Monday, May 20, 2013

The Fairy Belief in Wales

The Fairy Belief in Wales




Among the vulgar in Wales, the belief in fairies is less nearly extinct than casual observers would be likely to suppose. Even educated people who dwell in Wales, and have dwelt there all their lives, cannot always be classed as other than casual observers in this field. There are some such residents who have paid special attention to the subject, and have ]formed an opinion as to the extent of prevalence of popular credulity herein; but most Welsh people of the educated class, I find, have no opinion, beyond a vague surprise that the question should be raised at all. So lately as the year 1858, a learned writer in the ‘Arch├Žologia Cambrensis’ declared that ‘the traveller may now pass from one end of the Principality to the other, without his being shocked or amused, as the case may be, by any of the fairy legends or popular tales which used to pass current from father to son.’ But in the same periodical, eighteen years later, I find Mr. John Walter Lukis (President of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society), asserting with regard to the cromlechs, tumuli, and ancient camps in Glamorganshire: ‘There are always fairy tales and ghost stories connected with them; some, though fully believed inby the inhabitants of those localities, are often of the most absurd character; in fact, the more ridiculous they are, the more they are believed in.’[2] My own observation leads me to support the testimony of the last-named witness. Educated Europeans generally conceive that this sort of belief is extinct in their own land, or, at least their own immediate section of that land. They accredit such degree of belief as may remain, in this enlightened age, to some remote part—to the south, if they dwell in the north; to the north, if they dwell in the south. But especially they accredit it to a previous age: in Wales, to last century, or the middle ages, or the days of King Arthur. The rector of Merthyr, being an elderly man, accredits it to his youth. ‘I am old enough to remember,’ he wrote me under date of January 30th, 1877, ‘that these tales were thoroughly believed in among country folk forty or fifty years [ago.’ People of superior culture have held this kind of faith concerning fairy-lore, it seems to me, in every age, except the more remote. Chaucer held it, almost five centuries ago, and wrote:[3]
In olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour, ...Al was this lond fulfilled of fayrie; ...I speke of many hundrid yer ago;But now can no man see non elves mo.
Dryden held it, two hundred years later, and said of the fairies:
I speak of ancient times, for now the swainReturning late may pass the woods in vain,And never hope to see the nightly train.
In all later days, other authors have written the same sort of thing; it is not thus now, say they, but it was recently thus. The truth, probably, is that if you will but sink down to the level of common life, of ignorant life, especially in rural neighbourhoods, there you will find the same old beliefs prevailing, in about the same degree to which they have ever prevailed, within the past five hundred years. To sink to this level successfully, one must become a living unit in that life, as I have done in Wales and elsewhere, from time to time. Then one will hear the truth from, or at least the true sentiments of, the class he seeks to know. The practice of every generation in thus relegating fairy belief to a date just previous to its own does not apply, however, to superstitious beliefs in general; for, concerning many such beliefs, their greater or less prevalence at certain dates (as in the history of witchcraft) is matter of well-ascertained fact. I confine the argument, for the present, strictly to the domain of faerie. In this domain, the prevalent belief in Wales may be said to rest with the ignorant, to [5]be strongest in rural and mining districts, to be childlike and poetic, and to relate to anywhere except the spot where the speaker dwells—as to the next parish, to the next county, to the distant mountains, or to the shadow-land of Gwerddonau Llion, the green meadows of the sea.