Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 30

[Pg 41] where his funeral fire shall be kindled, and his burial cairn built.”

The Geats, bitterly grieving, fulfilled Wiglaf’s commands. They gathered wood for the fire, and piled it on the cliff-head; then eight chosen ones brought thither the treasures, and threw the dragon’s body over the cliff into the sea; then a wain, hung with shields, was brought to bear the corpse of Beowulf to Hronesness, where it was solemnly laid on the funeral pile and consumed to ashes.

“There then the Weder Geats wrought for their ruler dead
A cairn on the ocean cliff widespread and lofty,
Visible far and near by vessels’ wandering crews.
They built in ten days’ space the hero’s monument,
And wrought with shining swords the earthen rampart wall,
So that the wisest men worthy might deem it.
Then in that cairn they placed necklets and rings and gems
Which from the dragon’s hoard brave men had taken.
Back to the earth they gave treasures of ancient folk,
Gold to the gloomy mould, where it now lieth
Useless to sons of men as it e’er was of yore.
Then round the mound there rode twelve manly warriors,
Chanting their bitter grief, singing the hero dead,
Mourning their noble king in fitting words of woe!
They praised his courage high and his proud, valiant deeds,
Honoured him worthily, as it is meet for men
Duly to praise in words their friendly lord and king
When his soul wanders forth far from its fleshly home.
So all the Geat chiefs, Beowulf’s bodyguard,
Wept for their leader’s fall: sang in their loud laments
That he of earthly kings mildest to all men was,
Gentlest, most gracious, most keen to win glory.”

[Pg 42]


The Position of Constantine

IT would seem that the Emperor Constantine the Great loomed very large in the eyes of mediæval England. Even in Anglo-Saxon times many legends clustered round his name, so that Cynewulf, the religious poet of early England, wrote the poem of “Elene” mainly on the subject of his conversion. The story of the Vision of the Holy Cross with the inscription In hoc signo vinces was inspiring to a poet to whom the heathen were a living reality, not a distant abstraction; and Constantine’s generosity to the Church of Rome and its bishop Sylvester added another element of attraction to his character in the mediæval mind. It is hardly surprising that other legends of his conversion and generosity should have sprung up, which differ entirely from the earlier and more authentic record. Thus “the moral Gower” has preserved for us an alternative legend of the cause of Constantine’s conversion, which forms a good illustration of the virtue of pity in the “Confessio Amantis.” Whence this later legend sprang we have no knowledge, for nothing in the known history of Constantine warrants our regarding him as a disciple of mercy, but its existence shows that the mediæval mind was busied with his personality. Another most interesting proof of his importance to Britain is given in the following legend of “The Dream of Maxen Wledig,” preserved in the “Mabinogion.” This belongs to the Welsh patriotic legends, and tends to glorify the marriage of the British Princess Helena with the Roman emperor, by representing it as preordained by Fate. The fact that the hero of the Welsh saga is the Emperor Maxentius instead of Constantius [Pg 43] detracts little from the interest of the legend, which is only one instance of the well-known theme of the lover led by dream, or vision, or magic glass to the home and heart of the beloved.

The Emperor Maxen Wledig

The Emperor Maxen Wledig was the most powerful occupant of the throne of the Cæsars who had ever ruled Europe from the City of the Seven Hills. He was the most handsome man in his dominions, tall and strong and skilled in all manly exercises; withal he was gracious and friendly to all his vassals and tributary kings, so that he was universally beloved. One day he announced his wish to go hunting, and was accompanied on his expedition down the Tiber valley by thirty-two vassal kings, with whom he enjoyed the sport heartily. At noon the heat was intense, they were far from Rome, and all were weary. The emperor proposed a halt, and they dismounted to take rest. Maxen lay down to sleep with his head on a shield, and soldiers and attendants stood around making a shelter for him from the sun’s rays by a roof of shields hung on their spears. Thus he fell into a sleep so deep that none dared to awake him. Hours passed by, and still he slumbered, and still his whole retinue waited impatiently for his awakening. At length, when the evening shadows began to lie long and black on the ground, their impatience found vent in little restless movements of hounds chafing in their leashes, of spears clashing, of shields dropping from the weariness of their holders, and horses neighing and prancing; and then Maxen Wledig awoke suddenly with a start. “Ah, why did you arouse me?” he asked sadly. “Lord, your dinner hour is long past—did you not know?” they said. He shook his head mournfully, but said no word, and, mounting his horse, turned it [Pg 44] and rode in unbroken silence back to Rome, with his head sunk on his breast. Behind him rode in dismay his retinue of kings and tributaries, who knew nothing of the cause of his sorrowful mood.

The Emperor’s Malady

From that day the emperor was changed, changed utterly. He rode no more, he hunted no more, he paid no heed to the business of the empire, but remained in seclusion in his own apartments and slept. The court banquets continued without him, music and song he refused to hear, and though in his sleep he smiled and was happy, when he awoke his melancholy could not be cheered or his gloom lightened. When this condition of things had continued for more than a week it was determined that the emperor must be aroused from this dreadful state of apathy, and his groom of the chamber, a noble Roman of very high rank—indeed, a king, under the emperor—resolved to make the endeavour.