Belle Epoque Mermaid Emerges From The Sea
Water, Water Everywhere
It is Saturday morning and time for the weekly outing with Thalia. Today’s destination is the Sea Life London Aquarium. Thalia’s favorite is the Sharkwalk. Although November, the day is unusually clear and temperate. There might not be another one of these until spring.
However, along the way is Melissa’s bookshop, a must-stop-and-buy-a-book-for-Thalia sort of thing. Thalia gives Melissa a hug and heads for “her aisle.” The book Melissa sets down in order to hug Thalia is W. Jenkyn Thomas’ The Welsh Fairy Book.
“You’re re-reading that,” I say.
“Yes, it holds a story that haunts me. The Drowning of the Bottom Hundred. Have you read it?”
“I must have; you sold me the book. Refresh my memory.”
“I’ll read it to you.”
I glance about. There are other customers in the shop, but they are in their aisles like Thalia, and I suspect they will be there for some time. I settle into a chair beside Melissa.
The story starts with a set of wonderfully unpronounceable Welsh names—King Gwyddno Garanhir of Ceredigion and Prince Seithenyn, son of Seithyn Saidi—over which Melissa stumbled, but I can do no better. Part of the kingdom was an area called the Bottom Hundred, a fertile swath of land holding sixteen fortified towns, all claimed from the sea by a massive stone embankment.
Prince Seithenyn was Lord High Commissioner of the Royal Embankment, but was best known as a notorious drunk. He had relinquished his duties to his deputies, who were as irresponsible as himself, with the exception of Teithrin, son of Tathral, who dwelt at the point of Mochras, in the high ground of Ardudwy.
“Sorry,” says Melissa, referring to her consistent mangling of the Welsh names.
Into the story enters Prince Elphin, the actual hero of the tale, after the listener has suffered so many excruciating monikers. He is fishing in a pastoral setting when he hears, “Beware of the oppression of Gwenhudiw!”
Melissa glances up at me and goes on.
Gwenhudiw, the mermaid shepherdess of the ocean, wishes to reclaim the Bottom Hundred. Immediately after hearing the warning, Teithrin appears, telling Elphin of the woeful condition of the embankment and Elphin takes heed.
After inspecting the stoneworks for himself, Elphin, along with Teithrin, enters Seithenyn’s hall where feasting and drinking are in full swing. Elphin tries to have a conversation with him concerning the condition of the embankment, but Seithenyn insists the ancients who built the seawall knew what they were doing, and one should leave well enough alone. Also, he ended each of his sentences with, “Cupbearer, fill!”
Elphin and Teithrin are soon the only ones sitting erect, as everyone else has slumped to the floor. Into the room enters Seithenyn’s beautiful and sober daughter, Angharad.
Another glance from Melissa.
Elphin and Angharad converse in courtly manner until the rising wind of the gathering storm outside the castle carries the words, “Beware of the oppression of Gwenhudiw!”
One of the towers along the embankment crashes into the waters, creating a gap in the stonework. Seithenyn, in his stupor, tries to defend his realm with his sword, and is consumed by the sea.
Elphin, Teithrin, Angharad and their party flee along the remaining seawall. By morning they witness the drowning of the Bottom Hundred.
It is said, if one stands by the shore at Aberdovey one can hear the bells of Gwyddno’s submerged churches still tolling under the sea.
“Now there are images full of pathos,” I say.
Melissa smiles sadly.
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2016 Drowning of the Bottom Hundred – Part Two
The City in the Sea, Edmund Dulac
“This tale is rather literary,” Melissa reflects. “W. Jenkyn Thomas drew it from Thomas Love Peacock’s Misfortunes of Elphin, Peacock being a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelly, by the way.”
One of her customers extracts himself from “his aisle” and heads for the cash register, but Melissa does not notice.
“W. Jenkyn Thomas would have us believe that the inundation of castles and cities is a theme in Welsh fairy tales.”
“Now that you mention it,” I recall, “they do sink a lot of buildings into lakes.”
“Yes, he includes four other stories of a similar bent in his collection.”
A polite cough comes from behind us, and I nod toward the counter.
“Oh.” Melissa rises to attend to business. I pick up her copy of The Welsh Fairy Book and scan the table of contents. She is right, of course. I spot Bala Lake, Helig’s Hollow, The Swallowed Court, and Syfaddon Lake.
“My favorite,” I tell Melissa upon her return, “is Bala Lake.”
“Now you’ll need to remind me which of the five stories that is.”
“The one where an oppressive prince, odious to his subjects, has a grand feast celebrating the birth of his son. During the festivities, about midnight, the harper for the occasion takes a rest and is approached by a little bird, who speaks the words, ‘Vengence, vengeance,’ into his ear, then flies toward the castle door.”
“Right,” says Melissa. “The harper follows the bird to higher ground, the bird saying, ‘Vengeance, vengeance,’ every time the harper hesitates. In the morning he discovers the palace is gone, replaced by a lake, his harp floating on the surface.”
“That’s the one,” I say.
“The Irish are quick to drown fishermen in their tales. I suppose that is an occupational hazard and that reality is reflected in their stories. The Welsh, on the other hand, drown entire castles and towns; that couldn’t have been common.”
“Hardly,” I say, picking her volume back up, paging through it again.
“In Helig’s Hollow there is a murder and deception.” I scan to the next tale. “The Swallowed Court is more complex and ironic, but revenge still underlies it.” I move on to Syfaddon Lake. “This last one is very much like Helig’s Hollow, except revenge waits a few generations, then takes the whole extended family down into the depths.
“But The Drowning of the Bottom Hundred is a little different,” Melissa argues. “It is more about the neglect of duty, and the mermaid shepherdess’s claiming land that belongs to the sea, than about punishment for a crime or misdeed. I guess I am attracted to the romance of an ominous warning, a tower crashing into the sea, the foolish drunkard dying sword in hand against the water, and a party fleeing over crumbling stonework. And yet in the end, like the other stories, a thing man-made ends up under water.”
“I think you have hit on it,” I say with certainty. ‘‘A thing man-made ends up under water. We tend to pride ourselves on our artifices. We think we can bend the rules to our favor. But forces we had not reckoned on are only a thought away and may overwhelm us.”
“I can accept that notion,” Melissa thinks aloud. “Yet, why water? Why not fire, an earthquake, a devastating wind? Why water? Perhaps we should ask an expert.”
“An expert? Such as a plumber?”
“No silly, I am thinking of our nixie.” Her eyes glint.
Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2016 Drowning of the Bottom Hundred – Part Three
Seventeenth century alchemical emblem
“Popcorn?” Melissa’s tone suggests I am being inappropriate in feeding popcorn to a near immortal.
“She loves the stuff,” I defend.
We make our way through the arched branches overhanging the path. Melissa had not known about the magic forest outside my study’s bay window. It had always been night when Melissa visited me.
“Is that a glass mountain over there?” Melissa points down one of the multiple paths.
“Yes, but the nixie’s pond is in that direction.” I point opposite.
We settle ourselves on the high stones surrounding the pond. We wait, but not long, for the nixie to rise to the surface.
“Hello, my human.”
“Hello, my nixie.” I throw her the first of many rounds of popcorn. She catches them deftly in her green-tinted hands, popping the kernels into her mouth with long, delicate fingers.
I glance at Melissa. I’ve heard the expression “eyes wide as saucers,” but had not known it was possible.
“My nixie,” I say, “you are—let me call you—of the water people.”
“Undine,” she corrects me.
“Undine,” I echo.
“Your philosopher Paracelsus kindly gave us elementals names. The gnomes (of the earth), which include dwarves and elves; sylphs (of the air), the fairies of all sorts; salamanders (of the fire), nasty little lizard-like things; and we undine, nixies, mermaids, and silkies.”
She catches some more popcorn, but her eyes rest on Melissa.
“We are wondering,” I say. “In the tales we tell each other, tragedy is likely to take the shape of water. If we are to be harmed by the elements in these stories, seldom are we knocked down by the wind, crushed by an earthquake, and only occasionally consumed by fire. More often men, women, children, castles, and towns are drowned. Why is water the ultimate destroyer?”
How she knows this is my companion’s question, I cannot tell, but the nixie turns to her.
“What is your name?”
There is a hesitation before the answer.
“The reason the tales identify water as the ultimate destroyer—and it is—is this. If a town is blown down, shaken down, burnt down, from its ruins it can be rebuilt. If the town is drowned, it still stands, uninhabited, becoming its own ghost. The sea will never give it up.
“But, Melissa,” the nixie continues, “do not fear the sea. The waters also give. How many men have taken wives from the sea?”
“How many husbands have been taken from the land?” Melissa returns.
“That I will allow,” the nixie confesses. “They are a slippery lot. We usually don’t get to keep them.”
“And the sea-wives always return to the sea,” says Melissa. “I perceive the sea takes more than it gives.”
The nixie sighs. “They are compelled to return to their watery homes if given the chance. Still, they love the children they bore by their human husbands. We are not, all of us, heartless.”
“That is another question. Do you hide your heart in secret places?”
“Oh, not I, and rarely other undine. That is more of a giant’s or wizard’s thing to do. We are heartless until there is close human contact. Even then there may be a price for either or both.”
“And a soul?” Melissa is probing.
“Our perpetual worry. We are told we have none,” the nixie states flatly.
“Perhaps you have more to fear than I.” Melissa’s tone is flat as well.
“That may be, but my world remains one of the four elements, to which, in a quarter part, you are indebted for your existence, hence your fear, or is it respect, for the watery depths.”
The two regard each other.
Should I throw popcorn between them?