King of the Fairies

Every year for the last 15 or so the druid group that I am a member of has performed an Insular Celtic myth at the Leaping Hare convention in Colchester. The story we performed this year was that of St Collen's encounter with Gwynn app Nudd on Glastonbury Tor. The story itself is really quite short, so we expanded it with an earlier incident from Collen's life in which he battled a Pagan King.
Despite being low on numbers due to illness, we were thankfully supported by two friends who joined us at the last minute to provide some musical accompaniment. A picture or two will be posted in due course.

Though short, the story is redolent with imagery that is (like any symbolism) open to interpretation. One particular aspect is the livery sported by Gwynn's courtiers ~ one half red and the other blue. The saint alleges it is the fires of hell combined with the coldness of being cast out from the love of God. The balance between fire and ice carries rather different echoes for Northern European polytheists, though in telling the tale I was struck (doubtless influenced by my own biasses) more by the allusions to the combination of genders. A number of cultures have traditions of people who are neither fully one thing nor another, but stand in that liminal point that makes them a spiritual figure in the eyes of their community. It's a theme I'll be coming back to in the months to come.
The decision to perform this story was made well before some friends decided to "encourage" me (with all the subtlety of a steamroller) to attend a druid gathering this June being held in Glastonbury. I shall be taking an offering to leave for the leader of the Tylwyth Teg atop his traditional home, the Tor.
Nagy wrote some time back about the role of outlawed mannerbund in Early Irish communities, particularly centred around the warrior-druid Fionn (the Gaelic counterpart to Gwynn). Fionn is surrounded by his band of colourful brigands who, like an ancient version of the A-Team, rush around battling bad guys and having improbable adventures. Gwynn's companions are far less detailed in the surviving myths, but I wonder if the fairy band shared similar traits to the Fianna?


  1. Dunno whether 'How Culwch Won Olwen' gives clues about some of Gwyn's companions on the hunt or other 'improbable adventures'?

    Looking at the moment at the seasonal tradition of pace-egging where 'Tosspot' blacks his face and leads a party including the likes of a fox hunter or master of hounds, quack doctor, footman, custard eater etc. I wonder if this parodies something earlier?

    Would love to hear you recounting some of your Gwyn stories / poems sometime.

  2. I think Gwynn must have been a figure of some importance, given the frequency with which he crops up in the surviving mythology.

  3. I'd say that he's put in charge of the spirits of Annwn 'lest the world be destroyed' and that his battle with Gwythyr is bound up with 'Judgement Day', plus his roles as King of the Fay and psychopomp suggest he plays a *very* important role in governing the relationships between the worlds.

    As well as the myths he's named in it's my intuition he appears in many more under the title of 'The King of Fairy.' One I've been looking at recently is Sir Orfeo, a 14th C text set in Winchester, where the Fairy King's home sounds alot like Gwyn's abode on the Tor and there's some added descriptions of people who have died suddenly and ended up there I found interesting.


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