Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Page: 115[Pg 201] Red Branch House, talking little and waiting for what would happen, in came Uath, the Stranger, as well and sound as before the terrible blow, bearing his axe, and eager to return the stroke. Alas! Laegaire’s heart had failed him and he did not come, and the stranger jeered at the men of Ulster because their great champion durst not keep his agreement, nor face the blow he should receive in return for one he gave.
The men of Ulster were utterly ashamed, but Conall Cearnach, the Victorious, was present that night, and he made a new agreement with Uath. Conall gave a blow which beheaded Uath, but again, when the stranger returned whole and sound on the following evening, the champion was not to be found: Conall would not face the blow.
Cuchulain Accepts the Challenge
When Uath found that a second hero of Ulster had failed him he again taunted them all with cowardice and promise-breaking.
“What! is there not one man of courage among you Ulstermen? You would fain have a great name, but have no courage to earn it! Great heroes are you all! Not one among you has bravery enough to face me! Where is that childish youth Cuchulain! A poor miserable fellow he is, but I would like to see if his word is better to be relied on than the word of these two great heroes.”
“A youth I may be,” said Cuchulain, “but I will keep my word without any agreement.”
Uath laughed aloud. “Yes! that is likely, is it not? And you with so great a fear of death!”
Thereupon the youth leapt up, caught the deadly axe, and severed the giant’s head as he stood with one stroke.
Cuchulain Stands the Test
The next day the Red Branch heroes watched Cuchulain to see what he would do. They would not have been surprised if he had failed like the others, who now were present. The champion, however, showed no signs of failing or retreat. He sat sorrowfully in his place waiting for the certain death that must come, and regretting his rashness, but with no thought of breaking his word.
With a sigh he said to King Conor as they waited: “Do not leave this place till all is over. Death is coming to me very surely, but I must fulfil my agreement, for I would rather die than break my word.”
Towards the close of day Uath strode into the hall exultant.
“Where is Cuchulain?” he cried.
“Here I am,” was the reply.
“Ah, poor boy! your speech is sad to-night, and the fear of death lies heavy on you; but at least you have redeemed your word and have not failed me.”
The youth rose from his seat and went towards Uath, as he stood with the great axe ready, and knelt to receive the blow.
Curoi’s Decision and Cuchulain’s Victory
The hero of Ulster laid his head on the block; but Uath was not satisfied. “Stretch out your neck better,” said he.
“You are playing with me, to torment me,” said Cuchulain. “Slay me now speedily, for I did not keep you waiting last night.”
However, he stretched out his neck as Uath bade, and the stranger raised his axe till it crashed upwards through the rafters of the hall, like the crash of trees falling in a [Pg 203] storm. When the axe came down with a terrific sound all men looked fearfully at Cuchulain. The descending axe had not even touched him; it had come down with the blunt side on the ground, and the youth knelt there unharmed. Smiling at him, and leaning on his axe, stood no terrible and hideous stranger, but Curoi of Kerry, come to give his decision at last.
“Rise up, Cuchulain,” said Curoi. “There is none among all the heroes of Ulster to equal you in courage and loyalty and truth. The Championship of the Heroes of Ireland is yours from this day forth, and the Champion’s Portion at all feasts; and to your wife I adjudge the first place among all the women of Ulster. Woe to him who dares to dispute this decision!” Thereupon Curoi vanished, and the Red Branch warriors gathered around Cuchulain, and all with one voice acclaimed him the Champion of the Heroes of all Ireland—a title which has clung to him until this day.
CHAPTER X: THE TALE OF GAMELYN
The “Wicked Brothers” Theme
THE tale of “Gamelyn” is a variant of the old fairy-tale subject of the Wicked Elder Brothers, one of the oldest and most interesting versions of which may still be read in the Biblical story of Joseph and his brethren. Usually a father dies leaving three sons, of whom the two elder are worthless and the youngest rises to high honour, whereupon the elder brothers try to kill the youngest from envy at his good fortune. A similar root-idea is found in “Cinderella” and other fairy-tales of girls, but in these there may usually be found a cruel stepmother and two contemptuous stepsisters—a noteworthy variation which seems to point to some deep-rooted idea that the ties of blood are stronger among women than among men.