Hamilton Wright Mabie.

Legends That Every Child Should Know; a Selection of the Great Legends of All Times for Young People online

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[Illustration: GUY EARL OF WARWICK]






If we knew how the words in our language were made and what they have
meant to successive generations of the men and women who have used them,
we should have a new and very interesting kind of history to read. For
words, like all other creations of man, were not deliberately
manufactured to meet a need, as are the various parts of a bicycle or of
an automobile; but grew gradually and slowly out of experiences which
compelled their production. For it is one of the evidences of the
brotherhood of men that, either by the pressure of necessity or of the
instinct to describe to others what has happened to ourself and so make
common property of personal experience, no interesting or influential or
significant thing can befall a man that is not accompanied by a desire
to communicate it to others.

The word legend has a very interesting history, which sheds light not
only on its origin but on early habits of thought and customs. It is
derived from the Latin verb _legere_, which means "to read." As
legends are often passed down by word of mouth and are not reduced to
writing until they have been known for centuries by great numbers of
people, it seems difficult at first glance to see any connection between
the Latin word and its English descendant. In Russia and other
countries, where large populations live remote from cities and are
practically without books and newspapers, countless stories are told by
peasant mothers to their children, by reciters or semi-professional
story-tellers, which have since been put into print. For a good many
hundred years, probably, the vast majority of legends were not read;
they were heard.

When we understand, however, what the habits of people were in the early
Christian centuries and what the early legends were about, the original
meaning of the word is not only clear but throws light on the history of
this fascinating form of literature. The early legends, as a rule, had
to do with religious people or with places which had religious
associations; they were largely concerned with the saints and were
freely used in churches for the instruction of the people. In all
churches selections from some book or books are used as part of the
service; readings from the Old and New Testament are included in the
worship of all churches in Christendom. In the earliest times not only
were Lessons from the Old Testament and the Gospels and Epistles of the
New Testament read, but letters of bishops and selections from other
writings which were regarded as profitable for religious instruction.
Later stories of the saints and passages from the numerous lives which
appeared were read at different services and contributed greatly to
their interest. The first legends in Christian countries were incidents
from the lives of the saints and were included in the selections made
from various writings for public worship; these selections were called
_legends_. The history of the word makes clear, therefore, the
origin and early history of the class of stories which we call legends.

The use of the stories at church services led to the collection, orderly
arrangement and reshaping of a great mass of material which grew rapidly
because so many people were interested in these semi-religious tales. In
the beginning the stories had, as a rule, some basis in fact, though it
was often very slight. As time went on the element of fact grew smaller
and the element of fiction larger; stories which were originally very
short were expanded into long tales and became highly imaginative. In
the Thirteenth Century the _Legenda Aurea_, or Golden Legend, which
became one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages, appeared. In
time, as the taste for this kind of writing grew, the word legend came
to include any story which, under a historical form, gave an account of
an historical or imaginary person.

During the Middle Ages verse-making was very popular and very widely
practised; for versification is very easy when people are in the habit
of using it freely, and a verse is much more easily remembered than a
line of prose. For many generations legends were versified. It must be
remembered that verse and poetry are often very far apart; and poetry is
as difficult to compose as verse is easy. The versified legends were
very rarely poetic; they were simply narratives in verse. Occasionally
men of poetic genius took hold of these old stories and gave them
beautiful forms as did the German poet Hartmann von Aue in "Der Arme
Heinrich." With the tremendous agitation which found expression in the
Reformation, interest in legends died out, and was not renewed until the
Eighteenth Century, when men and women, grown weary of artificial and
mechanical forms of literature, turned again to the old stories and
songs which were the creation of less self-conscious ages. With the
revival of interest in ballads, folk-stories, fairy stories and myths
came a revival of interest in legends.

The myths were highly imaginative and poetic explanations of the world
and of the life of man in it at a time when scientific knowledge and
habits of thought had not come into existence. The fairy story was "a
free poetic dealing with realities in accordance with the law of mental
growth, ... a poetic wording of the facts of life, ... an endeavour to
shape the facts of the world to meet the needs of the imagination, the
cravings of the heart." The legend, dealing originally with incidents in
the lives of the saints and with places made sacred by association with
holy men, has, as a rule, some slight historical basis; is cast in
narrative form and told as a record of fact; and, in cases where it is
entirely imaginative, deals with some popular type of character like
Robin Hood or Rip Van Winkle; or with some mysterious or tragic event,
as Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" are poetic renderings of part of a
great mass of legends which grew up about a little group of imaginary or
semi-historical characters; Longfellow's "Golden Legend" is a modern
rendering of a very old mediaeval tale; Irving's "Legend of Sleepy
Hollow" is an example of purely imaginative prose, and Heine's "Lorelei"
of a purely imaginative poetic legend.

The legend is not so sharply defined as the myth and the fairy story,
and it is not always possible to separate it from these old forms of
stories; but it always concerns itself with one or more characters; it
assumes to be historical; it is almost always old and haunts some
locality like a ghost; and it has a large admixture of fiction, even
where it is not wholly fictitious. Like the myth and fairy story it
throws light on the mind and character of the age that produced it; it
is part of the history of the unfolding of the human mind in the world;
and, above all, it is interesting.



From "Indian Myths." By Ellen Emerson.

From "A Book of Famous Myths and Legends."

From "A Book of Famous Myths and Legends."

Alfred Tennyson.

From "The Epic of Kings. Stories Retold from Firdusi." By Helen Zimmern.

From "Curious Myths of the Middle Ages." By Sabine Baring-Gould.

From "Popular Romances of the Middle Ages." By George W. Cox,
M. A. and Eustace Hinten Jones.

From "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads." Edited by Francis
James Child.

From "Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha de Danaan
and of the Fianna of Ireland." Arranged and put into English by Lady

From "Voices of the Night." By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

From "Curious Myths of the Middle Ages." By Sabine Baring-Gould.

From "Curious Myths of the Middle Ages." By Sabine Baring-Gould.

From "The Wayside Inn." By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

From "Il Libro d'Oro of Those Whose Names are Written in the
Lamb's Book of Life." Translated from the Italian by Mrs. Francis
Alexander. Originally written in Latin by Messer Torrelo of
Casentino, Canonico of Fiesole, and put into Italian by Don Silvano.

From the German of Heinrich Heine.

From "Idylls of the King." By Alfred Tennyson.

Washington Irving.

From "Twice Told Tales." By Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Washington Irving.


WIGWAM LEGEND OF HIAWATHA [Footnote: This story is ascribed to Abraham
le Fort, an Onondaga chief, a graduate of Geneva College. The poem of
Longfellow has given it general interest. Hiawatha is an example of the
intellectual capacity of one of that race of whom it has been said "Take
these Indians in their owne trimme and naturall disposition, and they
bee reported to bee wise, lofty spirited, constant in friendship to one
another: true in their promise, and more industrious than many
others." - Wood's, "New England's Prospect," London, 1634.]

On the banks of Tioto, or Cross Lake, resided an eminent man who bore
the name of Hiawatha, or the Wise Man.

This name was given him, as its meaning indicates, on account of his
great wisdom in council and power in war. Hiawatha was of high and
mysterious origin. He had a canoe which would move without paddles,
obedient to his will, and which he kept with great care and never used
except when he attended the general council of the tribes. It was from
Hiawatha the people learned to raise corn and beans; through his
instructions they were enabled to remove obstructions from the water
courses and clear their fishing grounds; and by him they were helped to
get the mastery over the great monsters which overran the country. The
people listened to him with ever increasing delight; and he gave them
wise laws and maxims from the Great Spirit, for he had been second to
him only in power previous to his taking up his dwelling with mankind.

Having selected the Onondagas for his tribe, years passed away in
prosperity; the Onondagas assumed an elevated rank for their wisdom and
learning, among the other tribes, and there was not one of these which
did not yield its assent to their superior privilege of lighting the

But in the midst of the high tide of their prosperity, suddenly there
arose a great alarm at the invasion of a ferocious band of warriors from
the North of the Great Lakes; and as these bands advanced, an
indiscriminate slaughter was made of men, women, and children.
Destruction fell upon all alike.

The public alarm was great; and Hiawatha advised them not to waste their
efforts in a desultory manner, but to call a council of all the tribes
that could be gathered together, from the East to the West; and, at the
same time, he appointed a meeting to take place on an eminence on the
banks of the Onondaga Lake. There, accordingly, the chief men assembled,
while the occasion brought together a vast multitude of men, women, and
children, who were in expectation of some marvellous deliverance.

Three days elapsed, and Hiawatha did not appear. The multitude began to
fear that he was not coming, and messengers were despatched for him to
Tioto, who found him depressed with a presentiment that evil would
follow his attendance. These fears were overruled by the eager
persuasions of the messengers; and Hiawatha, taking his daughter with
him, put his wonderful canoe in its element and set out for the council.
The grand assemblage that was to avert the threatened danger appeared
quickly in sight, as he moved rapidly along in his magic canoe; and when
the people saw him, they sent up loud shouts of welcome until the
venerated man landed. A steep ascent led up the banks of the lake to the
place occupied by the council; and, as he walked up, a loud whirring
sound was heard above, as if caused by some rushing current of air.
Instantly, the eyes of all were directed upward to the sky, where was
seen a dark spot, something like a small cloud, descending rapidly, and
as it approached, enlarging in its size and increasing in velocity.
Terror and alarm filled the minds of the multitude and they scattered in
confusion. But as soon as he had gained the eminence, Hiawatha stood
still, causing his daughter to do the same - deeming it cowardly to fly,
and impossible, if it was attempted, to divert the designs of the Great
Spirit. The descending object now assumed a more definite aspect; and,
as it came nearer, revealed the shape of a gigantic white bird, with
wide-extended and pointed wings. This bird came down with ever
increasing velocity, until, with a mighty swoop, it dropped upon the
girl, crushing her at once to the earth.

The fixed face of Hiawatha alone indicated his consciousness of his
daughter's death; while in silence he signalled to the warriors, who had
stood watching the event in speechless consternation. One after the
other stepped up to the prostrate bird, which was killed by its violent
fall, and selecting a feather from its snow-white plumage, decorated
himself therewith. [Footnote: Since this event, say the Indians of this
tribe, the plumage of the white heron has been used for their
decorations on the war-path.]

But now a new affliction fell upon Hiawatha; for, on removing the
carcass of the bird, not a trace could be discovered of his daughter.
Her body had vanished from the earth. Shades of anguish contracted the
dark face of Hiawatha. He stood apart in voiceless grief. No word was
spoken. His people waited in silence, until at length arousing himself,
he turned to them and walked in calm dignity to the head of the council.

The first day he listened with attentive gravity to the plans of the
different speakers; on the next day he arose and said: "My friends and
brothers; you are members of many tribes, and have come from a great
distance. We have come to promote the common interest, and our mutual
safety. How shall it be accomplished? To oppose these Northern hordes in
tribes singly, while we are at variance often with each other, is
impossible. By uniting in a common band of brotherhood we may hope to
succeed. Let this be done, and we shall drive the enemy from our land.
Listen to me by tribes. You, the Mohawks, who are sitting under the
shadow of the great tree, whose branches spread wide around, and whose
roots sink deep into the earth, shall be the first nation, because you
are warlike and mighty. You, the Oneidas, who recline your bodies
against the everlasting stone that cannot be moved, shall be the second
nation, because you always give wise counsel. You, the Onondagas, who
have your habitation at the foot of the great hills, and are
overshadowed by their crags, shall be the third nation, because you are
greatly gifted in speech. You, the Senecas, whose dwelling is in the
dark forest, and whose home is all over the land, shall be the fourth
nation, because of your superior cunning in hunting. And you, the
Cayugas, the people who live in the open country and possess much
wisdom, shall be the fifth nation, because you understand better the art
of raising corn and beans, and making lodges. Unite, ye five nations,
and have one common interest, and no foe shall disturb and subdue you.
You, the people who are the feeble bushes, and you who are a fishing
people, may place yourselves under our protection, and we will defend
you. And you of the South and West may do the same, and we will protect
you. We earnestly desire the alliance and friendship of you all.
Brothers, if we unite in this great bond, the Great Spirit will smile
upon us, and we shall be free, prosperous, and happy; but if we remain
as we are, we shall be subject to his frown. We shall be enslaved,
ruined, perhaps annihilated. We may perish under the war-storm, and our
names be no longer remembered by good men, nor be repeated in the dance
and song. Brothers, those are the words of Hiawatha. I have spoken. I am
done." [Footnote: Canassatego, a renowned chief of the Confederacy, in
his remarkable piece of advice to the Colonial Commissioners of
Lancaster in July, 1744, seems to imply that there was an error in this
plan of Hiawatha, as it did not admit all nations into their Confederacy
with equal rights.]

The next day his plan of union was considered and adopted by the
council, after which Hiawatha again addressed the people with wise words
of counsel, and at the close of this speech bade them farewell; for he
conceived that his mission to the Iroquois was accomplished, and he
might announce his withdrawal to the skies. He then went down to the
shore, and assumed his seat in his mystical canoe. Sweet music was heard
in the air as he seated himself; and while the wondering multitude stood
gazing at their beloved chief, he was silently wafted from sight, and
they saw him no more. He passed to the Isle of the Blessed, inhabited by
Owayneo [Footnote: A name for their Great Spirit in the dialect of the
Iroquois.] and his manitos.

And they said, "Farewell forever!"
Said, "Farewell, O Hiawatha!"
And the forests, dark and lonely,
Moved through all their depths of darkness^
Sighed, "Farewell, O Hiawatha!"
And the waves upon the margin,
Rising, rippling on the pebbles,
Sobbed, "Farewell, O Hiawatha!"
And the heron, the shuh-shu-gah,
From her haunts among the fen-lands,
Screamed, "Farewell, O Hiawatha!"
Thus departed Hiawatha,
Hiawatha the Beloved,
In the glory of the sunset,
In the purple mists of evening,
To the regions of the home-wind,
Of the northwest wind, Keewaydin,
To the Islands of the Blessed,
To the kingdom of Ponemah,
To the land of the Hereafter.

[Footnote: "The Song of Hiawatha," by H. W. Longfellow.]



Old King Hrothgar built for himself a great palace, covered with gold,
with benches all round outside, and a terrace leading up to it. It was
bigger than any hall men had ever heard of, and there Hrothgar sat on
his throne to share with men the good things God had given him. A band
of brave knights gathered round him, all living together in peace and

But there came a wicked monster, Grendel, out of the moors. He stole
across the fens in the thick darkness, and touched the great iron bars
of the door of the hall, which immediately sprang open. Then, with his
eyes shooting out flame, he spied the knights sleeping after battle.
With his steel finger nails the hideous fiend seized thirty of them in
their sleep. He gave yells of joy, and sped as quick as lightning across
the moors, to reach his home with his prey.

When the knights awoke, they raised a great cry of sorrow, whilst the
aged King himself sat speechless with grief. None could do battle with
the monster, he was too strong, too horrible for any one to conquer. For
twelve long years Grendel warred against Hrothgar; like a dark shadow of
death he prowled round about the hall, and lay in wait for his men on
the misty moors. One thing he could not touch, and that was the King's
sacred throne.

Now there lived in a far-off land a youngster called Beowulf, who had
the strength of thirty men. He heard of the wicked deeds of Grendel, and
the sorrow of the good King Hrothgar. So he had made ready a strong
ship, and with fourteen friends set sail to visit Hrothgar, as he was in
need of help. The good ship flew over the swelling ocean like a bird,
till in due time the voyagers saw shining white cliffs before them. Then
they knew their journey was at an end; they made fast their ship,
grasped their weapons, and thanked God that they had had an easy voyage.

Now the coastguard spied them from a tower. He set off to the shore,
riding on horseback, and brandishing a huge lance.

"Who are you," he cried, "bearing arms and openly landing here? I am
bound to know from whence you come before you make a step forward.
Listen to my plain words, and hasten to answer me." Beowulf made answer
that they came as friends, to rid Hrothgar of his wicked enemy Grendel,
and at that the coastguard led them on to guide them to the King's
palace. Downhill they ran together, with a rushing sound of voices and
armed tread, until they saw the hall shining like gold against the sky.
The guard bade them go straight to it, then, wheeling round on his
horse, he said, "It is time for me to go. May the Father of All keep you
in safety. For myself, I must guard the coast."

The street was paved with stone, and Beowulf's men marched along,
following it to the hall, their armour shining in the sun and clanging
as they went. They reached the terrace, where they set down their broad
shields. Then they seated themselves on the bench, while they stacked
their spears together and made themselves known to the herald. Hrothgar
speedily bade them welcome. They entered the great hall with measured
tread, Beowulf leading the way. His armour shone like a golden net-work,
and his look was high and noble, as he said, "Hail, O King! To fight
against Grendel single-handed have I come. Grant me this, that I may
have this task alone, I and my little band of men. I know that the
terrible monster despises weapons, and therefore I shall bear neither
sword, nor shield, nor buckler. Hand to hand I will fight the foe, and
death shall come to whomsoever God wills. If death overtakes me, then
will the monster carry away my body to the swamps, so care not for my
body, but send my armour to my King. My fate is in God's hands."

Hrothgar loved the youth for his noble words, and bade him and his men
sit down to the table and merrily share the feast, if they had a mind to
do so. As they feasted, a minstrel sang with a clear voice. The Queen,
in cloth of gold, moved down the hall and handed the jewelled cup of
mead to the King and all the warriors, old and young. At the right
moment, with gracious words, she brought it to Beowulf. Full of pride
and high purpose, the youth drank from the splendid cup, and vowed that
he would conquer the enemy or die.

When the sun sank in the west, all the guests arose. The King bade
Beowulf guard the house, and watch for the foe. "Have courage," he said,
"be watchful, resolve on success. Not a wish of yours shall be left
unfulfilled, if you perform this mighty deed."

Then Beowulf lay down to rest in the hall, putting off from him his coat
of mail, helmet, and sword.

Through the dim night Grendel came stealing. All slept in the darkness,
all but one! The door sprang open at the first touch that the monster
gave it. He trod quickly over the paved floor of the hall; his eyes
gleamed as he saw a troop of kinsmen lying together asleep. He laughed
as he reckoned on sucking the life of each one before day broke. He
seized a sleeping warrior, and in a trice had crunched his bones. Then
he stretched out his hand to seize Beowulf on his bed. Quickly did
Beowulf grip his arm; he stood up full length and grappled with him with
all his might, till his fingers cracked as though they would burst.
Never had Grendel felt such a grip; he had a mind to go, but could not.
He roared, and the hall resounded with his yells, as up and down he
raged, with Beowulf holding him in a fast embrace. The benches were
overturned, the timbers of the hall cracked, the beautiful hall was all
but wrecked. Beowulf's men had seized their weapons and thought to hack
Grendel on every side, but no blade could touch him. Still Beowulf held
him by the arm; his shoulder cracked, and he fled, wounded to death,
leaving hand, arm, and shoulder in Beowulf's grasp. Over the moors, into
the darkness, he sped as best he might, and to Beowulf was the victory.

Then, in the morning, many a warrior came from far and near. Riding in
troops, they tracked the monster's path, where he had fled stricken to
death. In a dismal pool he had yielded up his life.

Racing their horses over the green turf, they reached again the paved
street. The golden roof of the palace glittered in the sunlight. The
King stood on the terrace and gave thanks to God. "I have had much woe,"
he said, "but this lad, through God's might, has done the deed that we,

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Online LibraryHamilton Wright MabieLegends That Every Child Should Know; a Selection of the Great Legends of All Times for Young People → online text (page 1 of 18)