King Herla was a legendary King of the ancient Britons who along with his men became caught in a strange spell. After attending the marriage of the Dwarf King in the Otherword, Herla and his host of men became trapped in an endless cycle. They became doomed to wandering the world on horseback never being able to set foot on the ground. Along the way they attracting the souls of the newly dead into their company who joined them in riding the earth in wild, meaningless circles and were often called The Wild Hunt in England by those who witnessed them.
This unearthly and unwelcome situation arose through an agreement he made with a king from the dwarf realm. According to the legend the Dwarf King visited King Herla and together they made a binding promise with each other that they would attend each others wedding.
The Dwarf King
The story begins with King Herla and his retinue traveling through an ancient forest. Feeling tired he decided he needed a rest so he bid his men to leave him in peace while he lay down underneath the trees to sleep. As he began to doze he heard a sound of rustling coming towards him through the undergrowth. Drawing his sword he readied himself for what should appear. To his surprise he was greeted by a small human figure riding on the back of a large goat.
Compared to the humans the dwarf was smaller and squatter and probably about half as tall. The dwarf had a huge head and a bright face with a long red beard down to his chest. His skin was light yellowish brown and his shoulders, arms and chest were very hairy. His legs were also hairy and he had cloven hooves instead of feet and he rode upon a huge mountain goat.
Riding up to him the Dwarf King told Herla his people had chosen him to be a guest at his wedding because he was the only king at the time who they regarded as having the wisdom and goodness to attend such an important occasion. The Dwarf King told him,
I, the king of many kings and chiefs and of a people numerous beyond all count, come willingly, sent from them to thee, and though I am to thee unknown, yet I glory in the fame which hath raised thee high above other kings, since thou art the best and the nearest to me in place and blood, and art moreover worthy of having me grace with high honour thy wedding as a guest, when the King of the French giveth his daughter to thee—an arrangement concluded without thy knowledge, and Jo, his messengers come this very day. Let there be an abiding compact between us, that I shall attend thy wedding, and thou mine a year later to the day.’ (1)
Dismounting he bowed and held before Herla a bronze horn of exquisite workmanship and asked him to drink from it to seal the compact. Herla was unsure about accepting this strange and unworldly binding agreement. Nevertheless, taking the horn he drank from it and handed it back to the Dwarf King who drank the rest, sealing the contract between them. He then rode off into the undergrowth on his goat without another word. Herla rejoined his men and returned to his court thinking no more of the peculiar affair other than it had probably been a dream when he was half asleep.
The wedding of King Herla
Nevertheless, arriving back home and to the King’s amazement ambassadors from France arrived accepting the terms of his marriage to the daughter of the King of France. As the wedding was about to begin the Dwarf King entered with many of his subjects and servants. There were so many more chairs and tables were needed to accommodate them all.
From tents pitched by the Dwarf King’s followers fine wines were served from pitchers exquisitely decorated and studded with precious gemstones and poured into goblets of silver and gold and crystal. They had brought the most wonderful food with them and they laid a banquet the like that has never been seen before and their minstrels entertained the guests. Even though they worked like beavers they were so pleasant and courteous that that King Herla and the Britons were made to feel wonderfully honored. At the end of the banquet the Dwarf King stood and bowed before King Herla and his wife and said,
‘0 best of kings, the Lord is my witness that, according to our compact, I am present at thy wedding. But if anything that thou cravest besides what thou seest here can be asked of me, I shall willingly supply it; but if not, thou must not put off thy requital of this high honour when I shall ask for it.’ (2)
Abruptly the Dwarf King turned on his heel and left the wedding reception taking his retinue and servants with him. the tents were packed quickly away and all signs of them vanished in a trice.
The wedding of the Dwarf King
King Herla heard or saw nothing of the Dwarf King until one year from his wedding day when once again he appeared riding on his goat with a retinue behind him. Standing before Herla he reminded him of their agreement and asked him if he was willing to fulfill it. Herla agreed and along with a retinue of knights followed the Dwarf King along strange paths through the forest until at last they came to a towering cliff. There Herla and his men followed the Dwarf King into a small cave and along a passage that opened into a huge and marvelous cavern that was lit my many hundreds of lights.
There were many thousands of dwarves gathered there awaiting their arrival for the wedding of the Dwarf King. The Dwarf King was married and King Herla and his knights bore witness to it and celebrated with the dwarves and the contract between the two was fulfilled.
Before he left the Dwarf King gave Herla and his men many presents of hawks, dogs and horses such as were used in the hunt. As they were about to leave the underground world to enter the world above ground he presented the king with a small bloodhound which he told him should be carried before him on the saddle of his horse. He then issued a stern warning telling him that the world he had known had changed and it was not safe for him and his men to leave and begged them to stay.
King Herla, not understanding why the Dwarf King spoke in this way politely refused saying he wanted to return to his wife and kingdom. Shaking his head the Dwarf King then gave him another warning. He told him that no rider’s foot should touch the ground before the bloodhound he had just given Herla jumped to the ground on its own accord from its seat on the saddle. If this was not followed death would strike as soon as the foot of a rider touched the ground. With this warning the Dwarf King turned abruptly and left them.
Returning to the outside world
Herla and his men rode into the sunlight and they deemed they had been in the cavern for no more than three days. On the way back Herla came across an old shepherd tending his flock and stopped to ask him what news he had of the queen. The shepherd looked at him in confusion and said,
‘My lord, I scarce understand thy language, since I am a Saxon and thou a Briton. But I have never heard of the name of that queen, save that men tell of one so called, a queen of the very ancient Britons, and wife of King Herla, who is reported in legends to have disappeared with a pigmy into this cliff and to have been seen nevermore on earth. The Saxons, having driven out the natives, have possessed this kingdom for full two hundred years.’ (3)
Herla and his men had only thought they had spent no more than three days in the cavern and they were greatly surprised to learn this. Some of them, forgot the warning of the Dwarf King and dismounted, but as soon as their feet touched the ground their bodies disintegrated into dust. Remembering the Dwarf King’s warning, Herla immediately forbade his men to dismount until the bloodhound that sat before him should leap to the ground on its own cause.
Now there are those that say the dog has never taken that leap to earth and that Herla and his men are fated to ride their horses across the world without rest, or stopping for all eternity. However, others say their strange ride was was seen by many over many centuries until the first year of the Coronation of King Henry II. Then it was seen around noon by the River Wye near Hereford. According to some accounts an army was raised to challenge them to battle but the host took to the air and vanished into the clouds and has not been seen since. Others say the Wild Hunt still at times can be seen before some disaster such as war, or famine occurs and is seen as a portent of doom. Yet still, other accounts say that the bloodhound jumped to the ground breaking the spell upon the king and his men and they are now at rest.
Now some also say this story is a warning for those that visit the Otherworld that time there passes slower and the outside world changes faster and can never be the same on the return. They also say it is a warning of the danger of dealing with the people of the the Otherworld for they can be capricious and deceptive in their dealings with humans who have never really understood them. They doubt why the Dwarf King would want such a strange compact with King Herla anyway.
Now, what do you think?
© 20/01/2016 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright January 20th, 2016 zteve t evans
- King Herla | Mysterious Britain & Ireland
- Herla – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- (1), (2), (3) King Herla – Mary Jones – Celtic Literature Collective – Map, Walter. Master Walter Map’s book, De nugis curialium (Courtier’s trifles). trans. Frederick Tupper and Marbury Bladen Ogle. London: Chatto & Windus, 1924.
- Wild Huntsman Legends
- Full text of “Walter Map’s de Nugis Curialium:
- Wild Hunt – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia