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Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 44

They filled the great vessel of silver with pure water


[Pg 73]

CHAPTER V: HAVELOK THE DANE

The Origin of the Story

THE Danish occupation of England has left a very strong mark on our country in various ways—on its place-names, its racial characteristics, its language, its literature, and, in part, on its ideals. The legend of Havelok the Dane, with its popularity and widespread influence, is one result of Danish supremacy. It is thought that the origin of the legend, which contains a twofold version of the common story of the cruel guardian and the persecuted heir, is to be found in Wales; but, however that may be, it is certain that in the continual rise and fall of small tribal kingdoms, Celtic or Teutonic, English or Danish, the circumstances out of which the story grew must have been common enough. Kings who died leaving helpless heirs to the guardianship of ambitious and wicked nobles were not rare in the early days of Britain, Wales, or Denmark; the murder of the heir and the usurpation of the kingdom by the cruel regent were no unusual occurrences. The opportunity of localising the early legend seems to have come with the growing fame of Anlaf, or Olaf, Sihtricson, who was known to the Welsh as Abloec or Habloc. His adventurous life included a threefold expulsion from his inheritance of Northumbria, a marriage with the daughter of King Constantine III. of Scotland, and a family kinship with King Athelstan of England. In Anlaf Curan (as he was called) we have an historical hero on whom various romantic stories were gradually fathered, because of his adventurous life and his strong personality. These stories finally crystallized in a form which shows the English and Danish love of physical prowess (Havelok is the strongest man in the [Pg 74] kingdom), as well as a certain cruelty of revenge which is more peculiarly Danish. There is resentment of the Norman predominance to be found in the popularity of a story which shows the kitchen-boy excelling all the nobles in manly exercises, and the heiress to the kingdom wedded in scorn, as so many Saxon heiresses were after the Conquest, to a mere scullion. There can be no doubt, however, that Havelok stood to mediæval England as a hero of the strong arm, a champion of the populace against the ruling race, and that his royal birth and dignity were a concession to historic facts and probabilities, not much regarded by the common people. The story, again, showed another truly humble hero, Grim the fisher, whose loyalty was supposed to account for the special trading privileges of his town, Grimsby. In Grim the story found a character who was in reality a hero of the poor and lowly, with the characteristic devotion of the tribesman to his chief, of the vassal to his lord, a devotion which was handed on from father to son, so that a second generation continued the services, and received the rewards, of the father who risked life and all for the sake of his king’s heir.


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