Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 53

The Dylluan — The Oldest Creatures.

MUCH rain fell about the middle of the month; in the intervals of the showers I occasionally walked by the banks of the river which speedily became much swollen; it was quite terrible both to the sight and ear near the “Robber’s Leap;” there were breakers above the higher stones at least five feet high and a roar around almost sufficient “to scare a hundred men.” The pool of Lingo was strangely altered; it was no longer the quiet pool which it was in summer, verifying the words of the old Welsh poet that the deepest pool of the river is always the stillest in the summer and of the softest sound, but a howling turbid gulf, in which branches of trees, dead animals and rubbish were whirling about in the wildest confusion. The nights were generally less rainy than the days, and sometimes by the pallid glimmer of the moon I would take a stroll along some favourite path or road. One night as I was wandering slowly along the path leading through the groves of Pen y Coed I was startled by an unearthly cry — it was the shout of the dylluan or owl, as it flitted over the tops of the trees on its nocturnal business.

Oh, that cry of the dylluan! what a strange wild cry it is; how unlike any other sound in nature! a cry which no combination of letters can give the slightest idea of. What resemblance does Shakespear’s to-whit-to-whoo bear to the cry of the owl? none whatever; those who hear it for the first time never know what it is, however accustomed to talk of the cry of the owl and to-whit-to-whoo. A man might be wandering through a wood with Shakespear’s owl-chorus in his mouth, but were he then to hear for the first time the real shout of the owl he would assuredly stop short and wonder whence that unearthly cry could proceed.

Yet no doubt that strange cry is a fitting cry for the owl, the strangest in its habits and look of all birds, the bird of whom by all nations the strangest tales are told. Oh, what strange tales are told of the owl, especially in connection with its long-lifedness; but of all the strange wild tales connected with the age of the owl, strangest of all is the old Welsh tale. When I heard the owl’s cry in the groves of Pen y Coed that tale rushed into my mind. I had heard it from the singular groom who had taught me to gabble Welsh in my boyhood, and had subsequently read it in an old tattered Welsh story-book, which by chance fell into my hands. The reader will perhaps be obliged by my relating it.

“The eagle of the alder grove, after being long married and having had many children by his mate, lost her by death, and became a widower. After some time he took it into his head to marry the owl of the Cowlyd Coomb; but fearing he should have issue by her, and by that means sully his lineage, he went first of all to the oldest creatures in the world in order to obtain information about her age. First he went to the stag of Ferny-side Brae, whom he found sitting by the old stump of an oak, and inquired the age of the owl. The stag said: ‘I have seen this oak an acorn which is now lying on the ground without either leaves or bark: nothing in the world wore it up but my rubbing myself against it once a day when I got up, so I have seen a vast number of years, but I assure you that I have never seen the owl older or younger than she is today. However, there is one older than myself, and that is the salmon-trout of Glyn Llifon.’ To him went the eagle and asked him the age of the owl and got for answer: ‘I have a year over my head for every gem on my skin and for every egg in my roe, yet have I always seen the owl look the same; but there is one older than myself, and that is the ousel of Cilgwry.’ Away went the eagle to Cilgwry, and found the ousel standing upon a little rock, and asked him the age of the owl. Quoth the ousel: ‘You see that the rock below me is not larger than a man can carry in one of his hands: I have seen it so large that it would have taken a hundred oxen to drag it, and it has never been worn save by my drying my beak upon it once every night, and by my striking the tip of my wing against it in rising in the morning, yet never have I known the owl older or younger than she is today. However, there is one older than I, and that is the toad of Cors Fochnod; and unless he knows her age no one knows it.’ To him went the eagle and asked the age of the owl, and the toad replied: ‘I have never eaten anything save what I have sucked from the earth, and have never eaten half my fill in all the days of my life; but do you see those two great hills beside the cross? I have seen the place where they stand level ground, and nothing produced those heaps save what I discharged from my body, who have ever eaten so very little — yet never have I known the owl anything else but an old hag who cried Too-hoo-hoo, and scared children with her voice even as she does at present.’ So the eagle of Gwernabwy; the stag of Ferny-side Brae; the salmon trout of Glyn Llifon; the ousel of Cilgwry; the toad of Cors Fochnod, and the owl of Coomb Cowlyd are the oldest creatures in the world; the oldest of them all being the owl.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50