Wales

One of the best known of all Welsh legends concerns the faithful hound Gelert, killed by his master Llywelyn in the 13th century.

Gelert's Grave (photo: Eliane55 from the BBC Wales Nature Flickr group)

The Gwynedd village of Beddgelert – which can be translated as Gelert's Grave – is supposedly named after the dog. However, exactly how much truth there is in the story remains a matter of conjecture.

According to the oft-told legend, Llywelyn, Prince of Gwynedd and the most powerful man in the whole of Wales, had a hound called Gelert. In some versions of the tale, the dog had been given to Llywelyn by none other than King John of England. One day Llywelyn went hunting, leaving Gelert behind to look after his infant son.

When Llywelyn returned he found his tents in disarray. There was no sign of his son and Gelert, when he jumped up to greet his master, had jaws stained red with blood. Instantly assuming the hound had killed the baby, the Prince drew his sword and ran the dog through.

Only then did Llywelyn discover the unharmed baby lying beneath its upturned cot and the body of a wolf that had tried to kill the child, in the corner of the tent. The faithful Gelert had defended his charge and killed the wolf. The hound was buried with great ceremony and, legend says, prince Llywelyn never smiled from that day onwards.

It's a wonderful story that has been written about by people such as George Borrow (in Wild Wales), Robert Spencer and Walter Cassels. It also features in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

But, sadly, the story of the faithful Gelert remains exactly that – a story. It is one that appears in the folk culture of many different nations, from Germany and Austria to Switzerland and the high Alpine pastures.

In India the story is slightly different. Instead of a wolf, there is a poisonous black snake and the defender of the child is a mongoose. Rudyard Kipling probably heard the story during his childhood in India and incorporated the mongoose into The Jungle Book. A snake also appears in the Egyptian version of the tale. In Malaysia, there is no dog and no wolf – and certainly no snake. But there is a protective bear and a vicious, prowling tiger.

In the earliest recorded version of the legend, dating to the late 15th century, Gelert (known then as Cilhart) died of exhaustion after a long and arduous hunt and was duly buried at Beddgelert. By the 18th century the legend had developed into the tale of the wrongly slain faithful hound that we know today.

Visitors to Beddgelert in north Wales are often shown the grave of Gelert, complete with its tribute in English and Welsh. In fact the grave and the burial mound owe their existence to David Prichard, landlord of the nearby Goat Hotel, who in the 18th century, had an idea for increasing the tourist trade. Tourists still come in their droves to see the last resting place of Gelert.

And sadly, the village is not named after Gelert. Its name derives from an early Christian saint called Celert. That might well be the truth but it is neither so romantic nor so interesting of the story of the hound who was faithful unto death. Perhaps that's why the legend has survived so long.

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