Many, many years ago, in the time of King Arthur, when our ruler’s beards were greater than their commonsense, there were two other kings named Nynio and Peibo. Each ruled over a fine and rich kingdom and their subjects enjoyed peace and prosperity. The two kings were friends and liked to go walking in the countryside in the evenings. They would often indulge in friendly banter trying to out do each other bragging about their accomplishments or possessions to one another. Most of the time this was just good-natured teasing but on one occasion things got wildly out of hand. One evening as they were out strolling, as the stars were appearing, Nynio looked about and making an extensive gesture to the sky with his hands said,
“Look above and all around, Peibo, my friend, see what a wonderful and extensive field I possess!”
Peibo looked all around the sky and asked, “Well now, where is it?”
“It is there, above and around as far as eyes can see, the entire sky is my field and mine alone,” boasted Nynio with pride.
“Oh, is that so? answered Peibo.
“It is,” said Nynio.
“Well, now,” said Peibo, not wanting to be out done, “Can you see all of the great herds of cattle and flocks of sheep that are in that field and grazing. Each and every animal is mine and mine alone.”
“I see no herds of cattle, I see no flocks of sheep,” replied Nynio.
“Look harder,” replied Peibo “they are the great swathe of stars that stretch across the sky with smaller herds and flocks scattered here and there.See how each one shines with gold or silvery brightness. See how the moon, their beautiful shepherdess guards and takes care of them for me and me alone!”
“It is my field and they shall not graze in my field,” replied Nynio indignantly.
‘Yes they shall,” replied Peibo firmly.
“They most certainly shall not!” replied Nynio angrily.
Both kings were now becoming very heated and angry with each other and became possessed by a madness.
“Shall!” snapped Peibo.
“Shan’t!” Shouted Nynio.
“‘Tis war!” They both cried together.
In their madness they returned to their kingdoms, mustered their armies and wrought bloody and merciless war on each other. Both kingdoms were laid waste as both armies fought each other in a cruel and merciless war of attrition. The fighting only stopped because of the sheer exhaustion of the two sides. There was no victor save foolishness and what were once two fine and prosperous kingdoms lay in smoking ruins with the people left traumatized and starving.
The King of Wales, a giant named Rhitta Gawr, heard about the madness of the two kings and how they had destroyed their own fair and prosperous kingdoms through their foolishness. He consulted with his wise men and his barons and it was agreed that they should take advantage of the present weakness of these once strong and prosperous kingdoms. Therefore, he mobilized his army and invaded and conquered the two broken kingdoms, capturing the two monarchs and cutting their beards off to teach them a lesson.
News that Rhitta Gawr had invaded and conquered the two warring kingdoms spread throughout the island of Britain and reached the ears of twenty-eight kings. They were appalled at the foolishness of Nynio and Peibo and the wanton destruction of the two kingdoms and outraged by the invasion of Rhitta Gawr. However, what really made them angry was the shaving of the royal whiskers of the two mad kings by the giant. They deemed inflicting this humiliation on two monarchs, despite their foolishness, had gone too far. Therefore, to avenge what they saw as a degrading and humiliating act on two of their own status they united their armies and declared war on Rhitta Gawr. The battle was long and bloody and Rhitta Gawr eventually defeated the coalition of kings and had them brought before him.
“Look around, look upon the Earth and look around the skies. All you see is my vast field. All the herds and flocks, all the pastures are mine!” he told them in jubilation. With no further ado or ceremony he ordered the royal whiskers of the defeated kings to be shaved off completely.
News spread beyond Britain of the victory of Rhitta Gawr and how he had shaved the beards of his enemies. The kings of twenty-eight neighboring realms were outraged. Not so much at the initial mad foolishness of Nynio and Peibo, or the defeat of the twenty-eight kings. No, it was the shaving of the royal whiskers that outraged them and they merged their armies and attacked Rhitta Gawr. The battle was ferocious and bloody but once again Rhitta Gawr defeated and captured his enemies and once again jubilantly declared,
“Look around, look upon the Earth and look around the skies. All you see is my vast field. All the herds and flocks, all the pastures are mine!”
With no further ceremony he ordered that the beards of the defeated be cut off. When they had all been shaved clean he stood before them and addressing his own troops pointed at the beardless, defeated, kings and declared,
“See, these animals that once grazed here! These are now my pastures and I now drive them out and they shall graze here no more!”
Rhitta Gawr now possessed the beards of a sizeable number of kings which made a sizeable pile of whiskers and somehow, for some reason a very strange idea came into his head. Somehow, the notion grew on him that he would use the pile of royal whiskers to make a fancy mantle to wear around his shoulders. He believed he would look very elegant and magnificent and the cloak being made from the whiskers of kings he had defeated would emphasize his own power and glory.
The more he thought about it the more obsessed he became with the idea while the sheer grossness of it completely escaped him. Therefore he had a mantle made from the king’s whiskers to wear around his broad shoulders that reached down to his heels. Rhitta Gawr was at least twice as large as the largest man so the size of the garment and volume of whiskers he had collected was considerable.
When the mantle was made he tried it on. In his own mad mind he thought he looked very elegant and the height of fashion but realized there was something missing. After considerable contemplation he decided he needed an exceptionally splendid beard to make a collar to finish off the entire magnificent piece. There was only one royal beard that would be magnificent enough to do his mantle justice and that was on the chin of King Arthur, the greatest king of Britain.
He sent a messenger bearing a demand to King Arthur commanding him to shave off his beard without delay and give it to the messenger to bring back to him. He promised out of respect to Arthur his royal whiskers would adorn the most prominent place on his wonderfully elegant new mantle which would be the height of fashion. If he refused to comply he warned he would fight him in a duel to decide the matter.
Unsurprisingly, Arthur was not impressed by the command. He was, however, angry with the mad foolishness of Nynio and Peibo and the defeat and humiliation all the other kings by Rhitta Gawr. Surprisingly, he did not seem the least perturbed at the giant’s taste in mantles but the forced shaving of the beards of all of the vanquished really annoyed him. Furthermore, the very idea that he would willingly offer up his own royal whiskers to the arrogant giant really inflamed him.
Angrily, he informed the messenger that but for the laws of his Court, which even he must obey; he would have slain him there and then for bringing such an offensive suggestion before him. He told him to tell his master this was the most arrogant and insulting demand he had ever heard and for his impudence he would take his head, beard and all. Wasting no time he mobilized his army and marched to Gwynedd in Wales to meet Rhitta Gawr in battle.
The two met face to face, beard to beard and the giant towered above glowering down. Arthur stood his ground and glared back fiercely.
“Give me your whiskers!” demanded Rhitta Gawr.
“Shan’t” replied Arthur angrily.
“Shall!” roared Rhitta Gawr.
“Shan’t! replied Arthur.
“T’is war!” they both cried together and immediately began fighting, trading blow for blow with great ferocity and strength.
Although both received many wounds and were greatly bloodied they fought long and hard neither yielding to the other, each giving as they received. At last Arthur was taken by a fury. He drove forward catching the giant a mighty blow slicing through his helmet and splitting his forehead and quickly followed through with a strike to his heart. Rhitta Gawr died and Arthur kept his royal whiskers.
The giant was placed on top of the highest mountain of that region which was known as Eryi in those days. Arthur ordered the soldiers of both armies to each place a stone over his body raising a cairn to cover him. That place became known as Gwyddfa Rhitta or Rhitta’s Barrow. Today the Welsh call it “Yr Wyddfa” which means “tumulus” and the English call it “Snowdon”, meaning “snow hill,” One consolation for Rhitta Gawr was that at least he did come to adorn a truly magnificent work of nature though judging by his taste in mantles it is doubtful he would have appreciated it.
To think that all this came about through the madness of two kings and the fact that the rulers of Britain had greater beards than their commonsense. Looking around today it is worth noting that few of our rulers wear whiskers and perhaps that speaks for the greatness of their commonsense!
Presented below is a retelling of a Lancashire folktale from Goblin Tales of Lancashire by James Bowker, where it was called The Phantom of the Fell.
The High Fell at Night
The High Fell is an impressive sight in daylight but at night when the moon is full it takes on a glory of its own. One evening in the middle of June a local man named Giles Wheeler had been celebrating the wedding of a distant relative. During those celebrations he had felt within him a longing for the company of his own dear sweetheart the rosy-faced, warm-hearted Lisa, who was the miller’s only daughter. It was a long road home and in daylight the quickest way was through the ravine that split the Fell in two but that was something few local people did after dark. It had long been rumoured that something evil lurked in the ravine and walked the Fell at night. Even in daylight people walked a considerable distance out of their way to avoid passing near the darksome place.
Giles was not overly superstitious and being a vigorous man in the prime of life had little fear of the Fell at night or the supposed fiend that haunted it though normally by habit he would have played safe and avoided it because of its darkness and danger from the cliffs and ridges. However, this night the moon lit the hillside gloriously and he judged he had sufficient light to pass through safely. Had he not been in such a hurry he might have noticed that as well as being gloriously moonlit, it was a calm and peaceful night. The only sound was the gently whispering of the breeze through the bracken.
Giles took no notice of such trivialities as moonlight and the breeze through the bracken he had his mind full of the delights of Lisa. Maybe another night, with less pressing concerns on his mind Giles would have avoided the ravine on High Fell despite it being a substantial short cut to the old mill and the miller’s cuddly daughter.
On this night he was in a hurry and putting aside all of the terrifying stories he had heard he stepped into the darkness of the ravine leaving the moonlight behind. His desire for Lisa was strong but as he walked along in the moonlight he kept thinking back to those tales. Each shadow that loomed before him and each rustle behind him made him start and his heart jump. His skin grew cold and prickled and his fear rose. He told himself not to be foolish, that the shadows were nought but shadows and the rustling behind him was nought but the breeze in the bracken. Entering into the ravine he was surprised to find it was very misty and he pulled his coat around him feeling chilled to the bone despite it being a warm midsummer night. He felt it before he heard it. The scream penetrated his brain. He froze in fear. It cut right through him. Possessed him!
Forcing himself on the deathly wail broke the night again as he reached a curve in the ravine. The terrible wail was not intended to terrify rather to express melancholy, sadness and woe. As it washed over him he knew the maker of such a sound could not be from this world. Startled, he looked in its direction and in the moonlight saw the shape of a woman against the moon standing upon a cliff. Her face was pale with a fragile beauty, her long black hair had a strange lustre, her dark eyes a melancholy, pleading, allure that sought him out and looked deep into his soul and then she was gone.
She appeared a little way before him and he stood spellbound worshiping her beauty. All fear was replaced by a delirious desire to speak – to speak and to be spoken to – by this most beautiful woman who appeared to be in such anguish. As her lips moved his heart beat faster expecting her to speak to him.
To his shock and disappointment instead of speaking words she uttered another long, low, lamenting wail and held out her arms invitingly to him. Now, he hurried forward eager to greet her. She turned slowly gliding on a few paces before turning and beckoning – inviting him to follow. She floated further along the ravine where the moonlight was at its brightest beckoning and appealing to him with those dark eyes and he hurried after her. She turned and holding her arms out towards him, her eyes pleading, inviting, her arms welcoming. As he reached out to touch and take her, she vanished and he grasped at nothing. Bewildered and deeply disappointed he ran around anxiously trying to find her again. Frantically, he looked around, but there was no sight of her to be seen. He retraced his steps through the ravine but even in the bright moonlight could find no trace of her. Fearful of losing her he crisscrossed the ravine desperately seeking her and roamed around High Fell until dawn. Finally, instead of continuing his journey to his sweetheart Lisa he went back to his own family home.
Unwilling to tell his parents of his experience on the High Fell during the night he told them that he had not left the wedding celebrations until midnight. Having drunk too much ale he had become lost on the way home. This appeared to satisfy them though it was remarked that after such festivities it was a wonder he had found his way home at all!
Throughout the day his mother and father became aware their son was unusually quiet and reflective and nothing like his usual cheerful and energetic self. His father put it down to the ale the night before, while his mother thought perhaps the wedding was making him reflect on his own marital status and hoped for one for her son soon.
When Giles suddenly stood up and announced he was going out for a few hours, giving no hint of where he was going, his mother nodded and looked knowingly upon her son as he walked purposefully through the door into the falling twilight. In fact, it was not in the direction of the old mill that Giles turned when he left the house but the opposite direction he stepped with his eyes fixed upon High Fell. He deliberately took his time loitering here and there with the deliberate intention of entering the ravine that evening after the gloaming by the light of the moon.
He walked unwarily with no intent at concealment knowing on the path he traveled at that time of the evening he would be unlikely to meet anyone. All he cared about was meeting the beautiful woman – phantom – or spirit, that he had met the night before on the Fell. Taking a seat on a boulder outside the ravine he sat down to wait for the moon to rise hoping she would appear once again to him.
Woman or ghoul he did not care he had to see her and he waited. He waited and watched as the night began to unfold around him feeling her presence, knowing she was near as the mist appeared and thickened around him. Once again he felt it before he heard it a strange lamenting wail cutting through his mind. He knew there were words in that long moaning scream but could not make them out.
Return to the Ravine
He entered the ravine as the moon rose in full glory and walked slowly down the path between the crags. Again he felt her presence, but stronger than before, then the low, long mournful wail crept through the night he looked towards the sound and saw her standing in the moonlight high upon a crag her outstretched arms beckoning to him.
In growing desire and anticipation he moved towards her as she floated down from the crag to stand a short way down the path before him. He caught a glimpse of those mysteriously dark eyes – appealing – pleading. She beckoned to him, turned and glided further down the path toward the heart of the dark clough. He had no other choice than to follow as she drew him deeper into the jagged maw of the ravine and turned to face him her dark eyes shining in the moonlight her black hair flowing in the breeze. There she stood, white dress shimmering in the moonlight her arms outstretched beckoning, her eyes pleading – inviting. Giles stumbled on reaching out for her but as he looked into the depths of her pleading eyes, she uttered a low mournful cry and as he reached to hold her she dissolved before him.
Aghast, Giles ran up and down trying to find her but she was gone. All that was left was that low mournful sound that echoed in his mind. He spent the night searching the ravine and the Fell but all in vain. As the sun rose he made his way back to the farm of his parents feeling mournful at her loss, bewitched and musing upon how he could find her again.
Over the following days the urge to gaze upon that beautiful face and to lose himself in those pleading eyes consumed him. He took to sitting around and refused to eat. In the evenings he would leave his parents farm to ramble alone on the High Fell in the hope of once again seeing that mysteriously beautiful stranger.
June passed into July and his mother, father and Lisa could not help noticing the change in his behaviour. Worse still, the continual refusal to explain himself and his nocturnal ramblings caused them great worry and they speculated wildly upon what it was that was troubling him.
July passed into August and the miller, Lisa’s father, to her upset took a less than charitable view suggesting Giles nocturnal rambles were in fact visits to a nearby town and that he had fallen into evil ways. Despite her father’s dark opinion of Giles, the ever faithful Lisa went to her fiance’s house to meet and talk with him in the hope of winning back his devoted attention.
Giles listened to her earnest and heartfelt pleadings full of shame but would not, indeed, could not, give her assurances that he would change his ways. She argued with logic, she reasoned, she begged she pleaded and used all her womanly wiles, but Giles refused to promise to change his ways.
Lisa was left thinking that her father was right and bitterly accused him of being dishonest and unfaithful to her and left for home in tears.Halfway home she stopped and thought about running back to him, throwing herself upon him and begging him to tell her the truth. She would forgive any indiscretions but insist his behaviour must stop. Something inside her stopped her, perhaps pride, perhaps anger but she didn’t. Instead, she went back home to her father at the mill. As for Giles, he was deeply upset and desperately ashamed and sorry for his behaviour but he knew he could not stop and refused to tell further lies. Nevertheless, he realised he was steadily falling completely under the power of the mysterious woman and tried to resist.
August passed into September and then into October and all those long days and nights his mind was assailed by the vision of the woman of the Fell and he heard her long lonely moan day and night.
The Mad Man on the Fell
One night towards the end of November he made his way up to the High Fell to the ravine and began searching for the mysterious woman in white. He walked up and down and round and round in circles, becoming increasingly frantic as the night progressed without her appearance. Again and again he spoke out loud appealing to her to present herself to him, but to no avail.
Occasionally, as on this night poachers visited the High Fell in the hope of finding game. This night two of the miller’s men were out poaching and on hearing a voice quickly concealed themselves so as not to be discovered in their illicit activity. They were both intrigued and shocked at what they witnessed that night.
In their place of concealment they saw Giles appear out of the ravine frantically babbling as if he was talking or appealing to an invisible being. He ran straight towards them appearing half-crazed shouting and babbling in agitation. They could not quite make out what he was saying but as he drew nearer they realized he appeared to be appealing and begging to some invisible being to show themselves to him.
The two poachers remained hidden, first not wanting to reveal themselves in their illegal activity, but also, quite simply, they were scared at what they saw and agreed together to say nothing to anyone of what they had seen of the madman on the Fell. When Giles ran the opposite way to where they were they took their opportunity and ran as quickly as they could back home.
At dawn Giles somehow made his way down the hillside and back home. To the worry of his parents he was in a state of high fever and delirium ranting and calling out to some invisible presence only he could see. He raved about a beautiful, mysterious face and someone with dark, pleading eyes.
This confirmed to his parents their worst fears. Sorrowfully they tended to his needs as he lay raving in bed. This terrible affliction continued for several weeks and in that time, especially at night, Giles would try to leave the safety of his family home to go wandering in the dark. His parents steadfastly thwarted this ambition but still he called out to someone they could not see or hear, sometimes whispering, “She of the dark, dark eyes is calling,” while his broken-hearted parents wept by his bedside.
It was bad enough for his devoted parents to see the physical deterioration in his body along with his mental state. It was made worse for them by learning from his ravings of a beautiful woman with “dark, dark eyes” that he appeared to have been meeting up on the High Fell. Nevertheless, he was still their son and although they loved him dearly they could not help but to think he had fallen into sin and shame as they listened to his wild and impassioned ravings.
They lived on the edge of a tight knit community and it was not long before people began to talk and word reached the ears of Lisa. She carried herself through these troubled times staunchly, believing she was now seen as an object of pity.
It so happened that the two of the miller’s men who had been up on the fell poaching went to their employer telling him of what they had seen that night. They told him they believed Giles was under the spell of the feeorin of the fell.The miller rebuked them for poaching but sent them to speak to the worried parents of Giles of what they had seen. For Lisa this gave her hope that her fiance had not been unfaithful as she had feared. She was sorry for ever doubting him and she went along with them.
After the two told their story of what they had seen and that they believed him to be under the spell of the feeroin of the fell his parents readily seized upon it. To them this seemed the most sensible explanation of their son’s behaviour and rebuked themselves for not having more faith in him. Although a load was removed from their shoulders Giles still remained critically ill, but now Lisa stayed on and helped to take care of him.
Lisa and Giles
Both she and his parents now ignored his ravings and nursed him diligently and carefully. Eventually his condition improved enough for him to sit in a chair by the fire. As the December snows began to fall he sat by the hearth in a dream-like state watching the pictures in the flickering flames. Seeing his improvement Liza dared to dream of the day when he would return to his old self and happiness would smile upon them. She desperately wanted their wedding day to be fixed, despite all the love and attention she heaped upon him Giles treated her with a cold, but polite dispassion. He was not being ungrateful, in fact he fully appreciated the dedication and nursing she had lavished upon him. He always politely thanked her for each and everything but realised that Lisa sensed something was still amiss with him. Despite this, she still she lovingly continued her service to him without question.
Giles, no matter how he tried, could not return the love she bestowed upon him. He was completely possessed by the dark eyes of the mysterious woman on the Fell. Knowing that the truth would devastate Lisa he kept himself to a polite silence.
On Lisa’s part she sensed the coolness towards her but restrained from remonstrating with him fearing it might reverse the good progress in his physical health he had made. Sadly, when she was alone she wept for the change she saw in him.
For all the love she poured upon him Giles could not return what he not did not feel. His heart and mind was entirely possessed by the mysterious woman on the Fell. He knew it was wrong and he was wracked with guilt at the same time. No matter how he tried he could not get the image of her out of his mind; her dark eyes, her long flowing hair, and that sad mournful cry. It was these that dominated his thoughts and his emotions while he knew poor Lisa suffered but could not in anyway alleviate that suffering.
For him the intense longing he was feeling or the mysterious girl in the moonlight was building up. As the days moved towards Christmas and the festive season, he again began to see her dark eyes everywhere and hear her mournful lament in the wind through the trees. He tried to enter into the spirit of the season hoping it would take his mind off the mysterious woman.
Christmas Eve came and Lisa went home to her father promising to visit him in the morning. His parents went to bed early being exhausted and feeling their age and left him to sit up alone staring into the fire. From where he sat by the fire he could turn his head and look through the window to the High Fell and saw in his mind’s eye the woman in the moonlight beckoning and crying her long, sad cry.
In the distance he saw the High Fell black against the sky and he knew she was calling to him. He longed more than anything in the world to take her in his arms and look into those dark eyes though he feared what he knew he would see.
Fortunately there had always been someone nearby, either one or other of his parents or the faithful Lisa, who had prevented him from venturing out. Tonight on Christmas Eve he found himself alone and looking through the window at the falling snow and glancing towards the High Fell he swore he saw her. And then she came to him ….
The Phantom of the Fell
He heard her call and through the window he saw her. Those dark, dark eyes pleading and her outstretched arms beckoning him into her loving embrace. With no one to stop him he left the fireside and put on his coat and ventured outside into the snow. Slowly and weakly but with steely resolve he made his way through the biting wind and thick snow to the haunted ravine.
When his parents awoke Christmas morning they let their son lay in while they prepared the festivities. When Lisa arrived bearing him a special Christmas gift his mother called into his room to see where he was and his absence was discovered. She called her husband who wasted no time in seeking help from his neighbours and they followed his tracks in the snow. They reached the High Fell and found it shrouded in a thick mist which frigid pink sun shone through turning the ravine into a phantasmagoria of ghastly jagged teeth. In the weird light they followed his footprints up to the ravine and pausing looked at one another in hushed silence and then and then entered the dread place.
From the tracks Giles had made they guessed he had become frantic with steps leading back and forth and hither and thither. His father, who was leading the party, suddenly stopped holding up his hand. The tracks ended abruptly at the edge of a cliff he had almost stepped over. After a short discussion it was decided to follow the course of the path which would twist round and pass below the cliff. With growing dread they followed the path to place below the cliff where the grief of his father father and the horror of all present they found his broken body on the path his face frozen in a wild death mask.