Gelert is the name of a legendary dog which has become entwined with the village of Beddgelert in Gwynedd. And if you don’t already know it, the knowledge that the name of the village has been translated as “Gelert’s Grave” might give you some clue where this story is going.
The inscription on the tomb down by the river tells the story in both English and Welsh.
“In the 13 century Llewellyn, prince of Wales, had a place in Beddgelert.
One day he went hunting without Gelert, “The Faithful Hound”, who was unaccountably absent.
On Llewellyn’s return the truant, smeared in blood, 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 in blood.
The frantic father plunged his sword into the hound’s side, thinking it had killed his heir.
The dogs dying yell was answered by a child’s cry.
Llewellyn 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 to have never smiled again.
He buried Gelert here.
The spot is called Beddgelert.
It is a touching story of course and an important Welsh Folk tales. However, things are never quite what they seem. It is more likely to be an early equivalent of a modern urban myth. The name of the village for example is probably a reference to Saint Kilart or Celert, rather than any faithful and vigilant dog.
Also the dog’s grave mound, which can be found just south of the village, on the footpath which follows the river Glaslyn is more likely to be the work of the landlord of the Goat Hotel in Beddgelert in the late eighteenth century. His name was David Pritchard and his motive was simply to boost the tourist trade by connecting an old folk tale with the village.
Of course this is not unusual. This is what happened in France in the village of Rennes le Chateau, where a hotel owner used rumours and speculation to boost his own business and in doing so created a conspiracy industry that lead directly to “The Da Vinci Code.”
The story of the faithful dog appears in many different cultures .We will never know whether they are all variants of the same story so we can never know which one came first. Was it the Welsh story? Or was it the native American version? Or perhaps it originated in the Alps where a shepherd kills his sheepdog which he finds covered in blood. Naturally it had been protecting the flock from a wolf, not indulging in a forbidden snack. In India the story involves a mongoose that kills a snake and is wrongly punished just like Gelert, and in Malaysia the story is about a tame bear that protects a child from a ravenous tiger and is killed for his efforts.
Did the stories evolve separately in different cultures, bringing together grief, anger and guilt in a gripping plot designed for children? Who can tell? But certainly the story of Gelert is not unique.
It doesn’t matter. It has been a fruitful subject for artists, poets and other writers and if it attracts people to a beautiful part of North Wales then it really doesn’t matter much. And certainly as a story it will run and run…