so old that the stones are swallowed up, and almost wholly crusted over with earth and grass.'

This tale has long been deemed a poser by the believers in Cambrian phantoms; but there is something to be said on the side of doubt. Conceding that the Reverend Edmund Jones, the dissenting minister, was an honest gentleman who meant to tell truth, it is still possible that Master Neddy Jones, the lad, could draw a long bow like another boy; and that having seen, possibly, some gypsy group (or possibly nothing whatever) he embellished his tale to excite wonderment, as boys do. Telling a fictitious tale so often that one at last comes to believe it oneself, is a well-known mental phenomenon.


The only other instance given by the Prophet Jones as from the depths of his own personal experience, is more vague in its particulars than the preceding, and happened when he had presumably grown to years of discretion. He was led astray, it appears, by the Old Woman of the Mountain, on Llanhiddel Bryn, near Pontypool--an eminence with which he was perfectly well acquainted, and which is no more than a mile and a half long and about half a mile broad.' But as a result of his going astray, he came to a house where he had never been before; and being deeply moved by his uncanny experience, 'offered to go to prayer, which they admitted. . . . I was then about twenty-three years of age and had begun to preach the everlastng gospel. They seemed to admire that a person so young should be so warmly disposed; few young men of my age being religious in this country then. Much good came into this house and still continues in it. . . . So the old hag got nothing by leading me astray that time.'

Next: Chapter IX: Piety as a Protection from the Seductions of the Tylwyth Teg