Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Produced by Nathan Harris, Eric Eldred, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. TALES OF THE ENCHANTED ISLANDS OF THE ATLANTIC BY THOMAS WENTWORTH HIGGINSON TO General Sir George Wentworth Higginson, K. C. B. _Gyldernscroft, Marlow, England_ THIS BOOK IS INSCRIBED, IN TOKEN OF KINDRED AND OF OLD FAMILY FRIENDSHIPS, CORDIALLY PRESERVED INTO THE
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  • 1898
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Produced by Nathan Harris, Eric Eldred, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.





General Sir George Wentworth Higginson, K. C. B.

_Gyldernscroft, Marlow, England_




Hawthorne in his _Wonder Book_ has described the beautiful Greek myths and traditions, but no one has yet made similar use of the wondrous tales that gathered for more than a thousand years about the islands of the Atlantic deep. Although they are a part of the mythical period of American history, these hazy legends were altogether disdained by the earlier historians; indeed, George Bancroft made it a matter of actual pride that the beginning of the American annals was bare and literal. But in truth no national history has been less prosaic as to its earlier traditions, because every visitor had to cross the sea to reach it, and the sea has always been, by the mystery of its horizon, the fury of its storms, and the variableness of the atmosphere above it, the foreordained land of romance.

In all ages and with all sea-going races there has always been something especially fascinating about an island amid the ocean. Its very existence has for all explorers an air of magic. An island offers to us heights rising from depths; it exhibits that which is most fixed beside that which is most changeable, the fertile beside the barren, and safety after danger. The ocean forever tends to encroach on the island, the island upon the ocean. They exist side by side, friends yet enemies. The island signifies safety in calm, and yet danger in storm; in a tempest the sailor rejoices that he is not near it; even if previously bound for it, he puts about and steers for the open sea. Often if he seeks it he cannot reach it. The present writer spent a winter on the island of Fayal, and saw in a storm a full-rigged ship drift through the harbor disabled, having lost her anchors; and it was a week before she again made the port.

There are groups of islands scattered over the tropical ocean, especially, to which might well be given Herman Melville’s name, “Las Encantadas,” the Enchanted Islands. These islands, usually volcanic, have no vegetation but cactuses or wiry bushes with strange names; no inhabitants but insects and reptiles–lizards, spiders, snakes,–with vast tortoises which seem of immemorial age, and are coated with seaweed and the slime of the ocean. If there are any birds, it is the strange and heavy penguin, the passing albatross, or the Mother Cary’s chicken, which has been called the humming bird of ocean, and here finds a place for its young. By night these birds come for their repose; at earliest dawn they take wing and hover over the sea, leaving the isle deserted. The only busy or beautiful life which always surrounds it is that of a myriad species of fish, of all forms and shapes, and often more gorgeous than any butterflies in gold and scarlet and yellow.

Once set foot on such an island and you begin at once to understand the legends of enchantment which ages have collected around such spots. Climb to its heights, you seem at the masthead of some lonely vessel, kept forever at sea. You feel as if no one but yourself had ever landed there; and yet, perhaps, even there, looking straight downward, you see below you in some crevice of the rock a mast or spar of some wrecked vessel, encrusted with all manner of shells and uncouth vegetable growth. No matter how distant the island or how peacefully it seems to lie upon the water, there may be perplexing currents that ever foam and swirl about it –currents which are, at all tides and in the calmest weather, as dangerous as any tempest, and which make compass untrustworthy and helm powerless. It is to be remembered also that an island not only appears and disappears upon the horizon in brighter or darker skies, but it varies its height and shape, doubles itself in mirage, or looks as if broken asunder, divided into two or three. Indeed the buccaneer, Cowley, writing of one such island which he had visited, says: “My fancy led me to call it Cowley’s Enchanted Isle, for we having had a sight of it upon several points of the compass, it appeared always in so many different forms; sometimes like a ruined fortification; upon another point like a great city.”

If much of this is true even now, it was far truer before the days of Columbus, when men were constantly looking westward across the Atlantic, and wondering what was beyond. In those days, when no one knew with certainty whether the ocean they observed was a sea or a vast lake, it was often called “The Sea of Darkness.” A friend of the Latin poet, Ovid, describing the first approach to this sea, says that as you sail out upon it the day itself vanishes, and the world soon ends in perpetual darkness:–

“Quo Ferimur? Ruit ipsa Dies, orbemque relictum Ultima perpetuis claudit natura tenebris.”

Nevertheless, it was the vague belief of many nations that the abodes of the blest lay somewhere beyond it–in the “other world,” a region half earthly, half heavenly, whence the spirits of the departed could not cross the water to return;–and so they were constantly imagining excursions made by favored mortals to enchanted islands. To add to the confusion, actual islands in the Atlantic were sometimes discovered and actually lost again, as, for instance, the Canaries, which were reached and called the Fortunate Isles a little before the Christian era, and were then lost to sight for thirteen centuries ere being visited again.

The glamour of enchantment was naturally first attached by Europeans to islands within sight of their own shores–Irish, Welsh, Breton, or Spanish,–and then, as these islands became better known, men’s imaginations carried the mystery further out over the unknown western sea. The line of legend gradually extended itself till it formed an imaginary chart for Columbus; the aged astronomer, Toscanelli, for instance, suggesting to him the advantage of making the supposed island of Antillia a half-way station; just as it was proposed, long centuries after, to find a station for the ocean telegraph in the equally imaginary island of Jacquet, which has only lately disappeared from the charts. With every step in knowledge the line of fancied stopping-places rearranged itself, the fictitious names flitting from place to place on the maps, and sometimes duplicating themselves. Where the tradition itself has vanished we find that the names with which it associated itself are still assigned, as in case of Brazil and the Antilles, to wholly different localities.

The order of the tales in the present work follows roughly the order of development, giving first the legends which kept near the European shore, and then those which, like St. Brandan’s or Antillia, were assigned to the open sea or, like Norumbega or the Isle of Demons, to the very coast of America. Every tale in this book bears reference to some actual legend, followed more or less closely, and the authorities for each will be found carefully given in the appendix for such readers as may care to follow the subject farther. It must be remembered that some of these imaginary islands actually remained on the charts of the British admiralty until within a century. If even the exact science of geographers retained them thus long, surely romance should embalm them forever.



I. The Story of Atlantis

II. Taliessin of the Radiant Brow

III. The Swan-Children of Lir

IV. Usheen in the Island of Youth

V. Bran the Blessed

VI. The Castle of the Active Door

VII. Merlin the Enchanter

VIII. Sir Lancelot of the Lake

IX. The Half-Man

X. King Arthur at Avalon

XI. Maelduin’s Voyage

XII. The Voyage of St. Brandan

XIII. Kirwan’s Search for Hy-Brasail

XIV. The Isle of Satan’s Hand

XV. Antillia, the Island of the Seven Cities

XVI. Harald the Viking

XVII. The Search for Norumbega

XVIII. The Guardians of the St. Lawrence

XIX. The Island of Demons

XX. Bimini and the Fountain of Youth




The Greek sage Socrates, when he was but a boy minding his father’s goats, used to lie on the grass under the myrtle trees; and, while the goats grazed around him, he loved to read over and over the story which Solon, the law-giver and poet, wrote down for the great-grandfather of Socrates, and which Solon had always meant to make into a poem, though he died without doing it. But this was briefly what he wrote in prose:–

“I, Solon, was never in my life so surprised as when I went to Egypt for instruction in my youth, and there, in the temple of Sais, saw an aged priest who told me of the island of Atlantis, which was sunk in the sea thousands of years ago. He said that in the division of the earth the gods agreed that the god Poseidon, or Neptune, should have, as his share, this great island which then lay in the ocean west of the Mediterranean Sea, and was larger than all Asia. There was a mortal maiden there whom Poseidon wished to marry, and to secure her he surrounded the valley where she dwelt with three rings of sea and two of land so that no one could enter; and he made underground springs, with water hot or cold, and supplied all things needful to the life of man. Here he lived with her for many years, and they had ten sons; and these sons divided the island among them and had many children, who dwelt there for more than a thousand years. They had mines of gold and silver, and pastures for elephants, and many fragrant plants. They erected palaces and dug canals; and they built their temples of white, red, and black stone, and covered them with gold and silver. In these were statues of gold, especially one of the god Poseidon driving six winged horses. He was so large as to touch the roof with his head, and had a hundred water-nymphs around him, riding on dolphins. The islanders had also baths and gardens and sea-walls, and they had twelve hundred ships and ten thousand chariots. All this was in the royal city alone, and the people were friendly and good and well-affectioned towards all. But as time went on they grew less so, and they did not obey the laws, so that they offended heaven. In a single day and night the island disappeared and sank beneath the sea; and this is why the sea in that region grew so impassable and impenetrable, because there is a quantity of shallow mud in the way, and this was caused by the sinking of a single vast island.”

“This is the tale,” said Solon, “which the old Egyptian priest told to me.” And Solon’s tale was read by Socrates, the boy, as he lay in the grass; and he told it to his friends after he grew up, as is written in his dialogues recorded by his disciple, Plato. And though this great island of Atlantis has never been seen again, yet a great many smaller islands have been found in the Atlantic Ocean, and they have sometimes been lost to sight and found again.

There is, also, in this ocean a vast tract of floating seaweed, called by sailors the Sargasso Sea,–covering a region as large as France,–and this has been thought by many to mark the place of a sunken island. There are also many islands, such as the Azores, which have been supposed at different times to be fragments of Atlantis; and besides all this, the remains of the vanished island have been looked for in all parts of the world. Some writers have thought it was in Sweden, others in Spitzbergen, others in Africa, in Palestine, in America. Since the depth of the Atlantic has been more thoroughly sounded, a few writers have maintained that the inequalities of its floor show some traces of the submerged Atlantis, but the general opinion of men of science is quite the other way. The visible Atlantic islands are all, or almost all, they say, of volcanic origin; and though there are ridges in the bottom of the ocean, they do not connect the continents.

At any rate, this was the original story of Atlantis, and the legends which follow in these pages have doubtless all grown, more or less, out of this first tale which Socrates told.



In times past there were enchanted islands in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Wales, and even now the fishermen sometimes think they see them. On one of these there lived a man named Tegid Voel and his wife called Cardiwen. They had a son, the ugliest boy in the world, and Cardiwen formed a plan to make him more attractive by teaching him all possible wisdom. She was a great magician and resolved to boil a large caldron full of knowledge for her son, so that he might know all things and be able to predict all that was to happen. Then she thought people would value him in spite of his ugliness. But she knew that the caldron must burn a year and a day without ceasing, until three blessed drops of the water of knowledge were obtained from it; and those three drops would give all the wisdom she wanted.

So she put a boy named Gwion to stir the caldron and a blind man named Morda to feed the fire; and made them promise never to let it cease boiling for a year and a day. She herself kept gathering magic herbs and putting them into it. One day when the year was nearly over, it chanced that three drops of the liquor flew out of the caldron and fell on the finger of Gwion. They were fiery hot, and he put his finger to his mouth, and the instant he tasted them he knew that they were the enchanted drops for which so much trouble had been taken. By their magic he at once foresaw all that was to come, and especially that Cardiwen the enchantress would never forgive him.

Then Gwion fled. The caldron burst in two, and all the liquor flowed forth, poisoning some horses which drank it. These horses belonged to a king named Gwyddno. Cardiwen came in and saw all the toil of the whole year lost. Seizing a stick of wood, she struck the blind man Morda fiercely on the head, but he said, “I am innocent. It was not I who did it.” “True,” said Cardiwen; “it was the boy Gwion who robbed me;” and she rushed to pursue him. He saw her and fled, changing into a hare; but she became a greyhound and followed him. Running to the water, he became a fish; but she became another and chased him below the waves. He turned himself into a bird, when she became a hawk and gave him no rest in the sky. Just as she swooped on him, he espied a pile of winnowed wheat on the floor of a barn, and dropping upon it, he became one of the wheat-grains. Changing herself into a high-crested black hen, Cardiwen scratched him up and swallowed him, when he changed at last into a boy again and was so beautiful that she could not kill him outright, but wrapped him in a leathern bag and cast him into the sea, committing him to the mercy of God. This was on the twenty-ninth of April.

Now Gwyddno had a weir for catching fish on the sea-strand near his castle, and every day in May he was wont to take a hundred pounds’ worth of fish. He had a son named Elphin, who was always poor and unsuccessful, but that year the father had given the son leave to draw all the fish from the weir, to see if good luck would ever befall him and give him something with which to begin the world.

When Elphin went next to draw the weir, the man who had charge of it said in pity, “Thou art always unlucky; there is nothing in the weir but a leathern bag, which is caught on one of the poles.” “How do we know,” said Elphin, “that it may not contain the value of a hundred pounds?” Taking up the bag and opening it, the man saw the forehead of the boy and said to Elphin, “Behold, what a radiant brow” (Taliessin). “Let him be called Taliessin,” said Elphin. Then he lifted the boy and placed him sorrowfully behind him; and made his horse amble gently, that before had been trotting, and carried him as softly as if he had been sitting in the easiest chair in the world, and the boy of the radiant brow made a song to Elphin as they went along.

“Never in Gwyddno’s weir
Was there such good luck as this night. Fair Elphin, dry thy cheeks!
Being too sad will not avail,
Although thou thinkest thou hast no gain. Too much grief will bring thee no good; Nor doubt the miracles of the Almighty: Although I am but little, I am highly gifted. From seas, and from mountains,
And from the depths of rivers,
God brings wealth to the fortunate man. Elphin of lively qualities,
Thy resolution is unmanly:
Thou must not be oversorrowful:
Better to trust in God than to forebode ill. Weak and small as I am,
On the foaming beach of the ocean, In the day of trouble I shall be
Of more service to thee than three hundred salmon. Elphin of notable qualities,
Be not displeased at thy misfortune: Although reclined thus weak in my bag,
There lies a virtue in my tongue.
While I continue thy protector
Thou hast not much to fear.”

Then Elphin asked him, “Art thou man or spirit?” And in answer the boy sang to him this tale of his flight from the woman:–

“I have fled with vigor, I have fled as a frog, I have fled in the semblance of a crow scarcely finding rest; I have fled vehemently, I have fled as a chain of lightning, I have fled as a roe into an entangled thicket; I have fled as a wolf-cub, I have fled as a wolf in the wilderness, I have fled as a fox used to many swift bounds and quirks; I have fled as a martin, which did not avail; I have fled as a squirrel that vainly hides, I have fled as a stag’s antler, of ruddy course, I have fled as an iron in a glowing fire, I have fled as a spear-head, of woe to such as have a wish for it; I have fled as a fierce bull bitterly fighting, I have fled as a bristly boar seen in a ravine, I have fled as a white grain of pure wheat; Into a dark leathern bag I was thrown,
And on a boundless sea I was sent adrift;

Which was to me an omen of being tenderly nursed, And the Lord God then set me at liberty.”

Then Elphin came with Taliessin to the house of his father, and Gwyddno asked him if he had a good haul at the fish-weir. “I have something better than fish.” “What is that?” asked the father. “I have a bard,” said Elphin. “Alas, what will he profit thee?” said Gwyddno, to which Taliessin replied, “He will profit him more than the weir ever profited thee.” Said Gwyddno, “Art thou able to speak, and thou so little?” Then Taliessin said, “I am better able to speak than thou to question me.”

From this time Elphin always prospered, and he and his wife cared for Taliessin tenderly and lovingly, and the boy dwelt with him until he was thirteen years old, when Elphin went to make a Christmas visit to his uncle Maelgwyn, who was a great king and held open court. There were four and twenty bards there, and all proclaimed that no king had a wife so beautiful as the queen, or a bard so wise as the twenty-four, who all agreed upon this decision. Elphin said, on the contrary, that it was he himself who had the most beautiful wife and the wisest bard, and for this he was thrown into prison. Taliessin learning this, set forth from home to visit the palace and free his adoptive father, Elphin.

In those days it was the custom of kings to sit in the hall and dine in royal state with lords and bards about them who should keep proclaiming the greatness and glory of the king and his knights. Taliessin placed himself in a quiet corner, waiting for the four and twenty bards to pass, and as each one passed by, Taliessin made an ugly face, and gave a sound with his finger on his lips, thus, “Blerwm, Blerwm.” Each bard went by and bowed himself before the king, but instead of beginning to chant his praises, could only play “Blerwm, Blerwm” on the lips, as the boy had done. The king was amazed and thought they must be intoxicated, so he sent one of his lords to them, telling them to behave themselves and remember where they were. Twice and thrice he told them, but they could only repeat the same foolishness, until at last the king ordered one of his squires to give a blow to the chief bard, and the squire struck him a blow with a broom, so that he fell back on his seat. Then he arose and knelt before the king, and said, “Oh, honorable king, be it known unto your grace that it is not from too much drinking that we are dumb, but through the influence of a spirit which sits in the corner yonder in the form of a child.” Then the king bade a squire to bring Taliessin before him, and he asked the boy who he was. He answered:–

“Primary chief bard I am to Elphin,
And my original country is the region of the summer stars; I am a wonder whose origin is not known; I have been fostered in the land of the Deity, I have been teacher to all intelligences, I am able to instruct the whole universe. I was originally little Gwion,
And at length I am Taliessin.”

Then the king and his nobles wondered much, for they had never heard the like from a boy so young. The king then called his wisest bard to answer Taliessin, but he could only play “Blerwm” on his lips as before, and each of the king’s four and twenty bards tried in the same way and could do nothing more. Then the king bade Taliessin sing again, and he began:–

“Discover thou what is
The strong creature from before the flood, Without flesh, without bone,
Without vein, without blood,
Without head, without feet;
It will neither be older nor younger Than at the beginning;
Great God! how the sea whitens
When first it comes!
Great are its gusts
When it comes from the south;
Great are its evaporations
When it strikes on coasts.
It is in the field, it is in the wood, Without hand and without foot,
Without signs of old age,
It is also so wide,
As the surface of the earth;
And it was not born,
Nor was it seen.
It will cause consternation
Wherever God willeth.
On sea and on land

It neither sees, nor is seen.
Its course is devious,
And will not come when desired.
On land and on sea
It is indispensable.
It is without equal,
It is many-sided;
It is not confined,
It is incomparable;
It comes from four quarters;
It is noxious, it is beneficial;
It is yonder, it is here;
It will decompose,
But it will not repair the injury; It will not suffer for its doings,
Seeing it is blameless.
One Being has prepared it,
Out of all creatures,
By a tremendous blast,
To wreak vengeance
On Maelgwyn Gwynedd.”

And while he was thus singing his verse near the door, there came suddenly a mighty storm of wind, so that the king and all his nobles thought the castle would fall on their heads. They saw that Taliessin had not merely been singing the song of the wind, but seemed to have power to command it. Then the king hastily ordered that Elphin should be brought from his dungeon and placed before Taliessin, and the chains came loose from his feet, and he was set free.

As they rode away from the court, the king and his courtiers rode with them, and Taliessin bade Elphin propose a race with the king’s horses. Four and twenty horses were chosen, and Taliessin got four and twenty twigs of holly which he had burnt black, and he ordered the youth who was to ride Elphin’s horse to let all the others set off before him, and bade him as he overtook each horse to strike him with a holly twig and throw it down. Then he had him watch where his own horse should stumble and throw down his cap at the place. The race being won, Taliessin brought his master to the spot where the cap lay; and put workmen to dig a hole there. When they had dug deeply enough they found a caldron full of gold, and Taliessin said, “Elphin, this is my payment to thee for having taken me from the water and reared me until now.” And on this spot stands a pool of water until this day.



King Lir of Erin had four young children who were cared for tenderly at first by their stepmother, the new queen; but there came a time when she grew jealous of the love their father bore them, and resolved that she would endure it no longer. Sometimes there was murder in her heart, but she could not bear the thought of that wickedness, and she resolved at last to choose another way to rid herself of them. One day she took them to drive in her chariot:–Finola, who was eight years old, with her three younger brothers,–Aodh, Fiacre, and little Conn, still a baby. They were beautiful children, the legend says, with skins white and soft as swans’ feathers, and with large blue eyes and very sweet voices. Reaching a lake, she told them that they might bathe in the clear water; but so soon as they were in it she struck them with a fairy wand,–for she was of the race of the Druids, who had magical power,–and she turned them into four beautiful snow-white swans. But they still had human voices, and Finola said to her, “This wicked deed of thine shall be punished, for the doom that awaits thee will surely be worse than ours.” Then Finola asked, “How long shall we be in the shape of swans?” “For three hundred years,” said the woman, “on smooth Lake Darvra; then three hundred years on the sea of Moyle” (this being the sea between Ireland and Scotland); “and then three hundred years at Inis Glora, in the Great Western Sea” (this was a rocky island in the Atlantic). “Until the Tailkenn (St. Patrick) shall come to Ireland and bring the Christian faith, and until you hear the Christian bell, you shall not be freed. Neither your power nor mine can now bring you back to human shape; but you shall keep your human reason and your Gaelic speech, and you shall sing music so sweet that all who hear it shall gladly listen.”

She left them, and ere long their father, King Lir, came to the shore and heard their singing. He asked how they came to have human voices. “We are thy four children,” said Finola, “changed into swans by our stepmother’s jealousy.” “Then come and live with me,” said her sorrowing father. “We are not permitted to leave the lake,” she said, “or live with our people any more. But we are allowed to dwell together and to keep our reason and our speech, and to sing sweet music to you.” Then they sang, and the king and all his followers were at first amazed and then lulled to sleep.

Then King Lir returned and met the cruel stepmother at her father’s palace. When her father, King Bove, was told what she had done, he was hot with anger. “This wicked deed,” he said, “shall bring severer punishment on thee than on the innocent children, for their suffering shall end, but thine never shall.” Then King Bove asked her what form of existence would be most terrible to her. She replied, “That of a demon of the air.” “Be it so,” said her father, who had also Druidical power. He struck her with his wand, and she became a bat, and flew away with a scream, and the legend says, “She is still a demon of the air and shall be a demon of the air until the end of time.”

After this, the people of all the races that were in Erin used to come and encamp by the lake and listen to the swans. The happy were made happier by the song, and those who were in grief or illness or pain forgot their sorrows and were lulled to rest. There was peace in all that region, while war and tumult filled other lands. Vast changes took place in three centuries–towers and castles rose and fell, villages were built and destroyed, generations were born and died;–and still the swan-children lived and sang, until at the end of three hundred years they flew away, as was decreed, to the stormy sea of Moyle; and from that time it was made a law that no one should kill a swan in Erin.

Beside the sea of Moyle they found no longer the peaceful and wooded shores they had known, but only steep and rocky coasts and a wild, wild sea. There came a great storm one night, and the swans knew that they could not keep together, so they resolved that if separated they would meet at a rock called Carricknarone. Finola reached there first, and took her brothers under her wings, all wet, shivering, and exhausted. Many such nights followed, and in one terrible winter storm, when they nestled together on Carricknarone, the water froze into solid ice around them, and their feet and wings were so frozen to the rock that when they moved they left the skin of their feet, the quills of their wings, and the feathers of their breasts clinging there. When the ice melted, and they swam out into the sea, their bodies smarted with pain until the feathers grew once more.

One day they saw a glittering troop of horsemen approaching along the shore and knew that they were their own kindred, though from far generations back, the Dedannen or Fairy Host. They greeted each other with joy, for the Fairy Host had been sent to seek for the swans; and on returning to their chiefs they narrated what had passed, and the chiefs said, “We cannot help them, but we are glad they are living; and we know that at last the enchantment will be broken and that they will be freed from their sorrows.” So passed their lives until Finola sang, one day, “The Second Woe has passed–the second period of three hundred years,” when they flew out on the broad ocean, as was decreed, and went to the island of Inis Glora. There they spent the next three hundred years, amid yet wilder storms and yet colder winds. No more the peaceful shepherds and living neighbors were around them; but often the sailor and fisherman, in his little coracle, saw the white gleam of their wings or heard the sweet notes of their song and knew that the children of Lir were near.

But the time came when the nine hundred years of banishment were ended, and they might fly back to their father’s old home, Finnahà. Flying for days above the sea, they alighted at the palace once so well known, but everything was changed by time–even the walls of their father’s palace were crumbled and rain-washed. So sad was the sight that they remained one day only, and flew back to Inis Glora, thinking that if they must be forever solitary, they would live where they had lived last, not where they had been reared.

One May morning, as the children of Lir floated in the air around the island of Inis Glora, they heard a faint bell sounding across the eastern sea. The mist lifted, and they saw afar off, beyond the waves, a vision of a stately white-robed priest, with attendants around him on the Irish shore. They knew that it must be St. Patrick, the Tailkenn, or Tonsured One, who was bringing, as had been so long promised, Christianity to Ireland. Sailing through the air, above the blue sea, towards their native coast, they heard the bell once more, now near and distinct, and they knew that all evil spirits were fleeing away, and that their own hopes were to be fulfilled. As they approached the land, St. Patrick stretched his hand and said, “Children of Lir, you may tread your native land again.” And the sweet swan-sister, Finola, said, “If we tread our native land, it can only be to die, after our life of nine centuries. Baptize us while we are yet living.” When they touched the shore, the weight of all those centuries fell upon them; they resumed their human bodies, but they appeared old and pale and wrinkled. Then St. Patrick baptized them, and they died; but, even as he did so, a change swiftly came over them; and they lay side by side, once more children, in their white night-clothes, as when their father Lir, long centuries ago, had kissed them at evening and seen their blue eyes close in sleep and had touched with gentle hand their white foreheads and their golden hair. Their time of sorrow was ended and their last swan-song was sung; but the cruel stepmother seems yet to survive in her bat-like shape, and a single glance at her weird and malicious little face will lead us to doubt whether she has yet fully atoned for her sin.



The old Celtic hero and poet Usheen or Oisin, whose supposed songs are known in English as those of Ossian, lived to a great old age, surviving all others of the race of the Feni, to which he belonged; and he was asked in his last years what had given him such length of life. This is the tale he told:–

After the fatal battle of Gavra, in which most of the Feni were killed, Usheen and his father, the king, and some of the survivors of the battle were hunting the deer with their dogs, when they met a maiden riding on a slender white horse with hoofs of gold, and with a golden crescent between his ears. The maiden’s hair was of the color of citron and was gathered in a silver band; and she was clad in a white garment embroidered with strange devices. She asked them why they rode slowly and seemed sad, and not like other hunters; and they replied that it was because of the death of their friends and the ruin of their race. When they asked her in turn whence she came, and why, and whether she was married, she replied that she had never had a lover or a husband, but that she had crossed the sea for the love of the great hero and bard Usheen, whom she had never seen. Then Usheen was overcome with love for her, but she said that to wed her he must follow her across the sea to the Island of Perpetual Youth. There he would have a hundred horses and a hundred sheep and a hundred silken robes, a hundred swords, a hundred bows, and a hundred youths to follow him; while she would have a hundred maidens to wait on her. But how, he asked, was he to reach this island? He was to mount her horse and ride behind her. So he did this, and the slender white horse, not feeling his weight, dashed across the waves of the ocean, which did not yield beneath his tread. They galloped across the very sea, and the maiden, whose name was Niam, sang to him as they rode, and this so enchantingly that he scarcely knew whether hours passed or days. Sometimes deer ran by them over the water, followed by red-eared hounds in full chase; sometimes a maiden holding up an apple of gold; sometimes a beautiful youth; but they themselves rode on always westward.

At last they drew near an island which was not, Niam said, the island they were seeking; but it was one where a beautiful princess was kept under a spell until some defender should slay a cruel giant who held her under enchantment until she should either wed him or furnish a defender. The youth Usheen, being an Irishman and not easily frightened, naturally offered his services as defender, and they waited three days and nights to carry on the conflict. He had fought at home–so the legend says–with wild boars, with foreign invaders, and with enchanters, but he never had quite so severe a contest as with this giant; but after he had cut off his opponent’s head and had been healed with precious balm by the beautiful princess, he buried the giant’s body in a deep grave and placed above it a great stone engraved in the Ogham alphabet–in which all the letters are given in straight lines.

After this he and Niam again mounted the white steed and galloped away over the waves. Niam was again singing, when soft music began to be heard in the distance, as if in the centre of the setting sun. They drew nearer and nearer to a shore where the very trees trembled with the multitude of birds that sang upon them; and when they reached the shore, Niam gave one note of song, and a band of youths and maidens came rushing towards them and embraced them with eagerness. Then they too sang, and as they did it, one brought to Usheen a harp of silver and bade him sing of earthly joys. He found himself chanting, as he thought, with peculiar spirit and melody, but as he told them of human joys they kept still and began to weep, till at last one of them seized the silver harp and flung it away into a pool of water, saying, “It is the saddest harp in all the world.”

Then he forgot all the human joys which seemed to those happy people only as sorrows compared with their own; and he dwelt with them thenceforward in perpetual youth. For a hundred years he chased the deer and went fishing in strangely carved boats and joined in the athletic sports of the young men; for a hundred years the gentle Niam was his wife.

But one day, when Usheen was by the beach, there floated to his feet what seemed a wooden staff, and he drew it from the waves. It was the battered fragment of a warrior’s lance. The blood stains of war were still on it, and as he looked at it he recalled the old days of the Feni, the wars and tumult of his youth; and how he had outlived his tribe and all had passed away. Niam came softly to him and rested against his shoulder, but it did not soothe his pain, and he heard one of the young men watching him say to another, “The human sadness has come back into his eyes.” The people around stood watching him, all sharing his sorrow, and knowing that his time of happiness was over and that he would go back among men. So indeed it was; Niam and Usheen mounted the white steed again and galloped away over the sea, but she had warned him when they mounted that he must never dismount for an instant, for that if he once touched the earth, she and the steed would vanish forever, that his youth too would disappear, and that he would be left alone on earth–an old man whose whole generation had vanished.

They passed, as before, over the sea; the same visions hovered around them, youths and maidens and animals of the chase; they passed by many islands, and at last reached the shore of Erin again. As they travelled over its plains and among its hills, Oisin looked in vain for his old companions. A little people had taken their place,–small men and women, mounted on horses as small;–and these people gazed in wonder at the mighty Usheen. “We have heard,” they said, “of the hero Finn, and the poets have written many tales of him and of his people, the Feni. We have read in old books that he had a son Usheen who went away with a fairy maiden; but he was never seen again, and there is no race of the Feni left.” Yet refusing to believe this, and always looking round for the people whom he had known and loved of old, he thought within himself that perhaps the Feni were not to be seen because they were hunting fierce wolves by night, as they used to do in his boyhood, and that they were therefore sleeping in the daytime; but again an old man said to him, “The Feni are dead.” Then he remembered that it was a hundred years, and that his very race had perished, and he turned with contempt on the little men and their little horses. Three hundred of them as he rode by were trying to lift a vast stone, but they staggered under its weight, and at last fell and lay beneath it; then leaning from his saddle Usheen lifted the stone with one hand and flung it five yards. But with the strain the saddle girth broke, and Usheen came to the ground; the white steed shook himself and neighed, then galloped away, bearing Niam with him, and Usheen lay with all his strength gone from him–a feeble old man. The Island of Youth could only be known by those who dwelt always within it, and those mortals who had once left it could dwell there no more.



The mighty king Bran, a being of gigantic size, sat one day on the cliffs of his island in the Atlantic Ocean, near to Hades and the Gates of Night, when he saw ships sailing towards him and sent men to ask what they were. They were a fleet sent by Matholweh, the king of Ireland, who had sent to ask for Branwen, Bran’s sister, as his wife. Without moving from his rock Bran bid the monarch land, and sent Branwen back with him as queen.

But there came a time when Branwen was ill-treated at the palace; they sent her into the kitchen and made her cook for the court, and they caused the butcher to come every day (after he had cut up the meat) and give her a blow on the ear. They also drew up all their boats on the shore for three years, that she might not send for her brother. But she reared a starling in the cover of the kneading-trough, taught it to speak, and told it how to find her brother; and then she wrote a letter describing her sorrows and bound it to the bird’s wing, and it flew to the island and alighted on Bran’s shoulder, “ruffling its feathers” (says the Welsh legend) “so that the letter was seen, and they knew that the bird had been reared in a domestic manner.” Then Bran resolved to cross the sea, but he had to wade through the water, as no ship had yet been built large enough to hold him; and he carried all his musicians (pipers) on his shoulders. As he approached the Irish shore, men ran to the king, saying that they had seen a forest on the sea, where there never before had been a tree, and that they had also seen a mountain which moved. Then the king asked Branwen, the queen, what it could be. She answered, “These are the men of the Island of the Mighty, who have come hither to protect me.” “What is the forest?” they asked. “The yards and masts of ships.” “What mountain is that by the side of the ships?” “It is Bran my brother, coming to the shoal water and rising.” “What is the lofty ridge with the lake on each side?” “That is his nose,” she said, “and the two lakes are his fierce eyes.”

Then the people were terrified: there was yet a river for Bran to pass, and they broke down the bridge which crossed it, but Bran laid himself down and said, “Who will be a chief, let him be a bridge.” Then his men laid hurdles on his back, and the whole army crossed over; and that saying of his became afterwards a proverb. Then the Irish resolved, in order to appease the mighty visitor, to build him a house, because he had never before had one that would hold him; and they decided to make the house large enough to contain the two armies, one on each side. They accordingly built this house, and there were a hundred pillars, and the builders treacherously hung a leathern bag on each side of each pillar and put an armed man inside of each, so that they could all rise by night and kill the sleepers. But Bran’s brother, who was a suspicious man, asked the builders what was in the first bag. “Meal, good soul,” they answered; and he, putting his hand in, felt a man’s head and crushed it with his mighty fingers, and so with the next and the next and with the whole two hundred. After this it did not take long to bring on a quarrel between the two armies, and they fought all day.

After this great fight between the men of Ireland and the men of the Isles of the Mighty there were but seven of these last who escaped, besides their king Bran, who was wounded in the foot with a poisoned dart. Then he knew that he should soon die, but he bade the seven men to cut off his head and told them that they must always carry it with them–that it would never decay and would always be able to speak and be pleasant company for them. “A long time will you be on the road,” he said. “In Harlech you will feast seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing to you all the while. And at the Island of Gwales you will dwell for fourscore years, and you may remain there, bearing the head with you uncorrupted, until you open the door that looks towards the mainland; and after you have once opened that door you can stay no longer, but must set forth to London to bury the head, leaving it there to look toward France.”

So they went on to Harlech and there stopped to rest, and sat down to eat and drink. And there came three birds, which began singing a certain song, and all the songs they had ever heard were unpleasant compared with it; and the songs seemed to them to be at a great distance from them, over the sea, yet the notes were heard as distinctly as if they were close by; and it is said that at this repast they continued seven years. At the close of this time they went forth to an island in the sea called Gwales. There they found a fair and regal spot overlooking the ocean and a spacious hall built for them. They went into it and found two of its doors open, but the third door, looking toward Cornwall, was closed. “See yonder,” said their leader Manawydan; “that is the door we may not open.” And that night they regaled themselves and were joyful. And of all they had seen of food laid before them, and of all they had heard said, they remembered nothing; neither of that, nor of any sorrow whatsoever. There they remained fourscore years, unconscious of having ever spent a time more joyous and mirthful. And they were not more weary than when first they came, neither did they, any of them, know the time they had been there. It was not more irksome for them to have the head with them, than if Bran the Blessed had been with them himself. And because of these fourscore years, it was called “The Entertaining of the Noble Head.”

One day said Heilwyn the son of Gwyn, “Evil betide me, if I do not open the door to know if that is true which is said concerning it.” So he opened the door and looked towards Cornwall. And when they had looked they were as conscious of all the evils they had ever sustained, and of all the friends and companions they had ever lost, and of all the misery that had befallen them, as if all had happened in that very spot; and especially of the fate of their lord. And because of their perturbation they could not rest, but journeyed forth with the head towards London. And they buried the head in the White Mount.

The island called Gwales is supposed to be that now named Gresholm, eight or ten miles off the coast of Pembrokeshire; and to this day the Welsh sailors on that coast talk of the Green Meadows of Enchantment lying out at sea west of them, and of men who had either landed on them or seen them suddenly vanishing. Some of the people of Milford used to declare that they could sometimes see the Green Islands of the fairies quite distinctly; and they believed that the fairies went to and fro between their islands and the shore through a subterranean gallery under the sea. They used, indeed, to make purchases in the markets of Milford or Langhorne, and this they did sometimes without being seen and always without speaking, for they seemed to know the prices of the things they wished to buy and always laid down the exact sum of money needed. And indeed, how could the seven companions of the Enchanted Head have spent eighty years of incessant feasting on an island of the sea, without sometimes purchasing supplies from the mainland?



Perfect is my chair in Caer Sidi;
Plague and age hurt not who’s in it– They know, Manawydan and Pryderi.
Three organs round a fire sing before it, And about its points are ocean’s streams And the abundant well above it–
Sweeter than white wine the drink in it.

Peredur, the knight, rode through the wild woods of the Enchanted Island until he arrived on clear ground outside the forest. Then he beheld a castle on level ground in the middle of a meadow; and round the castle flowed a stream, and inside the castle there were large and spacious halls with great windows. Drawing nearer the castle, he saw it to be turning more rapidly than any wind blows. On the ramparts he saw archers shooting so vigorously that no armor would protect against them; there were also men blowing horns so loud that the earth appeared to tremble; and at the gates were lions, in iron chains, roaring so violently that one might fancy that the castle and the woods were ready to be uprooted. Neither the lions nor the warriors resisted Peredur, but he found a woman sitting by the gate, who offered to carry him on her back to the hall. This was the queen Rhiannon, who, having been accused of having caused the death of her child, was sentenced to remain seven years sitting by the gate, to tell her story to every one, and to offer to carry all strangers on her back into the castle.

But so soon as Peredur had entered it, the castle vanished away, and he found himself standing on the bare ground. The queen Rhiannon was left beside him, and she remained on the island with her son Pryderi and his wife. Queen Rhiannon married for her second husband a person named Manawydan. One day they ascended a mound called Arberth which was well known for its wonders, and as they sat there they heard a clap of thunder, followed by mist so thick that they could not see one another. When it grew light again, they looked around them and found that all dwellings and animals had vanished; there was no smoke or fire anywhere or work of human hands; all their household had disappeared, and there were left only Pryderi and Manawydan with their wives. Wandering from place to place, they found no human beings; but they lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering wild honey. After visiting foreign lands, they returned to their island home. One day when they were out hunting, a wild boar of pure white color sprang from a bush, and as they saw him they retreated, and they saw also the Turning Castle. The boar, watching his opportunity, sprang into it, and the dogs followed, and Pryderi said, “I will go into this castle and get tidings of the dogs.” “Go not,” said Manawydan; “whoever has cast a spell over this land and deprived us of our dwelling has placed this castle here.” But Pryderi replied, “Of a truth I cannot give up my dogs.” So he watched for the opportunity and went in. He saw neither boar nor dogs, neither man nor beast; but on the centre of the castle floor he saw a fountain with marble work around it, and on the margin of the fountain a golden bowl upon a marble slab, and in the air hung chains, of which he could see no end. He was much delighted with the beauty of the gold and the rich workmanship of the bowl and went up to lay hold of it. The moment he touched it, his fingers clung to the bowl, and his feet to the slab; and all his joyousness forsook him so that he could not utter a word. And thus he stood.

Manawydan waited for him until evening, but hearing nothing either of him or of the dogs, he returned home. When he entered, Rhiannon, who was his wife and who was also Pryderi’s mother, looked at him. “Where,” she said, “are Pryderi and the dogs?” “This is what has happened to me,” he said; and he told her. “An evil companion hast thou been,” she said, “and a good companion hast thou lost.” With these words she went out and proceeded towards the Castle of the Active Door. Getting in, she saw Pryderi taking hold of the bowl, and she went towards him. “What dost thou here?” she said, and she took hold of the bowl for herself; and then her hands became fast to it, and her feet to the slab, and she could not speak a word. Then came thunder and a fall of mist; thereupon the Castle of the Active Door vanished and never was seen again. Rhiannon and Pryderi also vanished.

When Kigva, the wife of Pryderi, saw this, she sorrowed so that she cared not if she lived or died. No one was left on the island but Manawydan and herself. They wandered away to other lands and sought to earn their living; then they came back to their island, bringing with them one bag of wheat which they planted. It throve and grew, and when the time of harvest came it was most promising, so that Manawydan resolved to reap it on the morrow. At break of day he came back to begin; but found nothing left but straw. Every stalk had been cut close to the ground and carried away.

Going to another field, he found it ripe, but on coming in the morning he found but the straw. “Some one has contrived my ruin,” he said; “I will watch the third field to see what happens. He who stole the first will come to steal this.”

He remained through the evening to watch the grain, and at midnight he heard loud thunder. He looked and saw coming a host of mice such as no man could number; each mouse took a stalk of the wheat and climbed it, so that it bent to the ground; then each mouse cut off the ear and ran away with it. They all did this, leaving the stalk bare, and there was not a single straw for which there was not a mouse. He struck among them, but could no more fix his sight on any of them, the legend says, than on flies and birds in the air, except one which seemed heavier than the rest, and moved slowly. This one he pursued and caught, put it in his glove and tied it with a string. Taking it home, he showed it to Kigva, and told her that he was going to hang the mouse next day. She advised against it, but he persisted, and on the next morning took the animal to the top of the Mound of Arberth, where he placed two wooden forks in the ground, and set up a small gallows.

While doing this, he saw a clerk coming to him in old, threadbare clothes. It was now seven years since he had seen a human being there, except the friends he had lost and Kigva who survived them. The clerk bade him good day and said he was going back to his country from England, where he had been singing. Then the clerk asked Manawydan what he was doing. “Hanging a thief,” said he; and when the clerk saw that it was a mouse, he offered a pound to release it, but Manawydan refused. Then a priest came riding up and offered him three pounds to release the mouse; but this offer was declined. Then he made a noose round the mouse’s neck, and while he did this, a bishop’s whole retinue came riding towards him. The bishop seemed, like everybody else, to be very desirous of rescuing the mouse; he offered first seven pounds, and then twenty-four, and then added all his horses and equipages; but Manawydan still refused. The bishop finally asked him to name any price he pleased. “The liberation of Rhiannon and Pryderi,” he said. “Thou shalt have it,” said the bishop. “And the removal of the enchantment,” said Manawydan. “That also,” said the bishop, “if you will only restore the mouse.” “Why?” said the other. “Because,” said the bishop, “she is my wife.” “Why did she come to me?” asked Manawydan. “To steal,” was the reply. “When it was known that you were inhabiting the island, my household came to me, begging me to transform them into mice. The first and second nights they came alone, but the third night my wife and the ladies of the court wished also to accompany them, and I transformed them also; and now you have promised to let her go.” “Not so,” said the other, “except with a promise that there shall be no more such enchantment practised, and no vengeance on Pryderi and Rhiannon, or on me.” This being promised, the bishop said, “Now wilt thou release my wife?” “No, by my faith,” said Manawydan, “not till I see Pryderi and Rhiannon free before my eyes.” “Here they are coming,” said the bishop; and when they had been embraced by Manawydan, he let go the mouse; the bishop touched it with a wand, and it became the most beautiful young woman that ever was seen. “Now look round upon the country,” said the bishop, “and see the dwellings and the crops returned,” and the enchantment was removed.

“The Land of Illusion and the Realm of Glamour” is the name given by the old romancers to the south-west part of Wales, and to all the islands off the coast. Indeed, it was believed, ever since the days of the Greek writer, Plutarch, that some peculiar magic belonged to these islands; and every great storm that happened among them was supposed to be caused by the death of one of the wondrous enchanters who dwelt in that region. When it was over, the islanders said, “Some one of the mighty has passed away.”



In one of the old books called Welsh Triads, in which all things are classed by threes, there is a description of three men called “The Three Generous Heroes of the Isle of Britain.” One of these–named Nud or Nodens, and later called Merlin–was first brought from the sea, it is stated, with a herd of cattle consisting of 21,000 milch cows, which are supposed to mean those waves of the sea that the poets often describe as White Horses. He grew up to be a king and warrior, a magician and prophet, and on the whole the most important figure in the Celtic traditions. He came from the sea and at last returned to it, but meanwhile he did great works on land, one of which is said to have been the building of Stonehenge.

This is the way, as the old legends tell, in which the vast stones of Stonehenge came to be placed on Salisbury Plain. It is a thing which has always been a puzzle to every one, inasmuch as their size and weight are enormous, and there is no stone of the same description to be found within hundreds of miles of Salisbury Plain, where they now stand.

The legend is that Pendragon, king of England, was led to fight a great battle by seeing a dragon in the air. The battle was won, but Pendragon was killed and was buried on Salisbury Plain, where the fight had taken place. When his brother Uther took his place, Merlin the enchanter advised him to paint a dragon on a flag and bear it always before him to bring good fortune, and this he always did. Then Merlin said to him, “Wilt thou do nothing more on the Plain of Salisbury, to honor thy brother?” The King said, “What shall be done?” Then Merlin said, “I will cause a thing to be done that will endure to the world’s end.” Then he bade Utherpendragon, as he called the new king, to send many ships and men to Ireland, and he showed him stones such as seemed far too large and heavy to bring, but he placed them by his magic art upon the boats and bore them to England; and he devised means to transport them and to set them on end, “for they shall seem fairer so than if they were lying.” And there they are to this day.

This was the way in which Merlin would sometimes obtain the favor and admiration of young ladies. There was a maiden of twelve named Nimiane or Vivian, the daughter of King Dionas, and Merlin changed himself into the appearance of “a fair young squire,” that he might talk with her beside a fountain, described in the legends as “a well, whereof the springs were fair and the water clear and the gravel so fair that it seemed of fine silver.” By degrees he made acquaintance with the child, who told him who she was, adding, “And what are you, fair, sweet friend?” “Damsel,” said Merlin, “I am a travelling squire, seeking for my master, who has taught me wonderful things.” “And what master is that?” she asked. “It is one,” he said, “who has taught me so much that I could here erect for you a castle, and I could make many people outside to attack it and inside to defend it; nay, I could go upon this water and not wet my feet, and I could make a river where water had never been.”

“These are strange feats,” said the maiden, “and I wish that I could thus disport myself.” “I can do yet greater things,” said Merlin, “and no one can devise anything which I cannot do, and I can also make it to endure forever.” “Indeed,” said the girl, “I would always love you if you could show me some such wonders.” “For your love,” he answered, “I will show you some of these wondrous plays, and I will ask no more of you.” Then Merlin turned and described a circle with a wand and then came and sat by her again at the fountain. At noon she saw coming out of the forest many ladies and knights and squires, holding each other by the hand and singing in the greatest joy; then came men with timbrels and tabours and dancing, so that one could not tell one-fourth part of the sports that went on. Then Merlin caused an orchard to grow, with all manner of fruit and flowers; and the maiden cared for nothing but to listen to their singing, “Truly love begins in joy, but ends in grief.” The festival continued from mid-day to even-song; and King Dionas and his courtiers came out to see it, and marvelled whence these strange people came. Then when the carols were ended, the ladies and maidens sat down on the green grass and fresh flowers, and the squires set up a game of tilting called quintain upon the meadows and played till even-song; and then Merlin came to the damsel and asked if he had done what he promised for her. “Fair, sweet friend,” said she, “you have done so much that I am all yours.” “Let me teach you,” he answered, “and I will show you many wonders that no woman ever learned so many.”

Merlin and this young damsel always remained friends, and he taught her many wonderful arts, one of which was (this we must regret) a spell by which she might put her parents to sleep whenever he visited her; while another lesson was (this being more unexceptionable) in the use of three words, by saying which she might at any time keep at a distance any men who tried to molest her. He stayed eight days near her, and in those days taught her many of the most “wonderful things that any mortal heart could think of, things past and things that were done and said, and a part of what was to come; and she put them in writing, and then Merlin departed from her and came to Benoyk, where the king, Arthur, rested, so that glad were they when they saw Merlin.”

The relations between Merlin and Arthur are unlike those ever held towards a king even by an enchanter in any legend. Even in Homer there is no one described, except the gods, as having such authority over a ruler. Merlin came and went as he pleased and under any form he might please. He foretold the result of a battle, ordered up troops, brought aid from a distance. He rebuked the bravest knights for cowardice; as when Ban, Bors, and Gawain had concealed themselves behind some bushes during a fight. “Is this,” he said to King Arthur and Sir Bors, “the war and the help that you do to your friends who have put themselves in adventure of death in many a need, and ye come hither to hide for cowardice.” Then the legend says, “When the king understood the words of Merlin, he bowed his head for shame,” and the other knights acknowledged their fault. Then Merlin took the dragon banner which he had given them and said that he would bear it himself; “for the banner of a king,” he said, “should not be hid in battle,–but borne in the foremost front.” Then Merlin rode forth and cried with a loud voice, “Now shall be shown who is a knight.” And the knights, seeing Merlin, exclaimed that he was “a full noble man”; and “without fail,” says the legend, “he was full of marvellous powers and strength of body and great and long stature; but brown he was and lean and rough of hair.” Then he rode in among the enemy on a great black horse; and the golden dragon which he had made and had attached to the banner gave out from its throat such a flaming fire that the air was black with its smoke; and all King Arthur’s men began to fight again more stoutly, and Arthur himself held the bridle reins in his left hand, and so wielded his sword with his right as to slay two hundred men.

There was no end to Merlin’s disguises–sometimes as an old man, sometimes as a boy or a dwarf, then as a woman, then as an ignorant clown; –but the legends always give him some object to accomplish, some work to do, and there was always a certain dignity about him, even when helping King Arthur, as he sometimes did, to do wrong things. His fame extended over all Britain, and also through Brittany, now a part of France, where the same poetic legends extended. This, for instance, is a very old Breton song about him:–


Merlin! Merlin! where art thou going So early in the day, with thy black dog? Oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! Oi! oi! oi! oi! oi!

I have come here to search the way,
To find the red egg;
The red egg of the marine serpent, By the seaside, in the hollow of the stone.

I am going to seek in the valley
The green water-cress, and the golden grass, And the top branch of the oak,
In the wood by the side of the fountain.

Merlin! Merlin! retrace your steps;
Leave the branch on the oak,
And the green water-cress in the valley, As well as the golden grass;
And leave the red egg of the marine serpent In the foam by the hollow of the stone. Merlin! Merlin! retrace thy steps;
There is no diviner but God.

Merlin was supposed to know the past, the present, and the future, and to be able to assume the form of any animal, and even that of a _menhir_, or huge standing stone. Before history began he ruled in Britain, then a delightful island of flowery meadows. His subjects were “small people” (fairies), and their lives were a continued festival of singing, playing, and enjoyment. The sage ruled them as a father, his familiar servant being a tame wolf. He also possessed a kingdom, beneath the waves, where everything was beautiful, the inhabitants being charming little beings, with waves of long, fair hair falling on their shoulders in curls. Fruits and milk composed the food of all, meat and fish being held in abhorrence. The only want felt was of the full light of the sun, which, coming to them through the water, was but faint, and cast no shadow.

Here was the famous workshop where Merlin forged the enchanted sword so celebrated by the bards, and where the stones were found by which alone the sword could be sharpened. Three British heroes were fated to wield this blade in turn; viz., Lemenisk the leaper (_Leim_, meaning leap), Utherpendragon, and his son King Arthur. By orders of this last hero, when mortally wounded, it was flung into the sea, where it will remain till he returns to restore the rule of his country to the faithful British race.

The bard once amused and puzzled the court by entering the hall as a blind boy led by a greyhound, playing on his harp, and demanding as recompense to be allowed to carry the king’s banner in an approaching battle. Being refused on account of his blindness he vanished, and the king of Brittany mentioned his suspicions that this was one of Merlin’s elfin tricks. Arthur was disturbed, for he had promised to give the child anything except his honor, his kingdom, his wife, and his sword. However, while he continued to fret, there entered the hall a poor child about eight years old, with shaved head, features of livid tint, eyes of light gray, barefooted, barelegged, and a whip knotted over his shoulders in the manner affected by horseboys. Speaking and looking like an idiot, he asked the king’s permission to bear the royal ensign in the approaching battle with the giant Rion. The courtiers laughed, but Arthur, suspecting a new joke on Merlin’s part, granted the demand, and then Merlin stood in his own proper person before the company.

He also seems to have taught people many things in real science, especially the women, who were in those days more studious than the men, or at least had less leisure. For instance, the legend says of Morgan le fay (or la fée), King Arthur’s sister, “she was a noble clergesse (meaning that she could read and write, like the clergy), and of astronomy could she enough, for Merlin had her taught, and she learned much of egromancy (magic or necromancy); and the best work-woman she was with her hands that any man knew in any land, and she had the fairest head and the fairest hands under heaven, and shoulders well-shapen; and she had fair eloquence and full debonair she was, as long as she was in her right wit; and when she was wroth with any man, she was evil to meet.” This lady was one of Merlin’s pupils, but the one whom he loved most and instructed the most was Nimiane or Vivian, already mentioned, who seems to have been to him rather a beloved younger sister than anything else, and he taught her so much that “at last he might hold himself a fool,” the legend says, “and ever she inquired of his cunning and his mysteries, each thing by itself, and he let her know all, and she wrote all that he said, as she was well learned in clergie (reading and writing), and learned lightly all that Merlin taught her; and when they parted, each of them commended the other to God full tenderly.”

The form of the enchanter Merlin disappeared from view, at last–for the legends do not admit that his life ever ended–across the sea whence he came.

The poet Tennyson, to be sure, describes Nimiane or Vivian–the Lady of the Lake–as a wicked enchantress who persuaded Merlin to betray his secrets to her, and then shut him up in an oak tree forever. But other legends seem to show that Tennyson does great injustice to the Lady of the Lake, that she really loved Merlin even in his age, and therefore persuaded him to show her how to make a tower without walls,–that they might dwell there together in peace, and address each other only as Brother and Sister. When he had told her, he fell asleep with his head in her lap, and she wove a spell nine times around his head, and the tower became the strongest in the world. Some of the many legends place this tower in the forest of Broceliande; while others transport it afar to a magic island, where Merlin dwells with his nine bards, and where Vivian alone can come or go through the magic walls. Some legends describe it as an enclosure “neither of iron nor steel nor timber nor of stone, but of the air, without any other thing but enchantment, so strong that it may never be undone while the world endureth.” Here dwells Merlin, it is said, with nine favorite bards who took with them the thirteen treasures of England. These treasures are said to have been:–

1. A sword; if any man drew it except the owner, it burst into a flame from the cross to the point. All who asked it received it; but because of this peculiarity all shunned it.

2. A basket; if food for one man were put into it, when opened it would be found to contain food for one hundred.

3. A horn; what liquor soever was desired was found therein.

4. A chariot; whoever sat in it would be immediately wheresoever he wished.

5. A halter, which was in a staple below the feet of a bed; and whatever horse one wished for in it, he would find it there.

6. A knife, which would serve four-and twenty men at meat all at once.

7. A caldron; if meat were put into it to boil for a coward, it would never be boiled; but if meat were put in it for a brave man, it would be boiled forthwith.

8. A whetstone; if the sword of a brave man were sharpened thereon, and any one were wounded therewith, he would be sure to die; but if it were that of a coward that was sharpened on it, he would be none the worse.

9. A garment; if a man of gentle birth put it on, it suited him well; but if a churl, it would not fit him.

10, 11. A pan and a platter; whatever food was required was found therein.

12. A chessboard; when the men were placed upon it, they would play of themselves. The chessboard was of gold, and the men of silver.

13. The mantle of Arthur; whosoever was beneath it could see everything, while no one could see him.

It is towards this tower, some legends say, that Merlin was last seen by some Irish monks, sailing away westward, with a maiden, in a boat of crystal, beneath a sunset sky.



Sir Lancelot, the famous knight, was the son of a king and queen against whom their subjects rebelled; the king was killed, the queen taken captive, when a fairy rose in a cloud of mist and carried away the infant Lancelot from where he had been left beneath a tree. The queen, after weeping on the body of her husband, looked round and saw a lady standing by the water-side, holding the queen’s child in her arms. “Fair, sweet friend,” said the queen, “give me back my child.” The fairy made no reply, but dived into the water; and the queen was taken to an abbey, where she was known as the Queen of Great Griefs. The Lady of the Lake took the child to her own home, which was an island in the middle of the sea and surrounded by impassable walls. From this the lady had her name of Dame du Lac, or the Lady of the Lake (or Sea), and her foster son was called Lancelot du Lac, while the realm was called Meidelant, or the Land of Maidens.

Lancelot dwelt thenceforward in the castle, on the island. When he was eight years old he received a tutor who was to instruct him in all knightly knowledge; he learned to use bow and spear and to ride on horseback, and some cousins of his were also brought thither by the Lady of the Lake to be his comrades. When he was eighteen he wished to go to King Arthur’s court that he might be a knight.

On the eve of St. John, as King Arthur returned from the chase, and by the high road approached Camelot, he met a fair company. In the van went two youths, leading two white mules, one freighted with a silken pavilion, the other with robes proper for a newly made knight; the mules bore two chests, holding the hauberk and the iron boots. Next came two squires, clad in white robes and mounted on white horses, carrying a silver shield and a shining helmet; after these, two others, with a sword in a white sheath and a white charger. Behind followed squires and servants in white coats, three damsels dressed in white, the two sons of King Bors; and, last of all, the fairy with the youth she loved. Her robe was of white samite lined with ermine; her white palfrey had a silver bit, while her breastplate, stirrups, and saddle were of ivory, carved with figures of ladies and knights, and her white housings trailed on the ground.

When she perceived the king, she responded to his salutation, and said, after she had lowered her wimple and displayed her face: “Sir, may God bless the best of kings! I come to implore a boon, which it shall cost you nothing to grant.” “Damsel, even it should cost me dear, you should not be refused; what is it you would have me do?” “Sir, dub this varlet a knight, and array him in the arms he bringeth, whenever he desireth.” “Your mercy, damsel! to bring me such a youth! Assuredly, I will dub him whenever he will; but it shameth me to abandon my custom, for ’tis my wont to furnish with garments and arms such as come thither to receive chivalry.” The lady replied that she desired the youth to carry the arms she had intended him to wear, and if she were refused, she would address herself elsewhere. Sir Ewain said that so fair a youth ought not to be denied, and the king yielded to her entreaty. She returned thanks, and bade the varlet retain the mules and the charger, with the two squires; and after that, she prepared to return as she had come, in spite of the urgency of the king, who had begged her to remain in his court. “At least,” he cried, “tell us by what name are you known ?” “Sir,” she answered, “I am called the Lady of the Lake.”

For a long way, Lancelot escorted the fairy, who said to him as she took leave: “King’s son, you are derived from lineage the most noble on earth; see to it that your worth be as great as your beauty. To-morrow you will ask the king to bestow on you knighthood; when you are armed, you will not tarry in his house a single night. Abide in one place no longer than you can help, and refrain from declaring your name until others proclaim it. Be prepared to accomplish every adventure, and never let another man complete a task which you yourself have undertaken.” With that, she gave him a ring that had the property of dissolving enchantment, and commended him to God.

On the morrow, Lancelot arrayed himself in his fairest robes, and sued for knighthood, as he had been commanded to do. Sir Ewain attended him to court, where they dismounted in front of the palace; the king and queen advanced to meet them; each took Sir Ewain by a hand, and seated him on a couch, while the varlet stood in their presence on the rushes that strewed the floor. All gazed with pleasure, and the queen prayed that God might make him noble, for he possessed as much beauty as was possible for man to have.

After this he had many perilous adventures; he fought with giants and lions; he entered an enchanted castle and escaped; he went to a well in the forest, and, striking three times on a cymbal with a hammer hung there for the purpose, called forth a great giant, whom he slew, afterwards marrying his daughter. Then he went to rescue the queen of the realm, Gwenivere, from captivity. In order to reach the fortress where she was prisoner, he had to ride in a cart with a dwarf; to follow a wheel that rolled before him to show him the way, or a ball that took the place of the wheel; he had to walk on his hands and knees across a bridge made of a drawn sword; he suffered greatly. At last he rescued the queen, and later than this he married Elaine, the daughter of King Pelles, and her father gave to them the castle of Blyaunt in the Joyous Island, enclosed in iron, and with a deep water all around it. There Lancelot challenged all knights to come and contend with him, and he jousted with more than five hundred, overcoming them all, yet killing none, and at last he returned to Camelot, the place of King Arthur’s court.

One day he was called from the court to an abbey, where three nuns brought to him a beautiful boy of fifteen, asking that he might be made a knight. This was Sir Lancelot’s own son, Galahad, whom he had never seen, and did not yet know. That evening Sir Lancelot remained at the abbey with the boy, that he might keep his vigil there, and on the morrow’s dawn he was made a knight. Sir Lancelot put on one of his spurs, and Bors, Lancelot’s cousin, the other, and then Sir Lancelot said to the boy, “Fair son, attend me to the court of the king;” but the abbess said, “Sir, not now, but we will send him when it shall be time.”

On Whitsunday, at the time called “underne,” which was nine in the morning, King Arthur and his knights sat at the Round Table, where on every seat there was written, in letters of gold, the name of a knight with “here ought to sit he,” or “he ought to sit here;” and thus went the inscriptions until they came to one seat (or _siège_ in French) called the “Siege Perilous,” where they found newly written letters of gold, saying that this seat could not be occupied until four hundred and fifty years after the death of Christ; and that was this very day. Then there came news of a marvellous stone which had been seen above the water, with a sword sticking in it bearing the letters, “Never shall man take me hence, but only he by whose side I ought to hang, and he shall be the best knight of the world.” Then two of the knights tried to draw the sword and failed to draw it, and Sir Lancelot, who was thought the best knight in all the world, refused to attempt it. Then they went back to their seats around the table.

Then when all the seats but the “Siege Perilous” were full, the hall was suddenly darkened; and an old man clad in white, whom nobody knew, came in, with a young knight in red armor, wearing an empty scabbard at his side, who said, “Peace be with you, fair knights.” The old man said, “I bring you here a young knight that is of kings’ lineage,” and the king said, “Sir, ye are right heartily welcome.” Then the old man bade the young knight to remove his armor, and he wore a red garment, while the old man placed on his shoulders a mantle of fine ermine, and said, “Sir, follow after.” Then the old man led him to the “Siege Perilous,” next to Sir Lancelot, and lifted the cloth and read, “Here sits Sir Galahad,” and the youth sat down. Upon this, all the knights of the Round Table marvelled greatly at Sir Galahad, that he dared to sit in that seat, and he so tender of age. Then King Arthur took him by the hand and led him down to the river to see the adventure of the stone. “Sir,” said the king to Sir Galahad, “here is a great marvel, where right good knights have tried and failed.” “Sir,” said Sir Galahad, “that is no marvel, for the adventure was not theirs, but mine; I have brought no sword with me, for here by my side hangs the scabbard,” and he laid his hand on the sword and lightly drew it from the stone.

It was not until long after, and when they both had had many adventures, that Sir Lancelot discovered Galahad to be his son. Sir Lancelot once came to the sea-strand and found a ship without sails or oars, and sailed away upon it. Once, when he touched at an island, a young knight came on board to whom Lancelot said, “Sir, you are welcome,” and when the young knight asked his name, told him, “My name is Sir Lancelot du Lac.” “Sir,” he said, “then you are welcome, for you are my father.” “Ah,” said Lancelot, “are you Sir Galahad?” Then the young knight kneeled down and asked his blessing, and they embraced each other, and there was great joy between them, and they told each other all their deeds. So dwelt Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad together within that ship for half a year, and often they arrived at islands far from men where there were but wild beasts, and they found many adventures strange and perilous which they brought to an end.

When Sir Lancelot at last died, his body was taken to Joyous-Gard, his home, and there it lay in state in the choir, with a hundred torches blazing above it; and while it was there, came his brother Sir Ector de Maris, who had long been seeking Lancelot. When he heard such noise and saw such lights in the choir, he alighted and came in; and Sir Bors went towards him and told him that his brother Lancelot was lying dead. Then Sir Ector threw his shield and sword and helm from him, and when he looked on Sir Lancelot’s face he fell down in a swoon, and when he rose he spoke thus: “Ah, Sir Lancelot,” said he, “thou wert dead of all Christen knights! And now I dare say, that, Sir Lancelot, there thou liest, thou wert never matched of none earthly knight’s hands; and thou wert the curtiest knight that ever beare shield; and thou wert the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrood horse, and thou wert the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman; and thou wert the kindest man that ever strooke with sword; and thou wert the goodliest person that ever came among presse of knights; and thou wert the meekest man and the gentlest that ever eate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortall foe that ever put speare in the rest.”



King Arthur in his youth was fond of all manly exercises, especially of wrestling, an art in which he found few equals. The old men who had been the champions of earlier days, and who still sat, in summer evenings, watching the youths who tried their skill before them, at last told him that he had no rival in Cornwall, and that his only remaining competitor elsewhere was one who had tired out all others.

“Where is he?” said Arthur.

“He dwells,” an old man said, “on an island whither you will have to go and find him. He is of all wrestlers the most formidable. You will think him at first so insignificant as to be hardly worth a contest; you will easily throw him at the first trial; but after a while you will find him growing stronger; he seeks out all your weak points as by magic; he never gives up; you may throw him again and again, but he will conquer you at last.”

“His name! his name!” said Arthur.

“His name,” they answered, “is Hanner Dyn; his home is everywhere, but on his own island you will be likely to find him sooner or later. Keep clear of him, or he will get the best of you in the end, and make you his slave as he makes slaves of others whom he has conquered.”

Far and wide over the ocean the young Arthur sought; he touched at island after island; he saw many weak men who did not dare to wrestle with him, and many strong ones whom he could always throw, until at last when he was far out under the western sky, he came one day to an island which he had never before seen and which seemed uninhabited. Presently there came out from beneath an arbor of flowers a little miniature man, graceful and quick-moving as an elf. Arthur, eager in his quest, said to him, “In what island dwells Hanner Dyn?” “In this island,” was the answer. “Where is he?” said Arthur. “I am he,” said the laughing boy, taking hold of his hand.

“What did they mean by calling you a wrestler?” said Arthur.

“Oh,” said the child coaxingly, “I am a wrestler. Try me.”

The king took him and tossed him in the air with his strong arms, till the boy shouted with delight. He then took Arthur by the hand and led him about the island–showed him his house and where the gardens and fields were. He showed him the rows of men toiling in the meadows or felling trees. “They all work for me,” he said carelessly. The king thought he had never seen a more stalwart set of laborers. Then the boy led him to the house, asked him what his favorite fruits were, or his favorite beverages, and seemed to have all at hand. He was an unaccountable little creature; in size and years he seemed a child; but in his activity and agility he seemed almost a man. When the king told him so, he smiled, as winningly as ever, and said, “That is what they call me–Hanner Dyn, The Half-Man.” Laughing merrily, he helped Arthur into his boat and bade him farewell, urging him to come again. The King sailed away, looking back with something like affection on his winsome little playmate.

It was months before Arthur came that way again. Again the merry child met him, having grown a good deal since their earlier meeting. “How is my little wrestler?” said Arthur. “Try me,” said the boy; and the king tossed him again in his arms, finding the delicate limbs firmer, and the slender body heavier than before, though easily manageable. The island was as green and more cultivated, there were more men working in the fields, and Arthur noticed that their look was not cheerful, but rather as of those who had been discouraged and oppressed.

It was, however, a charming sail to the island, and, as it became more familiar, the king often bade his steersman guide the pinnace that way. He was often startled with the rapid growth and increased strength of the laughing boy, Hanner Dyn, while at other times he seemed much as before and appeared to have made but little progress. The youth seemed never tired of wrestling; he always begged the king for a trial of skill, and the king rejoiced to see how readily the young wrestler caught at the tricks of the art; so that the time had long passed when even Arthur’s strength could toss him lightly in the air, as at first. Hanner Dyn was growing with incredible rapidity into a tall young fellow, and instead of the weakness that often comes with rapid growth, his muscles grew ever harder and harder. Still merry and smiling, he began to wrestle in earnest, and one day, in a moment of carelessness, Arthur received a back fall, perhaps on moist ground, and measured his length. Rising with a quick motion, he laughed at the angry faces of his attendants and bade the boy farewell. The men at work in the fields glanced up, attracted by the sound of voices, and he saw them exchange looks with one another.

Yet he felt his kingly dignity a little impaired, and hastened ere long to revisit the island and teach the saucy boy another lesson. Months had passed, and the youth had expanded into a man of princely promise, but with the same sunny look. His shoulders were now broad, his limbs of the firmest mould, his eye clear, keen, penetrating. “Of all the wrestlers I have ever yet met,” said the king, “this younker promises to be the most formidable. I can easily throw him now, but what will he be a few years hence?” The youth greeted him joyously, and they began their usual match. The sullen serfs in the fields stopped to watch them, and an aged Druid priest, whom Arthur had brought with him, to give the old man air and exercise in the boat, opened his weak eyes and closed them again.

As they began to wrestle, the king felt, by the very grasp of the youth’s arms, by the firm set of his foot upon the turf, that this was to be unlike any previous effort. The wrestlers stood after the old Cornish fashion, breast to breast, each resting his chin on the other’s shoulder. They grasped each other round the body, each setting his left hand above the other’s right. Each tried to force the other to touch the ground with both shoulders and one hip, or with both hips and one shoulder; or else to compel the other to relinquish his hold for an instant–either of these successes giving the victory. Often as Arthur had tried the art, he never had been so matched before. The competitors swayed this way and that, writhed, struggled, half lost their footing and regained it, yet neither yielded. All the boatmen gathered breathlessly around, King Arthur’s men refusing to believe their eyes, even when they knew their king was in danger. A stranger group was that of the sullen farm-laborers, who left their ploughs and spades, and, congregating on a rising ground, watched without any expression of sympathy the contest that was going on. An old wrestler from Cornwall, whom Arthur had brought with him, was the judge; and according to the habit of the time, the contest was for the best two bouts in three. By the utmost skill and strength, Arthur compelled Hanner Dyn to lose his hold for one instant in the first trial, and the King was pronounced the victor.

The second test was far more difficult; the boy, now grown to a man, and seeming to grow older and stronger before their very eyes, twice forced Arthur to the ground either with hip or shoulder, but never with both, while the crowd closed in breathlessly around; and the half-blind old Druid, who had himself been a wrestler in his youth, and who had been brought ashore to witness the contest, called warningly aloud, “Save thyself, O king!” At this Arthur roused his failing strength to one final effort, and, griping his rival round the waist with a mighty grasp, raised him bodily from the ground and threw him backward till he fell flat, like a log, on both shoulders and both hips; while Arthur himself fell fainting a moment later. Nor did he recover until he found himself in the boat, his head resting on the knees of the aged Druid, who said to him, “Never again, O king! must you encounter the danger you have barely escaped. Had you failed, you would have become subject to your opponent, whose strength has been maturing for years to overpower you. Had you yielded, you would, although a king, have become but as are those dark-browed men who till his fields and do his bidding. For know you not what the name Hanner Dyn means? It means–Habit; and the force of habit, at first weak, then growing constantly stronger, ends in conquering even kings!”



In the ruined castle at Winchester, England, built by William the Conqueror, there is a hall called “The Great Hall,” where Richard Coeur de Lion was received by his nobles when rescued from captivity; where Henry III. was born; where all the Edwards held court; where Henry VIII. entertained the emperor Charles V.; where Queen Mary was married to Philip II.; where Parliament met for many years. It is now a public hall for the county; and at one end of it the visitor sees against the wall a vast wooden tablet on which the names of King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table are inscribed in a circle. No one knows its date or origin, though it is known to be more than four hundred years old, but there appear upon it the names most familiar to those who have read the legends of King Arthur, whether in Tennyson’s poems or elsewhere. There are Lancelot and Bedivere, Gawaine and Dagonet, Modred and Gareth, and the rest. Many books have been written of their deeds; but a time came when almost all those knights were to fall, according to the legend, in one great battle. Modred, the king’s nephew, had been left in charge of the kingdom during Arthur’s absence, and had betrayed him and tried to dethrone him, meaning to crown himself king. Many people joined with him, saying that under Arthur they had had only war and fighting, but under Modred they would have peace and bliss. Yet nothing was farther from Modred’s purpose than bliss or peace, and it was agreed at last that a great battle should be fought for the kingdom.

On the night of Trinity Sunday, King Arthur had a dream. He thought he sat in a chair, upon a scaffold, and the chair was fastened to a wheel. He was dressed in the richest cloth of gold that could be made, but far beneath him he saw a pit, full of black water, in which were all manner of serpents and floating beasts. Then the wheel began to turn, and he went down, down among the floating things, and they wreathed themselves about him till he cried, “Help! help!”

Then his knights and squires and yeomen aroused him, but he slumbered again, not sleeping nor thoroughly waking. Then he thought he saw his nephew, Sir Gawaine, with a number of fair ladies, and when King Arthur saw him, he said, “O fair nephew, what are these ladies who come with you?” “Sir,” said Sir Gawaine, “these are the ladies for whose protection I fought while I was a living man, and God has given them grace that they should bring me thither to you, to warn you of your death. If you fight with Sir Modred to-morrow, you must be slain, and most of your people on both sides.” So Sir Gawaine and all the ladies vanished, and then the king called upon his knights and squires and yeomen, and summoned his lords and bishops. They agreed to propose to Sir Modred that they should have a month’s delay, and meanwhile agreed to meet him with fourteen persons on each side, besides Arthur and Modred.

Each of these leaders warned his army, when they met, to watch the other, and not to draw their swords until they saw a drawn sword on the other side. In that case they were to come on fiercely. So the small party of chosen men on each side met and drank wine together, and agreed upon a month’s delay before fighting; but while this was going on an adder came out of a bush and stung a knight on the foot, and he drew his sword to slay it and thought of nothing farther. At the sight of that sword the two armies were in motion, trumpets were blown instantly, and the men of each army thought that the other army had begun the fray. “Alas, this unhappy day!” cried King Arthur; and, as the old chronicle says, “nothing there was but rushing and riding, fencing and striking, and many a grim word was there spoken either to other, and many a deadly stroke.”

The following is the oldest account of the battle, translated into quaint and literal English by Madden from the book called “Layamon’s Brut”; “Innumerable folk it came toward the host, riding and on foot, as the rain down falleth! Arthur marched to Cornwall, with an immense army. Modred heard that, and advanced against him with innumerable folk,–there were many fated! Upon the Tambre they came together; the place hight Camelford, evermore lasted the same word. And at Camelford was assembled sixty thousand, and more thousands thereto; Modred was their chief. Then thitherward ‘gan ride Arthur the mighty, with innumerable folk,–fated though it were! Upon the Tambre they encountered together; elevated their standards; advanced together; drew their long swords; smote on the helms; fire outsprang; spears splintered; shields ‘gan shiver; shafts brake in pieces. There fought all together innumerable folk! Tambre was in flood with blood to excess; there might no man in the fight know any warrior, nor who did worse, nor who better, so was the conflict mingled! For each slew downright, were he swain, were he knight.

“There was Modred slain, and deprived of life-day, and all his knights slain in the fight. There were slain all the brave, Arthur’s warriors, high and low, and all the Britons of Arthur’s board, and all his dependents, of many kingdoms. And Arthur wounded with broad slaughter-spear; fifteen dreadful wounds he had; in the least one might thrust two gloves! Then was there no more remained in the fight, of two hundred thousand men that there lay hewed in pieces, except Arthur the king alone, and two of his knights. Arthur was wounded wondrously much. There came to him a lad, who was of his kindred; he was Cador’s son, the earl of Cornwall; Constantine the lad hight, he was dear to the king. Arthur looked on him, where he lay on the ground, and said these words, with sorrowful heart: ‘Constantine, thou art welcome; thou wert Cador’s son. I give thee here my kingdom, and defend thou my Britons ever in thy life, and maintain them all the laws that have stood in my days, and all the good laws that in Uther’s days stood. And I will fare to Avalon, to the fairest of all maidens, to Argante the queen, an elf most fair, and she shall make my wounds all sound, make me all whole with healing draughts. And afterwards I will come to my kingdom, and dwell with the Britons with mickle joy.’ Even with the words there approached from the sea that was a short boat, floating with the waves; and two women therein, wondrously formed; and they took Arthur anon, and bare him quickly, and laid him softly down, and forth they ‘gan depart. Then was it accomplished that Merlin whilom said, that mickle care should be of Arthur’s departure. The Britons believe yet that he is alive, and dwelleth in Avalon with the fairest of all elves; and the Britons ever yet expect when Arthur shall return. Was never the man born, of any lady chosen, that knoweth, of the sooth, to say more of Arthur. But whilom was a sage hight Merlin; he said with words,–his sayings were sooth,–that an Arthur should yet come to help the English.”

Another traditional account which Tennyson has mainly followed in a poem, is this: The king bade Sir Bedivere take his good sword Excalibur and go with it to the water-side and throw it into the water and return to tell what he saw. Then Sir Bedivere took the sword, and it was so richly and preciously adorned that he would not throw it, and came back without it. When the king asked what had happened, Sir Bedivere said, “I saw nothing but waves and wind,” and when Arthur did not believe him, and sent him again, he made the same answer, and then, when sent a third time, he threw the sword into the water, as far as he could. Then an arm and a hand rose above the water and caught it, and shook and brandished it three times and vanished.

Then Sir Bedivere came back to the king; he told what he had seen. “Alas,” said Arthur, “help me from hence, for I fear I have tarried over long.” Then Sir Bedivere took King Arthur upon his back, and went with him to the water’s side. And when they had reached there, a barge with many fair ladies was lying there, with many ladies in it, and among them three queens, and they all had black hoods, and they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur.

“Now put me in the barge,” said Arthur, and the three queens received him with great tenderness, and King Arthur laid his head in the lap of one, and she said, “Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long, until your wound was cold?” And then they rowed away, and King Arthur said to Sir Bedivere, “I will go unto the valley of Avalon to heal my grievous wound, and if I never return, pray for my soul.” He was rowed away by the weeping queens, and one of them was Arthur’s sister Morgan le Fay; another was the queen of Northgalis, and the third was the queen of Waste Lands; and it was the belief for years in many parts of England that Arthur was not dead, but would come again to reign in England, when he had been nursed long enough by Morgan le Fay in the island of Avalon.

The tradition was that King Arthur lived upon this island in an enchanted castle which had the power of a magnet, so that every one who came near it was drawn thither and could not get away. Morgan le Fay was its ruler (called more correctly Morgan la fée, or the fairy), and her name Morgan meant sea-born. By one tradition, the queens who bore away Arthur were accompanied in the boat by the bard and enchanter, Merlin, who had long been the king’s adviser, and this is the description of the island said to have been given by Merlin to another bard, Taliessin:–

“‘We came to that green and fertile island which each year is blessed with two autumns, two springs, two summers, two gatherings of fruit,–the land where pearls are found, where the flowers spring as you gather them– that isle of orchards called the “Isle of the Blessed.” No tillage there, no coulter to tear the bosom of the earth. Without labor it affords wheat and the grape. There the lives extend beyond a century. There nine sisters, whose will is the only law, rule over those who go from us to them. The eldest excels in the art of healing, and exceeds her sisters in beauty. She is called Morgana, and knows the virtues of all the herbs of the meadow. She can change her form, and soar in the air like a bird; she can be where she pleases in a moment, and in a moment descend on our coasts from the clouds. Her sister Thiten is renowned for her skill on the harp.’

“‘With the prince we arrived, and Morgana received us with fitting honour. And in her own chamber she placed the king on a bed of gold, and with delicate touch, she uncovered the wound. Long she considered it, and at length said to him that she could heal it if he stayed long with her, and willed her to attempt her cure. Rejoiced at this news, we intrusted the king to her care, and soon after set sail.'”

Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote the book called the “Historie of King Arthur,” or more commonly the “Morte d’Arthur,” utters these high thoughts concerning the memory of the great king:–

“Oh, yee mightie and pompeous lords, shining in the glory transitory of this unstable life, as in raigning over great realmes and mightie great countries, fortified with strong castles and toures, edified with many a rich citie; yee also, yee fierce and mightie knights, so valiant in adventurous deeds of armes; behold, behold, see how this mightie conquerour king Arthur, whom in his humaine life all the world doubted, see also the noble queene Guenever, which sometime sat in her chaire adorned with gold, pearles, and precious stones, now lye full low in obscure fosse or pit, covered with clods of earth and clay; behold also this mightie champion Sir Launcelot, pearelesse of all knighthood, see now how hee lyeth groveling upon the cold mould, now being so feeble and faint that sometime was so terrible. How and in what manner ought yee to bee so desirous of worldly honour so dangerous! Therefore mee thinketh this present booke is right necessary often to be read, for in it shall yee finde the most gracious, knightly, and vertuous war of the most noble knights of the world, whereby they gat praysing continually. Also mee seemeth, by the oft reading thereof, yee shall greatly desire to accustome your selfe in following of those gracious knightly deedes, that is to say, to dread God, and to love righteousnesse, faithfully and couragiously to serve your soveraigne prince; and the more that God hath given you the triumphall honour, the meeker yee ought to bee, ever feareing the unstablenesse of this deceitfull world.”



An Irish knight named Maelduin set forth early in the eighth century to seek round the seas for his father’s murderers. By the advice of a wizard, he was to take with him seventeen companions, neither less nor more; but at the last moment his three foster brothers, whom he had not included, begged to go with him. He refused, and they cast themselves into the sea to swim after his vessel. Maelduin had pity on them and took them in, but his disregard of the wizard’s advice brought punishment; and it was only after long wanderings, after visiting multitudes of unknown and often enchanted islands, and after the death or loss of the three foster brothers, that Maelduin was able to return to his native land.

One island which they visited was divided into four parts by four fences, one of gold, one of silver, one of brass, one of crystal. In the first division there dwelt kings, in the second queens, in the third warriors, and in the fourth maidens. The voyagers landed in the maidens’ realm; one of these came out in a boat and gave them food, such that every one found in it the taste he liked best; then followed an enchanted drink, which made them sleep for three days and three nights. When they awakened they were in their boat on the sea, and nothing was to be seen either of island or maidens.

The next island had in it a fortress with a brazen door and a bridge of glass, on which every one who ascended it slipped and fell. A woman came from the fortress, pail in hand, drew water from the sea and returned, not answering them when they spoke. When they reached at last the brazen door and struck upon it, it made a sweet and soothing sound, and they went to sleep, for three days and nights, as before. On the fourth day a maiden came who was most beautiful; she wore garments of white silk, a white mantle with a brooch of silver with studs of gold, and a gold band round her hair. She greeted each man by his name, and said, “It is long that we have expected you.” She took them into the castle and gave them every kind of food they had ever desired. Maelduin was filled with love for her and asked her for her love; but she told him that love was sin and she had no knowledge of sin; so she left him. On the morrow they found their boat, stranded on a crag, while lady and fortress and island had all vanished.

Another island on which they landed was large and bare, with another fortress and a palace. There they met a lady who was kinder. She wore an embroidered purple mantle, gold embroidered gloves, and ornamented sandals, and was just riding up to the palace door. Seventeen maidens waited there for her. She offered to keep the strangers as guests, and that each of them should have a wife, she herself wedding Maelduin. She was, it seems, the widow of the king of the island, and these were her seventeen daughters. She ruled the island and went every day to judge the people and direct their lives. If the strangers would stay, she said that they should never more know sorrow, or hardships, or old age; she herself, in spite of her large family, being young and beautiful as ever. They stayed three months, and it seemed to all but Maelduin that the three months were three years. When the queen was absent, one day, the men took the boat and compelled Maelduin to leave the island with them; but the queen rode after them and flung a rope, which Maelduin caught and which clung to his hand. She drew them back to the shore; this happened thrice, and the men accused Maelduin of catching the rope on purpose; he bade another man catch it, and his companions cut off his hand, and they escaped at last.

On one island the seafarers found three magic apples, and each apple gave sufficient food for forty nights; again, on another island, they found the same apples. In another place still, a great bird like a cloud arrived, with a tree larger than an oak in its claws. After a while two eagles came and cleaned the feathers of the larger bird. They also stripped off the red berries from the tree and threw them into the ocean until its foam grew red. The great bird then flew into the ocean and cleaned itself. This happened daily for three days, when the great bird flew away with stronger wings, its youth being thus renewed.

They came to another island where many people stood by the shore talking and joking. They were all looking at Maelduin and his comrades, and kept gaping and laughing, but would not exchange a word with them. Then Maelduin sent one of his foster brothers on the island; but he ranged himself with the others and did as they did. Maelduin and his men rowed round and round the island, and whenever they passed the point where this comrade was, they addressed him, but he never answered, and only gaped and laughed. They waited for him a long time and left him. This island they found to be called The Island of Joy.

On another island they found sheep grazing, of enormous size; on another, birds, whose eggs when eaten caused feathers to sprout all over the bodies of those who eat them. On another they found crimson flowers, whose mere perfume sufficed for food, and they encountered women whose only food was apples. Through the window flew three birds: a blue one with a crimson head; a crimson one with a green head; a green one with a golden head. These sang heavenly music, and were sent to accompany the wanderers on their departing; the queen of the island gave them an emerald cup, such that water poured into it became wine. She asked if they knew how long they had been there, and when they said “a day,” she told them that it was a year, during which they had had no food. As they sailed away, the birds sang to them until both birds and island disappeared in the mist.

They saw another island standing on a single pedestal, as if on one foot, projecting from the water. Rowing round it to seek a way into it they found no passage, but they saw in the base of the pedestal, under water, a closed door with a lock–this being the only way in which the island could be entered. Around another island there was a fiery rampart, which constantly moved in a circle. In the side of that rampart was an open door, and as it came opposite them in its turning course, they beheld through it the island and all therein; and its occupants, even human beings, were many and beautiful, wearing rich garments, and feasting with gold vessels in their hands. The voyagers lingered long to gaze upon this marvel.

On another island they found many human beings, black in color and raiment, and always bewailing. Lots were cast, and another of Maelduin’s foster brothers was sent on shore. He at once joined the weeping crowd, and did as they did. Two others were sent to bring him back, and both shared his fate, falling under some strange spell. Then Maelduin sent four others, and bade them look neither at the land nor at the sky; to wrap their mouths and noses with their garments, and not breathe the island air; and not to take off their eyes from their comrades. In this way the two who followed the foster brother on shore were rescued, but he remained behind.

Of another island they could see nothing but a fort, protected by a great white rampart, on which nothing living was to be seen but a small cat, leaping from one to another of four stone pillars. They found brooches and ornaments of gold and silver, they found white quilts and embroidered garments hanging up, flitches of bacon were suspended, a whole ox was roasting, and vessels stood filled with intoxicating drinks. Maelduin asked the cat if all this was for them; but the cat merely looked at him and went on playing. The seafarers dined and drank, then went to sleep. As they were about to depart, Maelduin’s third foster brother proposed to carry off a tempting necklace, and in spite of his leader’s warnings grasped it. Instantly the cat leaped through him like a fiery arrow, burned him so that he became ashes, and went back to its pillar. Thus all three of the foster brothers who had disregarded the wizard’s warning, and forced themselves upon the party, were either killed or left behind upon the enchanted islands.

Around another island there was a demon horse-race going on; the riders were just riding in over the sea, and then the race began; the voyagers could only dimly perceive the forms of the horses, but could hear the cries of their riders, the strokes of the whips, and the words of the spectators, “See the gray horse!” “Watch the chestnut horse!” and the voyagers were so alarmed that they rowed away. The next island was covered with trees laden with golden apples, but these were being rapidly eaten by small, scarlet animals which they found, on coming nearer, to be all made of fire and thus brightened in hue. Then the animals vanished, and Maelduin with his men landed, and though the ground was still hot from the fiery creatures, they brought away a boat load of the apples. Another island was divided into two parts by a brass wall across the middle. There were two flocks of sheep, and those on one side of the wall were white, while the others were black. A large man was dividing and arranging the sheep, and threw them easily over the wall. When he threw a white sheep among the black ones it became black, and when he threw a black sheep among the white ones, it became white instantly. The voyagers thought of landing, but when Maelduin saw this, he said, “Let us throw something on shore to see if it will change color. If it does, we will avoid the island.” So they took a black branch and threw it toward the white sheep. When it fell, it grew white; and the same with a white branch on the black side. “It is lucky for us,” said Maelduin, “that we did not land on this island.”

They came next to an island where there was but one man visible, very aged, and with long, white hair. Above him were trees, covered with great numbers of birds. The old man told them that he like them had come in a curragh, or coracle, and had placed many green sods beneath his feet, to steady the boat. Reaching this spot, the green sods had joined together and formed an island which at first gave him hardly room to stand; but every year one foot was added to its size, and one tree grew up. He had lived there for centuries, and those birds were the souls of his children and descendants, each of whom was sent there after death, and they were all fed from heaven each day. On the next island there was a great roaring as of bellows and a sound of smiths’ hammers, as if striking all together on an anvil, every sound seeming to come from the strokes of a dozen men. “Are they near?” asked one big voice. “Silence!” said another; and they were evidently watching for the boat. When it rowed away, one of the smiths flung after them a vast mass of red-hot iron, which he had grasped with the tongs from the furnace. It fell just short, but made the whole sea to hiss and boil around them as they rowed away.

Another island had a wall of water round it, and Maelduin and his men saw multitudes of people driving away herds of cattle and sheep, and shouting, “There they are, they have come again;” and a woman pelted them from below with great nuts, which the crew gathered for eating. Then as they rowed away they heard one man say, “Where are they now?” and another cried, “They are going away.” Still again they visited an island where a great stream of water shot up into the air and made an arch like a rainbow that spanned the land.

They walked below it without getting wet, and hooked down from it many large salmon; besides that, many fell out above their heads, so that they had more than they could carry away with them. These are by no means all of the strange adventures of Maelduin and his men.