Dragons and Maidens: 7 Enduring British Legends that Continue to Fascinate
The enduring nature of the weird and wonderful collection of tales that make up our British legends says a lot about British society.
Many of our legends symbolise the triumph of good over evil, or generally overcoming adversity, while others speak to our curious side – our love of the mysterious. Many of our legends have been told and retold over many centuries, gradually changing with each generation, and used as moral tales and fireside stories that continue to appeal to this day. Others are more recent phenomena that have quickly gained legendary status. In this article, we look at some of the most famous and intriguing and see how hard it is to disentangle myth from reality.
1. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
If there’s one legend that could be said to encapsulate the idea of Britain in ancient times, it has to be the legend of King Arthur. This most famous of British kings was said to have defended the country against Saxon invaders in the 5th and early 6th centuries, and he’s been the subject of numerous stories that have achieved mythical status in Britain. Everyone is familiar with the stories of King Arthur, his wife Guinevere and his Knights of the Round Table, in particular Lancelot, who fell in love with Guinevere and rescued her from the resulting threat of execution by Arthur, leading to war between Lancelot and Arthur. The Round Table is a powerful Arthurian symbol; it was given to Arthur by his father-in-law as a dowry, and it was said to be round to avoid squabbles between the knights over who was most important. Among the most famous tales is Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail – the cup that contained the blood of Christ (a story satirised in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). The magician Merlin is another key figure in the Arthurian legends; Merlin placed a sword in a stone and whomever was able to pull it out would be king. Only Arthur could do it.
King Arthur has come to represent the battle for good against evil, but the myth and romance surrounding him have little basis in historic fact, and there’s been much debate over whether he was really a historical figure. Only vague traces of historical and archaeological evidence exist, and versions of stories differ; he may have been a real person, but the stories are, of course, highly embellished if not pure fiction. However, King Arthur has been enormously influential in British society and culture for centuries. For example, Arthurian lineage provided justification for the power of the Tudor monarchs, and the legends were particularly in vogue during the Victorian period, when they inspired artists and writers. These days, visitors flock to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, a dramatic ruin imposingly situated on the rugged Cornish coastline and supposedly the place where King Arthur was conceived.
The English flag – a red cross on white – is the flag of St George, our legendary dragon slayer. The tale dates back to the tenth century and is thought to have been brought back to Britain from the East by the Crusaders. The original telling of the legend, recorded in The Golden Legend in about 1260, goes that St George slew a dragon that was terrorising a town in Libya. Infected with the plague, the dragon was kept appeased by being fed two sheep a day – until the sheep ran out, and the townspeople had to give it their children instead, chosen by lot. When the King’s daughter was chosen, and the King failed to persuade the people to spare her, St George came in and saved the day. Capturing the dragon, which then obediently came back to the city with him, St George promised to kill it if the people converted to Christianity. Subsequent tellings leave out the conversion to Christianity, but it is this conversion that explains the legend’s origins: it is about the West versus the East, and the triumph of Christianity over other religions. The legend has been depicted in art by the likes of Raphael and Tintoretto and has inspired countless retellings.
3. Robin Hood and his Merry Men
The Robin Hood story has all the ingredients of an excellent legend: a dashing outlaw, clad in green and skilled in archery and sword-fighting, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, with a group of ‘Merry Men’ in tow (including a fat monk, Friar Tuck) and a forest hideout (Sherwood Forest); a beautiful maiden (Maid Marion); a dastardly sheriff (the Sheriff of Nottingham); a beloved king (Richard the Lionheart) and his conniving younger brother (Prince John). There are various different tales and versions of tales about Robin Hood, but these key elements are the ones best known and perpetuated in movie versions of Robin Hood, the classic one being the swashbuckling hero portrayed by Errol Flynn in the 1938 Hollywood film.
As with any legend, it’s hard to separate the facts from the fiction. He’s been a popular figure in English folklore since Medieval times, and the tale was the subject of many ballads, the earliest of which was written down in the 15th century. The earliest historical references to a Robin Hood figure begin in the late 1220s, but the main body of historical ‘evidence’ comes from the 15th century. The original references to Robin Hood suggest that he wasn’t the aristocrat he’s made out to be in later versions of the tale, but a simple yeoman – an attendant on a nobleman’s household. Nor was he originally someone who robbed from the rich to give to the poor; this romantic embellishment came much later. The story of Robin Hood is perhaps best viewed in light of the fact that he was a figure who stood up for the downtrodden: the reigning monarch was seen as tyrannical, using the law for his own end. Thus Robin – though an outlaw – was seen as honourable.
4. Dick Whittington and his Cat
In the legend of Dick Whittington, an impoverished boy escapes his poor background and goes to London (the streets of which are supposedly paved with gold), where he gets hired as a low-ranking servant before acquiring, for a penny, a cat that proves to be really good at catching rats. However, the cat ends up on board a merchant ship expedition organised by Dick’s master, and whilst at sea it impressively deals with a major rodent problem on board the ship. Dick, meanwhile, attempts to flee his station as a servant but thinks the better of it when he hears some bells tolling that seem to be telling him that he will one day be Lord Mayor of London. The merchant ship returns, having sold the cat to the Moors for a huge amount of money, and the master comes to Dick and gives him his share of the profits, which make him rich. Dick later marries the daughter of his former master and ends up becoming Mayor of London three times. It’s a classic rags-to-riches tale, but unlike the shadowy figures of Robin Hood and King Arthur, we can say with a much greater degree of certainty that Dick Whittington was a real historical figure. He was Richard Whittington, and he wasn’t from a poor background: he was a wealthy aristocrat who was Mayor of London three times and lived from around 1354 to 1423. Disappointingly, there’s no evidence to support the idea that he had a cat. These days, the legend is kept alive through the tradition of pantomime, a comic play usually performed around Christmas time; Dick Whittington is one of the most popular choices for Christmas pantomime and it’s how many people are still familiar with the story.
5. The Loch Ness Monster
Said to occupy Scotland’s deepest and longest loch, the Loch Ness Monster is a legend as intriguing as it is improbable. According to many supposed sightings of the beast, ‘Nessie’, as she is affectionately known, is a long-necked creature best described as a plesiosaur – a dinosaur that went extinct 66 million years ago. Amazingly, anecdotal evidence of the monster is recorded as early as the 7th century, in an account of the life of an Irish monk already a century old when it was being written about. According to this, the monk had witnessed a local burial ceremony taking place on the river Ness, of a man who had been swimming when a “water beast” came up and dragged the man under, killing him. However, this story may have nothing to do with the Loch Ness Monster tradition, as it was only in 1933 that it really came to the fore. In July of that year, a man named George Spicer described having seen the creature crossing the road in front of him, and the following month it was seen again by a passing motorcyclist. Both described a humped creature with a long neck, small head and large body, and the motorcyclist – a vet – described it as a cross between a seal and a plesiosaur. Since then, there have been many alleged sightings of a monster in the loch, and it brings hordes of tourists to the shores of the loch each year.
Could it really be true that a dinosaur species escaped extinction and is alive and well and living in Scotland? It seems highly unlikely, and numerous extensive searches of the loch have proved fruitless. Some of the more compelling sightings have been shown to be hoaxes, and many other explanations for sightings have been put forward, such as wave formations and floating logs being mistakenly identified, and similarly mundane ideas. Nevertheless, we all love the idea that there might be a dinosaur living in Loch Ness, so the lack of scientific evidence certainly isn’t going to get in the way of a good legend. Indeed, Nessie supporters point to the existence of a channel linking Loch Ness with the sea, which they reckon the monster could be escaping the loch through – thus explaining why she hasn’t yet been found.
6. The Beast of Bodmin Moor
Continuing on the monster theme, a more modern British legend says that a big cat – a black panther – roams Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. Said to terrorise livestock, there have been numerous sightings and even a leopard-like skull found. There are big cat legends in other parts of the country, too, and they may have some basis in fact. A few decades ago it was fashionable among the rich to keep big cats, and it’s thought that some animals may have escaped from (illegal) private collections – or even have been set free when they became too much to handle. But scientists have yet to capture one of these animals, with the result that they have taken on a mythical status because nobody really knows whether they’re out there or not.
7. James Bond
Finally, we end by moving on to a more modern British legend. The character of James Bond has proved to have enduring appeal sufficient to give him legendary status. Originating from a set of novels by Ian Fleming, James Bond – also known by his code name 007 – is a secret agent whose work sees him travelling the world on the trail of various interesting and unique villains, some of whom appear in more than one story. Meeting a host of beautiful women along the way, Bond’s adventures generally involve thrilling fight scenes, fast cars and clever gadgets. Bond has been taking on international intrigue of one sort or another on the big screen since 1962, when Sean Connery was the first to play the character in what many have seen as the definitive James Bond performance. Since then, several other actors have had the privilege of filling Bond’s shoes, and with movies continuing to be made, the legend of James Bond looks set to continue.
If this introductory look at Britain’s wealth of fascinating legends has inspired you, you can learn more about British folklore over at Mysterious Britain. If you come on an Oxford Royale Summer Schools course, you can also look forward to visiting some of Britain’s famous landmarks, such as mysterious Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain – said, in one tale, to have been constructed by none other than the magician Merlin of Arthurian legend…
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