The wood so softly singing
In a language strange to hear
And the song it sings will find you
As the twilight draws you near


The Watchers by the Well

The folk tale ‘The Watchers by the Well’ has an eerie quality of old magic about it. Its ‘frame’ narrative is about a man living alone in a forest full of wood and water spirits. He decides to look for a wife, but chooses one who appears to be unsuitable for the life he lives in the haunted wood. But he marries her anyway. Problems soon begin to occur as she wilfully interferes with the various magical defences around the cottage. The outcome of the story is that she has to learn how to live in this place and the learning process is the chief part of the plot of the tale. But the tale is also of great interest because of the various magical elements it contains. These include:
Ribbons by the Well

Ribbons, rags and other items such as pins were common around holy wells either as offerings or as magical tokens. Ribbons function here as a way of keeping the ash tree in his place. But when the wife takes them to put in her hair the tree attacks the house and is not to be seen anywhere the next day.

Ash Tree

Ash trees often appear in tales as malevolent or aggressive spirits that have to be contained or protected against. Whereas beech trees are often seen as benevolent. Tree lore is a field that needs more detailed exploration.

Wise Woman

‘White Mary’ lives nearby and is able to put right what the inexperienced wife has spoiled. She is a more positive teacher than the husband.

White Mary stood godmother after she’d filled the gaps in the stones into the wood, and rebuilt the wishing well with mosses and herbs, and the sweet water was gushing out in its old slender spout, and there was a little ash tree nodding above it with seven ribbons.”

She is the archetypal fairy godmother, white witch and magical helper. As well as building magical defences around the house and the well she teaches the wife how to live safely in a dangerous place of spirits and dark presences.
Nick-Nicky- Nye

He is the water spirit whose green eyes frighten the wife when she sees them looking up from beneath the waters of the river. She makes the mistake of showing him her fear and so cannot wash her clothes in the river. Though she learns how to live with the other threats, Nicky is never contained. When he tries to grab her baby she needs the combined efforts of her husband, White Mary and the spayed spaniel bitch to help her.
The Spaniel

The ‘white and gold spannel’ of this story is an essential element in the protection of the house. Spayed spaniel bitches are attested elsewhere as possessing magical powers and as defenders from malevolent spirits. She keeps Nicky at bay and after the attack on the baby she eventually drives the spirit further down the river away from the house. When the ash tree attacks she defends the house and a gnawn branch is found the next day when the tree has gone. The spaniel also stands guard after the magical configuration of stones is moved by the wife.

The tale is magically evocative of the haunted forest and the way of life of those who live there with its other inhabitants. The husband, with the help of White Mary, knows exactly how to do this. But the wife has to learn. The use of standard folk-tale motif of the ‘disobedient wife’ perhaps exaggerates her wilfulness in failing to follow the proper observances. She initially tramples White Mary’s good-luck nosegay into the ground, moves the ‘untidy’ stones and kicks the spaniel. The husband’s attempt to teach her how to behave by beating her owes more to the standard tale format than to the lessons she has to learn to survive in the haunted wood. But she does learn. And what she learns is something akin to The Fern Law of Faery. She learns to live with the wood spirits, bogles and the like. At the conclusion of the tale the spaniel comes to sit by her at the fireside indicating the completion of the learning process.


This tale appears in Katherine Briggs’ Dictionary of British Folk Tales {Part A Vol 1. pp 554-560}. It was collected by Ruth Tongue from a travelling gipsy but assigned to the Welsh-English border area. Another tale, featuring the same characters and haunted wood, but before the wife has arrived, is ‘The Harbourer and the Hare’ but this tale was collected in a different part of the country.