Gelert the Faithful Hound

In the county of Gwynedd in north west Wales, a few miles from Snowdon, sits the village of Beddgelert. While the accuracy of the account is disputed, the town’s name is Welsh for ‘Gelert’s grave’ and supposedly pays tribute to the subject of a tragic Welsh folk tale; a brave and loyal hunting hound.

According to legend, Gelert was the favourite hunting dog of Llywelyn the Great, then the King of Gwynedd and later ruler of all Wales. An enthusiastic hunter, Llywelyn maintained a large hunting pack. Amongst them were a number of Irish wolfhounds gifted to him by King John of England, including Gelert.

The village of Beddgelert, Snowdonia. Image: Andrea Hope

Before departing for one of his frequent hunts, Llywelyn left Gelert behind to guard his infant son. On his return, Gelert ran to meet him, his muzzle and fur spattered with blood. Concerned, Llywelyn ran to his son’s nursery, where he finds the crib overturned and the room in disarray. Blood was splashed across the walls and floor, and his young son was missing.

Believing that Gelert had savaged the infant, Llewelyn drew his sword and drove it through the dog’s heart. Just then, he heard a soft cry from beneath the upturned crib. On lifting it up he found his son unharmed, alongside the corpse of a large wolf. Gelert had bravely fought and killed the intruder in defence of his master’s son. Overcome with grief, Llewelyn conducted a grand funeral for Gelert. Unable to ever make amends and haunted by his beloved dog’s dying yelp, Llewelyn was said to have never smiled for the rest of his life. 

Llewelyn kneels above the mortally wounded Gelert. Image: Public Domain

The Truth Behind the Myth

The supposed grave of Gelert stands amongst fields just south of the village of Beddgelert. Slate engravings in both English and Welsh tell the story of Gelert’s courage and unjust death.

However, in reality most historians accept that the village is in truth named after a priory to Saint Celert that was once located there. Examination of the grave site also found that it was just over 200 years old, far short of the death of Llywelyn the Great in 1240. The likely explanation appears to be that the grave was an invention of one David Prichard, who became landlord of the Royal Goat Inn in Beddgelert in 1793. In an effort to drive his own trade by attracting more of the increasingly frequent visitors to Snowdonia to the village, Prichard constructed the grave site with the help of a number of villagers. 

Gelert’s grave. Image: Wikicommons

Similar versions of the same story appear in folklore worldwide. One of the most well-known comes from India, often called ‘The Brahmin’s Wife and the Mongoose’. In similar circumstances, a family’s pet mongoose is killed in the belief that it has attacked an infant, only for it to be later revealed that the animal had in truth defended the child from a huge cobra.

A Malaysian version of the tale sees a Malay hunter keep a tame bear as a guardian for his young daughter. Returning to find the bear covered in blood the hunter kills it, believing it has devoured his daughter. Later, he finds the body of a tiger that the bear had mauled to death and his daughter alive and well, hiding in the forest nearby. A popular example from the Italian Alps tells of a shepherd killing his dog after finding it covered in sheep blood, only to find a dead wolf in the stable later.

One French version of the ‘faithful hound’ folklore trope comes from 13th-century Lyon. Featuring a greyhound named Guinefort, the same series of events play out as with the tale of Gelert, although in this version the intruder is a large viper rather than a wolf. Guinefort became a saintly figure in Folk Catholicism in the region for over 600 years, his grave said to provide blessings of protection on infants brought to visit it. 

Feature Image: An illustration of the Legend of Gelert by English artist Charles Burton Barber

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