Cover Stories – John the Painter

 

There have been a few occasions that on my first read through of a text, something will jump out at me immediately and with such force that I know it will be the cover even though I have yet to read the rest and I have not even started to make notes. Ceredigion was one of these… When I came across this paragraph in the tale of John the Painter I was transfixed.
“And then he saw her. A dignified lady with ivy and rowan berries twined in her hair, cheeks pinched as pink as campion, a flowing gown of red. The Queen of the Fair Folk. “Who are you, Mortal?” she asked. “My name is John. I’m a painter,” he replied with a big grin. The Queen laughed. “We have no need of painters. We are art itself. We are nature. We do not grow old or decay like you. Do you have anything to offer us, Mortal?”
She seemed to be looking at me out of the page already… But how she should be framed eluded me for a while… I didn’t want John in the picture because in this context we are John, under her appraising eye. I found some mention in the text of the Mari Lwyd, and although the natural home of the grey mare is not really Ceredigion, I felt that she too could go wherever she pleased and was perfect company for a Welsh queen of fairy folk.

I have always been fascinated by the Mari Lwyd as an object and a tradition and even contemplated making myself a mini one out of a sheep skull I found (I might do it yet! )

To decorate and parade something so resonant with thoughts of death and decay as a skull seems to speak to many of our most ancient fears and desires and there are also many deities in the pantheon of old gods associated with horses including Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses and fertility and the strong connection between Rhiannon and horses in the Mabinogion.

dark mischief and the turn of the year seem twinned in so many ways too.

In Wales the fair folk, or Tylwth Teg ride out on horses in procession, bestowing gifts on those they favour that will always vanish if spoken of. So here they are together, the grey mare and her queen, as enigmatic as ever, just as we will always want them to be…

 

The Mari Lwyd

The Mari Lwyd itself consists of a mare’s skull fixed to the end of a wooden pole with coloured ribbons and bells and white sheets fastened to the base of the skull, concealing the pole and the person carrying it. The eye sockets are often filled with bottle-ends and the lower jaw is often spring-loaded, so that the Mari’s operator can snap it at passersby. During the ceremony, the skull is carried through the streets of the village by a party that stands in front of every house to sing traditional songs in a rhyme contest (pwnco) between the Mari party and the inhabitants of the house, who challenge each other with insulting verses. This generally occurred around new year and was sometimes associated with wassailing customs at that time of year.

The song of the Mari Lwyd (translation)

Well, gentle friends
Here we come
To ask may we have leave
To ask may we have leave
To ask may we have leave
To sing.

If we may not have leave,
Then listen to the song
That tells of our leaving
That tells of our leaving
That tells of our leaving
Tonight.

We have cut our shins
Crossing the stiles
To come here
To come here
To come here
Tonight.

If there are people here
Who can compose englynion
Then let us hear them now
Then let us hear them now
Then let us hear them now
Tonight.

If you’ve gone to bed too early
In a vengeful spirit,
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Tonight.

The large, sweet cake
With all kinds of spices:
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
This Christmas–tide.

O, tap the barrel
And let it flow freely;
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
This Christmas–tide.

if you would like to listen to the song in it’s original form you can find it here

https://museum.wales/collections/folksongs/?id=2

the Mari Lwyd I based my illustration on in glorious action here…

The tradition declined in the early 20th century but has recently been revived in many parts of Wales, including Ceredigion, which incorporated ‘The world’s largest Mari Lwyd’ into it’s millennium celebrations

It has been suggested that it was the the Welsh Methodist revival that contributed to the decline of both the Mari Lwyd and a number of other Welsh folk customs. In 1802, the harpist Edward Jones of Merioneth published a book in which he lamented the destructive impact that Christian preachers were having on Welsh folk customs, which they were criticising as sinful. In his view, “the consequence is, Wales, which was formerly one of the merriest and happiest countries in the World, is now becoming one of the dullest”. Reflecting such a view, in 1852 the Reverend William Roberts, a minister at Blaenau Gwent condemned the Mari Lwyd and other related customs as “a mixture of old Pagan and Popish ceremonies… I wish of this folly, and all similar follies, that they find no place anywhere apart from the museum of the historian and antiquary.”
Long live the Mari Lwyd I say…

and now the Story,

John the painter – shared with the kind permission of Ceredigion author Peter Stevenson

In Aberaeron around the 1860s, there lived a tall gangly young man, a loafer, a dreamer, a bit of a painter, by name John Davies. He had lost his job as a carpenter, but fancied he could paint walls and furniture as easily as canvases. He was cheerful and enthusiastic and had a high opinion of his artistic talent, for confidence is often given as compensation to those with limited ability. But John was touched with genius. He could play the flute, he could play Mozart, Min Mair, and the Witches from MacBeth, he was loved at the local twmpaths. Play music and you’ll always have friends and food, but John was happier chasing squirrels to steal their fur for his brushes.
He was painting the Vicarage at Nantcwnlle near Llangeitho, when he was sent the nine miles to Aberaeron to buy provisions. After filling his rucksack he set off back with dusk approaching, making sure he had some bread in his pocket to appease the fairies should he encounter them. Instead of following the Aeron, he cut over the hill to Cilcennin to save a couple of miles. He thought to stop for a beer at the Commercial but knew the locals would ask him to play his flute, so he wound his weary way till he came to the Rhiwlas Arms, where the locals recognised him and invited him to play airs in exchange for drinks. By the time he’d played Ar Hyd y Nos and Glan Meddwdod Mwyn over and over, it was twilight and he was a little merry and remembering why he preferred painting. He set off, wobbling gently, and as soon as the light of the pub was behind him, the darkness hit him. It was as dark as a cow’s stomach, the darkness you only find in Ceredigion, and he could barely see the road in front of him. A ghost owl flew over his head and his heart skipped a beat. A fox leapt out in front of him and met his gaze with yellow eyes before loping away, more frightened than John. He knew where he was, up on the moor road leading to Nantcwnlle, and he was looking for the light of Peggi Ty-clottas to guide him, old Peggi’s house, the only house on the moor. John made for the light, but found himself in a bog, and the water seeped through the eyeholes in his boots. He waded on and followed the light. It seemed to be moving in a circle and jumping occasionally. When he came close he could see the light was a fairy ring. Every bone in his body told him to turn, but his heart pulled him inside the ring, and there they were, dancing ladies, almost the size of himself, all so beautiful, wearing white dresses, whirling in a circle, and one took him by the hand and he joined the corelw and he couldn’t take his eyes off the girl who had taken his hand, and he danced as never before, forgetting that everyone laughed at his awkward gangly movements, for now he believed he was Nureyev, and he was so besotted with the fair face of his companion that he hadn’t noticed the dancing had stopped.
The air was still. There was a smell of honeysuckle and bindweed. All the ladies were standing, breathing elegantly while John was perspiring and panting. And then he saw her. A dignified lady with ivy and rowan berries twined in her hair, cheeks pinched as pink as campion, a flowing gown of red. The Queen of the Fair Folk. “Who are you, Mortal?” she asked. “My name is John. I’m a painter,” he replied with a big grin. The Queen laughed. “We have no need of painters. We are art itself. We are nature. We do not grow old or decay like you. Do you have anything to offer us, Mortal?” John pulled his flute from his pocket and played airs from every land, from the Bonny Bunch o’ Roses to the Banks o’ the Bann. No one moved, no one smiled, and no one danced. “Have I displeased you, ma’am? Didn’t you like my playing?” The Queen spoke “Those are not our tunes. We are Welsh fairies.” So John broke into Owen Alaw and the ladies began to whirl and caper, and when he finished, he asked for a beer, and the laughter stopped. “Oh not again,” thought John. The Queen spoke icily, “We are teetotal.” Well, John played music all that night and the fair folk danced while the Queen watched. She spoke, “Mortal Man, you have pleased us. Take what you wish from us.” John, quick as a jack-the-lad, took hold of the hand of the fairy lady who had been dancing with him and asked for her hand in marriage. The Queen agreed, providing they return to Trichrug Hill once a year to play. John agreed, and they sealed their love with a kiss and they were about to taste each others lips when
“Is that you, John Davies? You good-for-nothing loafer.” It was old Peggi Ty-clottas from the cottage who’s light he had been looking for. She had heard the music and the dancing and seen the light, and she thought it was a corpse candle come to tell her someone was about to die. So she took a candle, and she found him, John Davies, sitting beneath a tree playing his flute, with soggy feet and a heavy backpack. He looked angry. “You’ve spoiled everything. Everything. I had a bargain. I nearly had a wife.”
Peggi took him by the hand and led him to her home, muttering, “Come on, Johnny, it’ll be alright.” From that day on he played for every dance and gathering, and told everyone who would listen that he was flautist to the fairies and almost took one for his wife. Most people just smiled and said, “Poor John. Poor long legged, gangly John.”