| English Literature for Boys and Girls|
|by H. E. Marshall|
|Delightful introduction to the writers of English literature whose works hold the greatest appeal for the youthful reader. The life and personality of each author is given in outline, with enough material quoted from his works to give an idea of what he wrote. For most authors suggestions for further reading are included. The outline of historical background enables the young reader to grasp the connection between the literature and the life of the time. Excellent as a companion to a chronological study of English literature. Ages 12-15 |
ABOUT SOME OLD WELSH STORIES AND STORY-TELLERS
 YOU remember that the Celtic family was divided into two
branches, the Gaelic and the Cymric. So far we have only spoken
about the Gaels, but the Cymry had their poets and historians
too. The Cymry, however, do not claim such great age for their
first known poets as do the Gaels. Ossian, you remember, was
supposed to live in the third century, but the oldest Cymric
poets whose names we know were supposed to live in the sixth
century. As, however, the oldest Welsh manuscripts are of the
twelfth century, it is again very difficult to prove that any of
the poems were really written by those old poets.
But this is very certain, that the Cymry, like the Gaels, had
their bards and minstrels who sang of the famous deeds of heroes
in the halls of the chieftains, or in the market-places for the
MINSTRELS SANG OF THE FAMOUS DEEDS OF HEROES.
From the time that the Romans left Britain to the time when the
Saxons or English were at length firmly settled in the land, many
fierce struggles, many stirring events must have taken place.
That time must have been full of brave deeds such as the
minstrels loved to sing. But that part of our history is very
dark. Much that is written of it is little more than a fairy
tale, for it was not until long afterwards that anything about
this time was written down.
The great hero of the struggle between the Britons and the Saxons
was King Arthur, but it was not until many many years after the
time in which he lived that all the
 splendid stories of his
knights, of his Round Table, and of his great conquests began to
take the form in which we know them. Indeed, in the earliest
Welsh tales the name of Arthur is hardly known at all. When he
is mentioned it is merely as a warrior among other warriors
equally great, and not as the mighty emperor that we know. The
Arthur that we love is the Arthur of literature, not the Arthur
of history. And I think you may like to follow the story of the
Arthur of literature, and see how, from very little, it has grown
so great that now it is known all the world over. I should like
you to remember, too, that the Arthur story is not the only one
which repeats itself again and again throughout our Literature.
There are others which have caught the fancy of great masters and
have been told by them in varying ways throughout the ages. But
of them all, the Arthur story is perhaps the best example.
Of the old Welsh poets it may, perhaps, be interesting to
remember two. These are Taliesin, or "Shining Forehead," and
Merlin is interesting because he is Arthur's great bard and
magician. Taliesin is interesting because in a book called The
Mabinogion, which is a translation of some of the oldest Welsh
stories, we have the tale of his wonderful birth and life.
Mabinogion really means tales for the young. Except the History
of Taliesin, all the stories in this book are translated from a
very old manuscript called the Red Book of Hergest. This Red
Book belongs to the fourteenth century, but many of the stories
are far far older, having, it is thought, been told in some form
or other for hundreds of years before they were written down at
all. Unlike many old tales, too, they are written in prose, not
One of the stories in The Mabinogion, the story of
 King Ludd,
takes us back a long way. King Ludd was a king in Britain, and
in another book we learn that he was a brother of Cassevelaunis,
who fought against Julius Caesar, so from that we can judge of
the time in which he reigned.
"King Ludd," we are told in The Mabinogion, "ruled prosperously
and rebuilt the walls of London, and encompassed it about with
numberless towers. And after that he bade the citizens build
houses therein, such as no houses in the kingdom could equal.
And, moreover, he was a mighty warrior, and generous and liberal
in giving meat and drink to all that sought them. And though he
had many castles and cities, this one loved he more than any.
And he dwelt therein most part of the year, and therefore was it
called Caer Ludd, and at last Caer London. And after the strange
race came there, it was called London." It is interesting to
remember that there is still a street in London called Ludgate.
Caer is the Celtic word for Castle, and is still to be found in
many Welsh names, such as Carnarvon, Caerleon, and so on.
Now, although Ludd was such a wise king, three plagues fell upon
the island of Britain. "The first was a certain race that came
and was called Coranians, and so great was their knowledge that
there was no discourse upon the face of the island, however low
it might be spoken, but what, if the wind met it, it was known to
"The second plague was a shriek which came on every May-eve over
every hearth in the island of Britain. And this went through
peoples' hearts and frightened them out of their senses.
"The third plague was, however much of provision and food might
be prepared in the king's courts, were there even so much as a
year's provision of meat and drink, none of it could ever be
found, except what was consumed upon the first night."
 The story goes on to tell how good King Ludd freed the island of
Britain from all three plagues and lived in peace all the days of
In five of the stories of The Mabinogion, King Arthur appears.
And, although these were all written in Welsh, it has been
thought that some may have been brought to Wales from France.
This seems strange, but it comes about in this way. Part of
France is called Brittany, as you know. Now, long long ago,
before the Romans came to Britain, some of the people who lived
in that part of France sailed across the sea and settled in
Britain. These may have been the ancient Britons whom Caesar
fought when he first came to our shore.
Later, when the Romans left our island and the Picts and Scots
oppressed the Britons, many of them fled back over the sea to
Brittany or Armorica, as it used to be called. Later still, when
the Saxons came, the Britons were driven by degrees into the
mountains of Wales and the wilds of Cornwall, while others fled
again across the sea to Brittany. These took with them the
stories which their minstrels told, and told them in their new
home. So it came about that the stories which were told in Wales
and in Cornwall were told in Brittany also.
And how were these stories brought back again to England?
Another part of France is called Normandy. The Normans and the
Bretons were very different peoples, as different as the Britons
and the English. But the Normans conquered part of Brittany, and
a close relationship grew up between the two peoples. Conan,
Duke of Brittany, and William, Duke of Normandy, were related to
each other, and in a manner the Bretons owned the Duke of
Normandy as overlord.
Now you know that in 1066 the great Duke William
 came sailing
over the sea to conquer England, and with him came more soldiers
from Brittany than from any other land. Perhaps the songs of the
minstrels had kept alive in the hearts of the Bretons a memory of
their island home. Perhaps that made them glad to come to help
to drive out the hated Saxons. At any rate come they did, and
brought with them their minstrel tales.
And soon through all the land the Norman power spread. And
whether they first heard them in Armorica or in wild Wales, the
Norman minstrels took the old Welsh stories and made them their
own. And the best of all the tales were told of Arthur and his
Doubtless the Normans added much to these stories. For although
they were not good at inventing anything, they were very good at
taking what others had invented and making it better. And the
English, too, as Norman power grew, clung more and more to the
memory of the past. They forgot the difference between British
and English, and in their thoughts Arthur grew to be a national
hero, a hero who had loved his country, and who was not Norman.
The Normans, then, brought tales of Arthur with them when they
came to England. They heard there still other tales and improved
them, and Arthur thus began to grow into a great hero. I will
now go on to show how he became still greater.
In the reign of Henry I. (the third Norman king who ruled our
land) there lived a monk called Geoffrey of Monmouth. He was
filled with the love of his land, and he made up his mind to
write a history of the kings of Britain.
Geoffrey wrote his book in Latin, because at this time it was the
language which most people could understand. For a long time
after the Normans came to England, they spoke Norman French. The
English still spoke English,
 and the British Welsh or Cymric.
But every one almost who could read at all could read Latin. So
Geoffrey chose to write in Latin. He said he translated all that
he wrote from an old British book which had been brought from
Brittany and given to him. But that old British book has never
been seen by any one, and it is generally thought that Geoffrey
took old Welsh tales and fables for a foundation, invented a good
deal more, and so made his history, and that the "old British
Book" never existed at all. His book may not be very good
history—indeed, other historians were very angry and said that
Geoffrey "lied saucily and shamelessly"—but it is very
delightful to read.
Geoffrey's chief hero is Arthur, and we may say that it is from
this time that Arthur became a great hero of Romance. For
Geoffrey told his stories so well that they soon became famous,
and they were read not only in England, but all over the
Continent. Soon story-tellers and poets in other lands began to
write stories about Arthur too, and from then till now there has
never been a time when they have not been read. So to the Welsh
must be given the honor of having sown a seed from which has
grown the wide-spreading tree we call the Arthurian Legend.
Geoffrey begins his story long before the time of Arthur. He
begins with the coming of Brutus, the ancient hero who conquered
Albion and changed its name to Britain, and he continues to about
two hundred years after the death of Arthur. But Arthur is his
real hero, so he tells the story in very few words after his
Geoffrey tells of many battles and of how the British fought, not
only with the Saxons, but among themselves. And at last he says:
"As barbarism crept in they were no longer called Britons, but
Welsh, a word derived either from Gualo, one of their dukes, or
from Guales, their
 Queen, or else from their being barbarians.
But the Saxons did wiselier, kept peace and concord amongst
themselves, tilling their fields and building anew their cities
and castles. . . . But the Welsh degenerating from the nobility
of the Britons, never after recovered the sovereignty of the
island, but on the contrary quarreling at one time amongst
themselves, and at another with the Saxons, never ceased to have
bloodshed on hand either in public or private feud."
Geoffrey then says that he hands over the matter of writing about
the later Welsh and Saxon kings to others, "Whom I bid be silent
as to the kings of the Britons, seeing that they have not that
book in the British speech which Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford,
did convey hither out of Brittany, the which I have in this wise
been at the pains of translating into the Latin speech."
BOOKS TO READ
The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's Histories, translated
by Sebastian Evans.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics