In the preceding pages I have endeavoured to separate the “Poems of Ossian” from the popular traditions on which they are partly founded, and to shew that many of these are of great antiquity, whatever may be the real date of Gaelic poems, popular ballads, or their common heroes. It is now thought probable that old British traditions were the materials of which the romances of the middle ages were made; so it may be of interest to point out that Gaelic popular romances now current have some relation to ancient romance.
In 1805 three volumes were published by George Ellis, Esq., which gave specimens of “Early English Metrical Romances, chiefly written during the early part of the fourteenth century.” Amongst these an account is given of “Marie’s Lays,” which are twelve in number, and were offered by the authoress to the king “probably Henry the Third,” she says –
“Li Breton ont fait les lais,”
which she translated, “which she had heard, and had carefully treasured in her memory;” and which she knows to be true. This lady was the Armorican MacPherson of the thirteenth century.
Her heroes and heroines are all Celtic, and current Gaelic popular tales and Breton ballads can still be traced in her lays. No. 4, “Bisclaveret,” is the well known “Loup Garow” which the Normans call “Garwolf,” and which is well known to the peasants of France at this day, and was known to ancient authors. I have no story like that of the old lay, but a glance at these volumes will shew that the notion of men and women and supernaturals, who assumed the forms of animals, and resumed their own by putting off a “cochal,” a husk, or dress, is one of the commonest incidents in Gaelic popular tales; so this wolf is only one of a class.
We have transformed deer, seals, a hen, horses, ravens, crows, little dogs, grim hounds, and all manner of creatures; and in this, Gaelic tales do but resemble those of other countries, including those of India, which are full of talking creatures. No. 7, “Ywonec,” is very like the well-known story of “the blue bird,” and has relations in Gaelic. It is a story of a fair lady who was visited by a lovcer, a great personage, in the form of a bird, and had children by him, who lost him by a fault of her own, followed him to his distant country, where he was a chief ruler, living in splendour, and brought him back. No. 3 is a specimen of this legend; so is the story of beauty and the beast; so is No. 12; so is the legend of Cupid and Psyche; and the story in various shapes will be found in nearly every modern collection of popular tales. Marie’s lays varies from the usual ending of the story, for her great falcon prince dies. The characters go to “Caer-leon,” and I have no doubt this was a popular English story. No. 9, “Milun,” is about a knight of South Wales, whose reputation spread to Ireland, Norway, Gothland, Loegria (England), and Albany (Scotland); and his name is like Gaelic “Milidh,” a hero (Latin, miles). The story is something like that of the son of Cuchulin, of which MacPherson has made an episode. A knight has a son by a beautiful lady, and gives her a gold ring, which she ties about the child’s neck, and then they send it away to be brought up secretly. The son grows up, sets off in search of adventures, and finally has a fight with his own father, whom he does not know at first, but whom he afterwards recognises. The tradition varies considerably from the frame-work of the old lay, but it has been worked up into a vast number of shapes in tales preserved in Irish manuscripts. An abstract of a traditional version will be found at page 198, vol. iii. The scene of the legend is laid in Skye, Scythia, England. Brittany and Cornwall; but I strongly suspect that it was originally laid somewhere in the far East. All these ancient lays are dressed by their authoress in the costumes and manners of the court of that day. There are knights, and noble ladies, tournaments, and churchmen; they are not true, for men do not assume the forms of animals, but they were surely founded on popular traditions, as their authoress said, and some of them are still popular tales in the West Highlands.
A glance at O’Curry’s lectures will shew that the Gael have delighted for ages in dressing up their own traditions in a romantic dress of their own contrivance, and that they did not copy the decorations of such court bards as Marie.
“Sir Tristrem” is attributed to Thomas the Rymour and the thirteenth century; and Chrestian de Troyes, a French poet is said to have composed a romance about the same hero in the twelfth; the incidents of the romance were very widely known and used in Europe. The hero is supposed to have been a chieftain of the sixth century, and one of Arthur’s knights, therefore a Briton. The scene is laid in Cornwall, Wales, and other parts of Britain, by all the authors who made poems out of the story. The whole romance turns upon the attachment of a knight for his uncle’s wife. It is said that “Mark,” king of Cornwall, is not a Celtic name, but one derived from “Marcus,” but it is a Celtic word, and means a horse. The whole story of the poem, as given in the history of Scottish Poetry, is like a building made of an old red sandstone, full of pebbles of popular tales. Tristrem disguised is like the story of the Great Fool, which is like the boyish exploits of Fin in old Irish. The sailing about in ships with the Norwegians, the landing in unknown countries, the travels through “the seven kingdoms,” the chess playing, the “Croude” (harp), “Seyn Patricke,” “Carlionn,” the “Queen of Ireland,” the ladies tending the sick knight, the dragon and the story of its death, the false steward and his punishment, the rash promise to give something before asking what is required – the names, which have a Gaelic meaning, and the ground work of the whole story, all point to aa Celtic origin. It is but a phase of the story which Irish and Scotch Gael have worked into so many forms, the story of Diarmaid and Graidhne. But the language of the old ballad has nothing to do with Gaelic idioms, the metre is different from any Gaelic poetry which I have read, and above all, the spirit and sentiment are wholly different from the Gaelic of “Ossian,” “Mordubh,” and “Seann Dana.” It seems from Sir Tristrem that Celtic traditions were worked into poems in Scotland in the thirteenth century, and that they are now attributed to the mythical “Ossian” in the Highlands. But the Irish assure us that the elopement of Finn’s wife was a real event, though the story is like that of Venus and Adonis, and is probably as old as Sanscrit mythology.
But of all these ancient romances the story of “Morte Arthur” and that of Sir Lancelot most resemble current Highland traditions. The story, when stripped to the bones, is almost identical with the love story of the history of the Feinne. Arthur, a king of the Britons, not in the prime of life, courts a fair maiden, Guenever, whom he afterwards makes his queen, and who was distinguished for cleverness as well as beauty. Fionn, the king of the Feinne, courts Grainne, daughter of Cormac, who was the wisest as well as the handsomest of women. Lancelot di lac, on his first appearance at court, inspires Guenever or Ganore with love.
Diarmaid, Fionn’s nephew, at his first meeting with Grainne, inadvertently shews a spot on his forehead which no woman can see without loving him.
Arthur marries Guenever, Fionn marries Grainne. Guenever the queen is sent to a distant province, and Lancelot follows willingly. Diarmaid runs away from Grainne, and is pursued by her, and she by clever artifices obliges him to run away with her.
Guenever is carried off from Arthur by a felon knight. Grainne runs away from Diarmaid with a wild man. Sir Lancelot recovers the queen. Diarmaid rejoins Grainne. Sir Lancelot throughout the story is the queen’s paramour. Diarmaid yields to temptation at last, or as the story is often told, does not yield at all. At last Arthur’s eyes are opened, and he seeks revenge with perseverance, and determination, and rancour. Fionn, when he is convinced of his wife’s infidelity, plots the death of his nephew, and pursues him to the death. Arthur pursues Lancelot with knights and armies, and besieges him in castles, but always within Celtic bounds. Fionn pursues Diarmaid all over Gaelic countries, and at last devises a treacherous hunting party for his destruction. In Irish versions of the story the castles are replaced by magic trees. In the Highlands they are simply caves and deep glens. Lancelot is never overthrown, and is a full armed, peerless knight. Diarmaid is a peerless “Fenian,” “the expert shield,” armed with sword and dart and helmet, invulnerable save in the sole of his foot; and neither the Breton nor the Gael will do any hurt to his king and uncle when they meet in fight. Sir Gawain is Lancelot’s foe; the name is Gaelic, for “Smith” now spelt Gobhainn or Gobha. Gow (or Goll) Macmorn was the rival of Fionn and his clan, and here the parallel fails, for the Gaelic hero was killed by a magic boar, by Fionn’s contrivance, and the British hero survived Arthur, and there is no boar-hunt in the romance; but the parallel holds good with another story, which is also part of the history of the Feinne. Arthur loses his army, and destroys that of his foe in the great battle of Barrendown. When the fight was over, and no one left but the leaders and two of Arthur’[s knights, he rushed at Sir Modred, pierced him with a spear, and received a mortal wound from his expiring foe. So died Oscar and Cairbre. Arthur is led to the strand, where he is taken on board a ship, and carried to the isle of Avilion to be healed. Fionn is not killed in any tradition that I have collected, but Irishmen kill him before the battle of Gabhra, where there was a general slaughter of all the Fenians but two. He is supposed, by tradition, to live in the “Green Island,” and the chief products of that Celtic paradise are “Avlan” apples. The body of Arthur is brought by ladies to a bishop, and buried, and Guenever, Sir Bedwer, and Sir Lancelot, all take refuge in convents, where they die devoutly. According to endless traditions Arthur is yet alive; according to popular tradition, James the Fourth survived Flodden; and in France, Napoleon the Great is supposed yet to live. Men voted for him in the west of France in 1849; and Fionn like these survives.
Ossian, the last of the Feinne, is always represented as the last of his race, living with a churchman or his father-in-law; and in Irish versions, he, like Lancelot, dies a good Christian. So here are the same traditions worked up into wholly different stories, and differently put upon the stage, according to the manners of the age in which romances are written, but the people go on telling their own story in their own way. The author of Morte Arthur dressed up his story according to his ideas, and made a connected story; the people of the Highlands tell their story in broken bits, but they also sing the fragments, and the music fits the Gaelic ballad, and would also fit the poem of Morte Arthur.
GAELIC BALLAD METRE AND ASSONANCE.
Hearken a space, if ye wish a LAY;
Of the days that from us have GONE;
Of MacCoaill, and of the FEINNE;
And of Mac o’ Duine, a woeful SONG.
“Lancelot wist what was her will,
Well he knew, by other mo;
Her brother cleped he him till;
And to her chamber gonne they go.”
The rhythm is nearly that of the old Irish air “The Groves of Blarney,” and probably the whole series of traditions, English, Scotch, Welsh, Breton, German, and Irish, have been sung by wandering minstrels, in various shapes and to various tunes, time out of mind. The story is at least as old as the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who relates that after the battle of Camblan, Arthur was transported by his bard and prophet Merlin to “The Fortunate Island, or Island of Apples.”
“Sir Guy of Warwick” is also like Gaelic stories. Like Manus he was attended by a faithful lion, and the story of Raymond, Sir Guy’s son, has much in common with one of Marie’s lays and the story of Cuchulin’s son above mentioned.
“Sir Bevis of Hamptown” is also very Celtic in character. The hero, like “the great fool,” loses his father, is nursed in secret, becomes a herd boy, and, as a child, performs the feats of a great warrior. When wounded he is cured with a wonderful balsam. One of his adventures is the slaughter of a boar which devoured men, which no spear would pierce nor sword bite – like the magic boar slain by Diarmaid. His sword is called Mor Glay, which is evidently Gaelic, and two lines of the romance are in Shakespere –
“Rats and mice and such small deer,
Was his meat that seven year.”
Sir Bevis, like the man in Murdoch MacBrian, and other heroes, comes disguised as a poor man, and is recognised by his love. Lions are like Conall’s lions, they kill and devour a man and his horse, but lay their heads in the lap of a king’s daughter –
“For it is the lion’s kind y wis,
A king’s daughter that maid is,
Hurt nor harm none to do,
Therefore lay these lions so.”
There is also the magic healing well which is in so many Gaelic stories.
The romances which treat of Charlemagne also bear a strong resemblance to the rest. “Roland and FERRAGUS” introduces a Gaelic name, though it is that of the pagan villain of the piece, who is sent by the Soudan from Babylon to fight Charlemagne. He is a giant, black, and a great deal bigger than Fergus the son of Fionn –
“He had twenty men’s strength,
And forty feet of length,
And four feet in the face,
And fifteen in breede.”
“His nose was a foot and more.
His browe as bristles wore.”
Nevertheless, after a severe fight with Roland the Christian warrior, he is overcome, but first he sits down and argues against the true faith, exactly as Oisein does with St. Patrick in Irish Fenian tales.
The romance of “Cœur de Lion” makes that chivalrous monarch dine upon boiled Saracens more than once, and is as wild and impossible as any of its predecessors, though it treats of real events in the life of a real king.
And so, throughout these mediæval romances, and the history of the Feinne, the same stories and characters can be traced. There is always a leading king, and a knight who is more valiant than his leader; a Fionn and a Diarmaid, a Charlemagne and Roland, an Arthur and Lancelot, a Mark and Tristrem, and a bard who is a chief actor in the piece, which generally ends in a great battle and general slaughter, such as Roncevalles, Barrendown, Camblan, Gabhra, and, shall I add, the battle of Mons Grampius.1
There are, of course, two ways of accounting for this resemblance. Those who believe in creations of the human brain will look on the traditions as fragments of a ruined romance. Those who think that creations of the brain are very rare, will look on traditions as the quarry whence materials have been taken by a succession of romancers, who said nothing about their mine of wealth. The difference between the two may help to turn the scale. There is not a single mediæval battle, or armed knight, such as Sir Lancelot and his fights, to be found in modern Gaelic tradition. There is not a trace of the Gaelic Diarmaid, as he is described by tradition, or of the battle of Gabhra, as described by the Irish, to be found in any mediæval romance that I know of. But they have this common want: I know of no single description of a battle of the sea in any British tradition, romance, or popular tale, old or new, though people are always sailing about, and fighting battles on the strand. But the moment a saga is taken up, a sea-fight is a prominent object amongst the endless plunderings and battles on shores. The sagas are the history of the Northmen, and bear the stamp of matter-of-fact narratives. The romances in which the Northmen delighted, when they had taken root in France and England, were, as I believe, made from the Celtic histories, traditions, popular tales, and pagan mythology of the newly-converted half-pagan tribes of the now united kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and of ancient Gaul.
3 thoughts on “British Traditions, pp.237-246.”