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The Mountain Kings


Edward Burne-Jones, "The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon," 1898, detail

4,955 words

The idea of a king, or hero, sleeping in a cave or hollow mountain is an old one in Northern Europe and the British Isles. So old, in fact, that the sleeping king motif is “one of the few myths of the British Celts to be put on record by a classical author.”[1]

The classical author was Plutarch. Plutarch’s work “The Silence of Oracles” quotes a certain government agent, Demetrius, who in 82 CE wrote down various tales and miscellanies told to him by the people he encountered while he was in Britain. Adhering to the then-approved custom of endowing every god/hero, regardless of origin or existing name, with Classical nomenclature, the story, as written by Demetrius, would seem to be a Greek one. It is actually an extremely early version of the European Sleeping King myth.

There is, they said, an island where Cronus is imprisoned with Briareus keeping guard over him as he sleeps; for, as they put it, sleep is the bond forged for Cronus. They add that around him are many deities, his henchmen and attendants.[2]

In a later work, in a section referring to Britain and various outlying British Isles, Plutarch himself writes:

The natives have a story that in one of these Cronus has been confined by Zeus, but that he, having a son for a gaoler, is left sovereign lord of those islands and of the sea, which they call the Gulf of Cronus. . . . Cronus himself sleeps within a deep cave, resting on rock which looks like gold, this sleep being devised for him by Zeus in place of chains. Birds fly in at the topmost rock, and bear him ambrosia.[3]

This is the elemental hero sleeping in the cave story, with very early references to both the treasure (the rock that looks like gold) and the ravens that often accompany such heroes as they wait, in their deep hidden places, to come back.

Parallel stories, with kings/gods/heroes asleep in caves/hills/mountains appear all through out Northern Europe. As a matter of fact, this basic story is so common that it is now identified as folktale type 766 in the Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson (AT) folktale classification system[4]–considered the standard reference catalogue of international folk stories. The story of the sleeping hero, or the hidden king, is as firmly embedded in the folksoul of the European people as are the mountains and caves themselves.

Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Austria, The Czech Republic (then Bohemia), Sicily, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland . . . all hold, deep in secret places within their hills, a sleeper or sleepers, who will waken at the time when the folk are in their greatest need of a hero.

Arthur, of course, is the widest known of all these sleeping kings. Legends abound throughout the ages concerning his hidden, and sometimes accidentally found, abode. Although there is no absolute way to tell which place is indeed  Arthur’s, it is probable that most attributions (all except one) are the result of folk memory of long-ago tales concerning real heroes or kings who rest where now Arthur is said to wait.

[2]In Lindow Moss, the famous “Lindow Man” was discovered on August 1 1984 by a peat cutter.  One of the theories of who, or what, Lindow Man might have been, has been that he was a Druidic ‘divine victim’. “. . . The king who was killed when he passed his prime. (It is an important theme in J. G. Frazer’s classic The Golden Bough.) The blood of this potent sacrifice and the flesh of his body fertilized the land as the body was crushed into the symbolic embrace of the earth mother.”[5]

The real name of the Lindow Man is now forgotten, but the fact that he was there, hidden in the earth, did not fade entirely. Folk memory of him was still extant in the 1980s, as archeologists “learned that there was a legend of a “king in the ground” near Lindow Moss. Alderly Edge, that whale-backed ridge that we saw hanging over Lindow Moss . . . is the scene of a peculiar and powerful legend that now assumed a new significance for us. The legend concerns King Arthur and a magician with some very druidic characteristics. In its simplest form the legend is stated thus:

A farmer was going to Macclesfield market with a beautiful white mare. As he passed Alderly Edge he was approached by a wizard who offered him a very good price for it. The farmer refused, saying that he would sell it for more in the market. However, although many people showed great interest in the horse, no one at the market offered him the price he wanted, so he went back home with the horse. The wizard was waiting for him again, and this time the farmer accepted his offer and pocketed the money. The wizard asked him to lead the horse down through the woods to a rock. When he touched the rock a great gate appeared and opened. The wizard told the farmer that King Arthur and his knights were sleeping there until they were needed by England once again, and that one knight lacked a horse. Seeing the truth of the wizard’s words, the farmer fled with his money.[6]

Arthur is variously said to be resting in many places, mostly within the British Isles, although there is a curious sleeping king legend that comes out of Sicily.  There are two separate stories of Arthur being found there. The first story concerns “a groom, sent to search on Mount Etna for a missing horse, which strayed through caves and gullies and came at last to a fair plain whereon was a great palace. Within it he saw Arthur lying upon a bed, and heard from him of his last battle with Mordred and how his wounds broke afresh every year.”[7] One may assume that Arthur will not be able to return to his native land until these heal, and these do not heal because it is not time for his return yet.

The second story (one will recognize several similar points with the Alderly Edge story here) has Arthur even worse off; in this story he is quite dead, and is now the king of the land of death. “A groom in the service of the Dean of Palermo was sent to look for a horse, and was met by an old man who told him the animal was inside the mountain with King Arthur, whom he served. He then charged the groom with a message to the Dean, to the effect that he must present himself at Arthur’s court within fourteen days. The message was delivered; the Dean laughed at it as nonsense, but within fourteen days he was dead.”[8]

Arthur was not a traditional character in Sicilian folk tales, therefore it is quite reasonable to deduce that what ever king or hero was originally resting in Mount Etna (which has long been linked to fairylands in its local legends) was given the name Arthur after the tale was brought there by the Normans.

Another interesting hill said to contain Arthur that is likewise historically linked to fairies is Cadbury Fort, Somerset, in southwest England. A certain Reverend Bennet, who was an archeologist as well as a rector, tells us that it was common belief among the locals that Arthur was resting in Cadbury Fort, which was thought to be a hollow hill with iron gates that led into its cavernous depths. This hill, according to local lore, was originally the home of fairies that dwelled within it until Christianity drove them away; sometime after that, it seems, Arthur settled in.

Reverend Bennet heard this story in 1890:

The fairies were obliged to leave when the bells were put in the church, and they left all their gold behind them; and it is a pity our squire wont dig into the hill, for there is a lot of gold in it; and folks do say that on the night of the full moon King Arthur and his men ride round the hill.[9]

The image of Arthur and his men emerging from their charmed sleeps deep in Fairy Hills is to be found everywhere in British Literature—here it is embedded in the verse of John Leyland (“Scenes of Infancy,” 1803):

“While each dark warrior rouses at the blast
His horn, his falcion, grasps with mighty hand,
And peals proud Arthur’s march from Fairyland”

This particular image of the ‘dark warrior’ is repeated in another story about King Arthur and his enchanted sleep, this one taking place in the Eildon Hills:

To begin in the regions of the better-known, the Eildon Hills version has, of course, received much attention on account of Sir Walter Scott’s having projected a prose romance in ‘the first year of the century’ on the subject of a Border horse-dealer, Canobie Dick, who regularly trades with a man ‘of venerable appearance’—later to be revealed as Thomas the Rhymer. Led into the hillside on one occasion, Dick sees a long range of horses, and knights in coal-black armour with drawn swords. The Rhymer tells him that whoever sounds the horn and draws the sword lying there on an ‘antique table’ will become King of Britain. Afraid, however, to unsheathe the sword, Dick manages to blow the horn, but on attempting to seize the enchanted sword, he hears a voice pronounce:

Woe to the coward, that ever he was born,
Who did not draw the sword before he blew the horn.[10]

Sir Walter Scott uses the name Thomas The Rhymer, for the leader of these coal-black armoured men in his prose romance, but his 1829 “Appendix to the General Preface to Waverly” cited Leyden’s earlier verse about King Arthur as the place where the tradition source was to be found.10 Thomas the Rhymer is sometimes substituted for King Arthur in Scottish versions of the hill hidden sleepers, thus Scott’s crossing of the names 26 years later.

Leyland in his rhymes is writing of Arthur, of course, and was himself drawing on older material concerning traditional stories of the king in the cave. Many of the stories are extremely similar versions of the same tale, revealing the presence of a resting armoured hero in whatever hill he is explained as resting in.

It is interesting to note that despite being geographically disperse, Arthur is the name given most commonly to these various heroes or kings. A reasonable theory for this is, obviously, that the hills and heroes are each unique, while their identities and their modes of existence have been lumped, over time, into one overarching legend.

An extremely typical variation (of which type the Sir Walter Scott version is) can be found in Richmond Castle, where the most famous Yorkshire legend of Arthur hails.

Not far away, on the other side of the River Swale, is a large cave known as Arthur’s Oven, and underneath the Castle Keep the King himself lies sleeping. A man named Potter Thompson is said to have encountered a stranger near the castle and to have been taken by him to an underground vault of enormous size in which a multitude of people lay sleeping on the ground. The stranger showed Thompson a sheathed sword and a horn and invited him to draw the one and blow the other. Had he done so, the sleepers would have been freed from the enchantment that bound them, but Thompson was not fated to be their deliverer. When the sword was half out of its sheath they all stirred and seemed about to rise. In a sudden terror he let the blade fall back, and the sleepers sank down once more to the ground. A voice cried sadly:

Potter Thompson, Potter Thompson
If though hadst either drawn
The sword or blown the horn
Thou’d been the luckiest man
That ever yet was born

Tradition has it that no other opportunity of breaking the spell will occur before a definite, though unstated, time has gone by.[11]

This corresponds to the unhealed “Arthur” in Mt. Etna, who must also wait an unstated time before he can presumably return.

More variants of this tale are to be found throughout England, particularly in the legends of Freeborough Hill in Yorkshire, and Sewingshields Castle near the Roman Wall.  Sewingshield is the locale of two intriguing legend variants, where both the sword and the horn are featured—in one there is, as well, a ball of wool, hounds, a blazing fire, Guinevere and a garter laying upon a table; and in the other there is  a ball of wool, a blazing fire, hounds, but also an old man in a chair, and a table covered in green cloth. In the first the interloper cuts the garter before he blows the horn, an unpardonable act which results in the sleepers going back to sleep after reciting a short poem, in the second, the interloper is too scared to blow the horn by himself so he goes to fetch help . . . when he returns he cannot find a trace of the cavern leading to the magic hall.

A different, but just as commonly told, tale of the sleepers in the mountains is the “final question” form. Like the horn/sword tale, it follows a rigid pattern that allows for only slight variation, and like the horn/sword tale, it is repeated throughout the British Isles. It is also repeated throughout Europe.

In this version the sleeping heroes are found inside a cavern or hollow hill, and when woken, they ask if it is time yet. When they find it is not, they return to their enchanted rest. They often have great treasures heaped around them.  The British form of this legend concerns Arthur, of course:

And we may believe, too, that King Arthur still sleeps in some enchanted cave-perhaps in some “Vale of Avalon” in the deep mountain fastnesses of Wales. For there, so the legend is told still in the haunted land Gwynedd, a shepherd once met with a strange and mysterious man.

“Beneath the tree from which that stuff was cut,” said the Stranger, pointing to the hazel crook in the shepherd’s hand, “lies hidden a vast hoard of treasure!”

And  when the shepherd inquired further, he was told the secret of the cave:

“In the doorway hangs a great bell,” the Stranger told him “and you must not touchy it, for if you do the Sleepers in the Cave will wake.” And when he had said this, the Stranger vanished mysteriously and the shepherd rubbed his eyes, thinking that he had dreamed a dream.

But not long afterwards, while seeking for a lost sheep high up among the mountain crags, he came to a little valley, recognized the hazel tree at the head of it as that from which he had cut his crook when climbing among the rocks as a boy.

So he went up to the tree, and there under its roots, sure enough, was a narrow cave entrance. Into it he went on his hands and  knees, and presently found himself in a great, dark cavern. Here he struck a light and lit a candle which he happened to have in his pocket, and holding it above his head, he beheld the marvels of the place. All around in a great circle lay warriors sleeping, each of them clad in old armour and with a sword by his side; and upon a couch in the midst lay an ancient king who wore a golden crown and held in his hand a shining sword with a jeweled cross-hilt, while at his feet lay great heaps of gold and silver.

Amazed at what he saw, the shepherd stepped backwards suddenly and by ill luck struck against the great bell which hung over the doorway. And as its deep tones echoed through the cavern, the old king on the couch woke out of his sleep and sat slowly up.

“Is it day?” he asked

And the shepherd, trembling in terror, cried, he hardly knew why “No, no! Therefore sleep on!”

And then the king said: “You say well. I will sleep once more until the day comes when I shall rise and bring victory to the people of Britain. Take of the silver and gold that lies before you and get you gone speedily: for if my knights awake before it is time they will slay you- and then there will be none to speak the words which you have spoken and which send me now back to my long rest.”

Then the king slept once more, and the shepherd took up as much gold and silver as he could carry and fled from the place. But never again, though he sought for it often, could he find the cave under the hazel tree which led to the mysterious cavern where sleep King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.[12]

In Europe this same tale is told, with some expected differences. Most of these differences do not deviate from the basic form, while one great difference stands out. In Europe it is not Arthur who rests within a hollow mountain, with his knights and treasure, waiting—it is Frederick Barbarossa, known as “Europe’s most famous sleeping hero.”[13]

The brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm tell of Barbarossa in their early nineteenth century collection of German Legends.

Many legends are in circulation dealing with this emperor. They say that he is not dead, but that he shall live until the Day of Judgment, and also that no legitimate emperor shall rise up after him. Until that time he will remain hidden in Kyffhauser Mountain. When he appears he will hang his shield on a dead tree, and leaves will sprout from the tree, and then better times will be at hand. From time to time he speaks to those who find their way into the mountain, and from time to time he makes appearances outside the mountain. Generally he just sits there on a bench at a round stone table, asleep with his head in his hands. He constantly nods his head and blinks his eyes. His beard has grown very long, according to some it has grown through the stone table, according to others it has grown around the table. They say that it must grow around the circumference three times before he awakens. At the present time it has grown around the table twice.

In the year 1669 a peasant from the village of Reblingen who was hauling grain to Nordhausen was taken into the mountain by a little dwarf. He was told to empty out his grain and allowed to fill his sacks with gold in its place. He saw the emperor sitting there entirely motionless. In addition, a dwarf led a shepherd into the mountain who had once played a tune on his flute that had pleased the emperor.

The emperor stood up and asked: “Are ravens still flying around the mountain?” When the shepherd answered “Yes,” the Kaiser responded: “Then I must sleep for another hundred years.”[14]

Barbarossa’s legend is echoed with interesting differences in the latter part of the same century, in an English collection of Northern Mythology, collected by Benjamin Thorpe:

In the Kyffhäuser the emperor Frederic Barbarossa exists in a state of enchantment. There he sits, with all his knights and squires, at a large table, through which his beard has grown. Beneath the mountain all is splendid and radiant with gold and precious stones; and although it is a subterranean cavern, it is as light as in the sunniest day, There are the most magnificent trees and shrubs, and through the middle of this paradise there flows a brook, from which if a handful of mud be taken, it will instantly become pure gold. Here a horseman constantly rides up and down . . .[15]

The presence of the horseman harks back to Arthur, lending weight to the theory that these legends, over time, borrowed from each other as they were told and re told across Europe and Britain, creating greater Northern European uber-myths from individual local legends of specific sleeping heroes.

Often these uber-myths tended to blur over older local traditional stories of sleeping kings, and the original names of sleepers would be forgotten, changed to Arthur, or Barbarossa or the like. In Britain, this can be seen as the 6th century English Arthur and the 13th century Scottish Thomas the Rhymer were often confused, although Arthur has remained far more unforgettable than Thomas, in the end.

But sometimes, instead of submerging the original sleeping hero into a newer hero’s identity, story tellers would simply speak of two different, completely individual, sleeping heroes, who each resided in the same spot—sometimes doing much the same thing, sometimes doing quite different things. In Europe “Frederick Barbarossa was sometimes confused with the Emperor Otto and the Marquis John, both of whom were said to sleep in the Kyffhauser. The Marquis had none of the friendliness of the old Emperor. He sat with his long nails growing into the table, surrounded by wine vats so ancient that their wood and hoops had rotted away; the wine within them had formed its own shell and stood up of itself. A wine-glass with a few dregs left in the bottom stood before him on the table. Once a joiner entered the chamber and drank from the glass, with the result that he fell asleep and did not wake for seven years.”[16]

Barbarossa is said to sleep in his mountain “awakening every hundred years to see if Germany needs his help as a leader” [17]; similarly in Odin’s mountain (Odenberg) it is said that King Karl rests with his entire army, coming out every seven or hundred years (depending on the story variant) to water the horses, ride round the mountain and then return within. Anyone who is present when the mountain opens is very lucky, as there is a vast amount of treasure there. Some stories hold that this entryway only stays open for fifteen minutes, and anyone who doesn’t grab some gold and flee fast enough back out must stay within the mountain until it opens again—in either seven or one hundred years. It is said that the trapped will not age while they are inside the hollow mountain.

Frederick Barbarossa and Emperor Karl are subject to being interchanged in the Untersberg, an Austrian mountain, where some say Emperor Karl sits with a crown of gold on his head and his scepter in his hand, accompanied by princes and nobles. He has a long grey beard which covers his breastplate, which he sometimes divides in two, tying each half with a pearl band. Other legends have it that this is Frederick who sits at a table that his beard has twice grown around, and that when it goes around the third time completely, the end of the world will come[18]  (and presumably the King in the mountain shall emerge and help his people cope with all that the world’s end will entail).

Other mountains and caves in Europe have similar dwellers, each one waiting for the right time to awaken or emerge.  Sweden has The Knights of Allaberg, in Vestergotland. The legend is a lovely variant of the Europe-wide tale of sleeping heroes in a mountain:

One time a peasant, en route to Jonkoping with a load of rye, came just at dusk to Allaberg, where he discovered a grand mansion by the way. “Maybe I can sell my rye here” thought he, “and so be spared the journey to Jonkoping” and approaching the door, he knocked for admittance. The door was at once opened by some unseen power and the peasant entered.

Upon entering, he found himself in a grand hall. In the middle of the floor stood a large table and upon the table lay twelve golden helmets, grand beyond the power of description, and scattered around the room, deep in slumber, were twelve knights in glittering armour.

The peasant contemplated his beautiful surroundings, but, concluding that he could not sell his rye here, went on, coming finally to a large stable, where he found standing twelve magnificent steeds, bedecked with golden trappings and silver shoes on their hoofs, stamping in their stalls.

Curiosity getting the better of him, he took hold of the bridle of one of the horses in order to learn by what art it was made. Hardly had he touched it when he heard a voice call out “Is it time now?” and another answer “No, not yet!”

The peasant had now seen and heard as much as he desired, and, thoroughly frightened, hastened away. When he came out he found that he had been into the mountain instead of into a mansion, and that he had seen the twelve knights who sleep there until the country shall be in some great danger, when they will awake and help Sweden to defend herself against foreign enemies.[19]

Switzerland has the Three Tells, or sleeping heroes, who sleep in a cave in a cliff up in the wild mountainous region surrounding Waldstatter Lake. They are clad in ancient clothes and will arise when their country needs them. A legend has it that a shepherd boy told a traveler that his father had been looking for a lost goat up in among the cliffs when he came upon the cave of these three sleeping men. He recognized them at once as the Three Tells; one of them roused and asked him “What time is it on earth?,” to which he answered “High noon.” The Tell said “It is not yet time for us to come” and went back to his slumber. Try as he might to find the cave again, the father never could.[20]

Hans C. Anderson retells a tale about a cellar under the ancient castle of Kronberg in Denmark. Deep inside this cellar where no one goes, sits Holger Danske (sometimes called Ogier the Dane). Dressed in iron and steel, he rests his head in his arms, while his long beard hangs over a marble table into which it has grown. Holger Danske has the ability to see in his dreams everything that is happening in Denmark. Every Christmas Eve an angel comes to wake him and tell him that his dreams are true and that Denmark is not in danger, so he goes back to sleep again. But, if danger ever does come to Danmark, Holger will arise, breaking the marble table into bits as he pulls his beard free. He will come out of the cellar, and his strikes shall be heard all over the world.[21]

Another sleeping hero lies in the Blanik Mountain in Bohemia (Czech Republic). Called Vaclav — and also St. Wenceslas — he will emerge from the Blanic Mountain on a white horse, holding the magic sword of the legendary knight Bruncvik, to protect his country when it is in danger.  His horse, his sword and his emerging at a time of his country’s dire need for his heroics are all echoes of the great legend of the Sleeping Hero. That he is there is doubtless true, in some form or other, that his name is St. Wencelas is an obvious over layering from modern times.

Will he emerge when his country needs him most? I hope so. If not in the flesh, per se, then in the spirit. Like all the sleeping heroes, all the kings in the mountains, these are our great ancestors. The greatest of the greats.  They sleep, if not in the hollow mountains and high caves of Europe and the British Isles, in our very selves. Deeply embedded within us. They are part and parcel of our folksoul, and they wait, I believe, for a time when we shall need to call on their strength within us to face a modern world that surely presents dangers and circumstances the like they hardly could imagine. Not by sword, on white horses, but by strength of faith, courage of character and the ability to endure and overcome whatever befalls the folk, their folk, our folk . . . no matter what.


1. Geoffrey Ashe, The Discovery of King Arthur (New York: Henry Holt, 1985), p. 152.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., p. 153.

4. Antti Aarne, The Types of the Folktale: A Classifications and Bibliography,  translated and enlarged by Stith Thompson, 2nd rev. ed. (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia/FF Comm, 1961).

5. Anne Ross and Don Robins, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince (New York: Touchstone, 1989), p. 71.

6. Ibid. p. 72.

7. Christina Hole, English Folk Heroes (New York: Dorset Press, 1992), p. 58.

8. Ibid.

9. Proceedings of the Somerset Archeological and Natural History Society, Vol XXXVI, [as quoted in English Folk Heroes by Christina Hole].

10. J. R. Simpson, “King Arthur’s Enchanted Sleep: Early Nineteenth Century Legends,” Folklore 97 (1986), p. 206.

11. Hole, English Folk Heroes, p. 63.

12. Roger Lancelyn Green, King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table—newly retold out of the old romances (Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1977). pp. 281-82.

13. Hole, English Folk Heroes, p. 29.

14. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsche Sagen, no. 23 1977 reprint of the 3rd Edition published by the Nicolaische Verlag, Berlin in 1891 as translated/edited by D. L. Ashliman, University of Pittsburgh http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html [3]

15. Benjamin Thorpe, Northern Mythology, Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany and The Netherlands–In Three Volumes, vol. 3, North German and Netherlandish Popular Traditions and Superstitions (London: Lumley, 1852), p. 101.

16. Hole, English Folk Heroes, p. 31.

17. Maria Tatar, ed. and trans., The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales (New York: Norton, 2002). p. 95.

18. Grimm, Deutsche Sagen, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html [3]

19. Clair Booss, ed., Scandinavian Folk and Fairy Tales: Tales From Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland (New York: Avenal, 1984), p. 279.

20. Grimm, Deutsche Sagen, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html [3]

21. Hans Anderson, Nye Eventyr, 1845,  translated/edited by by D. L. Ashliman, University of Pittsburgh http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html [3]

Source: The Runestone Journal, vol 1.