Charles W. Whistler.

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Havelok the Dane: A Legend of Old Grimsby and Lincoln.

By Charles W. Whistler


If any excuse is needed for recasting the ancient legend of Grim the
fisher and his foster-son Havelok the Dane, it may be found in the
fascination of the story itself, which made it one of the most popular
legends in England from the time of the Norman conquest, at least, to
that of Elizabeth. From the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries it
seems to have been almost classic; and during that period two full
metrical versions - -one in Norman-French and the other in English - -
were written, besides many other short versions and abridgments, which
still exist. These are given exhaustively by Professor Skeat in his
edition of the English poem for the Early English Text Society, and it
is needless to do more than refer to them here as the sources from which
this story is gathered.

These versions differ most materially from one another in names and
incidents, while yet preserving the main outlines of the whole history.
It is evident that there has been a far more ancient, orally-preserved
tradition, which has been the original of the freely-treated poems and
concise prose statements of the legend which we have. And it seems
possible, from among the many variations, and from under the disguise of
the mediaeval forms in which it has been hidden, to piece together what
this original may have been, at least with some probability.

We have one clue to the age of the legend of Havelok in the statement by
the eleventh-century Norman poet that his tale comes from a British
source, which at least gives a very early date for the happenings
related; while another version tells us that the king of "Lindesie" was
a Briton. Welsh names occur, accordingly, in several places; and it is
more than likely that the old legend preserved a record of actual events
in the early days of the Anglo-Saxon settlement in England, when there
were yet marriages between conquerors and conquered, and the origins of
Angle and Jute and Saxon were not yet forgotten in the pedigrees of the
many petty kings.

One of the most curious proofs of the actual British origin of the
legend is in the statement that the death of Havelok's father occurred
as the result of a British invasion of Denmark for King Arthur, by a
force under a leader with the distinctly Norse name of Hodulf. The claim
for conquest of the north by Arthur is very old, and is repeated by
Geoffrey of Monmouth, and may well have originated in the remembrance of
some successful raid on the Danish coasts by the Norse settlers in the
Gower district of Pembrokeshire, in company with a contingent of their
Welsh neighbours.

This episode does not occur in the English version; but here an attack
on Havelok on his return home to Denmark is made by men led by one
Griffin, and this otherwise unexplainable survival of a Welsh name seems
to connect the two accounts in some way that recalls the ancient legend
at the back of both.

I have therefore treated the Welsh element in the story as deserving a
more prominent place, at least in subsidiary incidents, than it has in
the two old metrical versions. It has been possible to follow neither of
these exactly, as in names and details they are widely apart; but to one
who knows both, the sequence of events will, I think, be clear enough.

I have, for the same reason of the British origin of the legend,
preferred the simple and apposite derivation of the name of "Curan,"
taken by the hero during his servitude, from the Welsh Cwran, "a
wonder," to the Norman explanation of the name as meaning a "scullion,"
which seems to be rather a guess, based on the menial position of the
prince, than a translation.

For the long existence of a Welsh servile population in the lowlands of
Lincolnshire there is evidence enough in the story of Guthlac of
Crowland, and the type may still be found there. There need be little
excuse for claiming some remains of their old Christianity among them,
and the "hermit" who reads the dream for the princess may well have been
a half-forgotten Welsh priest. But the mediaeval poems have
Christianized the ancient legend, until it would seem to stand in
somewhat the same relationship to what it was as the German "Niebelungen
Lied" does to the "Volsunga Saga."

With regard to the dreams which recur so constantly, I have in the case
of the princess transferred the date of hers to the day previous to her
marriage, the change only involving a difference of a day, but seeming
to he needed, as explanatory of her sudden submission to her guardian.
And instead of crediting Havelok with the supernatural light bodily, it
has been transferred to the dream which seems to haunt those who have to
do with him.

As to the names of the various characters, they are in the old versions
hardly twice alike. I have, therefore, taken those which seem to have
been modernized from their originals, or preserved by simple
transliteration, and have set them back in what seems to have been their
first form. Gunther, William, and Bertram, for instance, seem to be
modernized from Gunnar, Withelm, and perhaps Berthun; while Sykar,
Aunger, and Gryme are but alternative English spellings of the northern
Sigurd, Arngeir, and Grim.

The device on Havelok's banner in chapter xxi. is exactly copied from
the ancient seal of the Corporation of Grimsby,[1]
which is of the date of Edward the First. The existence of this is
perhaps the best proof that the story of Grim and Havelok is more than a
romance. Certainly the Norse "Heimskringla" record claims an older
northern origin for the town than that of the Danish invasion of
Alfred's time; and the historic freedom of its ships from toll in the
port of Elsinore has always been held to date from the days of its founder.

The strange and mysterious "blue stones" of Grimsby and Louth are yet in
evidence, and those of the former town are connected by legend with
Grim. Certainly they have some very ancient if long-forgotten
associations, and it is more than likely that they have been brought as
"palladia" with the earliest northern settlers. A similar stone exists
in the centre of the little East Anglian town of Harleston, with a
definite legend of settlement attached to it; and there may be others.
The Coronation Stone of Westminster and the stone in Kingston-on-Thames
are well-known proofs of the ancient sanctity that surrounded such
objects for original reasons that are now lost.

The final battle at Tetford, with its details, are from the Norman poem.
The later English account is rounded off with the disgrace and burning
alive of the false guardian; but for many reasons the earlier seems to
be the more correct account. Certainly the mounds of some great
forgotten fight remain in the Tetford valley, and Havelok is said to
have come to "Carleflure," which, being near Saltfleet, and on the road
to Tetford, may be Canton, where there is a strong camp of what is
apparently Danish type.

Those who can read with any comfort the crabbed Norman-French and Early
English poetic versions will see at once where I have added incidents
that may bring the story into a connected whole, as nearly as possible
on the old Saga lines; and those readers to whom the old romance is new
will hardly wish that I should pull the story to pieces again, to no
purpose so far as they are concerned. And, at least, for a fairly free
treatment of the subject, I have the authority of those previous authors
whom I have mentioned.

In the different versions, the founder of Grimsby is variously described
as a steward of the Danish king's castle, a merchant, a fisher, and in
the English poem - -probably because it was felt that none other would
have undertaken the drowning of the prince - -as a thrall. Another
version gives no account of the sack episode, but says that Grim finds
both queen and prince wandering on the shore. Grim the fisher is
certainly a historic character in his own town, and it has not been hard
to combine the various callings of the worthy foster-father of Havelok
and the troubles of both mother and son. A third local variant tells
that Havelok was found at Grimsby by the fisher adrift in an open boat;
and I have given that boat also a place in the story, in a different way.

The names of the kings are too far lost to be set back in their place in
history, but Professor Skeet gives the probable date of Havelok and Grim
as at the end of the sixth century, with a possible identification of
the former with the "governor of Lincoln" baptized by Paulinus. I have,
therefore, assumed this period where required. But a legend of this kind
is a romance of all time, and needs no confinement to date and place.
Briton and Saxon, Norman and Englishman, and maybe Norseman and Dane,
have loved the old story, and with its tale of right and love triumphant
it still has its own power.

Stockland, 1899

Chas. W. Whistler


This story is not about myself, though, because I tell of things that I
have seen, my name must needs come into it now and then. The man whose
deeds I would not have forgotten is my foster-brother, Havelok, of whom
I suppose every one in England has heard. Havelok the Dane men call him
here, and that is how he will always be known, as I think.

He being so well known, it is likely that some will write down his
doings, and, not knowing them save by hearsay, will write them wrongly
and in different ways, whereof will come confusion, and at last none
will be believed. Wherefore, as he will not set them down himself, it is
best that I do so. Not that I would have anyone think that the
penmanship is mine. Well may I handle oar, and fairly well axe and
sword, as is fitting for a seaman, but the pen made of goose feather is
beyond my rough grip in its littleness, though I may make shift to use a
sail-needle, for it is stiff and straightforward in its ways, and no
scrawling goeth therewith.

Therefore my friend Wislac, the English priest, will be the penman,
having skill thereto. I would have it known that I can well trust him to
write even as I speak, though he has full leave to set aside all hard
words and unseemly, such as a sailor is apt to use unawares; and where
my Danish way of speaking goeth not altogether with the English, he may
alter the wording as he will, so long as the sense is always the same.
Then, also, will he read over to me what he has written, and therefore
all may be sure that this is indeed my true story.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Now, as it is needful that one begins at the beginning, it happens that
the first thing to be told is how I came to be Havelok's foster-brother,
and that seems like beginning with myself after all. But all the story
hangs on this, and so there is no help for it.

If it is asked when this beginning might be, I would say, for an
Englishman who knows not the names of Danish kings, that it was before
the first days of the greatness of Ethelbert of Kent, the overlord of
all England, the Bretwalda, and therefore, as Father Wislac counts,
about the year of grace 580. But King Ethelbert does not come into the
story, nor does the overlord of all Denmark; for the kings of whom I
must speak were under-kings, though none the less kingly for all that.
One must ever be the mightiest of many; and, as in England, there were
at that time many kings in Denmark, some over wide lands and others over
but small realms, with that one who was strong enough to make the rest
pay tribute to him as overlord, and only keeping that place by the power
of the strong hand, not for any greater worth.

Our king on the west coast of Denmark, where the story of Havelok the
Dane must needs begin, was Gunnar Kirkeban - so called because, being a
heathen altogether, as were we all in Denmark at that time, he had been
the bane of many churches in the western isles of Scotland, and in Wales
and Ireland, and made a boast thereof. However, that cruelty of his was
his own bane in the end, as will be seen. Otherwise he was a well-loved
king and a great warrior, tall, and stronger than any man in Denmark, as
was said. His wife, the queen, was a foreigner, but the fairest of
women. Her name was Eleyn, and from this it was thought that she came
from the far south. Certainly Gunnar had brought her back from
Gardariki,[2] whither he had gone on a trading journey
one year. Gunnar and she had two daughters and but one son, and that son
was Havelok, at this time seven years old.

Next to the king came our own lord, Jarl Sigurd, older than Gunnar, and
his best counsellor, though in the matter of sparing harmless and
helpless church folk his advice was never listened to. His hall was many
miles from the king's place, southward down the coast.

Here, too, lived my father, Grim, with us in a good house which had been
his father's before him. Well loved by Jarl Sigurd was Grim, who had
ever been his faithful follower, and was the best seaman in all the
town. He was also the most skilful fisher on our coasts, being by birth
a well-to-do freeman enough, and having boats of his own since he could
first sail one. At one time the jarl had made him steward of his house;
but the sea drew him ever, and he waxed restless away from it.
Therefore, after a time, he asked the jarl's leave to take to the sea
again, and so prospered in the fishery that at last he bought a large
trading buss from the Frisian coast, and took to the calling of the

So for some years my father, stout warrior as he proved himself in many
a fight at his lord's side, traded peacefully - -that is, so long as
men would suffer him to do so; for it happened more than once that his
ship was boarded by Vikings, who in the end went away, finding that they
had made a mistake in thinking that they had found a prize in a harmless
trader, for Grim was wont to man his ship with warriors, saying that
what was worth trading was worth keeping. I mind me how once he came to
England with a second cargo, won on the high seas from a Viking's
plunder, which the Viking brought alongside our ship, thinking to add
our goods thereto. Things went the other way, and we left him only an
empty ship, which maybe was more than he would have spared to us. That
was on my second voyage, when I was fifteen.

Mostly my father traded to England, for there are few of the Saxon kin
who take ship for themselves, and the havens to which he went were
Tetney and Saltfleet, on the Lindsey shore of Humber, where he soon had

So Grim prospered and waxed rich fast, and in the spring of the year
wherein the story begins was getting the ship ready for the first cruise
of the season, meaning to be afloat early; for then there was less
trouble with the wild Norse Viking folk, for one cruise at least. Then
happened that which set all things going otherwise than he had planned,
and makes my story worth telling.

We - -that is my father Grim, Leva my mother, my two brothers and
myself, and our two little sisters, Gunhild and Solva - -sat quietly in
our great room, busy at one little thing or another, each in his way,
before the bright fire that burned on the hearth in the middle of the
floor. There was no trouble at all for us to think of more than that the
wind had held for several weeks in the southwest and northwest, and we
wondered when it would shift to its wonted springtide easting, so that
we could get the ship under way once more for the voyage she was
prepared for. Pleasant talk it was, and none could have thought that it
was to be the last of many such quiet evenings that had gone before.

Yet it seemed that my father was uneasy, and we had been laughing at him
for his silence, until he said, looking into the fire, "I will tell you
what is on my mind, and then maybe you will laugh at me the more for
thinking aught of the matter. Were I in any but a peaceful land, I
should say that a great battle had been fought not so far from us, and
to the northward."

Then my mother looked up at him, knowing that he had seen many fights,
and was wise in the signs that men look for before them; but she asked
nothing, and so I said, "What makes you think this, father?"

He answered me with another question.

"How many kites will you see overhead at any time, sons?"

I wondered at this, but it was easy to answer - -to Raven, at least.

"Always one, and sometimes another within sight of the first," Raven said.

"And if there is food, what then?"

"The first swoops down on it, and the next follows, and the one that
watches the second follows that, and so on until there are many kites

"What if one comes late?"

"He swings overhead and screams, and goes back to his place; then no
more come."

"Ay," he said; "you will make a sailor yet, son Raven, for you watch
things. Now I will tell you what I saw today. There was the one kite
sailing over my head as I was at the ship garth, and presently it
screamed so that I looked up. Then it left its wide circles over the
town, and flew northward, straight as an arrow. Then from the southward
came another, following it, and after that another, and yet others, all
going north. And far off I could see where others flew, and they too
went north. And presently flapped over me the ravens in the wake of the
kites, and the great sea eagles came in screaming and went the same way,
and so for all the time that I was at the ship, and until I came home."

"There is a sacrifice to the Asir somewhere," I said, "for the birds of
Odin and Thor have always their share."

My father shook his head.

"The birds cry to one another, as I think, and say when the feast is but
enough for those that have gathered. They have cried now that there is
room for all at some great feasting. Once have I seen the like before,
and that was when I was with the ship guard when the jarl fought his
great battle in the Orkneys; we knew that he had fought by the same token."

But my mother said that I was surely right. There was no fear of battle
here, and indeed with Gunnar and Sigurd to guard the land we had had
peace for many a long year on our own coasts, if other lands had had to
fear them. My father laughed a little, saying that perhaps it was so,
and then my mother took the two little ones and went with them into the
sleeping room to put them to rest, while I and my two brothers went out
to the cattle garth to see that all was well for the night.

Then, when our eyes were used to the moonlight, which was not very
bright, away to the northward we saw a red glow that was not that of the
sunset or of the northern lights, dying down now and then, and then
again flaring up as will a far-off fire; and even as we looked we heard
the croak of an unseen raven flying thitherward overhead.

"Call father," I said to Withelm, who was the youngest of us three. The
boy ran in, and presently my father came out and looked long at the glow
in the sky.

"Even as I thought," he said. "The king's town is burning, and I must go
to tell the jarl. Strange that we have had no message. Surely the king's
men must be hard pressed if this is a foe's work."

So he went at once, leaving us full of wonder and excited, as boys will
be at anything that is new and has a touch of fear in it. But he had
hardly gone beyond the outbuildings when one came running and calling
him. The jarl had sent for him, for there was strange news from the
king. Then he and this messenger hastened off together.

In half an hour the war horns were blowing fiercely, and all the quiet
town was awake, for my father's forebodings were true, and the foe was
on us. In our house my mother was preparing the food that her husband
should carry with him, and I was putting a last polish on the arms that
should keep him, while the tramp of men who went to the gathering rang
down the street, one by one at first, and then in twos and threes. My
mother neither wept nor trembled, but worked with a set face that would
not show fear.

Then came in my father, and I armed him, begging at the same time that I
might go also, for I could use /my/ weapons well enough; but he told me
that some must needs bide at home as a guard, and that I was as much
wanted there as at the king's place, wherewith I had to be content. It
was by no means unlikely that we also might be attacked, if it was true
that the king's men were outnumbered, as was said.

Now when my father went to say farewell to us, nowhere could be found my
brother Withelm.

"The boy has gone to watch the muster," my father said. "I shall see him
there presently."

Then, because he saw that my mother was troubled more than her wont, he
added, "Have no fear for me. This will be no more than a raid of
Norsemen, and they will plunder and be away with the tide before we get
to the place."

So he laughed and went out, having done his best to cheer us all, and I
went with him to where the men were gathered in their arms in the wide
space in the midst of the houses. There I sought for little Withelm, but
could not find him among the women and children who looked on; and
before we had been there more than a few minutes the jarl gave the word,
and the march was begun. There were about fifteen miles to be covered
between our town and the king's.

I watched them out of sight, and then went home, having learned that I
was to be called out only in case of need. And as I drew near the
homestead I saw a light in the little ash grove that was behind the
garth.[3] In the midst of the trees, where this light
seemed to be, was our wooden image of Thor the Hammer Bearer, older than
any of us could tell; and in front of this was what we used as his altar
- -four roughly-squared stones set together. These stones were
blue-black in colour, and whence they came I do not know, unless it was
true that my forefathers brought them here when first Odin led his folk
to the northern lands. Always they had been the altar for my people, and
my father held that we should have no luck away from them.

So it was strange to see a light in that place, where none would
willingly go after dark, and half was I feared to go and see what it
might mean. But then it came into my mind that the enemy might be
creeping on the house through the grove, and that therefore I must needs
find out all about it. So I went softly to the nearest trees, and crept
from one to another, ever getting closer to the light; and I will say
that I feared more that I might see some strange thing that was more
than mortal than that I should see the leading foeman stealing towards
me. But presently it was plain that the light did not move as if men
carried it, but it flickered as a little fire; and at last I saw that it
burned on the altar stones, and that frightened me so that I almost fled.

Maybe I should have done so, but that I heard a voice that I knew; and
so, looking once more, I saw a figure standing before the fire, and knew
it. It was little Withelm, and why a ten-year-old boy should be here I
could not think. But I called him softly, and he started somewhat,
turning and trying to look through the darkness towards me, though he
did not seem afraid. There was a little fire of dry sticks burning on
the stones, and the gaunt old statue seemed to look more terrible than
ever in its red blaze. One might have thought that the worn face writhed
itself as the light played over it.

"It is I, Withelm," I said softly, for the fear of the place was on me.
"We have sought you everywhere, and father would have wished you
farewell. What are you doing here?"

I came forward then, for it was plain that the child feared nothing, so
that I was put to shame. And as I came I asked once more what he was
doing in this place.

"The jarl has surely forgotten the sacrifice to the Asir before the
warriors went to fight, and they will be angry," he answered very
calmly. "It is right that one should remember, and I feared for father,
and therefore - -"

He pointed to the altar, and I saw that he had laid his own untasted
supper on the fire that he had lighted, and I had naught to say. The
thing was over-strange to me, who thought nothing of these things. It
was true that the host always sacrificed before sailing on the Viking
path, but tonight had been urgent haste.

"Thor will not listen to any but a warrior," I said. "Come home,
brother, for mother waits us."

"If not Thor, who is maybe busy at the battle they talk of, then do I
think that All Father will listen," he said stoutly. "But this was all

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Online LibraryCharles W. WhistlerHavelok the Dane A Legend of Old Grimsby and Lincoln → online text (page 1 of 21)