Those Creepy Fates

Left to right: Broken Top, South Sister, North Sister

There is a trio of mountains in Oregon called the Three Sisters. In fact, the town of Sisters, OR, is named for them. In this picture, you can only see two of the them (the third is hiding behind).

I use this picture for my illustration because, while there is a lot of great art portraying the Three Fates, it’s a little hard to find a picture that I can use without copyright infringement.

I recently read, with my kids, The Black Cauldron. My imagination was captured by the three swamp-dwelling little old ladies (if human?) who guard the Cauldron: Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. As far as I can tell, Lloyd Alexander made up these ladies and imported them into his story. Though triple goddesses are a recurring feature in Celtic mythology, they are not really the same as the three fates and it’s even a falsehood that they always came in the form of maiden, mother, and crone, as you will see if you read the scathing 1-star reviews of the book The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

The Greek fates are named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho spins the thread of a mortal’s life, Lachesis measures out its predetermined length, and Atropos cuts it. Norse cosmology also has fates, called the Norns … in some versions three, named Past, Present and Future; in some versions a large but unknown number, according to this article. Evidently the idea of fate personified as three or more women (or woman-like beings) goes way back in Indo-European cosmology. It shows up as late as Macbeth’s three witches.

I had ignored the Fates for some time (as one does); but reading The Black Cauldron made me wonder whether you can write a fantasy that draws on Indo-European cosmology and not at least tip your hat to them.

By their very nature, the Fates are creepy. Lloyd Alexander does a great job of making this feeling come through when he introduces Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. The heroes of the book, on first seeing the fates’ house (and by the way, the word ‘fates’ is not used), think it is abandoned because it looks so run-down and blends so well into the swamp shrubberies. There’s a loom set up inside the house, on which is a tangled mess of a weaving. (Don’t touch!) Then the ladies show up. Rather like Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings, they seem cavalier about things that ordinary people regard as matters of life and death. Orddu keeps offering to turn the travelers into toads (“You’ll grow to like it”). Orgoch is excited about this because if they were toads, it’s implied she could eat them. Orgoch, the only one of the three who is clad in a black cowl, seems to want to eat everything. As Orddu says, “It’s hard to keep pets with Orgoch around.”

The three ladies light up when they hear that the travelers know Dallben, who it transpires they discovered as a foundling and raised. They refer to him as “little Dallben.” (Dallben is over 300 years old.)

The travelers stay the night in an outbuilding belonging to the three ladies. Taran, the main character, wakes up in the middle of the night and sneaks up to the window of the dilapidated cottage, which is now alight. He returns, reporting, “They’re not the same ones!” Orwen, Orddu and Orgoch now look young and beautiful, and they spend all night working on their weaving. The next morning, however, they appear looking just as they did before, and with the same apparent disregard for human life.

Lloyd Alexander has set a really high bar with this fictional, Welsh version of the fates, and I’m not even sure I could approach it. Here is an article that dives more deeply into an analysis of the fates and of all of Prydain, the fantasy world in which the book is set. Be warned, the article assumes you are familiar with the whole series.

6 thoughts on “Those Creepy Fates

  1. I was/am not real knowledgeable about Welsh myth, so I just assumed that the 3 ladies were some form of the Fates. So much myth crosses boundaries that at some point the regular joe just throws up his hands and says “ok, fine, just give it to me….”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I at first assumed this was the Welsh version of the Fates, but after extensive Googling, the only thing those three names bring up is mentions of Alexander’s books. However, I am sure there are still stones left unturned.
      I do have a copy of the Mabinogion, but it’s not a quick skim.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ahester1

    Lloyd Alexander’s Series is one of our favorites, we’ve even read The Foundling and other Tales from Prydain, which is a group of short stories that tell the background of some of the characters, like the story of Dallben and how Flewdur got his harp. I enjoyed reading the article you linked, the author clearly expressed the uncomfortable feeling the ending of the series left in me, not enough to be disappointed, not enough to hate the series. I didn’t feel triumphant which was an unexpected turn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it great when you discover an author or series you have to read “everything” by?
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I thought it was very insightful. I haven’t finished the series, so I can neither agree nor disagree with the article’s assessment of whether the lack of triumph was tacked on unnecessarily. So far, the characters all strike me as comic, so I might expect bathos at the end but not actual tragedy.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One of these days I am going to read this series again. It was a book on Welsh Legends and Folk-tales that peek my interest in Welsh mythology. Around the same time was when I discover The Chronicles of Prydain series. Ever since I want to learn how to speak Welsh and if I have a daughter I want to name her Eilonwy. That is such a pretty name and I like how it spell.

    Liked by 1 person

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