English Myths
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English Myths : From King Arthur and the Holy Grail to George and the Dragon

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Description

The mythology and folklore of England is as old as the land itself, rich in symbolism and full of tales of quests and heroic daring-do, ghosts and witches, romantic heroines and noble outlaws. Who hasn't heard of the master sorcerer Merlin, Robin Hood and his merry men, or the legendary monster Grendel?
Beginning with the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, English Myths explores the early legends of post-Roman England, many of which blend history and myth. The book goes on to examine the rich seam of Arthurian and romantic legends first told in the Medieval era, before looking at English folk heroes and the beasts, witches and ghosts that have haunted the land. Discover the brothers Hengist and Horsa, legendary leaders of the first Angles, Saxons and Jutes to settle in England; learn the tragic story of Cornish hero Tristan and his love for Irish princess Iseult; tremble at the Black Dog ghost, a nocturnal hellhound found stalking the country from Suffolk in the east to Devon in the west; and enjoy the tale of George and the dragon, who saved the nation from a rampaging serpent and became the patron saint of the country.
Illustrated with 150 photographs and artworks, English Myths is an accessible, entertaining and highly informative exploration of the fascinating mythology underlying one of the world's oldest and most influential cultures.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 224 pages
  • 192 x 250 x 20mm | 900g
  • London, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 150 photos, artworks and maps; 150 Illustrations, unspecified
  • 1838861718
  • 9781838861711

Table of contents

Contents to include:
( [[]]=extracted box. )

Introduction
Opener: Arrival of 'Brutus'. 9C story of what already seemed ancient foundation by great grandson of Aeneas (from Historia Brittonum, and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia...). Idea of England's formation by successive waves of incomers/invaders. Tabula Rasa: England won't really have been blank cultural slate, but we've no idea what stories were told through long centuries from end of Ice Age to arrival of Celts, c. 500 BCE. Cultural Conquest: Or, rather, of Celtic culture. Idea of cultural exchange/as against invasion. Veni, Vidi, Vici: Romans - real invasion, and conscious imposition of new culture and mythology. [[The Road Not Taken: Celtic myth pushed out to the margins (Wales, Scotland, Ireland), though much later, in modern times, brought back into the mainstream - most obviously with Victorian Arthurian revival.]] Christianity began to replace what had been state paganism of Romans - though NB this process not complete by time hold over Britain began to weaken in early 5th Century.

1. Anglo-Saxon Advent
Romano-British culture in its turn replaced after arrival of Anglo-Saxons. (NB this too bit more gradual than word 'invasion' would suggest - brief history.) Hengist and Horsa (5C): Legendary brothers said to have led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in their invasion of Britain in 5C; Horsa was killed fighting the Britons, but Hengist successfully conquered Kent, becoming the forefather of its Jutish kings. Who they were. Germanic mythology - pantheon (Woden, Frigg, Tunor, Tiw), folklore not unlike (but by no means identical to) famous ones of Viking myth. Elves, Nicor, Dragons. [[Romans would in retrospect be mythologized themselves: A-S poem The Ruin sees remains of Roman Bath as the 'work of giants'.]] Some earlier, Celtic stories subsequently seen through A-S filter: Herne the Hunter; Wild Hunt.

2. Beowulf
Beowulf is a legendary Geatish hero (so from Goetaland in S. Sweden) in the eponymous epic poem, one of the oldest surviving pieces of literature in the English language. 'Hwaet ...': Bardic background. Mead-hall culture and the heroic (Homeric-style) storyteller. Importance of oral tradition. [['Gemunde ...' ('I remember ...'): Oral tradition in transmission of myth.]]
Story itself: exploits of Beowulf and his battles, 1) with a monster named Grendel; 2) with Grendel's revengeful mother; then, finally, 3) with a dragon, guardian of a hoard of treasure. His death and mourning follow.
Scribal Censors? Poems like Beowulf and FF written down by Christian monks. Influence to some extent evident in texts (Biblical allusions etc). Just how much did they help shape these stories as we've come to know them now?

3. Danish Domination
'Finnesburg Fragment' - Anglo-Saxon poem about battle between Danes and Frisians (which is also described in Beowulf). Vikings, Dane's especially, casting a long and growing shadow over Anglo-Saxon life and myth. Briefest of outlines of Viking origins, culture, religion and myth, esp. in sort of heroic (so bardic and Beowulf-like) aspects foregrounded in the Sagas. [[England in the 'Iceland' Sagas -
basically, seen as part of a 'greater Scandinavia' at this time; point amplified by Beowulf (about Geats; FF Danes and Frisians).]]
Myth and history not clearly demarcated at this time: mythic material crops up in supposedly historical narrative and vice-versa. Alfred the Great (849-899) a special focus for these stories: In 878, burns the cakes in Athelney, Somerset before defeating the Viking Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Edington. [[Hagiographic Hero: Religion brought a mythology all its own, especially in hagiography (saints' lives). St Edmund, East Anglian King killed (or martyred) by GHA, 869.]] Battle of Brunanburh: real battle (937) that took on mythic status in Anglo-Saxon poem. 'Never, before this,/were more men in this island slain/by the sword's edge - as books and aged sages/confirm - since Angles and Saxons sailed here...' Murder of King Edward the Martyr (c. 962-78); Aethelraed the Unready (c. 966-1016; 'Danegeld'); Denmark's Cnut (c. 990-1035) and North Sea Empire (and quarrel with the tide).

4. Arthurian Legend
Coming of Normans brought further overlayering of existing culture (cf. Romans, A- S, above), though more obviously at top of society than at bottom. Idea of chivalry brought in from continental courts.
King Arthur (late 5th and early 6th centuries AD): a legendary leader who, according to medieval histories and romances, led defence of Britain against Saxon invaders. But most of the stories that made it into the mythic legacy aren't about this epic combat but the romances of the court, and the 'Knights of the Round Table'. The Matter of Britain and the 'Arthurian' heritage of English myth. Central idea of Arthur and his Knights presented a sort of mythic centre around which endless other narratives could be woven. [[Other Matters: NB not just English writers but continental ones like Chretien de Troyes, Gottfried von Strassburg, etc, wrote Arthurian works with British settings. There were other acknowledged story-cycles: Matter of France (or 'Franks' as we'd see it now, so stories of Charlemagne's empire); Matter of Rome - again, not quite as we'd see it: more classical antiquity - Trojan War and rise of Alexander the Great.]]
Many elements and incidents appear in Geoffrey's Historia ... (c. 1136), including Arthur's father Uther Pendragon; the magician Merlin; Arthur's wife Guinevere; the sword Excalibur; Arthur's conception at Tintagel; his final battle against Mordred at Camlann, and final rest in Avalon [[Joseph of Aramathea and Glastonbury]]. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Gawain accepts a challenge from a mysterious 'Green Knight' who dares any knight to strike him with his axe if he will take a return blow in a year and a day. [[Green Knight's relation to Green Man as wider symbol of fertility and rebirth.]] Tristan and Iseult: Tragedy about the adulterous love between the Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Iseult. [[Celtic Connections: 14C romance Sir Launfal - exiled from Arthur's court, and destitute, taken up by Fairy Queen as lover. Involvement of this supernatural dimension points to Celtic origins of story. These have been suggested for much Arthurian material.]]
Tinged with nostalgia. Arthurian romances already involved the high-medieval reinvention of an early-medieval king (if he ever existed). We can't help but read them now through a 19C filter. Victorian vogue: Tennyson, Pre-Raphaelite art, etc.

5. Noble Knights and Ladies Fair
Arthurian stories only the most famous in a wider genre of chivalric romance ... For example, mid-13C King Horn, a chivalric romance in Middle English. Saint George and the Dragon: The legend goes that Saint George, a Roman soldier in the 10th century, came across a town plagued by an evil dragon about to kill the king of England's daughter. George is said to have slain the dragon, freed the town and rescued the princess, thus becoming the patron saint of England. Myth became far removed from origins, George remodelled as a medieval knight. [[Naked Courage: Lady Godiva (dates to at least the 13th century): 12C English noblewoman who, according to legend, rode naked - covered only in her long hair - through the streets of Coventry to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation that her husband imposed on his tenants.]]
Guy of Warwick (dates to the 13th century): Legendary English hero of Romance popular in England and France from the 13th to 17th centuries.
Fighting Back: Stories of dispossessed nobles having to fight for what's rightly theirs. Gamelyn (14C); Fulk FitzWarin (c. 1180-1350). Shropshire nobleman cheated of lands by King John. Fought to get them back. Real-life figure but acquired semi- legendary status after death. Became sort of prototype figure for ...

6. Robin Hood
'I cannot say my Pater Noster as perfectly as the priest does,/But I know my rhymes of Robin Hood ...' First mention comes (in John Langland's Piers Plowman) in the 1370s. Heroic outlaw of English folklore who, according to legend, was a highly skilled archer and swordsman. The folk hero became surrounded by a whole folk history (Richard I's worthless brother John usurping his kingdom while warrior king away at Crusades; Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne his oppressive representatives on the ground), but NB this didn't happen till 16C.
RH traditionally depicted dressed in Lincoln green (cf. Green Man, above p. xxx) and living beyond the law in Sherwood Forest, reserved as royal hunting ground. [[The People's Weapon: The Longbow.]] A yeoman (explain) in the earliest ballads, he is said to rob from the rich and give to the poor.
Succession of stories introducing key Merry Men: Little John, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller's Son, Allen a Dale, Friar Tuck (a late addition). [[Sherwood on Stage: associated with May celebrations, so late-medieval festive plays; popular dramas written in Elizabethan and Jacobean periods too.]] Archery Contest.
A Woman's Touch: RH's Merry Men later (again 16C) joined by Merry Woman in enchanting shape of Maid Marian. Her addition marks growing sophistication and acceptance of story as romance (i.e. literary, more courtly pretensions), rather than straightforward folktale. RH's comparative gentleness - and his gentility, his courteous way with ladies - an indication of this. Tendency culminates in RH's elevation (in 1622 ballad by Martin Parker) to rank of Earl of Huntingdon, who has more in common with dispossessed aristocrats of previous chapter ('Fighting Back') than popular brigand we might have imagined.
RH reinvented yet again in 19C by e.g. Chartists Thomas Miller (novelist) and W.J. Linton (poet); romantic patriot Walter Scott and followers: for both these groups RH became A-S freedom fighter battling Norman domination. [[Historicity, in so far as he has any: Loxley, Yorkshire; grave at Kirklees (and Little J's at Hathersage).]]

7. From the Piskies to Puck
Cornish Piskies: stories of piskie interactions with humans tell how they have the power to abduct, befuddle and lead people astray over the landscape. This conception of the fairy folk as malicious and often ugly an old, originally-Celtic one. Idea survives in Cornish (esp. West Penwith) tradition of the Spriggan.
Just about makes it into modernity in wider English tradition in figure of Puck or Robin Goodfellow, often referred to in 16C but most famously now in Shakespeare's portrayal of Puck, sometimes known as Robin Goodfellow, is a domestic and nature sprite, demon or fairy, in A Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1595). Shakespeare's Puck is mischievous and sometimes spiteful, but not actually evil. It's in this play, moreover, that Shakespeare 'invents' the tiny, cute, benevolent fairies we think of nowadays. 'Queen Mab', in Romeo and Juliet (c. 1591), a sort of female version of Robin Goodfellow, seems to have originated in Shakespeare's imagination. Generally, though, sense now creeping in that the fairies are a source of entertainment rather than of fear. Hence the story of ...
Tom Thumb: The first fairy tale printed in English, Richard Johnson's The History of Tom Thumb was published in 1621, though the character appears to have existed earlier in the folk tradition. Given ploughman father's grief at his childlessness, mother seeks help from Arthur's court magician Merlin. Tom, who's delivered by fairy midwives, is no bigger than his father's thumb. His adventures include being swallowed by a cow, tangling with giants, and becoming a favourite of King Arthur.

8. Bogeymen and Beasts
Jack o' Kent: (16C, or earlier) a cunning figure from Herefordshire/Monmouth with an aptitude for outwitting the devil. The Lincoln Imp: Grotesque carving in Cathedral. Satan sent two imps to Earth to cause mischief. On reaching Lincoln, the imps began damaging the Cathedral before being stopped by an angel who turned one to stone. Witches: Heart on a wall above a window overlooking market square in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, supposedly marks the point at which it was struck by the heart of Margaret Read, which leapt from her body as she burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1590. Arguably whole story of witchcraft in England is a long and elaborate myth, but consequences - for men and (mainly) women, here and at e.g. Pendle, Lancashire, 1612, were all too real.
Grindylow - This water-dwelling bogeyman from Yorkshire or Lancashire has long sinewy arms, and is famed for drowning children in bogs and pools. (NB associated with trad. of Grendel, p. xxx, above.) Jenny Greenteeth - Green-skinned with long hair and sharp teeth, she pulls children or the elderly into water to drown them.
The Black Dog legend - In 16th century Suffolk, this calf-sized malevolent hound with saucer-sized glowing red eyes is a harbinger of doom and death. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, in some cases a shapeshifter, and is often said to be associated with the Devil or described as a ghost or supernatural hellhound. Beast of Bodmin Moor: a black panther-like beast seen roaming this wild and isolated landscape in Southwest England (and not usually a habitat for big cats). Spring-Heeled Jack, Victorian urban Legend. Diabolical figure, 10 ft tall, who hopped over houses. [[Hairy Hands of Dartmoor: Disembodied hands causing car accidents on B3212, Dartmoor, since 1910.]]
Famous Phantoms: Anne Boleyn, Blickling Hall, Norfolk; Jane Seymour and Katherine Howard, Hampton Court; Sir Francis Drake, Buckland Abbey, Devon; Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr, among several others, at Croft Castle, W. Midlands; Longleat's Grey Lady; Roman Legionary, Treasurer's House, Yorks ... [[The Cock Lane Ghost: an 18C sensation.]]

Index
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About Michael Kerrigan

Michael Kerrigan was educated at St. Edward's College and University College, Oxford, England. He is the author of The History of Death, A Dark History: The Roman Emperors, Ancients In Their Own Words, World War II Plans That Never Happened, and American Presidents: A Dark History. He is a columnist, book reviewer, and feature writer for publications including the Scotsman and the Times Literary Supplement. Michael Kerrigan lives with his family in Edinburgh.
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