Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 

Chapter VII
Fairy Music

Birds of Enchantment--The Legend of Shon ap Shenkin--Harp Music in Welsh Fairy Tales--Legend of the Magic Harp--Songs and Tunes of the Tylwyth Teg--The Legend of Iola ap Hugh--Mystic origin of an old Welsh Air


IN those rare cases where it is not dancing which holds the victim of Tylwyth Teg in its fatal fascination, the seducer is music. There is a class of stories still common in Wales, in which is preserved a wondrously beautiful survival of the primitive mythology. In the vast middle ground between our own commonplace times and the pre-historic ages we encounter more than once the lovely legend of the Birds of Rhiannon, which sang so sweetly that the warrior knights stood listening entranced for eighty years. This legend appears in the Mabinogi of 'Branwen, daughter of Llyr,' and, as we read it there it is a medieval tale; but the medieval authors of the Mabinogion as we know them were working over old materials--telling again the old tales which had come down through unnumbered centuries from father to son by tradition. Cambrian poets of an earlier age often allude to the birds of Rhiannon; they are mentioned in the Triads. In the Mabinogi, the period the warriors listened is seven years. Seven men only had escaped from a certain battle with the Irish, and they were bidden by their dying chief to cut off his head and bear it to London and bury it with the face towards France. Various were the adventures they encountered while obeying this injunction. At Harlech they stopped to rest, and sat down to eat and drink. 'And there came three birds, and began singing unto them a certain song, and all the songs they had ever heard were unpleasant compared thereto; and the birds seemed to them to be at a great distance from them over the sea, yet they appeared as distinct as if they were close by; and at this repast they continued seven years.' [Lady Charlotte Guest's 'Mabinogion,' 381.] This enchanting fancy reappears in the local story of Shon ap Shenkin, which was related to me by a farmer's wife near the reputed scene of the legend. Pant Shon Shenkin has already been mentioned as a famous centre for Carmarthenshire fairies. The story of Taffy ap Sion and this of Shon ap Shenkin were probably one and the same at some period in their career, although they are now distinct. Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin. As he was going afield early one fine summer's morning he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farmhouse which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed,grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never before seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. 'What do I want here?' ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; 'that's a pretty question Who are you that dare to insult .me in my own house?' 'In your own house? How is this? where's my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?'

'Under the tree!--music! what's your name?' Shon ap Shenkin.' 'Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you.'' cried the old man. I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle--embrace your nephew.' With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.


The harp is played by Welsh fairies to an extent unknown in those parts of the world where the harp is less popular among the people. When any instrument is distinctly heard in fairy cymmoedd it is usually the harp. Sometimes it is a fiddle, but then on close examination it will be discovered that it is a captured mortal who is playing it; the Tylwyth Teg prefer the harp. They play the bugle on specially grand occasions, and there is a case or two on record where the drone of the bagpipes was heard; but it is not doubted that the player was some stray fairy from Scotland or elsewhere over the border. On the top of Craig-y-Ddinas thousands of white fairies dance to the music of many harps. In the dingle called Cwm Pergwm, in the Vale of Neath, the Tylwyth Teg make music behind the waterfall, and when they go off over the mountains the sounds of their harps are heard dying away as they recede. The story which presents the Cambrian equivalent of the Magic Flute substitutes a harp for the (to Welsh-men) less familiar instrument. As told to me this story runs somewhat thus: A company of fairies which frequented Cader Idris were in the habit of going about from cottage to cottage in that part of Wales, in pursuit of information concerning the degree of benevolence possessed by the cottagers. Those who gave these fairies an ungracious welcome were subject to bad luck during the rest of their lives, but those who were good to the little folk became the recipients of their favour. Old Morgan ap Rhys sat one night in his own chimney corner making himself comfortable with his pipe and his pint of cwnv da. The good ale having melted his soul a trifle, he was in a more jolly mood than was natural to him, when there came a little rap at the door, which reached his ear dully through the smoke of his pipe and the noise of his own voice--for in his merriment Morgan was singing a roistering song, though he could not sing any better than a haw--which is Welsh for a donkey. But Morgan did not take the trouble to get tip at sound of the rap; his manners were not the most refined; he thought it was polite enough for a man on hospitable purposes bent to bawl forth in ringing Welsh, 'Gwaed dyn a'i gilydd! Why don't you come in when you've got as far as the door?' The welcome was not very polite, but it was sufficient. The door opened, and three travellers entered, looking worn and weary. Now these were the fairies from Cader Idris, disguised in this manner for purposes of observation, and Morgan never suspected they were other than they appeared. 'Good sir,' said one of the travellers, 'we are worn and weary, but all we seek is a bite of food to put in our wallet, and then we will go on our way.' 'Waw, lads! is that all you want? Well, there, look you, is the loaf and the cheese, and the knife lies by them, and you may cut what you like, and fill your bellies as well as your wallet, for never shall it be said that Morgan ap Rhys denied bread and cheese to a fellow creature.' The travellers proceeded to help themselves, while Morgan continued to drink and smoke, and to sing after his fashion, which was a very rough fashion indeed. As they were about to go, the fairy travellers turned to Morgan and said, 'Since you have been so generous we will show that we are grateful. It is in our power to grant you any one wish you may have; therefore tell us what that wish may be.' Ho, ho!' said Morgan, 'is that the case? Ah, I see you are making sport of me. Wela, wela, the wish of my heart is to have a harp that will play under my fingers. no matter how ill I strike it; a harp that will play lively tunes, look you; no melancholy music for me!' He had hardly spoken, when to his astonishment, there on the hearth before him stood a splendid harp, and he was alone. 'Waw!' cried Morgan, 'they're gone already.' Then looking behind him he saw they had not taken the bread and cheese they had cut off; after all. ' 'Twas the fairies, perhaps,' he muttered, but sat serenely quaffing his beer, and staring at the harp. There was a sound of footsteps behind him, and his wife came in from out doors with some friends. Morgan feeling very jolly, thought he would raise a little laughter among them by displaying his want of skill upon the harp. So he commenced to play--oh, what a mad and capering tune it was! 'Waw!' said Morgan, 'but this is a harp. Holo! what ails you all?' For as fast as he played his neighbours danced, every man, woman, and child of them all footing it like mad creatures. Some of them bounded up against the roof of the cottage till their heads cracked again others spun round and round, knocking over the furniture; and, as Morgan went on thoughtlessly playing, they began to pray to him to stop before they should be jolted to pieces. But Morgan found the scene too amusing to want to stop; besides, he was enamoured of his own suddenly developed skill as a musician; and he twanged the strings and laughed till his sides ached and the tears rolled down his cheeks, at the antics of his friends. Tired out at last he stopped, and the dancers fell exhausted on the floor, the chairs, the tables, declaring the diawl himself was in the harp. 'I know a tune worth two of that,' quoth Morgan, picking up the harp again; but at sight of this motion all the company vanished from the house and escaped, leaving Morgan rolling merrily in his chair. Whenever Morgan got a little tipsy after that, he would get the harp and set everybody round him to dancing; and the consequence was he got a bad name, and no one would go near him. But all their precautions did nor prevent the neighbours from being caught now and then, when Morgan took his revenge by making them dance till their legs were broken, or some other damage was done them. Even lame people and invalids were compelled to dance whenever they heard the music of this diabolical telyn. In short, Morgan so abused his fairy gift that one night the good people came and took it away from him, and he never saw it more. The consequence was he became morose, and drank himself to death--a warning to all who accept from the fairies favours they do not deserve.


The music of the Tylwyth Teg has been variously described by people who claim to have heard it; but as a rule with much vagueness, as of a sweet intangible harmony, recalling the experience of Caliban:

The isle is full of noises;
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments
Will hum about mine ears.
['Tempest,' Act III., Sc. 2.]

One Morgan Gwilym, who saw the fairies by Cylepsta Waterfall, and heard their music dying away, was only able to recall the last strain, which he said sounded something like this:

Edmund Daniel, of the Arail, 'an honest man and a constant speaker of truth,' told the Prophet Jones that he often saw the fairies after sunset crossing the Cefn Bach from the Valley of the Church towards Hafodafel, leaping and striking in the air, and making a serpentine path through the air, in this form

The fairies were seen and heard by many persons in that neighbourhood, and sometimes by several persons together. They appeared more often by night than by day, and in the morning and evening more often than about noon. Many heard their music, and said of it that it was low and pleasant; but that it had this peculiarity: no one could ever learn the tune. In more favoured parts of the Principality, the words of the song were distinctly heard, and under the name of the 'Cân y Tylwyth Teg' are preserved as follows:

Dowch, dowch, gyfeillon mân,
O blith marwolion byd,
Dowch, dowch, a dowch yn Iân.
Partowch partowch eich pibau cân,
Gan ddawnsio dowch i gyd,
Mae yn hyfryd heno i hwn.

One is,reluctant to turn into bald English this goblin song which in its native Welsh is almost as impressive as ' Fi Fo Fum.' Let it suffice that the song is an invitation to the little ones among the dead of earth to come with music and dancing to the delights of the night revel.


In the legend of lola ap Hugh, than which no story is more widely known in Wales, the fairy origin of that famous tune 'Ffarwel Ned Pugh' is shown. It is a legend which suggests the Enchanted Flute fancy in another form, the instrument here being a fiddle, and the victim and player one under fairy control. In its introduction of bread and cheese and candles it smacks heartily of the soil. In North Wales there is a famous cave which is said to reach from its entrance on the hill-side under the Morda, the Ceiriog, and a thousand other streams, under many a league of mountain, marsh and moor, under the almost unfathomable wells that, though now choked up, once supplied Sycharth, the fortress of Glyndwrdwy, all the way to Chirk Castle.' Tradition said that whoever went within five paces of its mouth would be drawn into it and lost. That the peasants dwelling near it had a thorough respect for this tradition, was proved by the fact that all around the dangerous hole 'the grass grew as thick and as rank as in the wilds of America or some unapproached ledge of the Alps.' Both men and animals feared the spot: 'A fox, with a pack of hounds in full cry at his tail,' once turned short round on approaching it, 'with his hair all bristled and fretted like frostwork with terror,' and ran into the middle of the pack, 'as if anything earthly--even an earthly death--was a relief to his supernatural perturbations.' And the dogs in pursuit of this fox all declined to seize him, on account of the phosphoric smell and gleam of his coat. Moreover, 'Elias ap Evan, who happened one fair night to stagger just upon the rim of the forbidden space, was so frightened at what he saw and heard that he arrived at home perfectly sober, 'the only interval of sobriety, morning, noon, or night, Elias had been afflicted with for upwards of twenty years.' Nor ever after that experience-concerning which he was wont to shake his head solemnly, as if he might tell wondrous tales an' he dared--could Elias get tipsy, drink he never so faithfully to that end. As he himself expressed it, 'His shadow walked steadily before him, that at one time wheeled around him like a pointer over bog and stone.' One misty Hallow E'en, Iola ap Hugh, the fiddler, determined to solve the mysteries of the Ogof, or Cave, provided himself with 'an immense quantity of bread and cheese and seven pounds of candles,' and ventured in. He never returned; but long, long afterwards, at the twilight of another Hallow E en, an old shepherd was passing that-as he called it--' Land-Maelstrom of Diaboly,' when he heard a faint burst of melody dancing up and down the rocks above the cave. As he listened, the music gradually 'moulded itself in something like a tune, though it was a tune the shepherd had never heard before.' And it sounded as if it were being played by some jolting fiend, so rugged was its rhythm, so repeated its discordant groans. Now there appeared at the mouth of the Ogof a figure well known to the shepherd by remembrance. It was dimly visible; but it was lob ap Hugh, one could see that at once. He was capering madly to the music of his own fiddle, with a lantern dangling at his breast. 'Suddenly the moon shone full on the cave's yellow mouth, and the shepherd saw poor lob for a single moment-but it was distinctly and horribly. His face was pale as marble, and his eyes stared fixedly and deathfully, whilst his head dangled loose and unjointed on his shoulders. His arms seemed to keep his fiddlestick in motion without the least sympathy from their master. The shepherd saw him a moment on the verge of the cave, and then, still capering and fiddling, vanish like a shadow from his sight; but the old man was heard to say he seemed as if lie slipped into the cave in a manner quite different from the step of a living and a willing man; 'he was dragged inwards like the smoke up the chimney, or the mist at sunrise.' Years elapsed 'all hopes and sorrows connected with poor lob had not only passed away, but were nearly forgotten; the old shepherd had long lived in a parish at a considerable distance amongst the hills. One cold December Sunday evening he and his fellow-parishioners were shivering in their seats as the clerk was beginning to light the church, when a strange burst of music, starting suddenly from beneath the aisle, threw the whole congregation into confusion, and then it passed faintly along to the farther end of the church, and died gradually away till at last it was impossible to distinguish it from the wind that was careering and wailing through almost every pillar of the old church.' The shepherd immediately recognised this to be the tune Iolo had played at the mouth of the Ogof. The parson of the parish-a connoisseur in music-took it down from the old man's whistling; and to this day, if you go to the cave on Hallow eve and put your ear to the aperture, you may hear the tune 'Ffarwel Ned Pugh' as distinctly as you may hear the waves roar in a sea-shell. 'And it is said that in certain nights in leap-year a star stands opposite the farther end of the cave, and enables you to view all through it and to see lob and its other inmates.' ['Camb. Quarterly,' i., 45.]

Next: Chapter VIII: Fairy Rings