(To Children and Others)
I once read a book about a poor little lonely boy in a great house with a large library. This boy was pale, dull, and moping. Nobody knew what was the matter with him. But somebody tracked him into the library and saw him take a huge thick black book, half as tall as himself, out of a bookcase, and sit down and read it. The name of the book was Polexander. So he sat and sobbed over Polexander, because it was so very dull and so very long. There were 800 pages, and he had only read sixty-seven. But some very stupid grown-up person had told him that he must always begin a book at the beginning, and, if he once began, he must read every word of it, and read nothing else till he had finished every word of it.
The boy saw that he would die of weariness long before he reached the end of Polexander, but he stuck to it like the other boy who stood by the burning deck long after it was ‘time for him to go.’ So Polexander was taken away from him and locked up, and so his life was saved.
Now, in the first place Polexander was a romance, but it was not like the romances in this book, for it was dreadfully long, and mainly about the sorrows of lovers who cannot get married. That could not amuse a small boy. In the second place, every boy should stop reading a book as soon as he finds that he does not like it, just as you are not expected to eat more mutton than you want to eat. Lesson books are another thing; you have to read them, and if you do not you will get into trouble. They are not meant to be amusing, but to teach Latin grammar, or geography, or arithmetic, which are not gay. As to this book of Romances, if you do not like one story, give it up and try another. If you do not like any of them, read something else that you do like.
Now what are romances? They are grown-up people’s fairy tales or story-books, but they are the kind of story-books that grown-up people read long ago, when there were castles and knights, and tournaments, and the chief business of gentlemen was to ride about in full armour, fighting, while ladies sat at home doing embroidery work, or going to see the men tilt at tournaments, just as they go to see cricket matches now. But they liked tournaments better, because they understood the rules of the game. Anybody could see when one knight knocked another down, horse and all, but many ladies do not understand leg before wicket, or stumping.
The stories that they read were called ‘romances,’ but were in prose. Before people could read they were not in prose but in poetry, and were recited by minstrels. Mrs. Lang, who did the stories in this book, says: ‘Many hundreds of years ago, when most of these stories were told in the halls of great castles, the lives of children were very different from what they are now. The little girls were taught by their mothers’ maidens to spin and embroider, or make simple medicines from the common herbs, and the boys learnt to ride and tilt, and shoot with bows and arrows; but their tasks done, no one paid any further heed to them. They had very few games, and in the long winter evenings the man who went from house to house, telling or singing the tales of brave deeds, must have been welcome indeed. From him the children, who early became men and women, heard of the evil fate that awaited cowardice and treachery, and grew to understand that it was their duty through life to help those that were weaker than themselves.’ That was long, long ago, when nobody but priests and a very few gentlemen could read and write. They just listened to stories in rhyme, which the minstrels sang, striking their harps at the end of each verse.
The stories were really fairy tales, dressed up and spun out, and instead of ‘a boy’ or ‘a king’ or ‘a princess’ with no name, the old fairy adventures were said to have happened to people with names: King Arthur, or Charlemagne, or Bertha Broadfoot. A little real history came in, but altered, and mixed up with fairy tales, and done into rhyme.
Later, more and more people learned to read, and now the long poems were done into prose, and written in books, not printed but written books; and these were the Romances, very long indeed, all about fighting, and love-making, and giants, and dwarfs, and magicians, and enchanted castles, and dragons and flying horses. These romances were the novels of the people of the Middle Ages, about whom you can read in the History Books of Mrs. Markham. They were not much like the novels which come from the library for your dear mothers and aunts. There is not much fighting in them, though there is any amount of love-making, and there are no giants; and if there is a knight, he is usually a grocer or a doctor, quite the wrong sort of knight.
Here is the beginning of a celebrated novel: ‘Comedy is a game played to throw reflections upon social life, and it deals with human nature in the drawing-rooms of civilised men and women.’ You do not want to read any more of that novel. It is not at all like a good old romance of knights and dragons and enchanted princesses and strong wars. The knights and ladies would not have looked at such a book, all about drawing-rooms.
Now, in this book, we have made the old romances much shorter, keeping the liveliest parts, in which curious things happen. Some of the tales were first told in Iceland eight hundred years ago, and are mostly true and about real people. Some are from the ancient French romances of the adventures of Charlemagne, and his peers and paladins. Some are from later Italian poems of the same kind. ‘Cupid and Psyche’ is older, and so is the story of the man who was changed into a donkey. These are from an old Latin romance, written when people were still heathens, most of them. Some are about the Danes in England (of whom you may have heard), but there is not much history in them.
Mrs. Lang says: ‘In this book you will read of men who, like Don Quixote, were often mistaken but never mean, and of women, such as Una and Bradamante, who kept patient and true, in spite of fierce trials and temptations. I have only related a few of their adventures, but when you grow older you can read them for yourselves, in the languages in which they were written.’
‘Don Quixote’ was written by a Spaniard, Cervantes, in the time of James I. of England, to show what would happen if a man tried to behave like a knight of old, after people had become more civilised and less interesting. Don Quixote was laughed at, because he came too late into too old a world. But he was as brave and good a knight as the best paladin of them all. So about the knights and ladies and dwarfs and giants, I hope you will think like Sir Walter Scott, when he was a boy, and read the old romances. He says: ‘Heaven only knows how glad I was to find myself in such company.’
If you like the kind of company, then read ‘Ivanhoe,’ by Sir Walter Scott, for that is the best romance in the world.
All the stories in this book were done by Mrs. Lang, out of the old romances.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57