I’m on holiday in Wales at the moment. It’s a place that I find myself returning to every now and then. It holds a lot of memories for me, and I still find it a fascinating place.
I’m writing this while I watch waves surging up a beach, with a mountain in the background, just visible through the low cloud. Even in ‘bad’ weather, the place is impressive and dramatic. And if I turn, I can see the remains of a castle, stones still standing strong against the elements, hundreds of years after its construction.
There are different layers to Wales. There’s the physical landscape, and then there are the signs of human intervention. Obviously there are the old castles, but there are also earthworks, and cairns, and other stone structures. Some have a written history, but others have none, their creation and purpose shrouded in mystery.
These are the stories that sit just beneath the surface. Where something appears out of the ordinary, it is natural to attempt to understand, and stories grow. They might be based on truth, or on myth, or maybe they are interpretations by vivid imaginations, like certain mountains being the resting places of giant warriors who will one day rise again to protect the land.
There are so many tales, and variations on these tales. One of them, maybe one of the best known in Wales, is that of Gelert the hound.
If you go to the village of Beddgelert, deep in Snowdonia, under a tree in a field, you can find a large stone. It is now surrounded by a metal fence, to protect it from the many visitors it receives every year, but you can easily read what is written on the two tombstones also within the fence, one in English, the other in Welsh:
“In the 13th century Llewelyn, prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert, ‘The Faithful Hound’, who was unaccountably absent.
On Llewelyn’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 hound’s side, thinking it had killed his heir. The dog’s dying yell was answered by a child’s cry.
Llewelyn searched and discovered his boy unharmed, but nearby 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”.
Such a tragic tale, and one that many read in silence, the words — and what they mean — sinking deep. It is easy to understand why the grave, and all that it represents, draws so many people. It is impressive that a grave for a dog, buried centuries ago, still has the power to move people.
Yet it’s all a lie.
Maybe that’s too strong. Maybe I should call it a fabrication, or a fiction. Or simply a story.
This is the story behind the story:
In 1793, a man named David Pritchard took over as landlord of the Royal Goat Inn in Beddgelert. He built up a small cairn and started talking of Llewelyn and his hound. The story spread, and it became understood that the pile of rocks marked the final resting place of Gelert.
Maybe Pritchard had heard a similar story elsewhere, or maybe he created it all. There was a Prince Llewelyn connected with a nearby abbey, and he would have most likely kept hounds for hunting. The name of the village can translate as ‘Gelert’s grave’, so it is likely that it was the burial place of someone important going by that name at one point in history.
But not necessarily a hound. And there are no indications that the hound saved a baby from an attack by a wolf, only to be cut down by his distressed master.
Pritchard invented the details to build a legend around Beddgelert, and to draw customers to his inn. He created a story because it was good for his business.
This fact—that the story is a fabrication—is well known, and yet the story has survived. Even today visitors stand round the stones and read the sad tale of Gelert. Even today, the story brings in the tourists.
Like so many myths and legends, truth and fiction combine, and we know we are in the presence of tales that have little or no basis in reality. Yet we are still drawn to them, because the stories themselves have power. They strike something deep inside, and affect us in ways that simple facts cannot. They talk to us on an emotional level, and because of this they endure long after the plain facts have been forgotten.
And this is why, in a way, it doesn’t matter if stories like that of Gelert are fact or fiction, because they are still true on a different level. They teach us lessons history cannot relate—in this case, the dangers of jumping to conclusions and acting in the heat of the moment. They teach us not of the land and its history, but of ourselves and how we should live our lives.
Of course, there is the other story here, the one where a savvy businessman draws people to his establishment through a finely-crafted tale, understanding how rocks and trees can be brought to life with a few simple words. It is also the story of a village that obtained a new meaning through his actions. Maybe his motives were selfish, but there can be no doubt that his story has become an important part of Beddgelert. Even though it is a lie, Beddgelert is the final resting place of the faithful hound Gelert.
Pritchard’s story has endured for over two hundred years, and will endure for many more. As his own name fades, his tale of Gelert lives on.
That’s some legacy for a storyteller.