Legends of secret caverns containing sleeping warriors are very common. Similar legends exist throughout Britain. In another version of this story, the guide turns out to be Merlin and the sleeping warriors are Arthur and his men.
This is the most northerly of many sites in Britain claiming to hold Arthur and his warriors. An imposing crag near Glyn-Neath in Mid Glamorgan also claims to be the rock beneath which Arthur sleeps. Other sites include Cadbury Castle near Yeovil in Somerset, Alderly Edge in Cheshire, Blencathra Mountain (The Saddleback), Threkheld in Cumbria and Sewingshields in Northumberland.
However, it is not just Thomas the Rhymer or Arthur and his warriors that sleep in the hills. In Ireland, Finn MacCool, the legendary warrior-leader of the Fianna, a band of Irish warriors, is sleeping in a cave ready to awaken and defend Ireland in her hour of need, as is Gearoid Iarla Fitzgerald, a medieval Irish Lord. He was known for his wisdom and poetry and disappeared in 1398. He is believed to be sleeping in a hill cave near Loch Gur, County Limerick. When he rises from his sleep, he will ride a silver shod horse and rule again over the plains of Desmond.
Such sleeping warriors also exist in other countries besides Britain and Ireland. In the Czech Republic, according to an old legend, Blanik Hill is home to legions of slumbering knights, who will arise only when the Czech nation faces mortal peril. This is the sleeping army of St Wenceslas, who will one day return with a magic sword (Bruncvik's sword) and summon forth his warriors. There are also similar tales in France and across the Arab world.
In each case the warriors are usually sleeping until it is time for them to awake and defend the country, in its hour of greatest need, or until a person of suitable courage comes to lead or awaken them.
The Gothic-like caverns usually have an enormous hall. There are many knights (and often their horses as well). All are stock-still in enchanted sleep. The main part of the chamber is filled with a stone table or tables. Sometimes the knights are sitting in the chairs, or sometimes they are with their horses, waiting for the day they will be summoned into action.
How did the myths arise?
Because of the number of similar tales from places as far apart as Britain, the Czech Republic and even the Arab world, some experts believe that all of these slumbering warriors were originally members of armies of holy crusaders, who travelled to Palestine and did not return. When they failed to return, tales arose of them being bewitched or sleeping.
However this would not explain the tales involving Arthur or Thomas the Rhymer. It is more likely that the stories came about when ideas from old myths and legends became attached to certain heroes and the men who fought with them.
The idea of an enchanted sleep is very old, and can be found in many, very early myths and legends. It appears in Norse and Teutonic legends as well as the Celtic tales. In Irish Mythology, for example, there are the 'Three Noble Strains'. The first strain is that of weeping, the second strain is of merriment, and the third strain is of sleep. In one story, the god Dagda plays this strain after retrieving his harp from opposing warriors, whereupon the warriors fall into a profound slumber.
The sleeping warriors, in our tales, are often headed by semi-legendary characters or were thought to have magical or extraordinary powers; some were even supposed to be descended from the gods. They were the heroes of past generations, larger than life, and became figures of hope, especially in the dark ages, during the struggles to ward off threats and invasions. It must have been hard for the people to believe that such a hero could die like an ordinary man. Hence the legends offer an alternative explanation for their demise.
In times of uncertainty, people often need a figure head, real or legendary, to look to. These legends offered an answer, in that they said that the hero had not died or left the people, but was still available to help if a great crisis arose. This must have been comforting to the people at the time.
Why the test or trial?
Entrance to Merlin's Cave
In the stories, usually a test is conferred on the person who is shown into the cavern, which the person fails. In our story the horse-dealer is told his actions had not been those of a warrior, but those of a man summoning help.
The people in the stories could not be successful, otherwise they would have become the leader of a very powerful army, or the knights would have already arisen which, of course, they have not. Therefore, for the Legend to be believable, they have to fail in their quest.
In another Welsh story, instead of a sword and horn, the person visiting the cavern must pass down a corridor without striking a bell. If he strikes the bell by accident, the knights will awaken. If they do, they will ask, "Is it time?" and he must say, "No, sleep on". Of course, he forgets the words on his second visit and he is badly beaten and thrown from the cavern, whereupon the portal closes, never to be seen again. So the failure also provides a reason why the entrance closes and can no longer be found.
How did the myth become associated with the Eildon Hills?
Eildon Hills at Sunset
The Eildon Hills are three conical hills, of volcanic origin, lying just behind Melrose. They have long been associated with myths and magic.
In 1175-1234, Michael Scott, acting as an agent of the Devil, supposedly split Eildon Hill, then a single cone, into the three existing peaks. The site of the entrance to the underground cavern, the Lucken Hare, was associated with witches and the hills were also the site where Thomas the Rhymer was meant to have been taken, by the Queen of the fairies to dwell in her kingdom. On the west side of the hills is Bogle Burn, a stream that feeds the Tweed and probably derives its name from a ghostly visitor.
The hills then, already steeped in folk lore, were seen as mysterious and just the sort of place where legends, like those of the sleeping warriors, arise.