NIGHTBRINGER | The Arthurian Encyclopedia

Cave Legend

The belief that King Arthur is asleep in an enchanted cave, to be awakened at his country’s time of need. The Cave Legend is found primarily in oral folklore; chronicles and romances have Arthur living not in a cave, but on the island of Avalon. Italian literature places Arthur in Mount Etna on Sicily, which is identified with Avalon. Merlin is also believed to be sleeping in caves in various places.

Caves in which Arthur is said to be sleeping are pointed out by rural dwellers and small town residents all over Britain. Generally, the entrance is said to be hidden or sealed, only revealing itself or opening on certain nights of the year or under certain circumstances. These caves include two Arthur’s Caves in Wales and AngleseyCadbury Hill in Somerset, an underworld in Glamorgan, a hill in Cheshire, a grotto in Yorkshire, and a cavern in Eildon Hills in Melrose.

Accompanying the legend are tales of locals discovering the entrances, wandering into the caves, and finding the sleeping Arthur, along with his knights, his Round Table, or a fabulous treasure. The hapless adventurer generally makes some mistake and is driven from the cave. He is unable to find it when he returns. The Cave Legend is merged somewhat uncomfortably with the Wild Hunt in a number of tales. Though Arthur’s body is alive in the cave, his spirit emerges and rides through the woods in a supernatural hunt, which, like the entrance to the cave, can be seen on certain nights of the year.

According to the Welsh “Stanzas of the Graves”, in the Black Book of Carmarthen, Arthur’s grave is a mystery. William of Malmesbury confirms this in his Gesta Regum Anglorum (ca. 1125): “The grave of Arthur is nowhere beheld.” Therefore, William adds, “ancient songs” prophecy his reappearance. The idea that his grave could not be found because he had none, being immortal, seems to have originated in Brittany and spread to Cornwall, and thence to Wales. Its more literary form, deriving from the Bretons, was that he was in the enchanted isle of Avalon. But a folk-belief of another kind took hold among the Welsh and in parts of England and Scotland: that he was asleep in a cave until his messianic return. Both the principal versions of his survival, the island story and the cave story, may have their ancestry in a Celtic myth reported by Plutarch, about a banished god sleeping in a cave in a western island.

There are two real caves bearing Arthur’s name, in Anglesey and Herefordshire. But the typical form of the legend makes his cave an elusive place that can be found only on rare occasions. Usually, it houses more than the King – a company of slumbering knights, or a royal treasure, or both. Sometimes, indeed, Arthur himself is absent, presumably in another cave. One location, which is probably of very long standing, is Cadbury Castle in Somerset: Cadbury-Camelot. Others are Craig-y-Ddinas in Glamorgan, at the Wishing Well of Alderley Edge in Cheshire, Richmond Castle in YorkshireSewingshields in Northumberland, and the Eildon Hills near Melrose in Scotland. At least nine more have been recorded besides these.

The legend varies from place to place, but it commonly includes an account of something entering the cave with unhappy results. At Craig-y-Ddinas, a Welshman is said to have been guided into it by an English wizard. He saw the King and his knights asleep in a circle, their heads pointing outward. They wore armor, and weapons lay beside them. Within the circle were a heap of gold and a heap of silver. The magician told the Welshman that Arthur was sleeping till the time when he should wake and restore justice and peace throughout Britain. Meanwhile, it was permissible for the visitor to carry off some of the treasure, but he must not disturm the knights. If one of them woke, he would ask if it was day, and then the only way to escape unscathed was to reply, “No, sleep on.” Also, the treasure must on no account be squandered. The Welshman succeeded in getting out with some gold, but he did squander it and came back alone for more. The second time, he had forgotten the formula; several of the knights woke up, gave him a beating, and ejected him from the cave. For the rest of his days, he was infirm from the beating and very poor, and could never find the entrance again.

In English and Scottish versions, the intruder is tested in other ways and fails through panic or confusion. He may be confronted with magical objects, such as a sword and a horn, which he uses wrongly. At Sewingshields, Arthur actually does wake, but the victim fails to complete the ritual and he goes back to sleep. The Melrose story is told by Walter Scott. Canonbie Dick, a horse-dealer, was riding home one night with a pair of horses that he had been unable to sell. A stranger in antique clothing offered to buy them, paying with obsolete gold coins. The same thing happened several times. Dick became curious about the stranger’s dwelling. The stranger – who was in fact the mysterious poet Thomas the Rhymer – warned him that he must not show fear and led him through a doorway into a vast torchlit chamber under the Eildon Hills, full of sleeping knights and horses. On a table lay a sword and a horn. Thomas told Dick that he must choose whether to draw the sword or blow the horn. Dick blew the horn and learned too late that this was wrong: it was the act of the man summoning help and therefore showed fear. With a noise like thunder, the knights began to stir, and Dick’s fear became genuine enough. A violent wind swept him out of the cave, and the door closed behind him. He told his tale to some shepherds and fell dead. Naturally, no one else ever found the entrance. It is said to have been in an odd-looking rocky hillock called the Lucken Hare, where witches used to hold meetings.

Though this folklore-Arthur lay hidden from the world, he could emerge in phantasmal form and join the legendary Wild Hunt, careering among the clouds with other heroes, and occasionally descending to earth. At Cadbury, he had both a cave and a “hunting causeway.” Accompanied by his knights, he became a spectral huntsman in France as well as Britain. About 1211, Gervase of Tilbury mentions this belief, together with another giving him a permanent place of concealment of Mount Etna. Doubtless, this was an importation into Sicily by Normans or by Bretons in Norman service.

The Sicilian Arthur is awake at least some of the time and talks to people from outside. But the notion of an undying king or hero asleep underground spread widely through medieval Europe, attaching itself to other characters. Whether all the variants were derived from Arthur by way of his vogue in romance it is impossible to tell, because in most cases written records fail to show when or how the beliefs arose. The most famous was almost certainly imitative. This was the German legend of Emperor Frederick II slumbering inside the Kyffhäuser mountain. After a couple of centuries, the sleeper’s identity changed, and he became Frederick I, Barbossa, as he is still.

There is a similar ambiguity at several of the Welsh locations. The person in the cave is normally supposed to be Arthur, but according to some he is Owen Lawgoch, a medieval Welsh patriot. Loomis indicates that versions of the legend were still quite widely accepted during the nineteenth century, and in fact it has survived into the twentieth.

See also
Afon Pib | The Legend of King Arthur
Arthur’s Cave | The Legend of King Arthur
Arthur’s Seat | The Legend of King Arthur
Cadbury-Camelot | The Legend of King Arthur
Cadbury Hill | The Legend of King Arthur
Caerleon | The Legend of King Arthur
Cheshire | The Legend of King Arthur
Eildon Hills | The Legend of King Arthur
King Arthur – Legends of his return | The Legend of King Arthur
King Arthur – Origins of the legend | The Legend of King Arthur
La Grotte d’Artus | The Legend of King Arthur
Merlin’s Hill Cave | The Legend of King Arthur
Merlin’s Treasure | The Legend of King Arthur
Ogof Lanciau Eryri | The Legend of King Arthur
Ogo’r Dinas | The Legend of King Arthur
Thompson | The Legend of King Arthur
Topography and Local Legends | The Legend of King Arthur

The Landscape of King Arthur | Geoffrey Ashe, 1987