This post is part of an ongoing project to explore, one by one, the folkloric spirits, mischief-makers and legends in Katharine Briggs’s A Dictionary of Fairies (1976). Her descriptions serve as the starting point for my independent research on each topic.
Bordered by mudstone hills on the east and craggy mountains to the west, the River Conwy gathers streams and tributaries as it flows north through Wales: Machno, Lledr, Llugwy, Gallt y Gwg, Nant y Goron, Crafnant, Ddu, Porth-Llwyd, Dulyn, Hiraethlyn, Roe, Gyffin. This sinuous tangle of words assumes the form of a serpent as it takes aim at the Irish Sea, an estuary its gaping maw.
In the next entry of A Dictionary of Fairies, Katharine Briggs identifies a monster that called the Conwy home. The afanc, she says, inhabited a lake named Llyn yr Afanc (‘The Afanc Pool’) near Betws-y-Coed, not far from the river’s source. However, unlike the tidal river, which only fluctuates with the moon’s pull and the weather, the afanc’s shape is far less certain. Local dialects led to a strong association with the beaver — and the thought of an aggressive, over-sized beaver eager to drag unwilling victims to a watery grave admittedly is kind of terrifying — but others saw it as a crocodile, or a demon made manifest. He, or she, or it made geography an ally: Llyn yr Afanc was no normal lake, but a whirlpool that disoriented the unfortunate before drowning them. Bardic antiquarian and forger Edward Williams (1747-1826), best known as Iolo Morganwg, blamed the afanc for an ancient flood of biblical proportions that left behind only two survivors, Dwyfan and Dwyfach.
Briggs cites John Rhys’s Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx (1901), which reveals the afanc’s attraction, like unicorns, to (presumably virtuous) maidens:
He is lured [...] out of his home in the lake by the attractions of a young woman, who lets him rest his head in her lap and fall asleep. When he wakes to find himself in chains he takes a cruel revenge on her. But with infinite toil and labour he is dragged beyond the Conwy watershed into one of the highest tarns on Snowdon; for there is here no question of killing him, but only of removing him where he cannot harm the people of the Conwy Valley.
Not only does Rhys identify the afanc as a “deathless being” indestructible by ordinary means, a characteristic shared with all creatures of myth, but he furthermore notes that the monster “speaks the language of the country” — the very language that has contributed to his ambiguity of form. Indeed, one of the earliest known mentions of the afanc is in a poem by fifteenth-century bard Lewys Glyn Cothi, who writes from the monster’s perspective (translation by Rhys):
The afanc am I, who, sought for, bides
In hiding on the edge of the lake;
Out of the waters of Syfaddon Mere
Was be not drawn, once he got there.
So with me: nor wain nor oxen wont to toil
Me to-day will draw from here forth.
Though wagons and oxen could not drag him from his hiding spot, other legends attribute the afanc’s demise to the equally impossible Middle Welsh Arthurian figure of Peredur, who parallels both Percival and King Arthur himself. A hoof-print etching near Llyn Barfog is said to have been made when Arthur’s mare Llamrai pulled the creature from the lake. Like Llyn yr Afanc, this site retains its association with the self-aware monster we have never been able to describe properly, though our fear of being pulled beneath that swirling surface persists.