Thursday 1 June 2017

Willie Millar and the Sleeper in the Cave

In the widespread legend known as 'The King in the Mountain' (Aarne-Thompson 776), an unsuspecting shepherd or lost traveller stumbles upon a cavern in which he (so far as I know it's always a he) discovers a sleeping or incarcerated king, often surrounded with his retinue. The king may be Holger Dansker (Ogier the Dane) as in the illustration above; he may be Arthur, Charlemagne,  Barbarossa or many another; sometimes the sleeper is not a king but another important figure such as Merlin, St John, or Sir Francis Drake. There's often a horn to be blown or a drum to be struck, which will call the sleeper to wake and ride out to battle - but it's not very wise to disturb him before his time.

Here is a wonderfully Gothic version from Scotland set down by Hugh Miller (1802-1856). Miller was a native of Cromarty on the east coast of the Highlands. Born to a humble family he took up his trade as a stonemason, but became in later years a well-known and highly respected geologist, lecturer, writer and folklorist. Cromarty’s Dropping (or Dripping) Cave in which the tale is set, is a sea-cave, said also to be the haunt of a mermaid. I like the touch of scepticism with which Miller incorporates the sly suggestion that the hero’s visions may have been assisted by, well, gin.

I've slightly abridged the tale. And in a later version which Miller published in Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, February 17th 1838, the hero is named Archie, not Willie.

Willie Millar and the Sleeper in the Cave
(from ‘Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland’ by Hugh Miller, 1834)

There was a Cromarty mechanic of the last age, named Willie Millar, who used to relate a wonderful adventure which befell him in the Dropping Cave of Cromarty. Willie was a man of fertile invention, fond of a good story and zealous in the improvement of bad ones … Hearing of a tradition that the cave extended over three miles from the entrance,  Willie resolved on testing the story for himself.

He sewed sprigs of rowan and wych-elm in the hem of his waistcoat, thrust a Bible into one pocket and a bottle of gin into the other, and providing himself with a torch, and a staff of buckthorn which had been cut at the full of the moon, he set out for the cave on a morning of midsummer. It was evening ere he returned – his torch burnt out, and his clothes stained with mould and slime, and soaked with water.

After lighting the torch, he said, and taking a firm grip of the staff, he plunged fearlessly into the gloom. The cavern lowered and narrowed as he proceeded; the floor of white marble-like stone was hollowed into cisterns filled with water so pure it sparkled in the light like spirits in crystal; from the roof depended clusters of richly embossed icicles of white stone. The springs from above trickled down their channeled sides and then tinkled into the cisterns, like rain from the eaves of a cottage after a thunder-shower. Perhaps he was too busy looking around at all this, for at the ninth and final cistern he missed his footing, and falling forwards shattered his bottle of gin. The liquor ran into a little hollow in the marble, and unwilling to lose it, he stooped down and drank till his breath failed him, and pausing to recover himself, stooped and drank again. 

There were strange appearances when he arose. A circular rainbow had formed around his torch; there was a blue mist gathering in the hollows of the cave, the roof and sides began to heave and reel, and a low humming  sound came from the interior, like that of bees in a hawthorn thicket on a midsummer evening. Willie, however, had become much less timorous than at first… And so on he went. 

The cavern widened and the roof rose. The sound of his footsteps was echoed on either hnd by a multitude of openings, in which the momentary gleam of his torch was reflected, as he passed, on sheets of water and ribs of rock, and which led – like so many arched corridors – into the bowels of the hill. Not that all of the sounds were echoes. Besides the continuous humming noise, he could hear sounds like the wind moaning in the trees above, the scream of the hawk as if pouncing on its prey; the deafening blast of a smith’s bellows and the clang of hammers. A breeze came moaning along the cave and shook the marble drapery of the sides, as if it were formed of gauze or linen; the entire cave seemed turning around till the floor stood upright and the adventurer fell heavily against it; as his torch hissed and sputtered in the water he could see by its expiring gleam that a full score of dark figures, as undefined as shadows by moonlight, were flitting around him in the blue mist which now came rolling in dense clouds from the interior. In a moment more, all was darkness and he lay insensible amid the chill damps of the cave.

On returning to consciousness  he found the gloom around him had given place to a dim red twilight which flickered along the sides and roof like the reflection of a distant fire. ‘It is sunlight,’ thought he, ‘I shall find an opening among the rocks of Esthie and return home over the hill.’ Instead, however, he found the passage terminate in a wonderful space so vast that though an immense fire of pine-trees, whole and unbroken from root to branch, threw up a red wavering sheet of flame many yards in height, he could see in some places neither the walls nor the roof. A cataract descended in thunder from one of the sides, presenting its broad undulating front of foam to the red gleam of the fire, and again escaped into darkness though a wide broken-edged gulf at the bottom. The floor of the cave appeared to be thickly strewn with human bones, half-burned, blood-stained, and gnawed as if by cannibals; and directly in front of the fire there was a low tomb-like structure of dark stone, full twenty yards in length, roughened with grotesque hieroglyphs like those of a Runic obelisk. An enormous mace of iron, crusted with rust and blood, lay against the upper end; while a bugle of gold hung by a chain of the same metal from a column at the bottom. 

Willie seized the bugle and winded a blast till the wide apartment shook with the din; the waters of the cataract disappeared, as if arrested at their source, and the ponderous cover of the tomb began to heave and crackle and pass slowly over the edge, as if assailed by the strength of some newly-awakened giant below. Willie again winded the bugle; the cover heaved upwards, disclosing a corner of the chasm beneath; and a hand covered with blood and of such fearful magnitude as to resemble only the conceptions of Egyptian sculpture, was slowly stretched from the darkness towards the handle of the mace. Willie’s resolution gave way, and flinging down the horn he rushed toward the passage. A yell of blended grief and anger burst from the tomb, as the immense cover again settled over it; the cataract came dashing from its precipice with a heavier volume than before; and a furious hurricane of wind and spray rushed howling from the interior, well-nigh dashing the adventurer against the sides of the rock. He succeeded however in gaining the passage; a state of imperfect consciousness followed, like that of a feverish dream; on fully gaining his recollection he found himself lying across the ninth cistern, with the fragments of the broken bottle on the one side, and his buckthorn staff on the other.

Picture credits:

Holger Danske, also known as Ogier the Dane, was a legendary Danish warrior and knight in Charlemagnes army. The statue is made by Hans Peder Pedersen-Dan (1859-1939) 1907, and is found in the cellar (kasematterne) of Kronborg Castle, Denmark. Here he sleeps until Denmark is in danger and needs his help. My thanks to Malene Thyssen who has kindly permitted me to use this image.

The Sleeping King, by Eric Fraser, illustration from English Legends by Henry Bett, 1950

1 comment:

  1. I especially like the blue mist - so like the blue light in Fundindelve in The Wirdstone of Brisingamen.