Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Maud Isabel Ebbutt
Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 352
Publication Date: 1910
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With over 50 illustrations. With legends from Iceland, Spain, Ireland and Constantinople, the common theme here is not 'British' legends per se, but heroic characters from the dark and middle ages. Notably, Ebbutt includes a number of memorable heroines as well, including the Irish Countess Cathleen, who bargained her soul to relieve a famine, the 'Loathly Lady,' redeemed by the love of Sir Gawain, and Rymenhild, who (uncharacteristically for the genre) seduces the Childe Horn, motivating his story arc towards knighthood.
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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 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.
The Story. The Coming and Passing of Scyld
Once, long ago, the Danish land owned the sway of a mighty monarch, Scyld Scefing, the founder of a great dynasty, the Scyldings. This great king Scyld had come to Denmark in a mysterious manner, since no man knew whence he sprang. As a babe he drifted to the Danish shore in a vessel loaded with treasures; but no man was with him, and there was no token to show his kindred and race. When Scyld grew up he increased the power of Denmark and enlarged her borders; his fame spread far and wide among men, and his glory shone undimmed until the day when, full of years and honours, he died, leaving the throne securely established in his family. Then the sorrowing Danes restored him to the mysterious ocean from which he had come to them. Choosing their goodliest ship, they laid within it the corpse of their departed king, and heaped around him all their best and choicest treasures, until the venerable countenance of Scyld looked to heaven from a bed of gold and jewels; then they set up, high above his head, his glorious gold-wrought banner, and left him alone in state. The vessel was loosed from the shore where the mourning Danes bewailed their departing king, and drifted slowly away to the unknown west from which Scyld had sailed to his now sorrowing people; they watched until it was lost in the shadows of night and distance, but no man under heaven knoweth what shore now holds the vanished Scyld. The descendants of Scyld ruled and prospered till the days of his great-grandson Hrothgar, one of a family of four, who can all be identified historically with various Danish kings and princes. Hrothgar's Hall
Hrothgar was a mighty warrior and conqueror, who won glory in battle, and whose fame spread wide among men, so that nobly born warriors, his kinsmen, were glad to serve as his bodyguard and to fight for him loyally in strife. So great was Hrothgar's power that he longed for some outward sign of the magnificence of his sway; he determined to build a great hall, in which he could hold feasts and banquets, and could entertain his warriors and thanes, and visitors from afar. The hall rose speedily, vast, gloriously adorned, a great meeting-place for men; for Hrothgar .had summoned all his people to the work, and the walls towered up high and majestic, ending in pinnacles and gables resembling the antlers of a stag. At the great feast which Hrothgar gave first in his new home the minstrels chanted the glory of the hall, "Heorot," "The Hart," as the king named it; Hrothgar's desire was well fulfilled, that he should build the most magnificent or banquet-halls. Proud were the mighty warriors who feasted within it, and proud the heart of the king, who from his high seat on the daïs saw his brave thanes carousing at the long tables below him, and the lofty rafters of the hall rising black into the darkness.
Day by day the feasting continued, until its noise and the festal joy of its revellers aroused a mighty enemy, Grendel, the loathsome fen-monster. This monstrous being, half-man, half-fiend, dwelt in the fens near the hill on which Heorot stood. Terrible was he, dangerous to men, of extraordinary strength, human in shape but gigantic of stature, covered with a green horny skin, on which the sword would not bite. His race, all sea-monsters, giants, goblins, and evil demons, were offspring of Cain, outcasts from the mercy of the Most High, hostile to the human race; and Grendel was one of mankind's most bitter enemies; hence his hatred of the joyous shouts from Heorot, and his determination to stop the feasting.
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