Alan Dix, Lancaster University

The Physicians of Myddfai

War raged over the land of Wales for many centuries before the English finally gained total control. As with all wars there were heroes and villains, victims and those left mourning. One such was the widow of Blaensawdde near Llanddeusant in Carmarthenshire. The loss was especially cruel, she could already feel the movements of her baby within her when the news of her husband's death came - their first child whom he would never see.

However, her sorrow for the dead could not hold her forever as she had to look to the living. Her son was born as the first flowers broke through the mountain snows and his cries broke the frosty spring air as if he could already tell the joy and pain his life would bring. The widow worked hard and prospered and her son grew into a strong, generous and handsome man. All that she felt she needed was to see him married so that there would be grandchildren to continue her lost husband's name. However, years passed and he found no woman to whom he felt he could give his heart and life, for the farmer of Blaensawdde, like his mother, would give his heart once and for life.

It was another spring morning and the farmer of Blaensawdde was watching his flocks on the shores of Llyn-y-Fan Fach high on the slopes of the Black Mountain. As the first rays of sunlight hit the shimmering waters there was strange rippling on the surface of the lake and then he saw, sitting on a small rock not far from the shore, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The farmer was to give his heart once and for life, and at that moment he gave it. He was no practised lover and was clumsy with his words although true in his heart. All he could think was to share his hard barley bread that his mother had given to feed him through the day. With a smile she refused:

Cras dy fara
Nid hawdd fy nala

Hard baked is thy bread
It is not easy to catch me

With that there came a gentle breeze and as the waters on the lake rippled the sun glinted. For a moment he was blinded and as he looked again there was no rock and no maiden.

He felt unlike anything he had felt before and, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, he made his way home and told his mother, the widow of Blaensawdde, what had passed. He talked long into the night and in the morning he set out again, but this time with unbaked bread, for, as she was a woman of the waters, they wondered whether things baked in fire were not to her liking.

He arrived before the first rays of sun had broken and watched as purple gave to blue reflected in the still waters of Llyn-y-Fan. No ripple broke its surface and no sound was heard save far away bird song and the bleating of his sheep. As noon came he was sorely tempted to begin his repast, for although lovelorn he still had a hearty appetite. There was a sudden call and a swan came flying low over the lake. As it passed him the corner of one wing touched the waters casting ripples across its face. His eyes followed the swan as it flew on its way and as he looked back at the lake, there she sat upon the rock within the moving waters.

His heart filled within him, he again offered her a share of his bread, but again, with a smile and a shake of her head she refused:

Llaith dy fara
Ti ny fynna

Unbaked is thy bread
I will not have thee

Loath to lose her again he started to go to her, but as he stepped in the water there was a splash as his foot slipped on a stone. He looked down at his feet to steady himself and as his eyes followed the ripples out across the surface of the lake he found no rock and no maiden.

He returned home distraught. Her final words seemed clear and her smiles were perhaps simply mockery that a simple farmer should dare to love one of the fair folk. However, his mother knew more of a woman's ways than he and advised him "if she came a second time, she may yet come a third, here take some part-baked bread and be away with you to watch again".

This time he didn't wait for morning and climbed to Llyn-y-Fan before even the first shades of dawn were glowing in the east. Slow, slow was the rising of the sun that frosty morning. Grey night burnt into vivid red as the first light broke and as the sun rose in a clear blue spring morning. no ripple broke the surface of the silent lake. Long, long he waited as morning gave to noon, the day cooled as the sun dropped in the western sky and the last glimmers of light shone on the surface of the lake and were gone. One-by-one the stars appeared mirrored on the lake as they shone in the heavens. Cold as the night was, all he could feel was his despair inside.

At last he looked out over the lake and with a sigh threw the bread out towards its centre. "I have no gold, silver or riches to offer thee, just the bread grown by my own hands from the rich earth. It is all I have to offer, save myself which is yours for ever." He turned to go, and as he turned the loaf hit the water and with that the moon rose over the mountain tops and laid a cold light over the broken waters. One last time he looked back as he started on his way, and there, standing on the lakeside was the lady of Llyn-y-Fan laughing gaily. "Truly I will have you for you offer as much as any true man may. But, beware, if you strike me three causeless blows, no matter how gentle, I will return to the lake and never more be with you."

Now it is hard to know how the faerie love us mortals, for they live long and we may be but a passing fancy to them. But, whatever the lady felt for the farmer, she was all the world to him. He could not imagine raising a hand to her, no matter how provoked, so it seemed easy to keep this simple command. To ease life for his mother and to let the world see his new bride they all moved down the mountain to Esgair Llaethdy near Myddfai, some six miles from Llyn-y-Fan.

Spring turned to spring and their first child was born. As the sap quickened in the birch woods their son gave his first cries just as his father had done before him and without doubt all their fathers since the beginning of things. While their baby was still tiny the farmer's cousin had a girl child and in the heat of midsummer the christening was held. No matter how often they set out to leave for the church there was always something his wife needed for the baby. As the time drew on he grew impatient. "Come now or we will be late," and, ever so gently, he patted her on the back to encourage her to the door. A cloud came over the sun. Sadly she looked at him. "You know not what I see, but if we had left a moment earlier our baby would have died of the heat. Now the clouds have hidden the sun and he shall be well, but beware this was thy first causeless blow."

Chastened at how easily he had done what he swore he would never do, the farmer and his lady went to the christening and soon all was forgotten in his love for her and the gaiety and swift smiles with which she gladdened his heart.

Spring came again and the lady was again heavy with child. Through the hot dry months of May and June she laboured and in midsummer a second son was born. While this child was yet tiny another cousin was to be married and the farmer and his lady were invited to the ceremony. The chill and damp of autumn had set in, so this time they left the two infants with his widowed mother, and they were timely at the wedding. All was well until, in the middle of the ceremony, the lady of Llyn-y-Fan began to softly weep. The farmer tried to quieten his wife, afraid that she would disrupt the ceremony. Ever so gently he tapped her on her forearm. The sunlight shone through the coloured glass windows casting a red glow on her arm like blood. Sadly she looked at him. "You know not what I see, but I cry for the sorrow they do not yet know. But beware this was thy second causeless blow, let there be no other."

As the lady foresaw, in the depths of winter the new bride slipped on the ice and died in her husband's arms. Double was his sorrow as their baby had just begun to quicken within his wife when she died. However, life goes on and the following autumn the farmer and his lady had a third son just as the trees cast the last of their summer mantle.

Some months later, in the dark time after Yuletide is over, but before the year breaks with new life, the same cousin who married and lost his wife the previous year also fell sick and, stranded in his farm by late February snows, he died of a wasting sickness. It was a sad affair as the family gathered for the funeral. Barely a year before he had wept over the coffin of his own wife and now they gathered for his burial. The farmer looked with sadness at the face of his cousin and friend and his widowed mother played quietly with the three young sons. Then, in the silence and grief a bright laugh rang out, first gently, then gaily and then hysterically the lady laughed and shook with her laughter until tears fell from her eyes. No words would hush her and mindful of the offence she would cause and afraid in her hysterical state she would hurt herself, he first remonstrated with her and then slapped her once, with no malice, on her cheek.

Outside the rain began to fall and the sun through the rain cast a dismal grey light upon her face. "You know not what I see, but I laugh that his sorrow is over. This life was harsh on him yet now he finds joy in a better place. And my laughter is tinged with sorrow. This was the third blow. I may not love quite as you do and I may not sorrow as you do, but my sorrow in parting will not die through all the ages of the earth for I know no death and no end to my joys or pain."

With these words she stepped out into the now fast falling rain. The last of the snows melted and added themselves to the water which now ran from every hillside. Small springs became streams and mountain streams broke into waterfalls beautiful in their cruel strength. The farmer leapt streams and struggled through torrents, but no matter how fast he followed he could never quite catch up with her. Past their farm at Esgair Llaethdy he followed her, past his birthplace at Blaensawdde, up the mountainside towards Llyn-y-Fan. And there, on the lakeshore where he first saw her, she was lost from sight amongst the sheets of rain which harried the troubled surface of the lake.

For many hours he waded and swam in the freezing waters at the edge of the Llyn-y-Fan, but no sign was there of the rock or of his lady, and at last, exhausted, he fell down at the water's edge and wept.

However, his sorrow for the lost could not hold him for ever as he had to look to the living. His three sons grew strong and wise and it was as if the fairy blood still flowed through their veins for they succeeded in all that they turned their hands to. It is said that had they chosen they could have become the richest and most powerful men in all Wales, but they had other purposes and turned instead to healing. Maybe it was the fairy blood within them, and maybe their mother visited them ofttimes to give them advice, for their herbs and remedies were renowned. They were the first of a long line of physicians and the widow was glad to see her dead husband's name known for healing although he had died in war, and the farmer was glad to see the kind smile when they treated patients as it reminded him of another smile he had known once long ago.

And all in Wales know of the fame of the Meddygon Myddfai, the Physicians of Myddfai, and this is their story.


Sources

I've drawn from "Myths & Legends of Wales", by Tony Roberts (Abercastle Publications, 1984) and "Welsh Legends and Folk Tales" by Gwyn Jones (OUP, 1955 and Puffin, 1979). However, I have added some embelishments as all storytellers do, and left out some details. The tale of the Lady of Llyn-y-Fan and the Physicians of Myddfai is known over all Wales, and the rule of three strokes and you're out is obviously common law in faerie as similar stories are told across Britain.

Mrs Grieve's Herbal entry for Bearberry (Uva-Ursi) says that there are records that it was used in the thirteenth century by the Welsh 'Physicians of Myddfai.' (See the entries for Bearberry at Botanical.com and for Uva-Ursi at Home-Health Resource.)


Alan Dix
alan@hiraeth.com