This is an adaptation of ancient Welsh folk tale, said by some to be one of the oldest Welsh folk tales. This particular version was based on that related by Gerald of Wales and I have included some of my own additions and amendments in order to help with the telling.
Close to where is now the city of Swansea there once lived a boy who went by the name of Elidyr ap Elidyr. At the time of our story he was a few weeks beyond his twelfth birthday and was already showing signs of becoming a strong and noble man. Alas, as all boys are at that age, he was not keen on, nor especially adept at, following rules. He was frequently chastised for scrumping apples from his neighbour’s orchard or for starting fights with other boys, fights that were often over matters that adults would find banal and trivial.
Just beyond twelve is also that age when education becomes a personal trial and seems in our own heads to be worthless and impossible. So it was with Elidyr, who had never been the most academic or gifted of students, his writing and rithmetic were nowhere near as accomplished as they ought to have been. To correct this matter, his father, who was also Elidyr ap Elidyr, declared that he would find for his son the hardest and most unforgiving tutor in all of Cymru.
That tutor came in the form of Osric, a priest of St David’s. Osric was well known to be a cruel man, a man who covered his cruelties under the veneer of God’s justice. At all times he carried with him a flared whip, with which he would beat those who sinned in his presence or those he deemed unworthy of God’s love. The novices of St David’s, of whom he was tasked with teaching, had names for him that I cannot repeat and they were only too glad when Elidyr senior came to the abbey seeking his assistance.
For Elidyr the younger it was no such happy day. The arrival of Osric marked the beginning of many months of beating and tortures under the whip. For every question wrong he was beaten. For every hesitation, he was beaten. For every momentary lapse in concentration, he was beaten. His father, in response, would not hear his complaints and even when Elidyr showed the marks from his numerous beatings he only remarked that it would all serve him well in the long term.
As spring turned to summer and the heat grew, Elidyr yearned to be outside, in the sunshine with the other boys, but was forced to remain inside at his studies, beaten by Osric twice in every hour and often more. Growing bitter and angry, Elidyr made the decision to take no more and so one day ran from the classroom in order to escape from one particularly horrendous beating.
He hid in a hollow somewhere on the banks of the Neath and there for two days and two nights he stayed without food or warmth and with only the muddy, foul tasting river for water. Long he cried and many times he considered returning home to face the consequences of running away, but he did not and for all the two days and two nights he shivered and grew steadily more hungry.
At dawn on the third day he once more thought of returning home, for now he was more hungry and more cold than he had been in his entire life. He was about to rise when he saw at the entrance to his hollow two men, each the size of the opening, both just a little shorter than himself. Those two men were beautiful, with hair of flowing gold and countenances to match. Almost were they feminine, but despite their maidenly appearance there was no mistaking that these were two of the manliest men to ever walk the earth. Elidyr was enraptured and enchanted and when the slightly taller of the men spoke he listened with complete attention.
“Come with us, Elidyr ap Elidyr,” the taller man said. “Come with us to the land of Annwn where Gwyn ap Nudd, our fair king, rules over a just and peaceful kingdom.” The shorter of the two men took Elidyr by the hand, a gentle touch, and lifted him to his feet.
“Come, Elidyr ap Elidyr. In the land of Annwn there are none such as this Osric to whip and beat you. In the land of Annwn you shall be free from worry and woe. Joy and pleasure are there the order of the day and you may live forever in peace and happiness.”
Elidyr followed without hesitation. The two men, who he learned were called Sialc and Caws, took him away down the river for no less than half a mile before showing him another hollow, which this time went deep down into the earth. They followed it for many miles, for countless days and nights, it seemed to Elidyr, until eventually they emerged into the kingdom of the fair folk, in the land of Annwn.
No sun shone over Annwn for it lay deep underground, and yet, the firmament above was almost as the sky in our own earth, though it always bore an overcast and cloudy appearance. This cloud bathed the land beneath in a silvery light that shimmered off impossibly coloured meadows and rivers, all of which flowed through the land towards the astonishing crystal fortress of Caer Siddi, the royal seat of Gwyn ap Nudd. The land was indeed as Sialc and Caws had claimed, for here there was no place for sadness or misery. All was perfection and bliss and happiness.
All the folk of Caer Siddi were shocked, surprised and most of all curious to see the stranger whom Sialc and Caws brought with them from the human world and none more so than Gwyn ap Nudd himself. Gwynn was a man larger than all the rest, decked out in splendid, gilded armour over which his long, impossibly white hair flowed. By his side, as all the old tales tell, was his faithful hound Dormath, a beast of slobbering jaws, sharp teeth and glowing eyes. One bite from this ferocious dog meant death for any human that dared to cross his path. Even without this terror by his side, Gwynn would still have appeared a vision of ultimate majesty, power and terror.
The king stared for an age, at first aghast and horrified that Sialc and Caws had dared to bring a living child from the human world down into the land of Annwn. His rage was such that he was sore tempted to strike down Sialc and Caws and to strike them in such a terrible fashion that they would not rise for one thousand years. He did not, for as he reflected on the tale which Sialc and Caws told and as he listened to Elidyr’s story of how he came to find himself in the hollow on the banks of the Neath, he saw how ill-treated the boy had been and how undeserving he had been of Osric’s cruelties. Though Gwynn ap Nudd was at times a hard ruler, he was not without mercy. He knew that he could not allow Elidyr to return to the human world, for he might tell of what he had seen, and yet he could no more not permit himself to do the boy harm, for he was innocent of any crime against the fair folk.
Thus, whilst Sialc and Caws were banished from Annwn for five hundred years, Elidyr was handed over to the care of Gwynn ap Nudd’s son, Pugh. He was never to be allowed to leave the kingdom, for if he did he might tell of what he had seen, and he was to remain there for all the days of his natural life. At the end, when it was his time to die, he was told, Gwynn ap Nudd would escort him to the kingdom of Arawn, the land where dwelt the souls of all humans who have passed, where the souls of the good and honourable feast at Caer Vandwy and the souls of the sinful and wicked are forever tormented behind the dark walls of Uffren.
For two score years did Elidyr dwell with the fair folk, living in ignorance of all that occurred in the world above. He spent much time in merriment, partaking in wondrous feasts of milk and saffron, joining in with sports and ball games, or listening to Pugh’s haunting turns on his beloved fiddle. His hair grew long and lustrous and the fair folk filled his mind with all the knowledge and wisdom it could hold, but never did he age a single day whilst he lived in the kingdom of Annwn.
As the years passed, though he adored this paradise and never once failed to find joy, Elidyr longed to return to the human world. Though he begged Gwynn ap Nudd to allow him to return, each time he was forbidden with more and more force. After one encounter where the king threatened to break his soul, so that he would linger forever between the lands of the living and the dead, never knowing peace or rest, Elidyr finally determined to find a way back to the human world on his own.
One day, whilst the king was departing for a hunt in the human world, Elidyr followed in secret and by doing so he discovered that same tunnel by which Sialc and Caws had brought him to this land many years before.
Eventually emerging onto the banks of the Neath, he hurried back to the home of his parents only to find things much changed. His father had long passed away in grief for his lost son and his mother, who had never given up hope of his return, had grown very old and blind in her waiting. She could not believe that her son had finally returned to her after all these years. She refused to believe that her son had finally returned to her after all these years.
“No, no… You cannot be my Elidyr,” said she, feeling his face and his long hair. “You cannot be my Elidyr for you are still so full of youth.”
“But Mama, it is I,” he replied, before telling her of Annwn and of Gwynn ap Nudd and all the wonders of the land of the fair folk.”
“If you are indeed my Elidyr, and if you have indeed dwelt in the land of the fair folk all these years, then you shall return there and bring me back a gift,” she proclaimed.
“But Mama, what ever shall I bring for you?” Elidyr asked.
“Something of gold,” she smiled. “Something of gold so that I may feel its purity and know that you are telling the truth, so that I shall know you are my Elidyr.”
So Elidyr, recalling the way with clarity, returned to the land of the fair folk where, to his surprise, he found that nobody had noticed his absence. He was pleased by this, and filled with confidence and arrogance.
“If I can depart and return undetected,” said he, “then it shall be no trouble to do so again. It shall be even less trouble to take something made of gold.”
He immediately knew what he would take, a golden ball which he and the other fair folk had so often played sport with. It was such a common and everyday item, he thought, that nobody should ever miss it. Even if they did they might assume it had merely gone astray, as things sometimes do.
One day not long after, whilst the king and all the fair folk were engrossed in a magnificent tournament, Elidyr stole into Caer Siddi and, from the room in which it was kept, took away the golden ball with which he had so often played. With it under his arm, he ran from Caer Siddi and across the fields of Annwn towards the tunnel that led back to the human world.
Alas, there was one other denizen of Annwn who was not engrossed in the tournament that day, Dormath, the loyal hound of Gwynn ap Nudd. He was lazing in a field not far from where the tournament was being held and he saw, with perfect vision, Elidyr sprinting across the field before him. Knowing that what he saw could be no good, Dormath let out an enormous and earth trembling bark which stopped the tournament in mid flow. All the fair folk turned to see what was amiss and as they did so they could not fail to see Elidyr in the midst of his escape.
“Run, give chase, seize that boy,” cried Gwynn ap Nudd to his people. “Do not allow him to leave this land with our golden possession. Bring him to me so that I may rent his soul asunder!”
Knowing now that the fair folk, headed by Gwynn ap Nudd and the loyal Dormath, were at his heels, Elidyr ran as hard and as fast as he could back through the tunnel and back to the house of his mother. With every step he grew more tired and the fair folk came ever closer to catching him, but never once did he give up hope or surrender. By the time his mother’s house was in sight he could feel the hunting spear of Gwynn ap Nudd at his back and the slobbering jaws of Dormath baying at his feet. He knew that if he could only reach the threshold he would be safe and free from the terrible justice of the king.
Alas, as he reached the threshold, his legs gave out and he stumbled, falling to the ground and dropping the ball, which rolled away into the jaws of Dormath. Gwynn ap Nudd, more ferocious and angry than any man ever could be, lifted Elidyr by his collar and stared him hard in the face.
“You… Elidyr ap Elidyr…” His voice was quiet but it boomed and echoed all around, making the earth tremble as Dormath’s bark had done back in Annwn. “You shall never return to Annwn. For your thievery and for your disobedience I condemned to remain here, in the lands of man, forever more. You, thief of our golden ball, shall never know joy or love or happiness. You shall not know life, but nor shall you know death. Your broken soul shall roam in between, neither at peace nor rest. May you always reflect on your sins, Elidyr ap Elidyr.”
All the fair folk vanished on the breath of the wind and Elidyr sat, on the threshold of his mother’s house, and cried. Only when he ceased did he realise that he was no longer a child. He was a man of fifty two years, with long grey hair and a bushy grey beard.
He entered the house to tell his mother of what had happened, but she no longer recognised him.
“You are not my Elidyr,” said she. “My Elidyr is still young, for he dwells in the land of the fair folk where age does not weary those who reside there.” As much as he protested, Elidyr could not persuade his Mother to see otherwise and so, broken hearted, he left her house forever.
Ere’ since that day has Elidyr ap Elidyr wandered the earth, in poverty and misery, a shade in human form, forever seeking a way in which he can return to Annwn and the land of the fair folk, condemned never to find it.
Asgaardsreien by Peter Nicolai Arbo- Image is public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia.
Story adapted from version related in ‘The Journey Through Wales’ by Gerald of Wales (Penguin Classics, ed. 1978 P133-135)