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Dragons once allegedly plagued the entire country of Wales.
For centuries these incredible creatures have formed a central part of Welsh folklore and have even become the symbol of the nation. After all, according to legend, there is a dragon sleeping in the midst of Wales.
According to the Mabinogion, a medieval book that contains various oral traditions from Wales, there once was an ancient Welsh king who consulted his brother, the king of France, about the troubles in his kingdom. The French king told him that his problems were caused by two dragons fighting in his lands: a native Welsh dragon, and a foreign dragon. Thus, he advised his brother to measure his dominion and find the exact centre. There, he must dig a pit and place into it a large cauldron filled with the best mead. It was then, said the French king, that the two fighting dragons would come and battle each other.
“after wearying themselves with fierce and furious fighting [..] they will drink up the whole of the mead ; and after that they will sleep. Therefore do thou immediately fold the covering around them, and bury them […] in the strongest place in thy dominions, and hide them in the earth. And as long as they abide in that strong place no plague shall come”
According to the tale, the Welsh king did as his brother suggested, and peace came to the land.
Many years later, it was said that during the construction of a castle, the legendary Merlin discovered the two dragons sleeping – a red, Welsh dragon and a white, Saxon dragon. The remains of this castle allegedly built by Merlin are said today to be located in a valley near a group of mountains called Yr Eifl, known in English as The Rivals. 1
Since the emergence of this legend, the red dragon has been the national symbol of Wales.
However, for some, dragons are not merely legend. As recently as the beginning of the twentieth century, there were many people who claimed to have witnessed dragons in Wales.
Marie Trevelyan and the Welsh dragon
Someone who was keen to explore and preserve the reports of dragons in Wales was the folklorist Marie Trevelyan. It was in her book concerning Welsh folk stories that she documented personal testimonies from several people who claimed to have had experiences with dragons.
The area around Penllyn castle in Glamorgan had, according to the people she met, a particular reputation for being a haunt for these fearsome beasts. It was close to here that Trevelyan documented the testimony of an old man who remembered seeing winged serpents in his youth, describing them as “looking as though they were covered with jewels of all sorts. Some of them had crests sparkling with all the colours of the rainbow.” When disturbed, they glided swiftly, “sparkling all over,” to their hiding-places. When angry, they “flew over people’s heads, with outspread wings bright, and sometimes with eyes, too, like the feathers in a peacock’s tail.” 2
When in discussion with Trevelyan, the old man was insistent that these creatures were not mere stories but rather a real live menace, “as bad as foxes for poultry”. He even claimed that his father and uncle had killed some of them in his youth. Now an old man, he believed that the incredible, yet pesky, beasts had gone extinct due to over hunting.
Trevelyan indicated that many old inhabitants in the area had a surprisingly matter of fact attitude towards the creatures. She interviewed an old woman who spoke in a similar way as the old man about dragon-like animals. One story she recalled involved her grandfather who went to hunt one of these creatures with his brothers near Penmark. After shooting it down from the skies and killing it, the old lady explained that its shiny skin and feathers decorated her home whilst she was growing up, eventually being thrown away after her grandfather died. Like the old man, she spoke of how livestock was often killed by the fearsome, winged beasts. As such, they were often hunted by local people, to protect their animals, and also in search of the treasure that was rumoured to be close to their lairs. 3
The sober, and almost mundane, manner in which dragons were described by some of the elderly inhabitants of Wales at the time in which Trevelyan was writing is striking. Were they merely poking fun at a researcher willing to listen to the ramblings of the elderly? Or, is it possible that great, winged serpents once existed in Wales, and had merely gone the way of the dodo, whose extinction was caused by humans?
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