Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

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With all these nations, all these natures, amalgamated in our own, it is no wonder that the literature of our isles contains many different ideals of heroism, changing according to nationality and epoch. Thus the physical valour of Beowulf is not the same quality as the valour of Havelok the Dane, though both are heroes of the strong arm; and the chivalry of Diarmit is not the same as the chivalry of Roland. Again, religion has its share in changing the ideals of a nation, and Constantine, the warrior of the Early English poem of “Elene,” is far from being the same in character as the tender-hearted Constantine of “moral Gower’s” apocryphal tale. The law-abiding nature of the earliest heroes, whose obedience to their king and their priest was absolute, differs almost entirely from the lawlessness of Gamelyn and Robin Hood, both of whom set church and king at defiance, and even account it a merit to revolt from the rule of both. It follows from this that we shall find our chosen heroes of very different types and characters; but we shall recognise that each represented to his own age an ideal of heroism, which that age loved sufficiently to put into literature, and perpetuate by the best means in its power. Of many another hero besides Arthur—of Barbarossa, of Hiawatha, even of Napoleon—has the tradition grown that [Pg xxix] he is not dead, but has passed away into the deathless land, whence he shall come again in his own time. As Tennyson has sung,

“Great bards of him will sing
Hereafter; and dark sayings from of old
Ranging and ringing through the minds of men,
And echoed by old folk beside their fires
For comfort after their wage-work is done,
Speak of the King.”


[1] Lightfoot.

[2] Swinburne.

[3] Gerald Massey.

[4] J. R. Denning.

[5] W. W. Campbell.

[6] Ibid.

[7] C. Roberts.

[8] T. Darcy McGee.

[9] Tennyson.

[10] Shakespeare, Julius Cæsar.

[11] Tennyson.

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THE figure which meets us as we enter on the study of Heroes of the British Race is one which appeals to us in a very special way, since he is the one hero in whose legend we may see the ideals of our English forefathers before they left their Continental home to settle in this island. Opinions may differ as to the date at which the poem of “Beowulf” was written, the place in which it was localised, and the religion of the poet who combined the floating legends into one epic whole, but all must accept the poem as embodying the life and feelings of our Forefathers who dwelt in North Germany on the shores of the North Sea and of the Baltic. The life depicted, the characters portrayed, the events described, are such as a simple warrior race would cherish in tradition and legend as relics of the life lived by their ancestors in what doubtless seemed to them the Golden Age. Perhaps stories of a divine Beowa, hero and ancestor of the English, became merged in other myths of sun-hero and marsh-demon, but in any case the stories are now crystallized around one central human figure, who may even be considered an historical hero, Beowulf, the thane of Hygelac, King of the Geats. It is this grand primitive hero who embodies the ideal of English heroism. Bold to rashness for himself, prudent for his comrades, daring, resourceful, knowing no fear, loyal to his king and his kinsmen, generous in war and in peace, self-sacrificing, Beowulf stands for all that is best in manhood in an age of strife. It is fitting that our first British hero should be physically and mentally strong, brave to seek danger and brave to look on death and Fate undaunted, one whose life is a struggle against evil [Pg 2] forces, and whose death comes in a glorious victory over the powers of evil, a victory gained for the sake of others to whom Beowulf feels that he owes protection and devotion.