Red-Headed Fairy Tales: The Cat Witches
"Huw Llwyd of Cynfael was the seventh son of a family of sons, and therefore was a conjuror by nature."
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.
Our main character is Huw Llwyd, a seventh son who is a sorcerer by nature. After telling us a bit about him, the story gives a brief glimpse at another of his 'cases,' one in which he outwitted a band of robbers.
The story then jumps to the current tale, which is about many robberies that take place at a specific inn. Huw is 'consulted,' though the text doesn't say by whom, and he sets off for the inn. When he arrives he claims he is an officer and rents a room for the night. The strange thing about the robberies is that they always occur while the victims are sleeping, though every one of them claims to have locked their doors and windows before bed.
The inn is run by two sisters, who are very polite and comely, and Huw entertains them all night with stories. Before bed, he says it's his custom to sleep with "lights burning in his room all night," so they give him plenty of candles.
He leaves his clothes and sword within easy reach, locks his door, and feigns to sleep. After a while two cats slide down the chimney and run about the room, as if testing to see if he is awake. After a while they begin pawing at his clothes, and one cat reaches into the pocket that contains his purse. Huw grabs his sword and strikes the cat, and both flee back up the chimney. There is no sign of them for the rest of the night.
The next morning he goes down to breakfast, but only one sister is working, claiming the other is ill. He insists on saying goodbye to her, so at last the sister relents and takes him to her bedchamber. After a brief conversation, he says goodbye and holds out his hand. She tries to give him her left hand, but he refuses, saying, "I am not going to take your left hand: I have never taken a left hand in my life, and I am not going to begin with yours, white and shapely as it is."
She reluctantly holds out her right hand, which is swathed in bandages. That is all the evidence Huw needs. He claims the sisters are witches who robbed travelers while in the forms of cats, and because he had drawn blood from one sister, she could no longer do any harm. Right away he takes the palm of the second sister and cuts her too, making her equally harmless. This essentially takes away their powers, ending the robberies for good.
The first thing that jumped out at me in this story was that his magic was called "black magic," but it was seen as a good thing. In most modern stories, black magic is evil, but here it is used for good. The second thing was the fact that he's a seventh son, which seems to be a popular trait in fantasy for someone who has magical abilities.
I do wonder about the power of the witches. Were they only able to change into cats and nothing else? Did they have other powers, such as casting spells and curses, or could they only transform?
How did drawing blood from them take away their magic? And did it only take away their ability to transform into cats, or all their magic, presuming they had other abilities?
By the same token, what would happen if someone drew blood from Huw?
Any sort of power can be used for good or evil. It's not the instrument that is the problem, it's the person wielding it. Huw uses his black magic for good, while the witches use their transformation powers to steal and are punished for it, ultimately losing their power.
I couldn't help but be reminded of Sherlock Holmes while reading this. The text says Huw was "consulted" about the robberies, and he approaches the case much the same way I imagine Sherlock would. The main difference, obviously, is that he uses magic to put an end to the mischief, but he goes straight to the scene of the crimes and keeps his eyes open. It should also be noted that even when the second sister didn't appear the next morning, he didn't immediately make accusations. He waited until he saw her for himself and knew without a sliver of doubt that the two sisters were in fact the cats.
Have any other thoughts or observations to add? I would love to discuss more in the comments below.