Explore: For another Arthurian legend, this time about the young Merlin, see Why the Red Dragon is the Emblem of Wales. For another story about a treasure-hunting sorcerer, see John Gethin and the Candle.
[notes by LKG]
This story is part of the Welsh Fairy Tales unit. Story source: The Welsh Fairy Book by W. Jenkyn Thomas with illustrations by Willy Pogány (1908).
Arthur in the Cave
He was carrying a hazel staff in his hand, for you must know that a good staff is as necessary to a drover as teeth are to his dog. He stood still to gaze at some wares in a shop (for at that time London Bridge was shops from beginning to end), when he noticed that a man was looking at his stick with a long fixed look. The man after a while came to him and asked him where he came from. "I come from my own country," said the Welshman, rather surlily, for he could not see what business the man had to ask him such a question.
"Do not take it amiss," said the stranger: "if you will only answer my questions and take my advice, it will be of greater benefit to you than you imagine. Do you remember where you cut that stick?"
The Welshman was still suspicious and said. "What does it matter where I cut it?"
"It matters," said his questioner, "because there is treasure hidden near the spot where you cut that stick. If you remember the place and can conduct me to it, I will put you in possession of great riches."
The Welshman now understood that he had to deal with a sorcerer, and he was greatly perplexed as to what to do. On the one hand, he was tempted by the prospect of wealth; on the other hand, he knew that the sorcerer must have derived his knowledge from devils, and he feared to have anything to do with the powers of darkness. The cunning man strove hard to persuade him and at length made him promise to show the place where he had cut his hazel staff.
The Welshman and the magician journeyed together to Wales. They went to Craig y Dinas, the Rock of the Fortress, at the head of the Neath Valley, near Pont Nedd Fechan, and the Welshman, pointing to the stock or root of an old hazel, said, "This is where I cut my stick."
"Let us dig," said the sorcerer. They digged until they came to a broad, flat stone. Prising this up, they found some steps leading downwards. They went down the steps and along a narrow passage until they came to a door. "Are you brave?" asked the sorcerer. "Will you come in with me?"
"I will," said the Welshman, his curiosity getting the better of his fear.
They opened the door, and a great cave opened out before them. There was a faint red light in the cave, and they could see everything. The first thing they came to was a bell. "Do not touch that bell," said the sorcerer, "or it will be all over with us both."
As they went further in, the Welshman saw that the place was not empty. There were soldiers lying down asleep, thousands of them, as far as ever the eye could see. Each one was clad in bright armour, the steel helmet of each was on his head, the shining shield of each was on his arm, the sword of each was near his hand, each had his spear stuck in the ground near him, and each and all were asleep.
In the middle of the cave was a great round table at which sat warriors, whose noble features and richly-dight armour proclaimed that they were not in the roll of common men. Each of those, too, had his head bent down in sleep.
On a golden throne on the further side of the round table was a king of gigantic stature and august presence. In his hand, held below the hilt, was a mighty sword with scabbard and haft of gold studded with gleaming gems; on his head was a crown set with precious stones which flashed and glinted like so many points of fire. Sleep had set its seal on his eyelids also.
"Are they asleep?" asked the Welshman, hardly believing his own eyes.
"Yes, each and all of them," answered the sorcerer, "but if you touch yonder bell, they will all awake."
"How long have they been asleep?"
"For over a thousand years!"
"Who are they?"
"Arthur's warriors, waiting for the time to come when they shall destroy all the enemies of the Cymry and repossess the Island of Britain, establishing their own king once more at Caer Lleon."
"Who are those sitting at the round table?"
"Those are Arthur's Knights, Owain, the son of Urien; Cai, the son of Cynyr; Gwalchmai, the son of Gwyar; Peredur, the son of Efrawc; Geraint, the son of Erbin; Trystan, the son of March; Bedwyr, the son of Bedrawd; Cilhwch, the son of Celyddon; Edeyrn, the son of Nudd; Cynon, the son of Clydno..."
"And on the golden throne?" broke in the Welshman.
"Is Arthur himself, with his sword Excalibur in his hand," replied the sorcerer.
Impatient by this time at the Welshman's questions, the sorcerer hastened to a great heap of yellow gold on the floor of the cave. He took up as much as he could carry, and bade his companion do the same. "It is time for us to go," he then said, and he led the way towards the door by which they had entered.
But the Welshman was fascinated by the sight of the countless soldiers in their glittering arms, all asleep. "How I should like to see them all awaking!" he said to himself. "I will touch the bell — I must see them all arising from their sleep."
When they came to the bell, he struck it until it rang through the whole place. As soon as it rang, lo! the thousands of warriors leapt to their feet and the ground beneath them shook with the sound of the steel arms. And a, great voice came from their midst, "Who rang the bell? Has the day come?"
The sorcerer was so frightened that he shook like an aspen leaf. He shouted in answer, "No, the day has not come. Sleep on."
The mighty host was all in motion, and the Welshman's eyes were dazzled as he looked at the bright steel arms which illumined the cave as with the light of myriad flames of fire.
"Arthur," said the voice again, "awake; the bell has rung, the day is breaking. Awake, Arthur the Great!"
"No," shouted the sorcerer, "it is still night; sleep on, Arthur the Great."
A sound came from the throne. Arthur was standing, and the jewels in his crown shone like bright stars above the countless throng. His voice was strong and sweet like the sound of many waters, and he said, "My warriors, the day has not come when the Black Eagle and the Golden Eagle shall go to war. It is only a seeker after gold who has rung the bell. Sleep on, my warriors, the morn of Wales has not yet dawned."
A peaceful sound like the distant sigh of the sea came over the cave, and in a trice the soldiers were all asleep again. The sorcerer hurried the Welshman out of the cave, moved the stone back to its place, and vanished.
Many a time did the Welshman try to find the way into the cave again, but though he dug over every inch of the hill, he never found the entrance.