The basic motif is that in a cave in a remote, high mountaintop, a legendary hero dwells sleeping, along with a body of his armed retainers. The hero is usually a historical figure of some military consequence in the history of the nation where the mountain is located. The presence of the hero is unsuspected, until some herdsman wanders into the cave, typically looking for a lost animal, and sees the hero. The stories almost always mention the detail that the hero has grown a long beard, indicative of the long time he has slept beneath the mountain.
Often the hero speaks with the herdsman. Their conversation typically involves the hero asking, "Do the eagles (or ravens) still circle the mountaintop?"
The herdsman, or a mysterious voice, replies, "Yes, they still circle the mountaintop."
"Then begone! My time has not yet come."
The herdsman is usually supernaturally harmed by the experience: he ages rapidly, he emerges with his hair turned white, and often he dies after repeating the tale. The story goes on to say that the king in the mountain sleeps in the mountain, awaiting a summons to arise with his knights and defend the nation in a time of deadly peril; and the omen that presages his rising will be the extinction of the birds that trigger his awakening.
The motif is interesting in that it combines the idea of a supernatural national defender with the concept of conservation. A number of kingss, rulers, and fictional characters have become attached to this story. They include: