do you know any welsh myths? i feel like it would be fitting to have one of those!
I haven’t done anything Welsh yet, which I feel is basically just taunting my ancestors at this point, so I will grant your request. However, I’ve done it in a really arse about face kind of way, and instead of choosing one of Wales’ myriad beautiful and bizarre myths, I’ve given you a culturally appropriated folklore turned piece of false history. I hope this satisfies your Welsh craving.
There are lots of Welsh names as well as historical information and comparative lore under the Read More, if that helps at all. If you don’t want to read the poorly retold tale of a trusty hound, a legally useless baby and an improbable wolf, then press J on your keyboard to skip it as this is a long post!
Dogs are Shit at Babysitting
A long long time ago, in a time when Wales is an actual place which isn’t just ruled by the apathetic heir to the English throne, there dwells a guy named Llywelyn. Actually, there are about 6,000 guys named Llywelyn because it is a confusingly popular name, but this Llywelyn is the main Llywelyn, because his name is Llywelyn Fawr, which means Llywelyn the Great, and there is no Llywelyn the Best, or even a Llywelyn the Slightly Better. He is also basically the ruler of all of Wales, which sounds really impressive until you remember that Wales is about the size of a thimble and is mostly just fields. Anyway, at the time of this story, Llywelyn has recently become the father to an absolutely incredible baby boy, whose mother was really inconsiderate and died in childbirth. Now, this kid must be literally the best baby ever, because even though he’s illegitimate and therefore can’t be Llywelyn’s heir, making him about as useful as a Human Rights charter at a UKIP convention, Llywelyn doesn’t just fuck off. Instead, he decides to be a thoroughly modern man and take care of the baby himself. He really goes all out with it, too. Like, he moves himself into this shitty castle in the arse end of nowhere, presumably telling his wife that he’s, you know, communing with nature or working on his aura or something, and he becomes the great dad that he has no interest in being to any of his other litters of illegitimate offspring.
He’s not alone, however, because living in a huge castle with just an infant would get kind of boring, once the novelty of cleaning up sick and washing nappies wore off. No, Llywelyn takes his best bro with him: the one friend who’s stuck with him through thick and thin; the pal who’d never judge him for leaving his wife and heir to shack up with a technically useless illegitimate baby. The name of this astonishingly faithful friend is Gelert, and also he has four legs. Not because he’s some sort of mystical sprite, but because he is a dog, and dogs quite often have four legs. As far as dogs go, Gelert is definitely in the uppermost percentile. He’s probably in the top ten. He’s just an all-round A+ canine companion. He was given to Llywelyn as a wedding gift by his father-in-law, King John ‘if I kick my illegitimate daughter Joan out to marry Llywelyn and live in Wales, is that a good enough excuse to ransack the place and raze it to the goddamn ground, leaving it as nothing but a heap of charred remains next to the glorious rolling hills’ of England, which means that of all the things that Llywelyn’s father-in-law gave him on his special day, Llywelyn valued the dog over his wife. Which is fine actually, because they got married when Llywelyn was 31 and Joan was 12, so they probably didn’t have that much in common anyway.
Anyway, Llywelyn and Gelert are totally inseparable. There’s probably entire montages of the two of them just being adorable best friends, with them running down hills in slow motion and sniffing flowers, and Llywelyn sitting in front of a roaring fire and nursing his baby with a plastic teat while Gelert rests faithfully at his slipper-clad feet, and Gelert baring his teeth and snarling as he loyally rips the throat out of the bunny that Llywelyn is hunting, and it’s all lovely and very Lassie-esque. The two of them live with Llywelyn’s pointless illegitimate offspring in their empty castle surrounded by woodland and emptiness, and it’s all just excellent.
One day, Llywelyn is invited to go out on a lads’ hunting trip (basically the equivalent of a boys only trip to Magaluf in those days) with some visiting noblemen and, being a single dad, he naturally leaps at the chance to wear a fancy coat and maybe show off his abs a bit and just fucking kill some shit for fun. However, there’s one slight flaw in the plan, and that’s the fact that living in a castle on a hill in the middle of nowhere does rather limit his babysitting options. There’s no convenient teenage girl called Carly who just wants to make enough money to go to Coachella this year and also prove to her mother that she’s responsible. Not even one. So, Llywelyn improvises, and he decides that the best thing to do would be to just get his best friend to cover for him. But it’s fine, because he doesn’t do anything bizarre like ask Gelert to babysit or anything. That would be weird. He’s just like “look, I’m going on a hunt with the lads, and of course you’re invited because you’re an absolutely stellar hunting hound, but I need you to just check that the castle is safe from, like, random wolves. I have a very real fear of wolves in my castle. I would not like that at all. This castle has historically been a wolf-free zone, and I really plan on keeping it that way. I don’t want to tarnish my perfect track record of zero wolf-related incidents within these walls. Can you do that for me?” and Gelert probably does that thing that dogs do when they silently commune with your soul to convey a wordless message of complete obedience, and Llywelyn beams and says “great, I’ll just go and set some stuff up with the lads and I’ll call you once you’ve had a chance to completely safeguard the life of my defenceless newborn son against improbable wolves,” and Gelert barks and wags his tail and Llywelyn goes off to sharpen his sword in preparation for manly violent japes, then joins his group of hunt-ready friends in the woods.
After a little while, Llywelyn decides that it’s probably been long enough for Gelert to perform all his rigorous security checks, and besides, the lads are getting restless with slaughter cravings, so Llywelyn blows on his super rad hunting horn and waits for a few minutes for Gelert to appear, but much to Llywelyn’s chagrin, Gelert remains about as absent as Llywelyn’s paternal skills. All of Llywelyn’s manly hunting companions sigh, and they’re like “look, Llywelyn, he’s not coming, can we just go already? We came here to metaphorically shoot the shit and literally kill tiny animals, and we’ve all shot about as much shit as we can handle.” Llywelyn just sort of looks worriedly over his shoulder at the castle in the distance, and he says “can we just wait a few minutes, guys? Maybe his alarm didn’t go off or something, he’s probably just getting ready. Let me blow my phallic horn again,” and so he blows his hunting horn again and waits for his trusty hound, all expectant and wide-eyed, but Gelert still doesn’t appear. At this point, his slaughter-hungry menfolk are just groaning and tutting and making their horses trot around in bored circles and talking about how they could totally be piercing the flesh of some innocent animals right now, and eventually Llywelyn just gives up and says “OK, fine, we’ll have to go without him, but we’re not going to have a good time, and we’re all going to feel really guilty about it, so I hope you’re happy,” and his fellow hunters just nod briskly and they’re all “we’re 100% happier at the promise of dead rabbits, now let’s go and establish man as one of the dominant ruinous forces of nature!” and off they go to, like, slaughter badgers and shit. I don’t know what animals are native to Welsh woodland. Maybe a red squirrel or two. Possibly a heron.
When they’ve finished their testosterone-fueled bout of merciless animal slaughter, Llywelyn and the lads trail back to the castle to drink alcohol and talk about how rad the whole thing was. However, when they get to the castle, the first thing Llywelyn notices is that all the furniture has been thrown everywhere, and there’s blood all over the walls. It basically looks like there’s been a horrific incident at IKEA, with entrails splattered all up the ceiling and bits of things that should definitely be on the inside, but are now very much on the outside of who or whatever they once belonged to. Immediately, Llywelyn draws his sword and he’s like “something has gone very amiss here, I suspect wolves,” and one of his companions whispers “it would be a very good idea to try and find your son, because I have a sneaking suspicion that he probably couldn’t take a wolf in a fight, mano a mano” and Llywelyn nods sagely and is about to give some orders when another one of his companions pipes up “no, it’s cool, I’ve found your son, he’s not here” and Llywelyn is like “how have you found him if he’s not here?” and the man points at the corner of the room, where Llywelyn’s son’s crib is overturned in a pool of blood, and next to it lies the sleeping Gelert, whose jaws are covered in blood and guts, and Llywelyn’s heart just sinks.
He turns to his hunting lads and says “lads, you don’t want to see this,” and they’re like “ooh, are you going to mercilessly slaughter your dog, because we absolutely live for that shit and we totally want to see that,” and Llywelyn just fixes them with a stern glare and they all scarper, and he closes the door behind them and turns back to Gelert, who’s woken up at this point and is sitting up, wagging his tail. Llywelyn just lets rip at him, all “I trusted you! I appointed you royal babysitter, and this is how you repay me? By murdering my baby? This is not what I didn’t pay you for! All those times we frolicked in the woods around the bodies of our fresh kills – did all that mean nothing to you? I can’t believe this, you’re the worst friend ever, and one of my bros once boned my wife in our marital bed, so that’s really saying something,” and Gelert just sits there, because he is a dog and doesn’t really know what the fuck is going on. Then, Llywelyn fixes his old friend with a remorseful look and says “it’s really partly my own fault, I should have got a registered babysitter and also probably a human one, but you did eat my son, so I feel like you should also take some of the responsibility here,” and Gelert wags his tail a bit and Llywelyn is like “I thought I’d finished my ceaseless rampage of animal murder for the day, but clearly I was wrong,” and he just plunges his sword right into Gelert’s body, and Gelert makes a noise that can only be described as a death yelp, and dies.
Almost immediately this really high pitched wailing starts up, and Llywelyn looks around in fright, then makes the somewhat belated decision to pick up the upturned crib, and there, absolutely pristine despite the pool of blood around the crib, is his baby son, still alive and pink and healthy and other things that babies generally should be when they haven’t been eaten by dogs. Then Llywelyn notices that there’s also a massive dead wolf in the corner of the room, and it’s almost certainly been there the entire time because dead wolves tend to have difficulty with locomotion, and he realises that he clearly has the observational skills of a mushroom because the blood is clearly the wolf’s and not his son’s, and he drops his sword and it clatters to the floor, mixing Gelert’s blood with what he now knows to be the blood of the improbable wolf, and he falls to the floor in a heap of anguish and probably embarrassment and starts crying in a really manly fashion, because he’s just killed his absolute best bro for nothing.
When he’s finished weeping for the time being, he picks up the body of Gelert and starts whispering to it, like “I misjudged you so hard, you were the best babysitter ever, I’ve never had a babysitter rip a wolf’s throat apart with their teeth to protect my baby son before, I would have given you some Pedigree Chum instead of a cruel and untimely death if I’d realised,” and then has a brilliant idea as to how he can pay tribute to his late canine companion. He carries Gelert outside, burying him at the top of a high mound so that everyone who comes by – statistically, likely no-one ever – will know about the bravery of Gelert and the perils of freelance babysitting without a written contract.
My other retellings can be found here; my dedicated mythology blog is here; and my Mythology Mondays Facebook page is here. The latter two links also allow you to follow my progress in writing a whole actual book. Thrilling.
Mythological Throwback Thursday: British Hellhounds
Hello! Are you a dog person? We used to be, until we found out about all the terrifying mutts stalking the British Isles. We’re expecting Alex’s family back in Staffordshire to be devoured by supernatural hounds any day now. Arm yourself with the knowledge to protect your loved ones this Mythological Throwback Thursday!
One of the most notorious is Black Shuck, a ghostly black dog that stalks the wilds of East Anglia. It’s thought its name derives from the Saxon word for demon, ‘scucca’. Others believe it to be a version of the Viking Shukir, the war-dog of Thor and Odin. Black Shuck is a large hound, variously described as the size of a calf or even a horse. It has baleful red eyes (or just one large one in the centre of its head, in some tellings) and can coalesce out of mist on dark nights, to frighten lone travellers. Those who see Black Shuck usually live long enough to tell the tale, but many believed that those who see it were marked for death, and would pass away within the year.
Similar is the tale of the Barghest, a spectral beast that haunted the north of England, and was particularly infamous in Yorkshire. Described to principally take the form of a black dog with fiery eyes, it was said to be able to become invisible, to shapeshift (favouring the form of a headless person) and to have dominion over other dogs. Upon the death of any notable person in the community the Barghest would form the head of a funeral procession of sorts, followed by all the other dogs of the community, leading them in howling and baying. If you were fleeing the Barghest it was considered wise to cross a stream or river, since the superstition was that it was unable to.
On the Isle of Man, a ghost called Moddey Dhoo, which literally means ‘black dog’, haunted Peel Castle. Though it seemed relatively benign, wandering through the hallways of the castle, invariably settling by the fireplace of the guard chamber, it was frightening to those unused to its spooky demeanour. It would never appear during the day, returning always to a passageway that led to the guard captain’s chamber and disappearing. One night a drunken guard defied Moddey Dhoo. On entering the haunted passageway, dreadful sounds were heard. The guard, scared witless, returned to his comrades aghast and died within three days.
The Welsh passed down the tale of the Cŵn Annwn. Not ghosts but denizens of the supernatural realm of Annwn, these hounds were hunting dogs for the king of the realm, Arawn. Unlike the other examples, these dogs were pure white with red ears. During the Wild Hunt, the Cŵn Annwn would run down wrongdoers for their crimes. It is speculated that they accompanied King Arthur’s cousin Culwhch to Arthur’s court.
Of course, the good people of the UK and Ireland could not help but include their hellhound-riddled folklore in their literature. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre includes an encounter which the titular heroine initially mistakes for a Gytrash, a being similar to a Barghest. J.K Rowling includes the legend of the Grim in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, with characteristics identical to those of Black Shuck. And of course we couldn’t go without mentioning the infamous Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Why dogs? Possibly we humans share an inherent, instinctual aversion to wolves, and when like in the British Isles wolves become extinct through our actions, we create our own. Monsters from the id! Or maybe it’s just because we’re just really into dogs, and there’s nothing so terrible as being betrayed by something you love. Join us for another Mythological Throwback Thursday next week, when we’ll be feeling a little sunnier…
sometimes i feel like I’m in one of those direcTv ads only instead of paying too much for cable it’s more like
“when you stay up til 1am thinking about snk you start to think about knight’s tale aus. when you think about knights tale aus you get consumed with the need to draw. when you’re consumed by the need to draw, you end up drawing jean kirschstein naked at the side of the road when you’re supposed to be at work.”