Llyn-y-Fan-FachLady of the Lake
Wherever the truth lies. When you walk the shores of this lonely lake, surrounded on three sides by jagged peaks, remember there is more to it than water, grass, and rocks.
There is no consensus whether she was sitting or standing when he first saw her, or whether the waters of Llyn-y-Fan-Fach lapped at her skirts or magically supported her weight. Some claim she was combing out her long golden hair, the glassy surface her mirror. Storytellers agree that she was beautiful, more beautiful, in fact, than anyone he had ever seen. Now, had this man read his folklore, he would have turned tail and run – we all know how these stories go – but as with the babysitter who investigates that knocking in the cellar, the imperatives of narrative prevail over common sense. Besotted, he stumbled forward and offered the Lady of the Lake his sandwiches. ‘Cras dy fara,’ she rebuked, his tactic predictably disastrous, ‘your bread is hard – you won’t catch me easily.’ With a plop, she disappeared into the depths.
It is the narratologist’s prerogative to be vague on some points, precise on others. So while we know the man lived on a farm called Blaen Sawdde, we cannot be sure of his name. Was he Rhiwallon, strapping and in the prime of his life? Or was he Gwyn, a youth in his first flush of manhood, still living with his widowed mother? These days, walkers come to Llyn-y-Fan-Fach, nestled in its natural amphitheatre, in search of solitude, but our protagonist returned with companionship in mind. Logic (his own or his mother’s) had been applied, and in his pocket was a ball of unbaked dough. He arrived as the sun climbed in the east, the waters sparkling, and remained until it sank behind the jagged ridge, painting the waters inky. The Lady of the Lake waited poetically until hope had all but faded from his heart, and his foot was on the path back home before putting in an appearance. She clearly had read up on her folklore, and knew that no one gets anywhere on a second attempt. So when the wet lump was thrust in her direction, her rebuff was blunt: ‘Llaith dy fara – your bread is wet. I don’t want you.’ Another splash, and she was gone.
I barely need tell you that he returned on day three with a perfect, soft-baked loaf cradled in his arm. You already know that the lady left him waiting till nightfall, tramping round in the pouring rain (there must have been rain at some point, this is Wales after all). You will have predicted that when she appeared, not only was his bread to her liking, but she also agreed to his stammered wedding proposal. Agree though she might – and here is the crux of our story – she did so with a condition: ‘I will marry you,’ Nelferch said (for that was her name), her heart doubtless heavy as she voiced their shared destiny, ‘but should I receive tri ergyd diachos – three causeless blows – I will leave you forever.’ Ignorance being bliss, rather than shudder at his folkloric fate, our man was overjoyed. After various obligatory trials with Doppelgänger maidens, stern fathers, and as many livestock as could be counted in one breath, the unhappy couple tied the knot.
They moved, cows, goats, swine, sheep and all, to a new home called Esgair Llaethdy – The Dairy on the Ridge. She bore three sons, and their life was, by all accounts, good. Soon enough, however, fate came knocking. In what some say is a metaphor for the culture shock felt by gentler Celts at the hands of rough and ready Saxon neighbours, one by one, the three blows fell. Some paint a hot-tempered man, but most agree the blows were a flick of a glove for refusing to saddle a horse, a tap on the shoulder for crying at a baptism, and a hand on the arm for laughing at a funeral. More signs, perhaps, of a clash of cultures. The final blow landed, and Nelferch kept her promise. ‘Yn iach adre!’ she cried, ‘Back home!’ and strode across the hills back to her lake followed by cows, goats, swine, sheep and all, bleating, braying and lowing. When she plunged into the depths, her distraught husband tried to follow. While the waters welcomed his body, flooding mouth and nose, filling his lungs, his soul was rejected. For many, the sad tale ends here, a proper Celtic tragedy with all three sons sobbing at the water’s edge. For others – Saxon revisionists, maybe, addicted to happier endings – there is one more chapter. Nelferch returned, they claim, and taught the healing arts to her sons, who went on to become the famed Physicians of Myddfai. Wherever the truth lies (if indeed it lies anywhere), when you walk the shores of this lonely lake, surrounded on three sides by jagged peaks, remember there is more to it than water, grass, and rocks. Embedded just as deeply into its history, there is also the story of a beautiful girl and a man who hadn’t read his folklore.