Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

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“Britain’s might and Britain’s right
And the brunt of British spears”[5]

are not the boast of the English race alone. No man in England now can boast of unmixed descent, but must perforce trace his family back through many a marriage of Frank, and Norman, and Saxon, and Dane, and Roman, and Celt, and even Iberian, back to prehistoric man—

“Scot and Celt and Norman and Dane,
With the Northman’s sinew and heart and brain,
And the Northman’s courage for blessing or bane,
Are England’s heroes too.”[6]

When Tennyson sang his greeting at the coming of Alexandra,

“Saxon or Dane or Norman we,
Teuton or Celt or whatever we be,”

he was only recognising a truth which no boast of pure birth can cover—the truth that the modern Englishman is a compound of many races, with many characteristics; and if we would understand him, we must seek the clue to the riddle in early England and Scotland and Ireland and Wales, while even France adds her [Pg xx] share of enlightenment towards the solution of the riddle.

“The Saxon force, the Celtic fire,
These are thy manhood’s heritage.”[7]

Britain, as far as we can trace men in our island, was first inhabited by cave-men, who have left no history at all. In the course of ages they passed away before the Iberians or Ivernians, who came from the east, and bore a striking resemblance to the Basques. It may be that some Mongolian tribe, wandering west, drawn by the instinct which has driven most race-migrations westward, sent offshoots north and south—one to brave the dangers of the sea and inhabit Britain and Ireland, one to cross the Pyrenees and remain sheltered in their deep ravines; or it may be that Basques from the Pyrenees, daring the storms of the Bay of Biscay in their frail coracles, ventured to the shores of Britain. Short and dark were these sturdy voyagers, harsh-featured and long-headed, worshipping the powers of Nature with mysterious and cruel rites of human sacrifice, holding beliefs in totems and ancestor-worship and in the superiority of high descent claimed through the mother to that claimed through the father. When the stronger and more civilised Celt came he drove before him these little dark men, he enslaved their survivors or wedded their women, and in his turn fell into slavery to the cruel Druidic religion of his subjects. To these Iberians, and to the Celtic dread of them, we probably owe all the stories of dwarfs, goblins, elves, and earth-gnomes which fill our fairy-tale books; and if we examine carefully the descriptions of the abodes of these beings we shall find them not inconsistent with the earth-dwellings, caves, circle huts, or even with the burial mounds, of the Iberian race.

[Pg xxi] The race that followed the Iberians, and drove them out or subdued them, so that they served as slaves where they had once ruled as lords, was the proud Aryan Celtic race. Of different tribes, Gaels, Brythons, and Belgæ, they were all one in spirit, and one in physical feature.

Tall, blue-eyed, with fair or red hair, they overpowered in every way the diminutive Iberians, and their tattooing, while it gave them a name which has often been mistaken for a national designation (Picts, or painted men), made them dreadful to their enemies in battle, and ferocious-looking even in time of peace. Their civilisation was of a much higher type than that of the Iberians; their weapons, their war-chariots, their mode of life and their treatment of women, are all so closely similar to that of the Greeks of Homer that a theory has been advanced and ably defended, that the Homeric Greeks were really invading Celts—Gaelic or Gaulish tribes from the north of Europe. If it indeed be so, we owe to the Celts a debt of imperishable culture and civilisation. To them belongs more especially, in our national amalgam, the passion for the past, the ardent patriotism, the longing for spiritual beauty, which raises and relieves the Saxon materialism.

“Though fallen the state of Erin and changed the Scottish land,
Though small the power of Mona, though unwaked Llewellyn’s band,
Though Ambrose Merlin’s prophecies are held as idle tales,
Though Iona’s ruined cloisters are swept by northern gales,
One in name and in fame
Are the sea-divided Gaels.
“In Northern Spain and Italy our brethren also dwell,
And brave are the traditions of their fathers that they tell;
The Eagle or the Crescent in the dawn of history pales
Before the advancing banners of the great Rome-conquering Gaels:
One in name and in fame
Are the sea-divided Gaels.”[8]

[Pg xxii] It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of the Celtic contribution to our national literature and character: the race that gave us Ossian, and Finn, and Cuchulain, that sang of the sorrowful love and doom of Deirdre, that told of the pursuit of Diarmit and Grania, till every dolmen and cromlech in Ireland was associated with these lovers; the race that preserved for us

“That grey king whose name, a ghost,
Streams like a cloud, man-shaped, from mountain-peak
And cleaves to cairn and cromlech still,”[9]

the King Arthur whose Arthur’s Seat overhangs Edinburgh, whose presence haunts the Lakes, and Wales, and Cornwall, and the forests of Brittany; the race that held up for us the image of the Holy Grail—that race can claim no small share in the moulding of the modern Briton.

The Celt, however, had his day of supremacy and passed: the Roman crushed his power of initiative and made him helpless and dependent, and the Teuton, whether as Saxon, Angle, Frisian, or Jute, dwelt in his homes and ruled as slaves the former owners of the land. These new-comers were not physically unlike the Celts whom they dispossessed. Tall and fair, grey-eyed and sinewy, the Teuton was a hardier, more sturdy warrior than the Celt: he had not spent centuries of quiet settlement and imitative civilisation under the ægis of Imperial Rome: he had not learnt to love the arts of peace and he cultivated none but those of war; he was by choice a warrior and a sailor, a wanderer to other lands, a plougher of the desolate places of the “vasty deep,” yet withal a lover of home, who trod at times, with bitter longing for his native land, the thorny paths of exile. To him physical cowardice was [Pg xxiii] the unforgivable sin, next to treachery to his lord; for the loyalty of thane to his chieftain was a very deep and abiding reality to the Anglo-Saxon warrior, and in the early poems of our English race, love for “his dear lord, his chieftain-friend,” takes the place of that love of woman which other races felt and expressed. A quiet death bed was the worst end to a man’s life, in the Anglo-Saxon’s creed; it was “a cow’s death,” to be shunned by every means in a man’s power; while a death in fight, victor or vanquished, was a worthy finish to a warrior’s life. There was no fear of death itself in the English hero’s mind, nor of Fate; the former was the inevitable,

“Seeing that Death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come,”[10]

and the latter a goddess whose decrees must needs be obeyed with proud submission, but not with meek acceptance. Perhaps there was little of spiritual insight in the minds of these Angles and Saxons, little love of beauty, little care for the amenities of life; but they had a sturdy loyalty, an uprightness, a brave disregard of death in the cause of duty, which we can still recognise in modern Englishmen. To the Saxon belong the tales where

“The warrior kings,
In height and prowess more than human, strive
Again for glory, while the golden lyre
Is ever sounding in heroic ears
Heroic hymns.”[11]

When the English (Anglo-Saxons, as we generally call them) had settled down in England, had united their warring tribes, and developed a somewhat centralised [Pg xxiv] government, their whole national existence was imperilled by the incursions of the Danes. Kindred folk to the Anglo-Saxons were these Danes, these Vikings from Christiania Wik, these Northmen from Norway or Iceland, whose fame went before them, and the dread of whom inspired the petition in the old Litany of the Church, “From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord, deliver us!” Their fair hair and blue or grey eyes, their tall and muscular frames, bore testimony to their kinship with the races they harried and plundered, but their spirit was different from that of the conquered Teutonic tribes. The Viking loved the sea; it was his summer home, his field of war and profit. To go “a-summer-harrying” was the usual employment of the true Viking, and in the winter only could he enjoy domestic life and the pleasures of the family circle. The rapturous fight with the elements, in which the Northman lived and moved and had his being, gave him a strain of ruthless cruelty unlike anything in the more peaceful Anglo-Saxon character: his disregard of death for himself led to a certain callousness with regard to human life, and to a certain enjoyment in inflicting physical anguish. There was an element of Red Indian ruthlessness in the Viking, which looms large in the story of the years of Norse ascendancy over Western Europe. Yet there was also a power of bold and daring action, of reckless valour, of rapid conception and execution, which contrasted strongly with the slower and more placid temperament of the Anglo-Saxon, and to this Danish strain modern Englishmen probably owe the power of initiative, the love of adventure, and the daring action which have made England the greatest colonising nation on the earth. The Danish, Norse, or Viking element spread far and wide in mediæval Europe—Iceland, Normandy (Northman’s [Pg xxv] Land), the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, the east of Ireland, the Danelagh of East Anglia, and the Cumberland dales all show traces of the conquering Danish race; and raider after raider came to England and stayed, until half of our island was Danish, and even our royal family became for a time one with the royal line of Denmark. The acceptance of Christianity by the Danes in England when Guthrum was baptized rendered much more easy their amalgamation with the English; but it was not so in Ireland, where the Round Towers still stand to show (as some authorities hold) how the terrified native Irish sheltered from the Danish fury which nearly destroyed the whole fabric of Irish Christianity. The legends of Ireland, too, are full of the terror of the men of “Lochlann,” which is generally taken to mean Norway; and the great coast cities of Ireland—Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, and others—were so entirely Danish that only the decisive battle of Clontarf, in which the saintly and victorious Brian Boru was slain, saved Ireland to Christendom and curbed the power of the heathen invaders.

A second wave of Norse invasion swept over England at the Norman Conquest, and for a time submerged the native English population. The chivalrous Norman knights who followed William of Normandy’s sacred banner, whether from religious zeal or desire of plunder, were as truly Vikings by race as were the Danes who settled in the Danelagh. The days when Rolf (Rollo, or Rou), the Viking chief, won Normandy were not yet so long gone by that the fierce piratical instincts of his followers had ceased to influence their descendants: piety and learning, feudal law and custom, had made some impression upon the character of the Norman, but at heart he was still a Northman.