The Tale of Arthur’s Cave

Cave legends occur across Wales and probably the most common tale is that of ‘Ogof Arthur’ or Arthur’s Cave where the great Brythonic leader, Arthur sleeps until his nation (the Welsh, obviously!) require him once more in their time of need.Though truly a figure of the ‘old north’ the collapse of Brythonic Britain with the Anglo-Saxon incursions brought all the tales and legends of Arthur into the sphere of Wales. After all so many from the Old North settled in Gwynedd and the Cymry (Welsh) no matter their origins were the the remaining rump of the Brython (ancient Brions).

As a result of this tales of Arthur’s final resting place occur throughout Wales. Indeed an Ogof Arthur (Arthur’s Cave) is known everywhere from Mynydd y Cnwc, Llangwyfan Môn (Anglesea) to his associations with Caerleon (originally Caerllion (Fortress of the Legions) and the three Craig-y-Ddionas (Crag of the City) from Morgannwg (Glamorgan): one near Llantrisant, the other from Ystradyfodgwg and the third from Pontneddfachan.

Arthur and Garwed the Giant

The reputation of Arthur as a giant killer is well known from the folk tales of Wales and Cornwall, both (see the tale of Rhitta the Giant). The tale of another of Arthur’s giant-killing episode is directly linked to the various episodes linking Arthur to Craig-y-Ddinas near Pontneddfechan in the Vale of Neath which according to some legends is Arthur’s final resting place.

The tale itself relates to Garwed the Giant who was terrorizing the neighbourhood around Craig-y-Ddinas. He was preying on the local cattle herds and when the cattle were moved away or he had consumed them all he terrorized the local people to supply him with live bullocks and heiffers. Matters had become so desperate that envoys were sent to Arthur’s court in Caerllion to request assistance. It just so happened that the envoys arrived when Arthur was holding court at Caerllion and the Great Leader heard their petition himself. On hearing of their troubles he personally vowed to rid their land of the marauding giant.

The following morning Arthur arrayed himself in his armour and mounting his favourite charger he rode out with Bedwyr and Cei at his side.

The horsemen reached the outskirts of Pontneddfechan when they heard a terrible sound of rending which was accompanied by a roaring sound. Spurring their horses the three heroes turned north-eastwards and rode full gallop towards that terrible sound. Something whistled through the air above them and the riders immediately halted their steeds; and only just in time as a huge, damp, clod of earth thwacked wetly onto the path just ahead of them. Moments later and all three riders spurred their steeds off the path and into the nearby woods as wattle fences, crumbling sheets of daub, hunks of thatch and tree-trunk posts &2014; now shredded to little more than cordwood — darkened the skies and rained down upon them.

Barking an order, Arthur, undaunted, led his compatriots onwards through the wooded verge of the track and towards the source of the destruction. For a while the thudding of their horses’ hooves and the whipping of the branches about them almost covered the sounds of roaring and pounding ahead of them. But soon enough, as they veered from the tree verge and back onto the path the pounding became so pronounced that the very ground beneath them began to shake.

Within instants they had broken through into a clearing, coming upon what had once been a farmstead — but which was now little more than a ruined wreck. In the midst of the ruination there was a giant squatting upon his haunches within a crater of his own creation. His hands wrapped around a byre which he held up to the sky and rattled even as one roving eye peered within. Every now and then he would raise his hands to rattle the byre, sending clouds of clay and whitewash drifting to the ground by his feet. Then he would tilt the building upwards so that he could peer within once more.

Arthur and his teulu reached within striking distance of the giant just as he crushed the byre in his hands and hurled it spear-like into the air. Halting his steed, Arthur dismounted and handed the reins to Bedwyr before calmly walking towards the giant figure before him. Tilting his head upwards Arthur addressed the giant, saying: ‘I am Arthur, protector of this realm — to whom am I addressing?’

‘Puny mannikin,’ replied the giant, inclining his head to look at the small figure before him, ‘I am Garwed and these are my feeding grounds. If you truly are the protector of this realm, bring me kine before I start feeding on your people.’

Arthur gathered himself to his full height and suddenly he seemed to grow in both stature and majesty. ‘Garwed,’ he said, addressing the giant, ‘you have consumed all the fair beasts of the regions hereabouts…’

The giant roared at this and raised his hand as if to swat Arthur away. But Arthur raised his own hand as if in a sign of appeasement. ‘But…’, he continued, ‘…there is a realm close to this that is overflowing with fine white cattle.’

‘SHOW ME,’ thundered the giant.

Instead of replying Arthur simply mounted his steed and with a wave of his hand indicated that Garwed should follow the three mounted men. As they turned their steeds’ heads and cantered westwards the giant loped behind them, each footfall shaking the ground as it impacted with the earth. They rode quietly for a good half hour even as the giant’s grumblings grew louder and louder behind them until they eventually emerged into a clearing beside a river. Before them stood a single imposing crag, rough inposing and shaped like a lopsided triangle. Arthur simply slowed his steed, pointed at the crag and of Craig y Ddinas and began to slowly ease his steed along the riverbank. Eventually they veered from the riverbank and began heading immediately towards the crag of Craig y Dinas and Arthur urged his steed into a canter and then a gallop, forcing the giant to enter into a long-legged lope to keep up with them. Within moments they were passing an ancient gnarled hazel tree at the base of Craig y Ddinas, heading for the outcrop itself. At the lower slope Arthur dismounted from his steed and motioned his companions to do likewise. Then all three warriors waited for the giant to catch-up with them.

Reaching level with Arthur and his men, the giant towered over them and roared down at them ‘Where are my Kine?’.

‘Through there’, replied Aathur, pointing at the rock face of Craig-y-Ddinas. Beyond that lies the gateway to the Summer Realm and there there are magical kine, the fattest and most succulent that anyone has ever seen.

‘Hmph…’ harrumphed the giant… ‘But where?’

Simply dig where I indicate, Arthur replied, and you will gain the Summer Realm.

The giant viewed the three small humans with dubious uncertainty, but he turned to face the mountain and began to tear at the soil and the rocks with his hands, sending great chunks of mountainside arcing into the air over their heads. Deeper and deeper the giant dug, until his head and then his shoulders and then almost his entire torso vanished into the hole he was forming.

At that point, Arthur shouted ‘Now!’ and he and his companions took up their spears and rushed the giant. Still half-stuck in the hole he had digged, Garwed struggled to back out, but he was wedged stuck and the three spears struck him deeply. So mighty was Arthur’s strike that his spear went through the giant’s back, straight into his heart and kept on going deep into the mountain. Indeed, it caused a fissure from which emerged a spring, that spring which now feeds the river which bears the giant’s name, Afon Garwed.

The giant’s heartblood was spilled and it trickled down the mountain side to the roots of the gnarled hazel tree at its base.

Arthur turned to his men and said to them: ‘This is an enchanted place now, here, one day we shall sleep the sleep of the ages.’

Many years passed, and the giant’s body decayed and merged with the tunnel he had dug to form a cave, a cave that the giant’s blood enchanted to make it invisible from the gaze of mortal men.

Centuries passed, and our tale resumes near-on nine centuries later.

The Legend of Arthur’s Cave (Chwedl Ogof Arthur)

In the days of Queen Bess, many a Welshman would drive the fat black cattle of their homeland to the markets of London, Smithfield in particular, to make ample profits. One such man was Cadwaladr, and he was passing from the White Mount, now known as Tower Hill towards the covred expanse of London Bridge and his lodgings in Southwark.

As he was crossing London Bridge, he stopped by one of the stalls on the way to look at the silverware proffered there. From the corner of his eye he noticed a man watching him intently. A man who seemed to have eyes only for the stout hazel staff that he carried with him. After a while, the stranger came up to him and asked him who he was and where he hailed from.

Now Cadwaladr was a drover, used to bandits, thieves and cutpurses and he was ever-wary, so he replied rather gruffly:

‘I hail from my own country.’

The stranger eyed him up and down, but responded politely:
‘Come, friend, do not take offence at my questioning. Tell me where you cut that hazel staff of yours and I will make it to your advantage, if you will but take my counsel.’

Fearing some trick, after all, Englishmen were well known to be duplicitous, Cadwaladr responded guardedly:
‘What business is it to you, where I cut my hazel staff?’

‘Well’, friend, the Englishman responded, ‘it is a matter of great import to thee, if you will but tell me. For, if you remember the place from which the tree that sprouted that staff grew, , and can lead me to it, I’ll make you a rich man, for near that spot lies a great treasure.’

Now Cadwaladr understod that the man standing before him was a cunning man, a trickster and a conjourer. A man versed in the arcane knowledge of these lands. But, by the same token, he feared that the sorcerer derived his knowledge from devils, and he was not willing to go abroad in the company of demons. But,all the while, his ew acquaintance kept on attempting to persuade him.

In the end, the Englishman wore Cadwaladr down and the pair agreed to travel together to the land of Wales. They made their way to the Vale of Neath,and the place known as Craig-y-Ddinas (Rock of the Fortress). At the foot of the crag, Cadwalade turned to his companion, pointed to an ancient, gnarled, hazel tree and said ‘From that stock did I cut my staff, I am certain of it.’

They fetched shovels and began to dig up the sod and then to hack and cut up the roots of the ancient hazel tree. It was hard work, but the thought of gold kept Cadwaladr going. And, after what seemed to be an eternity their shovels hit something hard. Scrabbling with their hands they cleared away the earth to reveal a broad, flat, stone. Carefully, they clared around the rim of the stone and, using the blades of their shovels they pried the stone up. It took all their efforts just to get the stone to begin to move. Then, with a groan it popped loose and they were able to get it to stand up on its edge.

Beneath, they saw an ancient flight of steps. These were slippery and damp with moss and looked ancient, worn smooth and bowed with the passage of cuenturies’ worth of feet.

Musty, foetid, air struck them as the stone opened and both men fetched torches to peer into the darkness. Cadwaladr was afraid, but the thought of riches bolstered his courage and he took the first tentative steps down the steps and into the darkness below.

Soon they came to a solid door hewn from the living rock itself. The sorcerer turned to Cadwallon and asked:
‘Are you brave enough? Will you come with me if I open this door?’

The Welshman nodded, answering: ‘I am not afraid.’

Laying his hand on the great door the sorcerer paused a moment and then gave it a great shove. The portal seemed to reverberate for an instant, and then, with a groan, it flew open.

Both men peered through, and lifting their torches high they saw, revealed in the ruddy glow, a giant cavern . There, before them, glinted the gleam of polished armour. For, asleep on the floor there were many thousands of warriors, each arrayed in a giant circle with their heads pointing outwards. On their chests rested their shields and next to them were swords, knives and battle axes. The weapons near at hand, ready to be laid hold of in an instant.

Immediately before the tow man there was a bell, suspended from the ceiling. Its bronze surface gleaned and Cadwallon was immediately curious as to what would happen if he touched it. Would the sleeping army awaken on its call?

But the sorcerer immediately stayed his hand, whispering in a harsh tone:
‘Touch not that bell, or it will the the end of us both!’

Carefully they edged past the bell and ventured deeper into the cavern. The further they ventured, the more the ams and armour of the massed soldiers gleamed and by the time they were half way into the cavern it seemed filled with bright lights.

At the end of the chamber was a golden throne and upon it sat an imposing figure. He was arrayed in the finest armour, inlaid with gold. Upon his head was a golden crown inlaid with precious stones. By his feet was a polished round shield that bore the image of a red dragon rampant. By the shield was a mighty two-handled battle axe. The king’s hand rested upon the pommel of a sword, the blade of which seemed to glow with an inner blue light. To the king’s left and right rested two knights, both arrayed almost as splendidly as the king himself.

‘Who is that king?’, Cadwaladr whispered.

‘He is Arthur of old,’ responded the sorcerer, ‘and his hand rests upon his sword, excalibur, caledfwlch in your tongue.

‘And his knights?’

‘They are his favourite champions, Bedwyr on his left and Cei to the right.’

‘Are they all asleep?’ enquired Cadwaladr.

‘Yes, each and every one…’ came the reply.

‘When did they enter their sleep?’ Cadwaladr asked.

‘Almost a thousand years ago’ the sorcerer responded.

‘But, who are all the men here?’ Cadawaladr asked almost immediately.

‘They are king Arthur’s trusted warriors,’ the sorcerer replied ‘they slumber here in wait for the hour to come when they will rise up to destroy the enemies of the Cymry, and to once again possess the entirety of the Island of Britain, as it was before the Saxons came.’

To the immediate right of the throne there stood and alcove , and in its recesses there rested twenty men.

‘Who are those men?’ Cadwaladr asked.

‘They are the chieftains of Cadwaladr’s household, the sorcerer responded, and he related their names and their genealogies — almost as if he were Welshman himself.

But Cadwaladr grew impatient with this recital of ancient names and he turned his back on the sorcerer and walked away. Angered at this, the sorcerer shut his mouth with an audible sound and grabbing Cadwaladr’s arm he led him towards the alcove. Before them there now stood two huge mounds, one made entirely from gold, the other from trinkets of silver.

Both men approached greedily and began filling their belts, their pockets and their purses with as much gold as they could carry. They secreted so much about their persons that they could carry no more and very carefully they made their way around the sleeping host and back towards the entranceway.

However, as Cadwaladr reached the bell at the very entrance to the subterranean chamber, curiosity got the better of him and he let his fingers brush against its surface. The instant his fingertips made contact with the surface of the bell it began to ring out and at that very instant the assembled warriors began to rouse themselves from their age-long slumber.

From the midst of the rousing host came a deep, rumbling voice who asked:
‘Who rang the bell? Has the appointed day come?’

Quaking with fear, the sorcerer turned to face the men and with a quavering voice he responded:
‘No, the day is not yet upon us. Sleep on good men, sleep on…’

But another voice raised above the crowd and shouted:
‘Great Arthur, awake, the bell has rung. The day has come, Awake king of the Britons!’

At the far end of the chamber, the kin’s head drew erect and his hand tightened upon the pommel of his sword.

Terrified and fearing for his life, the sorcerer somehow managed to raise his voice and he cried out:
‘It is still night, my lord. The day is not yet upon us. Sleep on, Arthur, great king.’

The light shone from Arthur’s crown as he turned to face his men and addressed them:
‘Sleep my warriors, the day has not yet come. Can you not feel? The ground beneath us trembles not, the dragons have not yet awoken. The day is not yet here, when the Black Eagle and the Golden Eagle will meet in war! The dawning of the Cymry is not yet upon us.’

A sigh came from the assembled host as they lay back down to slumber and when, just and instant earlier, the chamber had been filled with the clank and clamour of arms there was only silence now. Arthur’s head fell down to his chest, and he, to, was asleep again.

Seizing Cadwaladr’s arm the sorcerer almost bodily propelled him out of the cave and back outside onto Craig-y-ddinas. Both men moved the stone back into place over the entrance to the cave. Cadwaladr sighed and wearily straightened his back. But when he turned to face his companion, the sorcerer had vanished and he was alone.

Cadwaladr wearily journeyed home with his gold, but it as soon spent. He returned to the spot of Arthur’s cave, but try as he might, he never found the entrance again. He spent years in the search and ignored his trade. So consumed was he in the quest that he died a pauper and his children had to work hard to earn the most meagre crust.

In another version of the tale, Cadwaladr returns to the cave, manages to find the entrance and loads up a sack full of gold. But the sack is too large to bring out of the cave safely and he strikes the bell. He is seized by Arthur’s men and beaten so severely for his theft that he loses his memory and is maimed for the remainder of this life. After that he is never able to find the entrance to the cave again.

Another version of the tale begins at the cattle market of Bala rather than London and the Englishman is a wizened old mage who may be Merlin.