dimarts, de gener 25, 2005

Saint Dwynwen's Day (English)

Little known outside of Wales is that this tiny country has not one, but two days to celebrate love and lovers. The more well-known of the two is of course the one which corresponds to Valentine's Day, in Welsh, Gwyl San Ffolant. The other day for Welsh lovers is today, January 25th, Gwyl Santes Dwynwen, or St. Dwynwen's Day.

Unlike Valentine's day, named for St. Valentine, a man, Dwynwen is a woman, a woman whose love in fact goes unrequited.

There used to be a very good website with the history of her life in English, but it seems to have disappeared; there are still several good sites in Welsh, but that won't help the English readers who might come across this page.

Picture it, the Brecon Beacons, 460 C.E., an early medieval feast in a former Roman Villa in the highlands (yes, I will be taking some liberties in relating this tale, alas, the purchase of the storyteller!)

The short version of her story is that she was a young and beautiful princess, a daughter to Brychan, King of Brycheiniog in southeasterly Wales. One time, Brychan held a great feast, and nobles from far and wide came to celebrate with him. One of these was named Maelon, a handsome, we would even say beautiful man in Welsh. His gaze crossed Dwynwen's, and like in the romances of old, there was the predictible coup de foudre and they fell madly in love. Maelon and Dwynwen spent most of the feast making eyes at each other, and stealing bits of conversation away from the main celebrating (Brychan was a big bearded, mead swilling man, what we would call a bear these days). At the end of the night, Maelon took Dwynwen aside and asked her to marry him. She had fallen desperately in love, overwrought with all sorts of hormones, but she had her head about her enough to remember the law of the land. It was required that she ask her father's permission first.

Off she went to counsel with Brychan, and he being the free-spirit minor monarch that he was said, "Of course Dwynwen fach, you can marry Maelon, but it is the tradition of this land that after being asked for your hand in marriage, you wait one year and one day before marrying!" Dwynwen was a little disappointed, but willing; Maelon on the other hand was recalcitrant, in other words, he was having nothing doing.

He told Dwynwen, after Brychan had stepped out to get more mead, "Listen Dwynwen, if you love me, then you better run away with me to my castles, because while I find you comely, I ain't waiting around a year for you. A catch as hot as me can always find a willing bird."

Dwynwen was unwilling to contravene her father's commandment, and so Maelon left Plas Brychan in a rage. Dwynwen was beside herself with sorrow, and she ran out into the woods.

Here's where the story has several traditional paths. I will tell you the one I remember hearing first. She ran out into the woods, and she tripped on a root. She fell and struck her head against the tree, or the ground, and passed out.

While she was unconscious, she had a vision. See, back in the 5th century, most of Wales was Pagan, but there were a lot of these Christians running around the place cursing everyone and trying to get them to convert to the New Religion. Of course, in her delirium, who should come to her but the image of the Christian god. He told her that if she committed to spread his word around Wales and work to convert people, he would take away all the pain that she was suffering. She consented, and when she came to, she didn't feel one iota of love for Maelon. She went back to Plas Brychan and told her family what happened. Brychan, being the Hedosnist that he was just shrugged, grabbed a concubine and a picther of mead and wandered off. Two of her siblings however agreed to join her in her crusade to "bring the Light" to Wales.

They spent many sexless years converting the willing and unwilling alike, until at last they came to a small island off the coast of Ynys Môn, the Isle of Anglessy in northwest Wales, the wildest and most remote part of the land. Some little voice told Dwynwen that she should build a church there, and so she did. Dwynwen and her brother and sister spent their remaining years devoting their life to this tiny and remote religious community. Dwynwen never saw Maelon again. More than likely he forgot about her.

Some versions of the story have Dwynwen seeing different images in wells and having Maelon turned to ice, but of course, that makes the story totally unbelievable. More than likely Dwynwen and Maelon were real people, and their story went more or less like the one I have just related.

The Welsh of a deep sense of irony, and it is of no real surprise that they would make Dwynwen, a woman whose love is unrequited, their patron saint of lovers. It's sort of like the line from Selznick's movie "Portrait of Jenny" where the character of and elderly lady, Spinny, tells the protagonist, a youngish artist, "You man, no one knows more about love than an old maid!"

To this day people remember the sad story of Dwynwen, and with it all the many Welsh love songs that end in death, separation, rejection. There's a realness to Welsh love that we're missing really. During this week of remembering love and its vicissitudes, Welsh lovers will make the trek along the beach out to Ynys Llanddwyn, where the ruins of a Tudor church stand above the site of Dwynwen's original priory. Still in love, they will hold hands or kiss, and stand in thanksgiving that their love, unlike Dwynwen's, came to fruition.

And what about the other lovers' holiday, Gwyl San Ffolant? That's just like ours, with candy and big read hearts, with one difference: in Welsh San Ffolant's name translates as something like Saint Foolish...