THE writer who would tell again for people of the twentieth century the legends and stories that delighted the folk of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries finds himself confronted with a vast mass of material ready to his hand. Unless he exercises a wise discrimination and has some system of selection, he becomes lost in the mazes of as enchanted a land,
as ever bewildered knights of old in days of romance. Down all the dimly lighted pathways of mediæval literature mystical figures beckon him in every direction; fairies, goblins, witches, knights and ladies and giants entice him, and unless, like Theseus of old, he follows closely his guiding clue, he will find that he reaches no goal, attains to no clear vision, achieves no quest. He will remain spell-bound, captivated by the Middle Ages--
[paragraph continues] Such a golden clue to guide the modern seeker through the labyrinths of the mediæval mind is that which I have tried to suggest in the title "Hero Myths and Legends of the British Race"--the pursuit and representation of the ideal hero as the mind of Britain and of early and mediæval England imagined him, together with
the study of the characteristics which made this or that particular person, mythical or legendary, a hero to the century which sang or wrote about him. The interest goes deeper when we study, not merely
[paragraph continues] "Hero-worship endures for ever while man endures," wrote Thomas Carlyle, and this fidelity of men to their admiration for great heroes is one of the surest tokens by which we can judge of their own character. Such as the hero is, such will his worshippers be; and the men who idolised Robin Hood will be found to have been men who were themselves in revolt against oppressive law, or who, finding law powerless to prevent tyranny, glorified the lawless punishment of wrongs and the bold denunciation of perverted justice. The warriors who listened to the saga of Beowulf looked on physical prowess as the best of all heroic qualities, and the Normans who admired Roland saw in him the ideal of feudal loyalty. To every age, and to every nation, there is a peculiar ideal of heroism, and in the popular legends of each age this ideal may be found.
Again, these legends give not only the hero as he seemed to his age; they also show the social life, the virtues and vices, the superstitions and beliefs, of earlier ages embedded in the tradition, as fossils are found in the uplifted strata of some ancient ocean-bed. They have ceased to live; but they remain, tokens of a life long past. So in the hero-legends of our nation we
may find traces of the thoughts and religions of our ancestors many centuries ago; traces which lie close to one another in these romances, telling of the nations who came to these Islands of the West, settled, were conquered and driven away to make room for other races whose supremacy has been as brief, till all these superimposed races have blended into one, to form the British nation, the most widespread race of modern times. For
are not the boast of the English race alone. No man in England now can boast of unmixed descent, but must perforce trace his family back through many a marriage of Frank, and Norman, and Saxon, and Dane, and Roman, and Celt, and even Iberian, back to prehistoric man
[paragraph continues] When Tennyson sang his greeting at the coming of Alexandra,
he was only recognising a truth which no boast of pure birth can cover--the truth that the modern Englishman is a compound of many races, with many characteristics; and if we would understand him, we must seek the clue to the riddle in early England and Scotland and Ireland and Wales, while even France adds her
share of enlightenment towards the solution of the riddle.
Britain, as far as we can trace men in our island, was first inhabited by cavemen, who have left no history at all. In the course of ages they passed away before the Iberians or Ivernians, who came from the east, and bore a striking resemblance to the Basques. It may be that some Mongolian tribe, wandering west, drawn by the instinct which has driven most race-migrations westward, sent offshoots north and south--one to brave the dangers of the sea and inhabit Britain and Ireland, one to cross the Pyrenees and remain sheltered in their deep ravines; or it may be that Basques from the Pyrenees, daring the storms of the Bay of Biscay in their frail coracles, ventured to the shores of Britain. Short and dark were these sturdy voyagers, harsh-featured and long-headed, worshipping the powers of Nature with mysterious and cruel rites of human sacrifice, holding beliefs in totems and ancestor-worship and in the superiority of high descent claimed through the mother to that claimed through the father. When the stronger and more civilised Celt came he drove before him these little dark men, he enslaved their survivors or wedded their women, and in his turn fell into slavery to the cruel Druidic religion of his subjects. To these Iberians, and to the Celtic dread of them, we probably owe all the stories of dwarfs, goblins, elves, and earth-gnomes which fill our fairy-tale books; and if we examine carefully the descriptions of the abodes of these beings we shall find them not inconsistent with the earth-dwellings, caves, circle huts, or even with the burial mounds, of the Iberian race.
The race that followed the Iberians, and drove them out or subdued them, so that they served as slaves where they had once ruled as lords, was the proud Aryan Celtic race. Of different tribes, Gaels, Brythons, and Belgæ, they were all one in spirit, and one in physical feature.
Tall, blue-eyed, with fair or red hair, they overpowered in every way the diminutive Iberians, and their tattooing, while it gave them a name which has often been mistaken for a national designation (Picts, or painted men), made them dreadful to their enemies in battle, and ferocious-looking even in time of peace. Their civilisation was of a much higher type than that of the Iberians; their weapons, their war-chariots, their mode of life and their treatment of women, are all so closely similar to that of the Greeks of Homer that a theory has been advanced and ably defended, that the Homeric Greeks were really invading Celts--Gaelic or Gaulish tribes from the north of Europe. If it indeed be so, we owe to the Celts a debt of imperishable culture and civilisation. To them belongs more especially, in our national amalgam, the passion for the past, the ardent patriotism, the longing for spiritual beauty, which raises and relieves the Saxon materialism.
"In Northern Spain and Italy our brethren also dwell,
And brave are the traditions of their fathers that they tell;
The Eagle or the Crescent in the dawn of history pales
Before the advancing banners of the great Rome-conquering Gaels:
One in name and in fame
Are the sea-divided Gaels." 1
[paragraph continues] It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of the Celtic contribution to our national literature and character: the race that gave us Ossian, and Finn, and Cuchulain, that sang of the sorrowful love and doom of Deirdre, that told of the pursuit of Diarmit and Grania, till every dolmen and cromlech in Ireland was associated with these lovers; the race that preserved for us
the King Arthur whose Arthur's Seat overhangs Edinburgh, whose presence haunts the Lakes, and Wales, and Cornwall, and the forests of Brittany; the race that held up for us the image of the Holy Grail--that race can claim no small share in the moulding of the modern Briton.
The Celt, however, had his day of supremacy and passed: the Roman crushed his power of initiative and made him helpless and dependent, and the Teuton, whether as Saxon, Angle, Frisian, or Jute, dwelt in his homes and ruled as slaves the former owners of the land. These new-comers were not physically unlike the Celts whom they dispossessed. Tall and fair, grey-eyed and sinewy, the Teuton was a hardier, more sturdy warrior than the Celt: he had not spent centuries of quiet settlement and imitative civilisation under the ægis of Imperial Rome: he had not learnt to love the arts of peace and he cultivated none but those of war; he was by choice a warrior and a sailor, a wanderer to other lands, a plougher of the desolate places of the "vasty deep," yet withal a lover of home, who trod at times, with bitter longing for his native land, the thorny paths of exile. To him physical cowardice was
the unforgivable sin, next to treachery to his lord; for the loyalty of thane to his chieftain was a very deep and abiding reality to the Anglo-Saxon warrior, and in the early poems of our English race, love for "his dear lord, his chieftain-friend," takes the place of that love of woman which other races felt and expressed. A quiet death-bed was the worst end to a man's life, in the Anglo-Saxon's creed; it was "a cow's death," to be shunned by every means in a man's power; while a death in fight, victor or vanquished, was a worthy finish to a warrior's life. There was no fear of death itself in the English hero's mind, nor of Fate; the former was the inevitable,
and the latter a goddess whose decrees must needs be obeyed with proud submission, but not with meek acceptance. Perhaps there was little of spiritual insight in the minds of these Angles and Saxons, little love of beauty, little care for the amenities of life; but they had a sturdy loyalty, an uprightness, a brave disregard of death in the cause of duty, which we can still recognise in modern Englishmen. To the Saxon belong the tales where
When the English (Anglo-Saxons, as we generally call them) had settled down in England, had united their warring tribes, and developed a somewhat centralised
government, their whole national existence was imperilled by the incursions of the Danes. Kindred folk to the Anglo-Saxons were these Danes, these Vikings from Christiania Wik, these Northmen from Norway or Iceland, whose fame went before them, and the dread of whom inspired the petition in the old Litany of the Church, "From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord, deliver us!" Their fair hair and blue or grey eyes, their tall and muscular frames, bore testimony to their kinship with the races they harried and plundered, but their spirit was different from that of the conquered Teutonic tribes. The Viking loved the sea; it was his summer home, his field of war and profit. To go "a-summer-harrying" was the usual employment of the true Viking, and in the winter only could he enjoy domestic life and the pleasures of the family circle. The rapturous fight with the elements, in which the Northman lived and moved and had his being, gave him a strain of ruthless cruelty unlike anything in the more peaceful Anglo-Saxon character: his disregard of death for himself led to a certain callousness with regard to human life, and to a certain enjoyment in inflicting physical anguish. There was an element of Red Indian ruthlessness in the Viking, which looms large in the story of the years of Norse ascendancy over Western Europe. Yet there was also a power of bold and daring action, of reckless valour, of rapid conception and execution, which contrasted strongly with the slower and more placid temperament of the Anglo-Saxon, and to this Danish strain modern Englishmen probably owe the power of initiative, the love of adventure, and the daring action which have made England the greatest colonising nation on the earth. The Danish, Norse, or Viking element spread far and wide in mediaeval Europe--Iceland, Normandy (Northman's
[paragraph continues] Land), the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, the east of Ireland, the Danelagh of East Anglia, and the Cumberland dales all show traces of the conquering Danish race; and raider after raider came to England and stayed, until half of our island was Danish, and even our royal family became for a time one with the royal line of Denmark. The acceptance of Christianity by the Danes in England when Guthrum was baptized rendered much more easy their amalgamation with the English; but it was not so in Ireland, where the Round Towers still stand to show (as some authorities hold) how the terrified native Irish sheltered from the Danish fury which nearly destroyed the whole fabric of Irish Christianity. The legends of Ireland, too, are full of the terror of the men of "Lochlann," which is generally taken to mean Norway; and the great coast cities of Ireland--Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, and others--were so entirely Danish that only the decisive battle of Clontarf, in which the saintly and victorious Brian Boru was slain, saved Ireland to Christendom and curbed the power of the heathen invaders.
A second wave of Norse invasion swept over England at the Norman Conquest, and for a time submerged the native English population. The chivalrous Norman knights who followed William of Normandy's sacred banner, whether from religious zeal or desire of plunder, were as truly Vikings by race as were the Danes who settled in the Danelagh. The days when Rolf (Rollo, or Rou), the Viking chief, won Normandy were not yet so long gone by that the fierce piratical instincts of his followers had ceased to influence their descendants: piety and learning, feudal law and custom, had made some impression upon the character of the Norman, but at heart he was still a Northman. The Norman barons fought for their independence against Duke William
with all the determination of those Norse chiefs who would not acknowledge the overlordship of Harold Fairhair, but fled to colonise Iceland when he made himself King of Norway. The seafaring instincts which drove the Vikings to harry other lands in like manner drove the Normans to piratical plundering up and down the English Channel, and, when they had settled in England, led to continual sea-fights in the Channel between English and French, hardy Kentish and Norman, or Cornish and Breton, sailors, with a common strain of fighting blood, and a common love of the sea.
The Norman Conquest of England was but one instance of Norman activity: Sicily, Italy, Constantinople, even Antioch, and the Holy Land itself, showed in time Norman states, Norman laws, Norman civilisation, and all alike felt the impulse of Norman energy and inspiration. England lay ready to hand for Norman invasion--the hope of peaceable succession to the saintly Edward the Confessor had to be abandoned by William; the gradual permeation of sluggish England with Norman earls, churchmen, courtiers, had been comprehended and checked by Earl Godwin and his sons (themselves of Danish race); but there still remained the way or open war and an appeal to religious zeal; and this way William took. There was genius as well as statesman-ship in the idea of combining a personal claim to the throne held by Harold the usurper with a crusading summons against the schismatic and heretical English, who refused obedience to the true successor of St. Peter. The success of the idea was its justification: the success of the expedition proved the need that England had of some new leaven to energise the sluggish temperament of her sons. The Norman Conquest not only revived and quickened, but unified and solidified the English nation. The tyranny of the Norman nobles,
held in check at first only by the tyranny of the Norman king, was the factor in mediæval English life that made for a national consciousness; it also helped the appreciation of the heroism of revolt against tyranny which is seen in Hereward the Wake, in Robin Hood, in William of Cloudeslee, and in many other English hero-rebels; but it gradually led men to, a realization of their own rights as Englishmen. When all men alike felt themselves sons of England, the days were past when Norman and Saxon were aliens to each other, and Norman robber soon became as truly English as Danish viking, Anglo-Saxon seafarer, or Celtic settler. Then the full value of the Norman infusion was seen in quicker intellectual apprehension, nimbler wit, a keener sense of reverence, a more spiritual piety, a more refined courtesy, and a more enlightened perception of the value of law. The materialism of the original Saxon race was successively modified by many influences, and not least of these was the Norman Conquest.
From the Norman Conquest onward England has welcomed men of many nations--French, Flemings, Germans, Dutch: men brought by war, by trade, by love of adventure, by religion; traders, refugees, exiles, all have found in her a hospitable shelter and a second home, and all have come to love the "grey old mother" that counted them among her sons and grew to think them her own in very truth.
Geographically, also, we must recognise the admixture of races in our islands. The farthest western borders show most strongly the type of man whom we can imagine the Iberian to have been: Western Ireland, the Hebrides, Central and South Wales, and Cornwall are still inhabited by folk of Iberian descent. The blue-eyed Celt yet dwells in the Highlands and the greater part of Wales and the Marches--Hereford and Shropshire,
and as far as Worcestershire and Cheshire; still the Dales of Cumberland, the Fen Country, East Anglia, and the Isle of Man show traces of Danish blood, speech, manners, and customs; still the slow, stolid Saxon inhabits the lands south of the Thames from Sussex to Hampshire and Dorset. The Angle has settled permanently over the Lowlands of Scotland, with the Celt along the western fringe, and Flemish blood shows its traces in Pembroke on the one side ("Little England beyond Wales") and in Norfolk on the other.
With all these nations, all these natures, amalgamated in our own, it is no wonder that the literature of our isles contains many different ideals of heroism, changing according to nationality and epoch. Thus the physical valour of Beowulf is not the same quality as the valour of Havelok the Dane, though both are heroes of the strong arm; and the chivalry of Diarmit is not the same as the chivalry of Roland. Again, religion has its share in changing the ideals of a nation, and Constantine, the warrior of the Early English poem of "Elene," is far from being the same in character as the tender-hearted Constantine of "moral Gower's" apocryphal tale. The law-abiding nature of the earliest heroes, whose obedience to their king and their priest was absolute, differs almost entirely from the lawlessness of Gamelyn and Robin Hood, both of whom set church and king at defiance, and even account it a merit to revolt from the rule of both. It follows from this that we shall find our chosen heroes of very different types and characters; but we shall recognise that each represented to his own age an ideal of heroism, which that age loved sufficiently to put into literature, and perpetuate by the best means in its power. Of many another hero besides Arthur--of Barbarossa, of Hiawatha, even of Napoleon--has the tradition grown that
he is not dead, but has passed away into the deathless land, whence he shall come again in his own time. As Tennyson has sung,
xiv:1 Gerald Massey.
xiv:2 J. R. Denning.
xv:1 W. W. Campbell.
xvi:1 C. Roberts.
xvii:1 T. Darcy McGee.
xix:1 Shakespeare, Julius Cæar.