Wales is an ancient land rich in folktales, folklore and legend that for many centuries were passed on orally before being written into texts. Many of these legends and folktales are associated with natural features of the landscape such as springs, rivers, lakes, hills and mountains, indeed just about everywhere you look there is a legend or folktale, or custom and tradition that explains, or is associated with some part of the landscape.
According to myth and legend there were many strange creatures that lived within that landscape such as monsters and beings like the afanc, giants and the Tylwyth Teg, the Fairy Folk. The folktale presented here tells how a poor shepherd boy found the Tylwyth Teg while he was tending his sheep. They invited him to join them and he stayed with them in their land for a time living a life of pleasure and luxury with all he could ever need and all he had to do was obey one simple rule which was that he was forbidden to drink from the fountain.
The Shepherd boy and the Tylwyth Teg
This story is a version based on one called the Forbidden Fountain, from the Welsh Fairy Book by W. Jenkyn Thomas and begins with a shepherd boy who was instructed by his father to take his sheep to the Frenni Fach to graze early one morning in the month of June. Obeying his father he took his flock to the pasture and because the weather on the hills and mountains of Wales can change quickly he looked across to the summit of Frenni Fawr for signs of change. He had been taught that if the early morning mists slipped down one side of the hill then he could expect fair weather. If the mist slipped down the other side then foul weather would prevail.
The boy was pleased because he saw the mist slipping down the side of the mountain that promised a fair day ahead and he whistled happily while he tended his sheep. His flock were happily grazing and it was indeed beginning to be a fair day and he looked around him idly. In the distance his eye was caught by the movement of a group of men. At first he could not quite make out who they were and then he had the idea they were a group of soldiers busily engaged in some activity but couldn’t make out what.
He thought it most strange that soldiers should be active in the hills so he climbed to the top of a nearby hillock for a better view. When he reached the top he saw to his surprise that what he thought had been soldiers were too small and realized that they must be a troop of the Tylwyth Teg. He had often heard stories about them from his elders and he had seen the rings of mushrooms that sometimes appeared in different places where they had been but never had he seen one of the Fair Folk himself.
The Tylwyth Teg
To his excitement he realized what he saw was indeed a group of the little people and he thought about running home to tell his mother and father. On second thoughts he realized that by the time he had run home and returned with his parents they may well have gone and perhaps he would then be accused of being a liar and get into to trouble for leaving the sheep. He decided not to say anything yet thinking it would be safer.
Nevertheless, he was fascinated by the thought that it might be the Tylwyth Teg and decided to get nearer to get a better view of what they were up to. So slowly and stealthily he crept towards them and managed to get close enough without disturbing them to get a very good view of what they were doing.
To his surprise and delight he saw they were indeed little people of both men and women all inside a great circle of mushrooms. The men were very handsome and the women were very beautiful and some of them were dancing in circles with one another, others were playing and chasing with each other, while others were galloping around on little white horses.
They were wearing mostly red, white and green clothing. The men wore red caps and the women wore a green head dress, which flowed behind them in the breeze as they danced. Although he could hear no music it looked like the entire company was singing and laughing and a happier sight the shepherd boy had never seen before.
The boy was enchanted and stood to get a better view. Seeing him stand the smiling Tylwyth Teg beckoned and called for him to join them. Cautiously he edged towards them and stood outside the circle looking in. Laughing and calling to him they urged him to step into the circle and as he did so his ears were struck by the sweetest music. It was both merry and serious and more melodious than any music he had ever heard before.
Looking around he was shocked to discover he wasn’t in the fairy ring on the mountainside but in a wonderfully beautiful palace of shining gold, glittering silver and lustrous pearls. He was stunned at all of the treasures and jewels that he saw and the people were so friendly offering every type of pleasure for his enjoyment.
The warning of the Tylwyth Teg
The Tylwyth Teg allowed him to move around as he pleased and he was attended to every second by the most beautiful maidens. They offered him food and drink the like he had never tasted before, or even dreamed of and served it up on silver platters. They urged him to eat and drink his fill which he did, but they placed but one small restriction upon him. They warned him not to drink from the fountain in the garden in which swam wondrous fishes of gold, silver and many other colors and he agreed not to.
He stayed in the palace of the Tylwyth Teg for many a day and all the time he was given wonderful food to eat, the best beer and the sweetest wine and he was entertained wonderfully. New pastimes and activities were invented solely to please him and each new face he saw seemed fairer than the last if such a thing was possible and he lived in a state of idleness and joy. Here he was a poor shepherd boy who had only ever known poverty and hardship now living a life of luxury and ease everything he needed or even dreamed of was at his beck and call, yet something still gnawed at him.
The forbidden fountain
Although the Tylwyth Teg had warned him there was a curiosity that burned in him. He would often find himself drawn to the forbidden fountain but just managed to remember the warning. One day though he found himself gazing at the fish of gold and silver and many other colors that swam here and there in the waters of the fountain.
When he thought no one was looking he gently tipped his hand in the water. Immediately the fish disappeared. He then cupped his hands and filled them with water from the fountain and raised them to his mouth to drink. As soon as the water wet his lips a hideous scream ran through the garden.
The fountain vanished, the garden vanished and the palace dissolved into nothing and he found himself on the mountainside in the exact place he had entered the fairy ring. Looking round in shock he saw his flock quietly grazing on the mountain pasture exactly as he had left them and the mist on the Frenni Fawr had not moved. Although he had thought he had been with the Tylwyth Teg for years in fact it had only been a few minutes.
Time and humans
And such is the case for time flows differently in the land of the Tylwyth Teg and a few earth minutes can seem like years. For most humans this is too great a thing to bear. There is always a desire to enjoy new sensations and experiences so even though the boy could have spent his life enjoying a life of ease and pleasure that were readily available to him he just had to drink from the forbidden fountain.
© 31/05/2016 zteve t evans
References and Attributions
Copyright May 31st, 2016 zteve t evans
- The Welsh Fairy Book – Encyclopaedia.com
- Blaenffos – Wikipedia
- The Welsh Fairy Book
- By W. Jenkyn Thomas
- File:James Ward – A Shepherd Boy – Google Art Project.jpg – From Wikimedia Commons – A Shepherd Boy by James Ward – Public Domain
File:Fairy Rings and Toadstools by R Doyle.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Fairy Rings by Richard Doyle, 1875. – Public Domain