James Lloyd visits the village of Beddgelert in Gwynedd, where he tells how an ancient Indian parable about jumping to conclusions was transformed into a Welsh icon.
Beddgelert is a small village in Gwynedd, in the historic county of Caernarfonshire. Its tourist attractions include a medieval priory, a Victorian copper mine and a rock, with a plaque telling (in English and Welsh) the sad story of the hero buried underneath.
In 1205, King John of England concluded a treaty with Llewellyn ap Iorweth, Sovereign Prince of Gwynedd, which was sealed by Llewellyn’s marriage with Joan, the King’s daughter. King John also gave him a large greyhound called Gelert as a wedding present. Prince Llewellyn grew very fond of his hound. He was also fond of his wife, especially when she gave birth to their first son, David.
One day, Prince Llewellyn decided to go hunting but, though he looked high and low in the castle, he could not find Gelert. Not wishing to waste any more time, he kissed his wife goodbye, before making a brief trip to the nursery. Baby David was asleep in his cot, a fragile, vulnerable little thing, on which the Prince gazed with the tenderness that broke his fierce visage only when in the presence of his heir. Once Llewellyn had left the room, the truant Gelert padded in. The hound walked to the cot and looked at the sleeping child, his tongue lolling out of his jaw.
There had been better hunts. Every stag and hart escaped from them and the Prince suspected that, if they had brought Gelert with them, they would have much better luck. No sooner had the party arrived in the forecourt of the castle than Gelert, who had scented his master, padded eagerly out of the keep, his jaw open in what almost looked like a smile and gazing on his master with eyes that seemed to beg a reward. Llewellyn knelt to greet his faithful hound but, as he reached out to scratch its cheeks, his face froze and his heart forgot a beat.
The hound’s face was daubed with blood. His fur was matted with dried red bile and between his fangs were chunks of flesh. The Prince leapt to his feet and ran into the keep. While the confused greyhound scurried behind him, he dashed up the stairs and into the nursery.
It looked as though the English had raided it. The tapestries were torn, the cot was overturned and the baby’s sheets were shredded and strewn across the floor, stiff with congealed blood. Of Baby David there was no sign. As the Prince stared at the carnage, Gelert padded into the room and rubbed his ruddy head against his master’s legs.
Llewellyn screamed in rage, glaring down with hellish fury at the greyhound. He drew his sword and, in a single swift movement, he severed the baleful creature’s head. The four-legged thing stood uncertainly for a moment and then crumpled to the floor, while the head, flung into a corner, rolled so that its face looked at its master in a confused whimper, before the light faded from the eyes.
Then Llewellyn heard a baby crying. With a mixture of relief and horror, Prince Llewellyn dashed towards the mess of a cot and pulled apart the ribbons that remained of his son’s swaddling clothes, until little Prince David tumbled out, his little eyes gushing with little tears. Llewellyn’s shaking arms took up the child and held him to his chest, his mind reeling. He barely noticed as the servants came in and did not hear them as they asked him what had happened. He did not see them as they began to set the room aright but he finally returned to this world when his servants showed him the corpse of a wolf, its throat torn out, lying underneath the cot.
Llewellyn would live a long and successful life, uniting all Wales under his rule but it was said that he never smiled again. David, whose life Gelert had saved from the wolf as a baby, would succeed his father as Prince of Wales. As for the faithful greyhound, his remains were interred under a rock. To this day, the village that lies around the rock is called Beddgelert, “Gelert’s grave”.
All of which is, of course, utter tosh but should be very familiar tosh to those interested in Indian folklore. Over three hundred years before the birth of Christ, Hindu mystic Vishnu Sharma wrote the Panchatantra, an anthology of folktales involving animals, including the sad story of a faithful mongoose who slew a snake that threatened the life of a brahmin’s baby son, only to be rewarded with its own death when the brahmin’s wife hastily misinterpreted what had happened.
The story’s simplicity and universal moral against jumping to conclusions made it easily translatable, in every sense of the word and over the following centuries it migrated westward. By the thirteenth century it had reached France and a bizarre cult developed near Lyon, where the exploits attributed to the dog Guinefort were taken literally and led to the dog’s being locally declared a saint and feted at a shrine to which mothers would take their sick children for a miracle cure.
The story had reached Wales by the fifteenth century, where it became so popular that around 1483 the English historian and amateur herald John Rous designed a crest for the country that depicted a dog standing over a cot. Beddgelert is not even the only village in Wales that claims to be the site of the story, though the other locations give the dog different names. The Gelert from whom Beddgelert takes its name was actually a seventh-century hermit.
The earliest trace of the association is in 1784, when collector of Welsh poetry Edward Jones recorded a brief stanza in his Musical Relicks of the Welsh Bards alluding to a hunting dog called Gelert buried at the village. The second edition of Musical Relicks, published ten years later, gave the full story but an alternative legend, recorded in Nicholas Carlisle’s Topographical Description of Wales in 1811, explains the rock (the earliest definite reference to its existence) as that of a hound who collapsed and died after chasing a stag for thirteen miles. It is likely that this shorter story was the original. Saint Gelert’s name is sometimes Anglicized as Killhart, so perhaps the legend of an exhausted hunting dog was nothing more than dodgy etymology. The confusion of this dog with the better known hound of legend was probably just a matter of time and may have been Edward Jones’s own doing.
It may not be a coincidence that it was around this time that the eponymous grave was built. In 1793, innkeeper David Pritchard moved to Beddgelert and it was he who built the grave, in an attempt to boost tourism. It certainly was entrepreneurial of him and gave the ancient story a new, if somewhat more materialistic, purpose.