A Book of Myths

Page: 128

“I thank God eternal, the great King of Glory,
For the vast treasures which I here gaze upon,
That I ere my death-day might for my people
Win so great wealth— Since I have given my life,
Thou must now look to the needs of the nation;
Here dwell I no longer, for Destiny calleth me!
Bid thou my warriors after my funeral pyre
Build me a burial-cairn high on the sea-cliffs head;
It shall for memory tower up to Hronesness,
So that the sea-farers Beowulf’s Barrow
Henceforth shall name it, they who drive far and wide
Over the mighty flood their foaming Reels.
Thou art the last of all the kindred of Wagmund!
Wyrd[10] has swept all my kin, all the brave chiefs away!
Now must I follow them!”

[Pg 265] Such was the passing of Beowulf, greatest of Northern heroes, and under a mighty barrow on a cliff very high above the sea, they buried him, and with him a great fortune from the treasure he had won. Then with heavy hearts, “round about the mound rode his hearth-sharers, who sang that he was of kings, of men, the mildest, kindest, to his people sweetest, and the readiest in search of praise”:

“Gentlest, most gracious, most keen to win glory.”

And if, in time, the great deeds of a mighty king of the Goths have become more like fairy tale than solid history, this at least we know, that whether it is in Saeland or on the Yorkshire coast—where

“High on the sea-cliff ledges
The white gulls are trooping and crying”

—the barrow of Beowulf covers a very valiant hero, a very perfect gentleman.


[9] Shakespeare (Julius Cæsar).

[10] Goddess of Fate.

[Pg 266]


“Roland, the flower of chivalry,
Expired at Roncevall.”

Thomas Campbell.

“Hero-worship endures for ever while man endures.”


“Roland, the gode knight.”

Turpin’s History of Charlemagne.

The old chroniclers tell us that on that momentous morning when William the Conqueror led his army to victory at Hastings, a Norman knight named Taillefer (and a figure of iron surely was his) spurred his horse to the front. In face of the enemy who hated all things that had to do with France, he lifted up his voice and chanted aloud the exploits of Charlemagne and of Roland. As he sang, he threw his sword in the air and always caught it in his right hand as it fell, and, proudly, the whole army, moving at once, joined with him in the Chanson de Roland, and shouted, as chorus, “God be our help! God be our help!”

“Taillefer ... chantoit de Rollant
Et d’Olivier, et de Vassaux
Qui mourent en Rainschevaux.”

Wace, Roman de Rose.

Fifteen thousand of those who sang fell on that bloody day, and one wonders how many of those who went down to the Shades owed half their desperate courage to the remembrance of the magnificent deeds [Pg 267] of the hero of whom they sang, ere ever sword met sword, or spear met the sullen impact of the stark frame of a Briton born, fighting for his own.