As many readers are likely to be aware, The Mabinogion is the collection of early medieval Welsh stories that connects us to ancient Celtic mythology and gives us the first literary mentions of later Romantic hero, King Arthur. Much could be written (and has been) about the connections between these stories and the works of Chretien de Troyes, Marie de France and Malory; yet more can be said about the links between the Welsh myths and the Irish stories of Cuchulain and others. Here, I wish solely to focus upon the traces of fairy-lore in these accounts.
It is fair to say that The Mabinogion is steeped in magic. Fairy glamour- the use of concealment, deception and transformation- is a theme that runs throughout the different stories of the collection. The ‘glamorous’ quality of the tales is so fundamental to them and so subtle that we might almost overlook it. Nonetheless, the integral otherworldly quality of many of the stories shares a nature and a source with faery. These are fairy-tales just as much as they are hero stories, pseudo-history or courtly romances.
There are several features that can be identified which more explicitly demonstrate the fairy presence in The Mabinogion. These include:
- mounds- in several tales the action takes place, or characters are discovered seated upon, mounds. In Pwyll and Manawyddan the gorsedd at Narberth has a particularly central role, but see too the stories of Owein and of Peredur- in the latter one mound is also explicitly stated to be a barrow, reminding us of the link between fairies and ancient sites. Regular readers will further recall that grassy knolls are a typical fairy haunt;
- magical ointment- in an incident in the story of Peredur, an ointment is used to revive knights killed in combat. This quality of bestowing immortality or overcoming mortality recalls my recent discussion of the properties of fairy ointment;
- fairy hounds- at the very start of the story Pwyll, the eponymous hero comes across Arawn, lord of Annwfn, who is out hunting with archetypal supernatural hounds– white with red ears. This is very plainly a fairy pack and Arawn appears to be the lord of fairyland;
- in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen, the many members of King Arthur’s court are listed. Amongst them is his messenger Sgilti Light Foot who can run over forests on the tops of the trees and over mountains on the tips of the reeds. This skill is directly paralleled by a fairy trait recorded at Llanberis in North Wales by John Rhys; the Tylwyth Teg were said to be so light and agile that they could dance on the tips of the rushes (Celtic folklore p.83);
- characters in the tales can travel with a tell-tale gliding motion, most notably Rhiannon in the story of Pwyll; she cannot be pursued either slowly or quickly, but always mysteriously moves ahead of those following her. This gait is distinctively fairy and is a feature of the ‘fairy rades’ often commented upon.
- lastly, we must address the identity and nature of the people called Coranyeit/ Corannyeid (modern Welsh coraniaid) who bring plague to Britain in the story of Llud and Llevelys. The episode requires a lengthier consideration.
The people called Coranyeit appear to be fairies of some description- or, at least, strangers with magical powers. Their name is etymologically linked to Welsh corr/ corrach (dwarf/ stunted), suggestive of diminutive fairies, and to the Breton fairies called korriganed. The latter closely resemble the pixies of the British south-west, but it is hard to identify any clear parallels between korrigans and coranyeit. All we do know is that the troublesome beings of the Welsh story are said to have come from Asia (Triad 36).
The Coraniaid are classed as one of the three gormessoedd (foreign oppressions or invasions) of Wales; this is because they have an unfortunate gift- they can hear anything that is said, however hushed the voice, provided that the wind catches it. As a result, no-one could plot against them and they could seemingly never be harmed. This trait perhaps is linked to the need to refer to the fairies by pseudonyms, such as Tylwyth Teg, Bendith y Mamau or ‘good neighbours’ so as not to insult or antagonise them.
The Corannyeid are eliminated from the realm by mashing insects in water and sprinkling this upon the assembled people. The humans present are unharmed and the intruders are destroyed. This detail is very puzzling and has never had any satisfactory explanation; some commentators have suggested that Spanish fly may be involved. The Welsh word used in the story (pryvet; Modern Welsh pryfed) is of very limited assistance in solving the mystery as it simply means ‘insects’ in a general sense. Nothing is clear, then, but there is some parallel at least to the use of various plants like rowan or of substances like stale urine to repel fairies. These may be distasteful to humans, but they are none of them fatal.
In the Coraniaid‘s size, their malevolence and their supernatural senses there is plainly a good deal of fairy nature. A final observation may clinch this identification. In 1779 a clergy man called Edmund Jones wrote A geographical, historical and religious account of the parish of Aberystruth. He had cause to criticise (at length) the parishioners’ foolish attachment to old delusions concerning the tylwyth teg. Amongst the beliefs prevalent in the area in the late eighteenth century was the idea that the fairies would always know whatever was spoken out of doors, especially at night (p.72). This seems to be a direct preservation of the Corianaid‘s regrettable eavesdropping abilities.