This is a version of a folktale from the younger days of how three rivers were born in the West Country of England. These rivers still run through the glorious valleys and water the rich pastures they pass through today. In its own way it answers a few questions though of course it is in no way scientific. I did not write this story I simply curated and edited it and rearranged the words here and there. There is more than one version with varying details in existence but this one is based upon “The legend of the Tamar, the Tavy and the Taw,” from the book “Cornwall’s Wonderland”, by Mabel Quiller-Couch.
When the earth was much younger
The story goes that in a time when the earth was much younger there were many strange and magical creatures that lived upon and underneath its surface. There were piskies, gnomes and fairies, dwarfs, giants and witches and there were Big People and there were Little People of all kinds, all dwelling on, or underneath the earth together.
Down deep below the earth there lived in a colossal cavern two of the Little People who belonged to the tribe we would call gnomes. They were a husband and wife and they busily spent their days deep down in the bowels of the earth happily digging new tunnels and making new caves. They were a very hard working couple and their delight was the cold dark tunnels and caves beneath the earth. They had not the slightest desire to see the upper world with its green grass, beautiful colorful flowers and blue skies. The bright light hurt their eyes so they kept underground and lived what they thought of as a good life doing what they did and indeed they knew no other way.
Most wondrously they were sent a little daughter who they loved with all their hearts but she was not a bit like them. They named their daughter Tamara and she was a lovely light, golden haired sprite as different from her parents as the sun is to night. Nevertheless they looked upon their child and their hearts were filled with love and pride. They never failed to wonder at and admire the beauty and grace of their child and they were filled with happiness.
As Tamara grew up she reached an age where her parents thought she would be ready to introduce her to the digging and delving they did in the depths of the earth. To their dismay Tamara did not like the cold, dark, tunnels. The silence and bare walls, floors and ceilings of her underground home filled her with gloom. She yearned for the sunlight and the fresh air of the upper world. While her parents were busy digging and delving she would escape to the earth’s surface and enjoy the birdsong and the blue sky and the lovely flowers and she would be happy among these.
Her parents could not understand her and were often angry with her. They scolded her, warning about the danger of giants that inhabited the outer world. They told her that if one captured her there was nothing anyone could do to save her. She took no notice of them for she knew not the meaning of fear and could not believe anyone would want to hurt anyone. It was such a lovely world up there and she could not see why they made such a fuss. Her parents shook their heads at their daughter’s naivety but they adored her and in many ways spoiled her, letting her have her own way too often.
As soon as their backs were turned as they began digging and delving she would take herself up to the upper world and spend her time singing with the birds and chasing the butterflies. When she got out of breath she would lie on a bank of soft moss and ferns and look upwards into the blues sky and watching the clouds go by as she basked in the warm sunshine. She loved her parents but she could not understand whatever there could be in this wonderful world that would possibly want to hurt her.
Torridge and Tavy
Now it so happened that one day as she frisked and danced after butterflies that two giants came by. These were the sons of two old giants from Dartmoor and never in all their lives had they seen anything like Tamara as she danced between the flowers and slid down sunbeams.
The giants names were Torridge and Tavy and they looked at Tamara as she played with the butterflies and they were spellbound. They had only ever seen giantesses and although these were all nice and good looking they were rather, well, statuesque. They had never seen anyone so tiny, so delicate, so vibrant and full of energy, such as Tamara. They had no idea that such dainty, beautiful creatures of light existed and they immediately fell in love with her.
Torridge and Tavy became enamored with her and followed her trying to catch up with her but they were so slow and ponderous. She was so blithe, graceful and quick she easily escaped them. She led them a merry dance thinking it great fun to allow them to get within a hands-breadth of her before shaking her pretty head and flitting out of reach of their grasping fingers. On and on she led them far and wide and all the time they tried to coax and flatter her, but she led them on over the moors and across rivers, teasing and tantalising thinking it all great fun. The more she led them on the more they ached for her and she teased them all the more for many a day. The more mischievous she was the more poor Torridge and Tavy craved her and they thought their hearts would break.
Into the sunshine
There came one morning when Tamara awoke early before her mother and father. She shivered in the damp darkness and thought about the sun that would just be rising in the upper world and suddenly she longed to hear the birds singing. The more she thought about it the more she wanted run to the upper world and into the sunshine and feel the dew on the grass with toes. So keeping very quiet she quickly dressed and left her parents for the last time to visit the wonders of the upper world.
Stepping into the upper world the sun warmed her skin and looking around she saw the trees hung with leaves of translucent green and flowers of all colours grew scattered on the ground visited by busy bees and fluttering butterflies. Running into the sunshine she flitted from flower to flower just like the butterflies. On and on she ran feeling the the dew on her feet and loving it until she came to a place where she found a pretty pool of water in a sheltered hollow which she just thought she just had to bathe in. So slipping of her dress she swam in the pool and played in the cool clear water. She froliced in the water until she got tired and then eased herself onto the grassy bank and lay basking in the warm sunshine.
Torridge and Tavy find her
That is where Torridge and Tavy found her sleeping in the sunshine. To them she looked a picture of loveliness, so pure and beautiful, as they stood dumbfounded gazing in silent admiration as she softly slept. Now these two giants were none too bright and very slow witted but they never in the world would have hurt her. They just sat down and gazed longingly at her and after a short time a thrush sang a sweet song and Tamara woke, yawned, stretched and opened her blue, blue eyes and sighed. Suddenly she was aware of the two giants and thinking she would have some fun sprang lightly to her feet but this time she could not escape
“Please don’t run away, we are not going to hurt you!” cried Torridge
“Please, please stay and be our friend!” begged Tavy
“We may be big and ugly, but we are kind and gentle,” pleaded Torridge
“And we have good hearts, please stay and take pity on us.” said Tavy, “We worship you!”
“And we have spent all our time seeking you and we love you dearly,” said Torridge and they both pleaded and begged her to stay.
Now for Tamara this was something new have two lovelorn giants pleading and begging her. She felt a thrill run through her and was excited by the power she appeared to have over these two bumbling giants.
Tamara is missed
As the morning wore on deep down in the bowels of the earth her parents stopped their incessant digging and began to worry about where their wayward daughter had gone.
“She is not usually away this long,” fretted her mother, “I hope she is alright!”
“What a nuisance she is,” grumbled her father, “thank goodness we do not have any more children. We never have time for our work these days and she worries us to death all the time!”
“Yes, I know but I am worried about her. There are giants up there and other dangers and she knows nothing of the upper world! I must go and find her and you must come too!
So the two gnomes set off to find their troublesome daughter. Reaching the upper world they were both temporarily blinded as they stepped into the bright sunlight. After a short while they became accustomed to the light and they began their search. They found her sitting in the bright sunshine on a grassy bank with a giant on each side of her telling her how much they loved and each pleading their own case to be her own one true lover.
Her parents were shocked when they saw the two giants. She was so small and they were so big. Why, there were many tulips that were bigger than her and she was no bigger than a thumb on one of the giants. Tamara’s father tried to talk to Tamara asking her to come home. When that did not work her mother begged her but she said no. So her father tried to command her to come home. That did not work either and her mother again begged and pleaded with her to come home. That still did not work, but broke her mother’s heart when she continuously refused.
“I want to stay here in the sunshine,” she told them, “I hate all that digging and delving in all those cold dark, damp tunnels. These two love me and they will take care me! I want to go with them and. see their country, I don’t want go underground ever again. You won’t let them take me underground will you boys!” she said to the giants. Torridge and Tavy swore they would never allow anyone to hurt Tamara or to let them take her away from them.
Of course, this broke her mother’s heart and made her father fly into a rage. Now gnomes are very small in comparison to giants but what they lack in height they make up for in magic. In his rage he cast a spell on the two giants that made them fall into a deep slumber.
Her father’s curse
Now Tamara had no one to back her in her conflict with her parents and was taken greatly aback at this, but she became even more determined to disobey her them. Nothing they could say or do would convince her to return to the inside of the earth with them and they all got angrier and angrier. Her mother wept, Tamara wept and her father grew ever more furious and in a fit of temper he cursed her.
Instantly the curse fell upon the weeping Tamara. She was transformed into a stream of crystal clear water. This flowed on to become a beautiful fast running river that murmured sadly through the lovely countryside that she so loved. Today the River Tamar forms much of the boundary between the counties of Devon and Cornwall. Finally she wound her way down to the Hamoaze and through the Plymouth Sound to join the sea in the English Channel.
Too late her father realized what he had done but could not undo the spell. Her mother and father now desolate and heartbroken for their beloved Tamara returned to the depths of the earth to lose themselves in the never ending darkness of the tunnels. While they returned to their home Tamara was fleeing further and further from her sleeping would be lovers.
Tavy was the first to wake and looked for Tamara, but she was nowhere to be seen. Looking around he saw his sleeping friend. Then he saw the clear bubbling spring that was not there before. The he realized what had happened. Worse still, to his horror Tamara was gone!
In a panic Tavy jumped up and ran around and around calling her name. He looked high and low for her but he could neither see her, or hear her. He did notice that a very pretty little spring of pure water was bubbling up from the ground singing a sad murmuring song. He could not say that he remembered it being there when he fell asleep, but he paid it no heed to it. Instead he went rushing hither and zither looking for his lost love Tamara. In despair he ran all the way to his father who had already foreseen his son’s troubles, for he had power that his son did not possess.
His father said, “I am sorry but Tamara has been taken from you in a fit of temper that her grieving parent will regret forever. I cannot return her to you, but I can send you to her, though I too will probably regret it forever and my grief will be endless. I can see you too suffer endless pain at her loss so I will do this for you.”
His father stooped and kissed his son’s brow. Instantly, Tavy was turned into a clear, pure, spring whose water burst and gushed from the ground to form a river. The River Tavy ran helter skelter around hills and through valleys, over the rocks and across bleak Dartmoor, seeking, out his lost Tamara. Dashing down into a beautiful valley he found her lingering among water meadows filled with flowers and butterflies. Happily he called to her and she to him and reaching out to each they flowed onward together as one to the sea where they mingled together for eternity.
Meanwhile Torridge was waking from the sleeping spell and had been dreaming that Tamara had chosen him to be his love forever. Opening his eyes with a smile on his face he found to his dismay she was gone and so was Tavy. He remembered her mother and father coming to take her home and he thought she must have gone back with them and Tavy, in his grief had killed himself. He was filled with sorrow for the loss of Tamara and Tavy both friends he loved dearly and now he was left all alone.
Filled with grief poor Torridge ran as fast as he could a sorcerer who lived nearby and begged him to tell him the truth of what had happened to his friends. So the sorcerer told Torridge that Tamara and Tavy had now become beautiful rivers that joined together to flow into the sea where they mingled together for eternity. Wild with grief and not giving a thought for his parents, he begged the sorcerer to turn him into a river as well that he might overtake them and be with his love and his friend forever.
The sorcerer was reluctant to help at first thinking Torridge was driven mad by grief, but after a great deal of begging from Torridge he consented. Reluctantly he cast a spell that turned Torridge into a fast flowing river that rapidly sped after his friends. The River Torridge sped after them calling and crying for them to wait for him. In his grief and blinded by tears he took the wrong turning and instead of catching them he went off in the wrong direction and ended up going the opposite way so he could never find them and never catch them, flowing always further and further from his love and his friend and sadly, he would never see either again and eventually joined the estuary of the River Taw and flowed into the Bristol Channel.
Explanations of nature
This story is a simple way of explaining the origins of the three rivers. It tells why the River Torridge, whose source is less than a third of a mile from that of the Tamar, runs in the opposite direction to Tamar to the sea and why the Tavy eventually meets up with the Tamar and they flow together into the sea. Of course it’s not scientific but perhaps one day science will see the light!
© 24/02/2016 zteve t evans
References and Attributions
Copyright February 24th, 2016 zteve t evans – Editor and curator – zteve t evans
- The Project Gutenberg eBook of Cornwall’s Wonderland, by ..
- Tamara and Tavy – Legendary Dartmoor
- River Tamar – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Tamara and Tavy – Legendary Dartmoor
- File:Lenoir, Charles-Amable – A Nymph In The Forest.jpg From Wikimedia Commons,Gaston Bussière – Koller Auktionen – Public Domain
- A fairy girl (by illustrator Cora M. Norman), seen at the end of “The Cloud Fairies” in Ernest Vincent Wright‘s The Wonderful Fairies of the Sun.- File:Wonderful Fairies – 45 – Fairy Girl.jpg From Wikimedia Commons
- File:John Bauer – The Princess and the Trolls – Google Art Project.jpg – From Wikimedia Commons (cropped) – Public Domain
- File:River Tamar at Northcott Wood – geograph.org.uk – 606368.jpg – From Wikimedia Commons – Author: Derek Harper – CC BY-SA 2.0
- File:Little-Fairy-Girl.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Author: Janny Sandholm