04 July, 2007

A grain of truth?

Every visitor to the mountain village of Beddgelert in North Wales hears the touching legend of Gelert, the faithful greyhound unjustly slain by his master Llewelyn Fawr, Prince of Wales. The legend as inscribed on the handsome nineteenth-century tombstone goes as follows:

In the 13th century Llywelyn, prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert, "The Faithful Hound", who was unaccountably absent. On Llywelyn's return the truant, stained and smeared with blood, joyfully sprang to meet his master. The prince alarmed hastened to find his son, and saw the infant's cot empty, the bedclothes and floor covered with blood. The frantic father plunged his sword into the hounds side, thinking it had killed his heir. The dog's dying yell was answered by a child's cry. Llywelyn searched and discovered his boy unharmed, but near by lay the body of a mighty wolf which Gelert had slain. The prince filled with remorse is said never to have smiled again. He buried Gelert here.

And that is how the village came to be named Beddgelert, ‘The Grave of Gelert’.

Except it probably isn’t. The village name goes back centuries, recorded as Bedkelert in a document of 1281 (Room 1988), but according to modern scholars the story of Llewelyn and his greyhound was unknown in the area before 1784, when it was invented by David Prichard, landlord of the local hotel (Jones 2002). Mr Prichard and a group of local worthies are said to have set up the present tombstone beside an ancient cromlech, and made a tidy living from the new breed of Romantic tourists who flocked to visit the site of the legend.

Hats off to Mr Prichard for enterprise. Gelert the greyhound became immensely popular, is the subject of a famous poem (scroll down the page in the link), and is now at least as secure of his immortality as Prince Llewelyn the Great himself. Whoever the original Gelert or Celert commemorated in the village name may have been, his place in history has been well and truly usurped by a (fictional?) dog. I hope the poor man has a sense of humour.

Not everyone approved of Mr Prichard’s storytelling, prompting someone to coin the acid aphorism, “Here not a greyhound but a landlord lies.” But that judgement may be a little over-harsh. According to Malcolm Jones, “in 1484 the heraldic Rous Roll gives the arms of Wales as a helm on which the crest is a dog and cradle, which surely suggests that some version of the tale was already associated with the Welsh royal line at this date.” By 1484, of course, the princely dynasties of independent Wales were long gone, so the association may or may not have been a genuine tradition. Still, perhaps Mr Prichard was guilty of little more than borrowing an existing legend and moving it to his home town. The romantic in me would like to think so.

Room, A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, 1988, ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.
Jones, M. The Secret Middle Ages. Sutton, 2002, ISBN 0-7509-2685-6.

(Many thanks to Elizabeth Chadwick for recommending The Secret Middle Ages in an earlier comment!)

16 comments:

Bernita said...

I hope it is pure fabrication. Always hated that story.

Alianore said...

I remember learning about that story at school. Being a dog-lover, it always upset me, so I'm not at all displeased that it may have been a fabrication!

Carla said...

Bernita - it's apparently an international folk tale that turns up in various guises all over the world. I suppose it's a sort of parable about the perils of rash action.

Alianore - I think I came across it at school too. I'm not particularly a dog-lover, but it had me in tears at the unfairness of it - and I suppose that emotional pull is why it's lasted so long!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Never heard the story, but I'm glad it's probably not true. Poor doggie.

Constance said...

Sounds like someone's idea of a morality lesson that grew out of control... I love the hundreds of different versions of legends floating around out there. Makes reading them interesting. :)

Gabriele C. said...

I have vague memories that's there's such a legend in Germany was well, but I don't remember any details.

Damn lazy braincells.

Carla said...

Susan - poor dog, indeed! It's quite a well-known legend over here (which no doubt pleases the Welsh Tourist Board).

Constance - exactly, a morality tale. Many legends and folktales seem to have elements of that. I expect every teller of every legend thinks s/he can improve on the original version, hence the multiplicity of variants. I wonder why in this case it should have attached itself so firmly to Llewelyn Fawr and not (AFAIK) to any other ruler? Maybe there was a genuine incident that gave the story some traction, now long since buried under the legend.

Gabriele - there probably is, as apparently it turns up all over the world. If you happen to come across it, I'd be interested.

Rick said...

I'm nearly sure I've seen other versions of the story, but I can't remember details (and might just be remembering this version minus the names).

It does have all the ring of a precautionary folktale. As to why it attached itself to Llywelyn, perhaps he simply liked dogs, a favorite hound especially. Say it's one of the things people remember, and as he himself is passing into legend the folktale gets attached to him and his dog.


This touches something I've wondered about in general. There has been a lot of work on how oral traditions are handed down, but there must be a formative or transitional period when they take shape, some real events getting worked into narrative and preserved.

Is OE Scop related to "shape?" My old OED abridgment gives no etymology, but I think it would have been pronounced "shope," which sure sounds like it could be an old form originally meaning someone who shapes something.

Or that could be pure quarter-informed speculation.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I remember reading the Gelert story when I was about 8. My grandmother had been given a book of animals tales for a jumble sale and she held it back for me to read when I visited. It was a thick, musty Victorian tome with plate illustrations and I loved it - even if it was full of melodrama and tragedy. Alongside Beowulf and the Dragon and the story of Pegasus, I also discovered Dick Turpin's Bess, some author's cat that fell in a goldfish bowl and drowned (cat was called Selena) Grey Friar's Bobby, and Llewelyn and Gelert. I loved that story, even if it is apocryphal. I mean where were the women when all this was happening? I know peasant children were often left to their own devices when mum went out to the fields and were occasionally mauled by a stray pig, or fell in the fire - you see it in
'inquests' in Medieval records, but a royal child wouldn't be left on its own and in a situation where a wolf would get so close.
It probably is a morality tale, but I never read it as such as a child. I just enjoyed the adventure and the tragedy - in a sad sort of way.
I suppose there may be a germ of truth though. As in Dick Turpin's Black Bess. Except that it wasn't Dick Turpin who made that heroic ride from London to York in a single night, it was in fact Nick Nevison who rode from Kent to York in 15 hours - not sure if he changed horses along the way!

The Secret Middle Ages is a very entertaining book isn't it? I quite often dip in and have a smile or an 'I didn't know that' moment.

Carla said...

Rick - yes, exactly, I'm sure that's how legends accrete around historical figures. Like an oyster growing a pearl around a bit of grit, except that with a story you can't see the join between the grain(s) of fact and the subsequent embellishment.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology of scop as "OE. scop, sceop = OHG. scoph, scof masc., cogn. w. OHG. scoph (? neut.) poetry, fiction (‘commentum’), sport, jest, derision (‘ludibrium’), ON. skop railing, mocking". It gives the etymology of shape as OE sceop, scieppan, meaning 'to create' or 'to fashion'. So it would seem that scop and shape have an independent origin. The OED also says of 'shaper' "3. quasi-arch. A poet. rare. Suggested by OE. SCOP, fancied to be cogn. w. SHAPE v." Note "fancied" in the entry - clearly the dictionary doesn't agree!

Elizabeth - it's a terrific book, and thank you for the recommendation! I didn't know the 'soup in a basket' joke went back to the 1400s....

Indeed, the idea of a royal baby being left unattended, or of a wolf getting into a princely household, is absurd. Just imagine the chamberlain trying to explain that one - he (and an awful lot of guards and nursemaids) would be looking for a new job the next day. There might be a germ of truth – perhaps something like it happened to someone of humble rank who worked for Llewelyn, and a later reteller decided he’d get a better reaction from his audience if he told them it was a story about Prince Llewelyn rather than Prince Llewelyn’s huntsman/shepherd/peasant. Especially if, as Rick suggests, Llewelyn was known to be fond of dogs and there were other stories already in circulation about some incident involving the prince and a favourite greyhound. Roll the two together and voila, a legend is born.
Any idea why Nick Nevison got his exploit usurped by Dick Turpin? Was Turpin already a popular figure in folkore at the time?

Rick said...

Bummer, but I'll trust the OED!

Carla said...

Rick - shame, isn't it? Another beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Coming back belatedly to this Carla, re Turpin and Nevison - I seem to recall that someone turned the exploit into a novel, or used it as a thread in a novel and did some mixing and matching along the way.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - many thanks for the reply. So the story replaced the original grain of truth.

Maureen said...

The Irish are quite sure that it was Prince Llewelyn's Irish wolfhound, not some generic greyhound.

I have to say I find it difficult to believe that any single greyhound could kill a wolf.

Carla said...

Hello Maureen and welcome. An Irish wolfhound would certainly seem to be a much more likely opponent for a wolf than a greyhound!