Angelika Rudiger’s thesis on Y Tylwyth Teg

In a recent internet search I found out that the PhD thesis of Angelika Rudiger ‘Y Tylwyth Teg. An Analysis of a Literary Motif’ was published by Bangor University in 2021 (downloadable HERE).

I first came across Rudiger’s research through her studies on Gwyn ap Nudd in Temple Publications – ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: A First and Frame Deity’ (2011) and ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Lord of Light and Master of Time’ (2011) and in Gramarye –‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ (2012). 

This thesis provides a full length (364 page) study of Y Tylwyth Teg, which is commonly translated as ‘the Fair Family’ or ‘the fairies’ and which Rudiger translates as ‘the Beautiful Tribe / ‘the Beautiful Family’. This relates to her earlier research on Gwyn ap Nudd for He is the king of Y Tylwyth Teg. 

The study covers the representation of Y Tylwyth Teg in medieval Welsh and wider folkloric sources from the Middle Ages until the present day. The first part explores synonyms and motfis. Rudiger considers the questions of whether ‘the otherworld is identical to hell or a realm of the dead’ and discusses how its imagery relates to ‘poetic creativity’ and ‘transformational processes’. Part two ‘focuses on the historical development of traditions connected with Y Tylwyth Teg’ and looks at issues such as the ‘othering’ of the socially disadvantaged, nationalism, and appropriation.

I found this thesis to be thorough and excellently researched. Much of the content, such as citations from medieval Welsh texts such as Culhwch ac Olwen, The Mabinogion, Buchedd Collen, the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym, and folkloric sources including John Rhŷs, T. Gwynn Jones and W. Y. Evans Wentz are widely available and were familiar to myself and would be to many others.

However, Rudiger has gone beyond the better known sources to enrich this study with lesser known lore. For example, at the beginning, Rudiger notes that the first mention of ‘Y Tylwyth Teg’ comes from a 15th century poem titled ‘Y Niwl Hudolus’ by an unknown author, who often imitated the poetry of Dafydd Gwilym, whose poem ‘Y Niwl’ is better known. Both poems speak of seeking a girl and getting lost in the mist (which is associated with Y Tywlyth Teg and their leader, Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist’).

In ‘Y Niwl Hudolus’, as cited by Rudiger, the mist is described thus: 

Gweilgi yn llenwi pob lle,
Fal hudol byd yn hedeg
O barthlwyth y Tylwyth Teg,
Ac un dduliw, hagrliw hyll, Obry’n dew wybren dywyll
Lle’r ydoedd ym mhob gobant Ellyllon mimgeimion gant. 

an ocean filling every place,
like a world’s magician flying
from the homestead of the Fairy Folk,
with a single black colour, a nasty ugly colour, down below like a thick dark cloud
where in every hollow there were
a hundred mocking sprites. 

Another fascinating couple of pieces of lore that I was unaware of are found in the section on Annwn which Rudiger argues ‘is the oldest name’ for the abode of Y Tylwyth Teg. Here she traces its eymology and speaks of some of the abodes of Gwyn ap Nudd, as a king of Annwn, that are located in the landscape. 

In her translation of the eighth verse of ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (which differs from Greg Hill’s) Gwyn speaks of his horse hastening him away to ‘my ridge of Tawe and Nedd’. Rudiger places this at ‘Mynydd y Drum near Neath Port Talbot’ and cites a story recorded by John Rhŷs in which a man called John Gethin is told by a wizard it is the location of a treasure that can be won by a man who spends a night there. A monstrous bull appears, Gethin holds its ground, and it vanishes. 

Rudiger then relates another story recorded by Goodwin Wharton about a cunning woman called Mary Parish who lived in Somerset. When alone in her chamber she was approached by a man who invited her to Glastonbury Tor (where Gwyn as King of Annwn holds a feast in Buchenn Collen). He said: ‘we have a great treasure, thou shalt have some of it, but there will appear a great fierce bull, who will come furiously at thee as if he would have thee to pieces but be not thou afraid of him, for he cannot hurt thee nor hinder thee. And then disappeared.’

Both these stories seem linked to Gwyn’s depiction as a ‘bull of battle’ in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ and His potential connections with Tarvos Trigaranus ‘The Bull with Three Cranes’. Unfortunately Rudiger does not pick up these threads or take them any further. 

One of the most interesting parts of the thesis for me was the exploration of whether the otherworld is the realm of the dead in the later sections of section 2 in Part One. Here Rudiger looks at texts such as ‘Prieddu Annwn’, ‘Sir Orfeo’ and folkloric sources. She shows that the otherworld can be seen as a place of limbo where the prematurely dead can be found. In some texts death takes place there yet in others does not occur as time is suspended in an eternal present. She concludes ‘Annwn is a liminal world, though not an abode set aside exclusively for the departed.’ 

The limitations of this thesis to sources from the Middle Ages onwards foregoes the potential of looking at early archaeological sources such as burials with grave goods which are suggestive of Brythonic beliefs about the passage of the dead to the otherworld as a land of the dead. Possible connections between prehistoric beliefs and the spirits of Annwn and the dead are explored by Will Parker in his study The Four Branches of the Mabinogi.

Another part of the thesis that fascinated me was Rudiger’s explorations of the connections between poetic creativity and transformation. She speaks of the imprisonment of Myrddin within a glass house as being symbolic of the liminal and transformational experience a poet undergoes in the otherworld (akin to being in the grave – a death) before emerging with inspiration. The muteness of the warriors on the walls of Caer Wydyr, the Glass Castle, and the tower of glass in the Historia Brittonum is read as symbolising a ‘failed transitional process’. This is later related to the warriors who emerge from the cauldron in the Second Branch able in body but unable to speak.

These were the highlights of the thesis for me and I am sure that other readers will find much more to fills in gaps in their knowledge and to pose further questions. I would recommend it as essential reading for those who have a scholarly interest in Y Tylwth Teg and for practicing polytheists with devotional relationships with Gwyn and His people who want to find out more.

3 thoughts on “Angelika Rudiger’s thesis on Y Tylwyth Teg

  1. Greg Hill says:

    Thanks, Lorna, for the link to the thesis which I will read with interest. On the 8th englyn in the ‘Conversation …’ the word ‘trum’ can mean ‘ridge’ or ‘summit’ but also in earlier Welsh ‘battle’. Jarman’s notes to The Black Book of Carmarthen speculate if this might be a specific place name, so the identification of Mynydd y Drum as the particular place is interesting. The story about spending the night and finding weapons also occurs elsewhere and a similar tale is told by Gerald of Wales about Crug Mawr near Cardigan, which is one of the {less likely) locations of Gorsedd Arberth.

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