Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Lady of the Lake - the legend of Llyn-y-Fan-Fach

This is a story which has been included many times in various folk story collections, from the Victorians to the present day, and of course passed down in Welsh oral history throughout the ages.

Imagine, if you will, that it is 12th Century Wales. A widow lived at Blaensawdde, near Llandeusant (the lovely village where you turn off to reach Llyn-y-Fan-Fach). She had a son, who she trusted to take her cattle to pasture near the Lake. On a warm summer's day he loved nothing better than to sit beside the lake, daydreaming, as the cattle browsed the mountain grasses. He watched the Red Kites fly above his head, seemingly skimming the mountain's edge as they hunted, calling shrilly to one another.

On such a warm summer's day, he was about to collect his cattle and drive them back down the valley, when, looking across the lake one last time, he found he was being watched by the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, amidst the waters of the lake, and almost without thinking, he offered her the bread and cheese which remained from his lunch. But she shook her head at him, saying:

“Cras dy fara!
“Hard baked is thy bread!

"Nid hawdd fy nala”
‘Tis not easy to catch me”

and she dived beneath the water. The young man, despondent at losing her, went home and told his mother all that had happened. She shook her head at him, and said that it was obvious that she didn't like hard-baked bread, so next time he should take a morsal of unbaked dough with him, and offer it.

The next day, he was back at the lake before the sun was barely above the mountain, and as his cattle grazed, he scanned the rippling waters of the lake for the beautiful girl, but there was no sign of her. His cattle, taking advantage of his absent-mindedness, climbed higher up the slopes until he finally noticed their absence and went in search of them. As he began to climb, once again, the beautiful girl appeared by the water's edge and heart in his mouth, he scrambled across and proffered her the unbaked dough, declaring his love of her forever more. Once again she scorned him, saying:

“Llaith dy fara! “
Unbaked is thy bread!

Ti ni fynna.”
I will not have thee.”

but she paid him a kind glance before once more diving beneath the silent waters of the lake, leaving the disconsolate boy alone with his straying cattle. But the memory of that glance gave him hope, and when he told his mother of what had passed, and she advised him that perhaps it was lightly-baked bread that the lady preferred.

Once again, next day he was at the lake whilst the dew was still on the grass, and he spent a long and lonely day waiting, watching the bees gather pollen from the heather, and the buzzards soar high above his head, and listening the ravens croaking from their nests high in the crags above him. He heard the bells of evensong being rung at the little church at Llandeusant, and knew the hour for returning home was upon him. Sadly he looked across the lake one last time and was astounded to see 7 cattle walking across the water towards him, accompanied by the beautiful girl who had captured his heart. As she came to shore, she stretched out her hand for the lightly-baked bread and took it, in acceptance of him as a husband. But she warned him that should he ever strike her three blows without cause, she would forsake him forever, for

“Fri ergyd diachos.”
“Three causeless blows.”

would break the spell which bound them.

Thus she consented to become his wife, and when they were married, she brought with her a wonderful dowry - all the cattle, sheep, goats and horses she could count before she ran out of breath were granted by her father. Once again, the boy was warned that should he strike her three times without cause, he would lose her. After the wedding, she counted rapidly, in fives, and thus her dowry of livestock was indeed a handsome one. But should those causeless blows ever be struck, he was once again warned by her father, not just she but all her dowry, would return from whence they came.

They set up home at a farm called Esgair Llaethdy (this translates to Dairy Ridge) and for a time were very happy. They were invited to a Christening, but the wife was reluctant to go as she felt the journey was too far for her to walk. He encouraged her to catch up a horse from the field to ride, and she said she would if he got her gloves from the house. On his return she still had not moved to fetch the horse, and in jest he lightly tapped her shoulder with the gloves, saying "Go, go!" And so the first blow was struck.

Some while later they were at a wedding and his wife became upset, and bemused by her crying when all others were laughing and dancing, he touched her shoulder to ask why she was so sad. She raised her eyes and told him, "Now people are entering into trouble, and your troubles are likely to start since you have struck me a second time."

May years passed, and their sons grew from childhood to become young men. Their father was always alert to any occasion when by mischance he might be accused of striking that final causeless blow. Her love for him was as powerful as ever it had been - and his for her - but if that blow was struck, then leave him she must, as she had no power to prevent the outcome.

First a christening, then a wedding, had weakened the magic, and it was a funeral which was finally to undo their love. The husband was distressed when he saw that his wife was laughing when all others were stricken with grief and he touched her arm, saying, "Wife, hush, hush - don't laugh." That was his undoing. She flung from the house, telling him, "The last blow has been struck. Our marriage contract has been broken and is at an end. Farewell."

She returned to their home and he watched helplessly as she began to call up all their livestock, every cow, horse, goat and sheep. Even a small black calf which had been killed came back to life and followed with the rest. Four oxen were ploughing one of the fields, but they left the plough to answer her call:

“Pedwar eidion glas “
The four grey oxen

Sydd ar y maes
That are in the field

Deuwch chwithau
Come you also

Yn iach adre!”
Quite well home!”

They reached the lake and disappeared beneath its waters without a trace, leaving only the plough marks made by the oxen.

For many years her sons haunted the lake, hoping to catch sight of their mother. One day she appeared to Rhiwallon, her eldest son, was walking near Dol Howel, at the Mountain Gate (now known as the Physicians' Gate or Llydiad y Meddygon) . She told him that his purpose on earth was to heal the sick and ease their suffering and to this end she gave him a bag of herbs and prescriptions for healing. She foresaw him and his brothers becoming the most skilled physicians in the country for many generations.

Appearing again before her sons, she accompanied them to the Dingle of the Physicians (Pant y Meddygon) and showed them the individual herbs and told them their medical properties and what illnessess they could treat. They became very skilled in their profession, and undertook to write down all they had learned, so that others could also learn and benefit from their knowledge.

Their celebrity brought them royal patronage, and they were physicians to Lord Rhys Gryg, one of the sons of Rhys ap Gruffudd of Dinefwr Castle, and he gave them rank and land at Myddfai. Their descendents practiced medicine throughout an unbroken line until 1743 and the very last of their number, Rice Williams, MD, died in Aberystwyth in 1842. Locally they are also referred to as the Magicians of Myddfai.

I think that these Lady of the Lake folk stories probably had their roots in Celtic folk lore, when lakes were seen as liminal areas between this life and the next. As for a link with Arthurian legend (and Merlin) - I'll let you decide.

Many thanks to this link for the backbone of the story. Click here for the Wikipedia link about Rhys Gryg.

I am glad to add that my "bug" hasn't gone to my chest but it is now making my nose run so I shall assume it was "just" a cold brewing!


  1. Oh yes, you can easily imagine those legends when you gaze out across that mysterious lake. Very atmospheric.

  2. Well, there is an ENT surgeon practising in Bournemouth and his surname is Rhys Williams, so maybe the line continues....?

    What a fascinating story and well told.

  3. DW - fancy that! You never know . . . Of course, you know this is the lake that Edwy ran up to, stripping off his clothes, and then dived in . . .

    Kath - glad you enjoyed it. I have seen the lake (and mountains) in various moods - in dense fog incredibly atmospheric! Best in full sun, with the Foxgloves out.

  4. Great story isn't it but sad too. I always think of King Arthur when I see the words Lady of the Lake though I was familiar with this story too.