Welsh Fairy Book: March's Ears

You can compare this story to other stories of this type in other reading units for this class: Ears of Midas. In addition, you can find examples Dan Ashliman's website: Midas and other folktales of type 782.

The Welsh King March, as you will see, has horse's ears, and so the story is in some sense inspired by his name: march in Welsh means "horse." In other versions of this story, the king killed his barbers one after another and buried them where the reeds grew; the version of the story you will read here is not so gruesome.

Explore: For another story about keeping secrets, see The Fairy Reward. For another story about a ruler of Wales, see the story of Prince Llewelyn and and the Martyred Hound.

[notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Welsh Fairy Tales unit. Story source: The Welsh Fairy Book by W. Jenkyn Thomas with illustrations by Willy Pog├íny (1908).

March's Ears

MARCH AB MEIRCHION was lord of Castellmarch, in Lleyn. He ruled over leagues of rich land, tilled by hundreds of willing and obedient vassals. He had great possessions, fleet horses, greyhounds, hawks; countless black cattle and sheep, and a great herd of swine. (But few possessed pigs at that time, and their flesh was esteemed better than the flesh of oxen. Arthur himself sought to have one of March's sows.) In his palace he had much treasure of gold, silver, and Conway pearls, and all men envied him. But March was not happy: he had a secret, and day and night he was torn with dread lest it should be discovered. He had horse's ears!

To no one was the secret known except his barber. This man he compelled to take a solemn oath that he would not reveal his deformity to any living soul. If he wittingly or unwittingly should let anyone know that March's ears were other than human, March swore that he would cut his head off.

The barber became as unhappy as March: indeed his wretchedness was greater, because his fate would be worse if the secret were revealed. March would undergo ridicule, which is certainly a serious thing: but the barber would undergo decapitation, which is much more serious.

The secret disagreed with his constitution so violently that he lost his appetite and his colour, and began to fall into a decline. So ill did he become that he had to call in a physician. This man was skilled in his craft, and he said to the barber, "You are being killed by a suppressed secret: unless you communicate it to someone you will soon be in your grave."

This announcement did not give the barber much consolation. He explained to the physician that if he did as he was directed he would lose his head. If in any event he had to come to the end of his earthly career, he preferred being interred with his head joined to, rather than separated from, his trunk.

The physician then suggested that he should tell his secret to the ground. The barber thought there was not much danger to his cervical vertebrae (this is the learned name for neck bones) if he did this, and adopted the suggestion. He was at once relieved. His colour and appetite gradually came back, and before long he was as strong and well as he had ever been.

Now it happened that a fine crop of reeds grew on the spot where the barber whispered his secret to the ground. March prepared a great feast, and sent for one of Maelgwn Gwynedd's pipers, who was the best piper in the world, to make music for his guests. On his way to Castellmarch, the piper observed these fine reeds, and as his old pipe was getting worn out, he cut them and made an excellent new pipe.

When his guests had eaten and drunk, March ordered the piper to play. What was the surprise of all when the pipe gave out no music, but only the words, "Horse's ears for March ab Meirchion, horse's ears for March ab Meirchion," over and over again.

March drew his sword and would have slain the piper, but the hapless musician begged for mercy. He was not to blame, he said: he had tried to play his wonted music, but the pipe was charmed, and do what he would, he could get nothing out of it but the words, "Horse's ears for March ab Meirchion." March tried the pipe himself, but even he could not elicit any strains from it, but only the words, "Horse's ears for March ab Meirchion." So he forgave the piper and made no further effort to conceal his deformity.

(600 words)

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