With its romantic landscape of misty mountains, secret caves and mysterious lakes, Wales – and in particular, Snowdonia – has inspired countless generations of poets and storytellers. This is a land of giants, dragons, wizards and heroes, and the greatest hero of all was Arthur, King of the Britons, who according to legend will arise at Wales’ hour of darkest need to save his country.
King Arthur appears often in literature, from the Mabinogion to Geoffrey of Monmouth, from Ninnius to Chretien de Troyes; but it’s difficult to reconcile his literary adventures with the real Arthur who, if he existed at all, was probably a Celtic warlord who united his countrymen against the invading Saxons.
In literature and folklore, King Arthur is most often associated with Cornwall and Wales; the name Pendragon is Anglo-Welsh, meaning “Dragon’s Head”. And while his famous court at Camelot has often been linked with Caerleon, just outside Newport in the south east of Wales, there are several legends placing Arthur and his feats in the Snowdonia region of North Wales.
Whether or not Arthur existed is debatable. However, folk memories last a long time, and one has to wonder if there’s some shred of truth to the local Arthurian legends that still survive in Snowdonia.
One tale describes how Arthur met a giant, Ritta, on the slopes of Snowdon while out riding with his knights. Arthur remarked upon Ritta’s unusual cloak, which the giant explained was made from the beards of kings. Ritta said he would be honoured to include Arthur’s beard in his cloak but Arthur, reluctant to part with his facial hair, refused. A fight ensued and Arthur slew the giant and had him buried under a cairn at the mountain’s summit.
Snowdonia is dotted with cromlechs, ancient burial chambers left behind by our ancestors thousands of years ago. Yet despite the age of these atmospheric monuments to our forebears, folk tales still connect them with Arthur who, if he existed, would probably have lived in the 5th or 6th century. One such tale claims the cromlech at Cefnamlwch, on the Llyn Peninsula, was formed when Arthur threw the capstone from the top of Garn Fadrwn, while the three standing stones beneath were carried there by Arthur’s wife in her apron.
Dinas Emrys, an old hill fort at Beddgelert, has several Arthurian connections in literature and folklore. The name Dinas Emrys honours Merlin – full name Myrddin Emrys – who described two warring dragons in a pool beneath the fort. The pool is, apparently, still there; a first century rectangle choked with tall grasses. In another tale – “Lludd and Llefelys” from the Mabinogion, an ancient collection of Welsh folk tales – the dragons were put into stone coffers and thereafter the place was known as Dinas Emreis.
In another tale Arthur fought a monster, the Afanc, which lived in Llyn Barfog (the Bearded Lake), not far from Aberdyfi. The Afanc had been terrorising the area so Arthur went to fight it. He lassoed the beast with an enormous chain, and his horse, Llamrai, hauled it from the lake to be slain. A nearby rock, Carn March Arthur (the Stone of Arthur’s Horse) bears a deeply-etched hoofprint, said to have been made by Llamrai as the Afanc was dragged from the lake.
Lakes are a common theme in Snowdonia’s Arthurian tales. Llyn Dinas, a Snowdonia lake which reflects the fort of Dinas Emrys which towers over it, is said to be the site of a battle between Arthur’s knight Sir Owain and a giant. The hill beside Llyn Dinas, local legend says, is where Merlin’s treasure is buried.
At least two lakes in Snowdonia are claimed to be home to the Lady of the Lake and the final resting place of Excalibur, Arthur’s sword. Some local legends say that Sir Bedivere threw Excalibur into Llyn Llydaw, beneath Snowdon, after Arthur’s death; and that this was the lake Arthur sailed across to reach the magical isle of Avalon. Another story insists the sword was thrown into Llyn Ogwen, also in the mountains of Snowdonia.
Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, is another place with Arthurian connections. In some tales the island is Avalon. In others, Enlli is the burial place of Merlin, who lies in a cave or in a magical house of glass. It’s also said that Arthur’s ship lies at the bottom of Bardsey Sound, the stretch of water separating Enlli from the Llyn Peninsula.
And even Arthur’s final battle is said to have taken place in Snowdonia. One story says that he died at Tregalan, where he was brought down by a hail of enemy arrows at a pass that is to this day called Bwlch y Saethau, or Pass of the Arrows. Arthur’s knights covered his body with a cairn of stones, still known as Carnedd Arthur or Arthur’s Cairn. After his death, Arthur’s knights sealed themselves in a cave below the summit of Y Lliwedd where to this day they slumber, fully armoured, ready to fight at their king’s side when he awakens to save Wales in her hour of greatest need.
You can find out more about King Arthur’s adventures in Snowdonia by visiting King Arthur’s Labyrinth, an excellent attraction at Corris, near Machynlleth, where you’ll hear the Arthurian legends while taking an underground boat ride.