Celtic Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in September 2018 with all known ATU Classifications.

Beth Gellert

PRINT Llewelyn had a favourite greyhound named Gellert that had been given to him by his father-in-law, King John. He was as gentle as a lamb at home but a lion in the chase. One day Llewelyn went to the chase and blew his horn in front of his castle. All his other dogs came to the call but Gellert never answered it. So he blew a louder blast on his horn and called Gellert by name, but still the greyhound did not come. At last Prince Llewelyn could wait no longer and went off to the hunt without Gellert. He had little sport that day because Gellert was not there, the swiftest and boldest of his hounds.

               He turned back in a rage to  his castle, and as he came to the gate, who should he see but Gellert come bounding out to meet him. But when the hound came near him, the Prince was startled to see that his lips and fangs were dripping with blood. Llewelyn started back and the greyhound crouched down at his feet as if surprised or afraid at the way his master greeted him.

               Now Prince Llewelyn had a little son a year old with whom Gellert used to play, and a terrible thought crossed the Prince's mind that made him rush towards the child's nursery. And the nearer he came the more blood and disorder he found about the rooms. He rushed into it and found the child's cradle overturned and daubed with blood.

               Prince Llewelyn grew more and more terrified, and sought for his little son everywhere. He could find him nowhere but only signs of some terrible conflict in which much blood had been shed. At last he felt sure the dog had destroyed his child, and shouting to Gellert, "Monster, thou hast devoured my child," he drew out his sword and plunged it in the greyhound's side, who fell with a deep yell and still gazing in his master's eyes.

               As Gellert raised his dying yell, a little child's cry answered it from beneath the cradle, and there Llewelyn found his child unharmed and just awakened from sleep. But just beside him lay the body of a great gaunt wolf all torn to pieces and covered with blood. Too late, Llewelyn learned what had happened while he was away. Gellert had stayed behind to guard the child and had fought and slain the wolf that had tried to destroy Llewelyn's heir.

               In vain was all Llewelyn's grief; he could not bring his faithful dog to life again. So he buried him outside the castle walls within sight of the great mountain of Snowdon, where every passer-by might see his grave, and raised over it a great cairn of stones. And to this day the place is called Beth Gellert, or the Grave of Gellert.


SOURCE: I have paraphrased the well-known poem of Hon. W. R. Spencer, "Beth Gêlert, or the Grave of the Greyhound," first printed privately as a broadsheet in 1800 when it was composed ("August 11, 1800, Dolymalynllyn" is the colophon). It was published in Spencer's Poems, 1811, pp. 78-86. These dates, it will be seen, are of importance. Spencer states in a note: "The story of this ballad is traditionary in a village at the foot of Snowdon where Llewellyn the Great had a house. The Greyhound named Gêlert was given him by his father-in-law, King John, in the year 1205, and the place to this day is called Beth-Gêlert, or the grave of Gêlert." As a matter of fact, no trace of the tradition in connection with Bedd Gellert can be found before Spencer's time. It is not mentioned in Leland's Itinerary, ed. Hearne, v. p. 37 ("Beth Kellarth"), in Pennant's Tour (1770), ii. 176, or in Bingley's Tour in Wales (1800). Borrow in his Wild Wales, p. 146, gives the legend, but does not profess to derive it from local tradition.

PARALLELS: The only parallel in Celtdom is that noticed by Croker in his third volume, the legend of Partholan who killed his wife's greyhound from jealousy: this is found sculptured in stone at Ap Brune, co. Limerick. As is well known, and has been elaborately discussed by Mr. Baring-Gould (Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, p. 134 seq.), and Mr. W. A. Clouston (Popular Tales and Fictions, ii. 166, seq.), the story of the man who rashly slew the dog (ichneumon, weasel, &c.) that had saved his babe from death, is one of those which have spread from East to West. It is indeed, as Mr. Clouston points out, still current in India, the land of its birth. There is little doubt that it is originally Buddhistic: the late Prof. S. Beal gave the earliest known version from the Chinese translation of the Vinaya Pitaka in the Academy of Nov. 4, 1882. The conception of an animal sacrificing itself for the sake of others is peculiarly Buddhistic; the "hare in the moon" is an apotheosis of such a piece of self-sacrifice on the part of Buddha (Sasa Jataka). There are two forms that have reached the West, the first being that of an animal saving men at the cost of its own life. I pointed out an early instance of this, quoted by a Rabbi of the second century, in my Fables of Aesop, i. 105. This concludes with a strangely close parallel to Gellert; "They raised a cairn over his grave, and the place is still called The Dog's Grave." The Culex attributed to Virgil seems to be another variant of this. The second form of the legend is always told as a moral apologue against precipitate action, and originally occurred in The Fables of Bidpai in its hundred and one forms, all founded on Buddhistic originals (cf. Benfey, Pantschatantra, Einleitung, §201). [1] Thence, according to Benfey, it was inserted in the Book of Sindibad, another collection of Oriental Apologues framed on what may be called the Mrs. Potiphar formula. This came to Europe with the Crusades, and is known in its Western versions as the Seven Sages of Rome. The Gellert story occurs in all the Oriental and Occidental versions; e.g., it is the First Master's story in Wynkyn de Worde's (ed. G. L. Gomme, for the Villon Society.) From the Seven Sages it was taken into the particular branch of the Gesta Romanorum current in England and known as the English Gesta, where it occurs as c. xxxii., "Story of Folliculus." We have thus traced it to England whence it passed to Wales, where I have discovered it as the second apologue of "The Fables of Cattwg the Wise," in the Iolo MS. published by the Welsh MS. Society, p.561, "The man who killed his Greyhound." (These Fables, Mr. Nutt informs me, are a pseudonymous production probably of the sixteenth century.) This concludes the literary route of the Legend of Gellert from India to Wales: Buddhistic Vinaya Pitaka--Fables of Bidpai;--Oriental Sindibad;--Occidental Seven Sages of Rome;--"English" (Latin), Gesta Romanorum;--Welsh, Fables of Cattwg.

REMARKS: We have still to connect the legend with Llewelyn and with Bedd Gelert. But first it may be desirable to point out why it is necessary to assume that the legend is a legend and not a fact. The saving of an infant's life by a dog, and the mistaken slaughter of the dog, are not such an improbable combination as to make it impossible that the same event occurred in many places. But what is impossible, in my opinion, is that such an event should have independently been used in different places as the typical instance of, and warning against, rash action. That the Gellert legend, before it was localised, was used as a moral apologue in Wales is shown by the fact that it occurs among the Fables of Cattwg, which are all of that character. It was also utilised as a proverb: "Yr wy'n edivaru cymmaint a'r Gwr a laddodd ei Vilgi" ("I repent as much as the man who slew his greyhound"). The fable indeed, from this point of view, seems greatly to have attracted the Welsh mind, perhaps as of especial value to a proverbially impetuous temperament. Croker (Fairy Legends of Ireland, vol. iii. p. 165) points out several places where the legend seems to have been localised in place-names--two places, called "Gwal y Vilast" ("Greyhound's Couch"), in Carmarthen and Glamorganshire; "Llech y Asp" ("Dog's Stone"), in Cardigan, and another place named in Welsh "Spring of the Greyhound's Stone." Mr. Baring-Gould mentions that the legend is told of an ordinary tombstone, with a knight and a greyhound, in Abergavenny Church; while the Fable of Cattwg is told of a man in Abergarwan. So widespread and well known was the legend that it was in Richard III's time adopted as the national crest. In the Warwick Roll, at the Herald's Office, after giving separate crests for England, Scotland, and Ireland, that for Wales is given as figured in the margin, and blazoned "on a coronet in a cradle or, a greyhound argent for Walys" (see J. R. Planché, Twelve Designs for the Costume of Shakespeare's Richard III., 1830, frontispiece). If this Roll is authentic, the popularity of the legend is thrown back into the fifteenth century. It still remains to explain how and when this general legend of rash action was localised and specialised at Bedd Gelert: I believe I have discovered this. There certainly was a local legend about a dog named Gelert at that place; E. Jones, in the first edition of his Musical Relicks of the Welsh Bards, 1784, p. 40, gives the following englyn or epigram:

Claddwyd Cylart celfydd (ymlyniad)     
     Ymlaneau Efionydd   
Parod giuio i'w gynydd     
     Parai'r dydd yr heliai Hydd;

which he Englishes thus:

The remains of famed Cylart, so faithful and good,     
     The bounds of the cantred conceal;   
Whenever the doe or the stag he pursued     
     His master was sure of a meal.

                No reference was made in the first edition to the Gellert legend, but in the second edition of 1794, p. 75, a note was added telling the legend, "There is a general tradition in North Wales that a wolf had entered the house of Prince Llewellyn. Soon after the Prince returned home, and, going into the nursery, he met his dog Kill-hart, all bloody and wagging his tail at him; Prince Llewellyn, on entering the room found the cradle where his child lay overturned, and the floor flowing with blood; imagining that the greyhound had killed the child, he immediately drew his sword and stabbed it; then, turning up the cradle, found under it the child alive, and the wolf dead. This so grieved the Prince, that he erected a tomb over his faithful dog's grave; where afterwards the parish church was built and goes by that name--Bedd Cilhart, or the grave of Kill-hart, in Carnarvonshire. From this incident is elicited a very common Welsh proverb [that given above which occurs also in 'The Fables of Cattwg;' it will be observed that it is quite indefinite.]" "Prince Llewellyn ab Jorwerth married Joan, [natural] daughter of King John, by Agatha, daughter of Robert Ferrers, Earl of Derby; and the dog was a present to the prince from his father-in-law about the year 1205." It was clearly from this note that the Hon. Mr. Spencer got his account; oral tradition does not indulge in dates Anno Domini. The application of the general legend of "the man who slew his greyhound" to the dog Cylart, was due to the learning of E. Jones, author of the Musical Relicks. I am convinced of this, for by a lucky chance I am enabled to give the real legend about Cylart, which is thus given in Carlisle's Topographical Dictionary of Wales, s.v., "Bedd Celert," published in 1811, the date of publication of Mr. Spencer's Poems. "Its name, according to tradition, implies The Grave of Celert, a Greyhound which belonged to Llywelyn, the last Prince of Wales: and a large Rock is still pointed out as the monument of this celebrated Dog, being on the spot where it was found dead, together with the stag which it had pursued from Carnarvon," which is thirteen miles distant. The cairn was thus a monument of a "record" run of a greyhound: the englyn quoted by Jones is suitable enough for this, while quite inadequate to record the later legendary exploits of Gêlert. Jones found an englyn devoted to an exploit of a dog named Cylart, and chose to interpret it in his second edition, 1794, as the exploit of a greyhound with which all the world (in Wales) were acquainted. Mr. Spencer took the legend from Jones (the reference to the date 1205 proves that), enshrined it in his somewhat banal verses, which were lucky enough to be copied into several reading-books, and thus became known to all English-speaking folk.

                It remains only to explain why Jones connected the legend with Llewelyn. Llewelyn had local connection with Bedd Gellert, which was the seat of an Augustinian abbey, one of the oldest in Wales. An inspeximus of Edward I. given in Dugdale, Monast. Angl., ed. pr. ii. 100a, quotes as the earliest charter of the abbey "Cartam Lewelin, magni." The name of the abbey was "Beth Kellarth"; the name is thus given by Leland, l.c., and as late as 1794 an engraving at the British Museum is entitled "Beth Kelert," while Carlisle gives it as "Beth Celert." The place was thus named after the abbey, not after the cairn or rock. This is confirmed by the fact of which Prof. Rhys had informed me, that the collocation of letters rt is un-Welsh. Under these circumstances it is not impossible, I think, that the earlier legend of the marvellous run of "Cylart" from Carnarvon was due to the etymologising fancy of some English-speaking Welshman who interpreted the name as Killhart, so that the simpler legend would be only a folk-etymology.

                But whether Kellarth, Kelert, Cylart, Gêlert or Gellert ever existed and ran a hart from Carnarvon to Bedd Gellert or no, there can be little doubt after the preceding that he was not the original hero of the fable of "the man that slew his greyhound," which came to Wales from Buddhistic India through channels which are perfectly traceable. It was Edward Jones who first raised him to that proud position, and William Spencer who securely installed him there, probably for all time. The legend is now firmly established at Bedd Gellert. There is said to be an ancient air, "Bedd Gelert," "as sung by the Ancient Britons"; it is given in a pamphlet published at Carnarvon in the "fifties," entitled Gellert's Grave; or, Llewellyn's Rashness: a Ballad, by the Hon. W. R. Spencer, to which is added that ancient Welsh air, "Bedd Gelert," as sung by the Ancient Britons. The air is from R. Roberts' "Collection of Welsh Airs," but what connection it has with the legend I have been unable to ascertain. This is probably another case of adapting one tradition to another. It is almost impossible to distinguish palaeozoic and cainozoic strata in oral tradition. According to Murray's Guide to N. Wales, p. 125, the only authority for the cairn now shown is that of the landlord of the Goat Inn, "who felt compelled by the cravings of tourists to invent a grave." Some old men at Bedd Gellert, Prof. Rhys informs me, are ready to testify that they saw the cairn laid. They might almost have been present at the birth of the legend, which, if my affiliation of it is correct, is not yet quite 100 years old.


[1] It occurs in the same chapter as the story of La Perrette, which has been traced, after Benfey, by Prof. M. Müller in his "Migration of Fables" (Sel. Essays, i. 500-74): exactly the same history applies to Gellert.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Beth Gellert
Tale Author/Editor: Jacobs, Joseph
Book Title: Celtic Fairy Tales
Book Author/Editor: Jacobs, Joseph
Publisher: David Nutt
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1892
Country of Origin: Wales
Classification: unclassified

Back to Top