After spending his youth fighting in the service of the Church, Collen became a holy man and travelled Europe spreading the word of God. Eventually he retired to a secluded spot by the River Dee, having been led there through dream and vision. He created a hermitage and settled to life of quiet contemplation and prayer.
One evening, as he read from his bible, he overheard a conversation from outside his cell. The voices were shrill and as he rose he heard the sneering contempt within the words.
‘This is the home of that fool, Collen. He lives his miserable life in service of a God that frowns on splendour and joy,’ said one.
‘Aye, his God is nothing compared to the power of our lord, Gwyn ap Nudd, master of Annwn and all the Tylwyth Teg.’
Though now a man of peace, Collen had been a man of war, even if his violence had been directed at the enemies of the Church. He felt the red mist rise. ‘How dare you!’ he cried out, ‘Know this, you pagan devils, fairy folk are the creatures of the devil.’
‘Hold your tongue, Collen, for if you speak such words again, Gwyn ap Nudd shall twist it out and feed it to his dogs!’
Collen was incensed and rushed to the door, intent on having at the visitors. Yet, on throwing open the door to his cell, they had vanished, leaving no trace of their presence. Puzzled, Collen slowly closed the door and returned to his prayers with renewed devotion.
The next day, Collen spent the hours of daylight praying as was his wont, walking through the Vale of Llangollen and finally returned to his hermitage as the sun sank. As he finished his evening meal of simple fare, he heard the voices once more, shrieking this time. Despite his martial past, Collen was not a little fearful. Still, he rose and moved to the door, determined to see those who would belittle his God and his faith.
As he approached to door, however, the shrieking stopped and he paused, his hand on the door. Suddenly, a voice of measured tone. ‘Collen.’ It almost whispered. ‘Collen, come up to top of Coed Hyrddyn (Velvet Hill). Gwyn ap Nudd would have words with you.’
Collen flung open the door. But for a sudden gust of wind which whipped the dust from the ground, there was nothing to see. Again, Collen closed his door, and went to his prayers. For Collen knew now, that he had gained the ire of the Tylwyth Teg.
The next day, Collen spent his day in preparation, for he knew that a reckoning was due. He bathed in the holy waters of the River Dee, and taking a flask of the water, he called upon the Lord to bless it. He prayed hard, asking for the strength of Christ for the task that had been set him.
As twilight approached, the voices returned. This time Collen made no effort to open the door, but stood tall in his cell and listened. ‘Collen. Is your God a coward? Does he tremble before the might of Gwyn ap Nudd? Come to the top of the hill, Collen, for the Lord of the Tylwyth Teg would speak with you.’
Collen collected his staff, placed the flask of holy water in his sack and left his cell. There was no one to escort him of course, but Collen preferred his own company as he made to climb Velvet Hill. Though it was a summer evening, the air grew chill as he climbed, and the wind gained in strength. In the light of day, the hill was beautiful, but this evening a sense of foreboding built in him. As he toiled, for his limbs were aching now, he could see to his unease that the top of hill was no longer empty of all but trees and rocks, but was crowned with a castle of great beauty. The walls were tall and whitewashed, and pennants snapped in the wind from the battlements. The doors opened and knights appeared, their armour reflecting what was left of the dying sun.
Taking their place by his side, they escorted him through the gates and into the courtyard. He was surrounded by Tylwyth Teg, haughty and beautiful, clothed in the resplendent coloured silk. But Collen was not fooled. He saw through their fair façade, and recognised them for what they were – the shallow peoples of a lesser faith. The Lord had given him better eyes than to be taken in by the lies. They stared at him, stately and silent. Collen turned and looked about him, disdainful of the fakery.
He followed the fairy retinue into the Great Hall, and though the place glowed with fire and candle light he was cold. A long table stretched the length of the room, and at it sat the Fairy King’s inner court. They smiled and grinned at him, but the quiet was eerie and Collen felt the chill settle on his bones. At the head of the table sat a giant of a man, pale of hair and skin and long limbed, his hands resting delicately on the arms of his high backed chair, garbed in the finest silks and velvet.
Gwyn ap Nudd smiled lightly and motioned to a chair beside him. ‘Would you not sit with me, Collen, on my right as your Lord, Jesus Christ sits with his father? You are our honoured guest.’
Collen started at the blasphemy of it and shook his head. ‘No, I will stand, as I shall before my Lord as he judges my acts as righteous or not.’
Gwyn ap Nudd’s face darkened for a moment, before the smile returned. ‘As you will…but look around, Collen, at the feast we have prepared you. Are you not hungry, will you not eat?’
The table was full of delectable foods, but Collen again shook his head, for he saw through the glamour. ‘And why,’ said he, ‘would I choose to eat leaves and twigs, when I have honest fruits at home?’
Gwyn ap Nudd snarled and banged his clenched fist on the table before him. The food vanished, leaving a mass of a mouldering greenery. But he composed himself in a moment, and his smile was full again, splitting his face from ear to ear. ‘You see through my wit, Holy Collen, but so be it. Look instead on the fineries of my court, and tell me truthfully, have you ever seen such beauty, such splendour?’
Collen sighed. ‘Enough, I shall allow this no more.’ And with that he pulled the flask from his sack and flung the holy water onto the floor of the Great Hall. As the flask shattered, so did the illusion, and the court was gone. In the sudden dark, Collen stood alone. The holy man turned and made his way down Velvet Hill, tired but victorious. He entered his cell and knelt in a prayer of thanks for giving him the strength to defeat the Tylwyth Teg.
Collen’s presence in the Vale was the foundation of the town that now bears his name. Llangollen.