Red-Headed Fairy Tales: The Lady of the Lake
"She was the most beautiful creature that he had ever set eyes upon, and she was combing her long hair with a golden comb, the unruffled surface of the lake serving as her mirror. He stood on the brink, gazing fixedly at the maiden, and straightway knew that he loved her."
This tale comes to us from Wales, though my copy in particular is in The Welsh Fairy Book, compiled in 1907 by W. Jenkyn Thomas.
The tale follows the story of Gwyn, a young man living with his widowed mother in the mountains. Gwyn is responsible for caring for their cattle. Nearby is a lake, where the cattle especially like to go because of the sweet food.
One day as they're grazing he sees a beautiful woman appear out of the water. He immediately falls in love with her and offers her a piece of bread. She refuses him, but he isn't giving up so easily. He goes home and tells his mother about it, so she tries to help him. If the woman didn't want baked bread, perhaps she would like unbaked dough.
Gwyn returns to the lake and sees the woman again, this time offering her the dough. The woman smiles at him, but still refuses and disappears into the water. Gwyn returns to his mother, who this time suggests he offer her half-baked bread. When Gwyn returns the third time the woman accepts the half-baked bread. However, when he asks her to marry him, she refuses. He begs and pleads and finally she agrees on one condition: she will live with him until he strikes her three times without a cause. After the third, she will leave him forever.
As he's protesting that he would ever do such a thing, she dives back into the water. He is so distraught that he considers killing himself, but then a man and two young women appear out of the water. The women are his daughters, twins, and one of them is the woman Gwyn professed to love. He just has to tell her father which one she is.
The only way he's able to do this is by looking at their feet, for the woman who agreed to marry him wore a sandal that was tied strangely. Her father gives her a great dowry and the two are wed.
They have three sons together, and when the eldest is seven the couple is invited to a wedding. They start off on foot, then Nelferch, the wife, decides she wants to ride. Gwyn returns for a horse, but when he reunites with Nelferch he flicks her playfully with a glove to get her moving again. She tells him that this is "the first causeless blow."
Some years later that are at a christening and she begins to cry. He taps her on the shoulder to ask why she's crying, and she responds by saying that the baby will have a life of pain and misery. Also, that was "the second causeless blow."
After that Gwyn goes on high alert, for she said she would leave him after the third. A short time later the baby died, and the couple attend the funeral. Nelferch begins laughing, drawing the attention of all the mourners. Gwyn touches her to quiet her, and asks why she's laughing. She says it's because the baby is now free of suffering. Then she says, "The last blow has been struck. Farewell."
And she leaves.
Gwyn is so distraught that he returns to the lake and drowns himself, leaving their three sons orphaned. The boys linger around the lake, hoping for a glimpse of their mother, and finally she returns to them and teaches them all about healing and herbs and medicine. The boys grow up to become famous physicians.
I think almost everyone can agree that the "blows" were not actually blows. Not in the way humans think of such things, at any rate. But I can't help but think that Nelferch had some ulterior motive. She refused Gwyn many times before finally agreeing to marry him. Then, and perhaps the most telling, after the third "blow" was struck, she left with a careless, "Farewell," and that was the end of their marriage. No tears, no emotion, no regret. Was it love on her part? I lean towards "No," but then I'm not entirely sure it was on Gwyn's, either.
I'm not a strong believer in love at first sight. Infatuation, yes. Lust, definitely. But not true love. Infatuation and lust can certainly become love, over time, so at the end I think he did love her. But I think we also have to consider that she was of the fairy world. He was enamored with her beauty from the moment he first laid eyes on her. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that he may have been a bit enchanted. If Nelferch had some ulterior motive as well (having sons who would grow up to be great physicians who could help humankind), then it's even more likely that Gwyn was at least partly under a spell.
1. Don't rush into love or marriage.
2. Be careful what you do, for the smallest thing can be large in someone else's eyes.
Have further insight/opinions on the story? I would love to hear about them in the comments below!