Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

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[Pg 93] now fight for his life and the usurped dominion he held over England. Godrich summoned his army to Lincoln for the defence of the realm against the Danes, and called out every man fit to bear weapons, on pain of becoming thrall if they failed him. Then he thus addressed them:

“Friends, listen to my words, and you will know
’Tis not for sport, nor idle show, that I
Have bidden you to meet at Lincoln here.
Lo! here at Grimsby foreigners are come
Who have already won the Priory.
These Danes are cruel heathen, who destroy
Our churches and our abbeys: priests and nuns
They torture to the death, or lead away
To serve as slaves the haughty Danish jarls.
Now, Englishmen, what counsel will ye take?
If we submit, they will rule all our land,
Will kill us all, and sell our babes for thralls,
Will take our wives and daughters for their own.
Help me, if ever ye loved English land,
To fight these heathen and to cleanse our soil
From hateful presence of these alien hordes.
I make my vow to God and all the saints
I will not rest, nor houseled be, nor shriven,
Until our realm be free from Danish foe!
Accursed be he who strikes no blow for home!”

The army was inspired with valour by these courageous words, and the march to Grimsby began at once, with Earl Godrich in command. Havelok’s men marched out gallantly to meet them, and when the battle joined many mighty deeds of valour were done, especially by the king himself, his foster-brothers, and Jarl Ubbe. The battle lasted long and was very fierce and bloody, but the Danes gradually overcame the resistance of the English, and at last, after a great hand-to-hand conflict, King Havelok captured Godrich. The traitor earl, who had lost a hand in the fray, was sent [Pg 94] bound and fettered to Queen Goldborough, who kept him, carefully guarded, until he could be tried by his peers, since (for all his treason) he was still a knight.

When the English recognised their rightful lady and queen they did homage with great joy, begging mercy for having resisted their lawful ruler at the command of a wicked traitor; and the king and queen pardoned all but Godrich, who was speedily brought to trial at Lincoln. He was sentenced to be burnt at the stake, and the sentence was carried out amid general rejoicings.

Now that vengeance was satisfied, Havelok and his wife thought of recompensing the loyal helpers who had believed in them and supported them through the long years of adversity. Havelok married one of Grim’s daughters to the Earl of Chester, and the other to Bertram, the good cook, who became Earl of Cornwall in the place of the felon Godrich and his disinherited children; the heroic Ubbe was made Regent of Denmark for Havelok, who decided to stay and rule England, and all the noble Danish warriors were rewarded with gifts of gold, and lands and castles. After a great coronation feast, which lasted for forty days, King Havelok dismissed the Danish regent and his followers, and after sad farewells they returned to their own country. Havelok and Goldborough ruled England in peace and security for sixty years, and lived together in all bliss, and had fifteen children, who all became mighty kings and queens.

[Pg 95]



IN every society and in all periods the obligations of family affection and duty to kinsmen have been recognised as paramount. In the early European communities a man’s first duty was to stand by his kinsman in strife and to avenge him in death, however unrighteous the kinsman’s quarrel might be.

How pitiful is the aged Priam’s lament that he must needs kiss the hands that slew his dear son Hector, and, kneeling, clasp the knees of his son’s murderer! How sad is Cuchulain’s plaint that his son Connla must go down to the grave unavenged, since his own father slew him, all unwitting! One remembers, too, Beowulf’s words: “Better it is for every man that he avenge his friend than that he mourn him much!” Since, then, family affection, the laws of honour and duty, and every recognised standard of life demanded that a kinsman should obtain a full wergild (or money payment) for his relative’s death, unless he chose to take up the blood-feud against the murderer’s family, we can hardly wonder that some of the heroes of early European literature are heroes of vengeance. Orestes and Electra are Greek embodiments of the idea of the sacredness of vengeance for murdered kinsfolk, and similar feelings are revealed in Gudrun’s revenge for the murder of Siegfried in the “Nibelungenlied.” To the Teutonic or Celtic warrior there would be heroism of a noble type in a just vengeance fully accomplished, and this heroism would be more easily recognised when the wrongdoer was rich and powerful, the avenger old, poor, and friendless. While admitting that the hero of vengeance belongs to and represents only one side of the civilisation of a somewhat barbaric community, we [Pg 96] must allow that the elements of dogged perseverance, dauntless courage, and resolute loyalty in some degree redeemed the ferocity and cruelty of the blood-feud he waged against the ill-doer.

It is certain that in the popular Icelandic saga of “Howard the Halt” tradition has recorded with minute detail of approbation the story of a man and woman, old, weak, friendless, who, in spite of terrible odds, succeeded in obtaining a late but sufficing vengeance for the cruel slaughter of their only son, the murderer being the most powerful man of the region. The part here assigned to the woman indicates the firm hold which the blood-feud had gained on the imagination of the Norsemen.

Icelandic Ghosts

The story possesses a further interest as revealing the unique character of the Icelandic ghost or phantom. In other literatures the spirit returned from the dead is a thin, immaterial, disembodied essence, a faint shadow of its former self; in Icelandic legend the spirit returns in full possession of its body, but more evil-disposed to mankind than before death. It fights and wrestles, pummels its adversary black and blue, it is huge and bloated and hideous, it tries to strangle men, and leaves finger-marks on their throats. If the ghosts are those of drowned men, they come home every night dripping with sea-water, and crowd the family from the fire and from the hall. Apparently they are evil spirits animating the dead body, and nothing but the utter destruction of the body avails to drive away the malignant spirit.