In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a boom in the popularity of English folklore, particularly in the form of meticulously researched books collecting old stories and preserving them for a modern audience. This included stories from early written sources, chronicles and an oral tradition which was in danger of dying out. Fairy stories, Celtic myths and a lot of secondary Arthurian material won a second lease on life as a result. J. M. Dent and Sons published popular versions of many of these stories in illustrated editions organized thematically. One of these was English Fairytales, collected and edited by Ernest and Grace Rhys and illustrated by Herbert Cole and R. Anning Bell. This collection includes familiar stories like “Jack the Giant killer” and “Dick Whittington and His Cat” plus some Arthurian tales, some well-known like “The Green Knight” and some more unusual like “The Giant of St. Michaels.” Presented below is one of the more unusual stories, an Arthurian legend which isn’t well known. At the end of the story you’ll find information on a special offer on a mini-package of the collected illustrations from the 1906 edition of English Fairy Tales.
WHEN KING ARTHUR was king of this realm, it befell at one time that He departed and entered into the sea at Sandwich with all his army, with a great multitude of ships, galleys, and dromons, sailing on the sea.
And as the king lay in his cabin in the ship, he fell in a slumbering, and dreamed a marvellous dream: it seemed that a dreadful dragon did drown much of his people, and he came flying out of the west, and his head was enamelled with azure, and his shoulders shone as gold, his body like mails of a marvellous hue, his tail full of tatters, his feet full of fine sable, and his claws like fine gold; and an hideous flame of fire flew out of his mouth, like as the land and water had flamed all of fire. After him, there came out of the Orient a grimly boar, all black, sailing in a cloud, and his paws as big as a post. He was rugged looking, roughly; he was the foulest beast that ever man saw, he roared and romed so hideously that it was marvel to hear. Then the dreadful dragon advanced him and came in the wind like a falcon, giving great strokes on the boar, and the boar hit him again with his grisly’ tusks that his breast was all bloody, and that the hot blood made all the sea red of his blood. Then the dragon flew away all on an height, and came down with such a swough, and smote the boar on the ridge, which was ten foot large from the foot to the tail, and smote the boar all to powder, both flesh and bones, that it flittered all abroad on the sea. And therewith the king awoke anon and was sore abashed of this dream; and sent anon for a wise man, commanding to tell him the meaning of his dream.
“Sir,” said the wise man, “the dragon that thou dreamedst of betokeneth thine own person that sailest here, and the colour of his wings be thy realms thou that hast won, and his tail which is all to-tattered signifieth the noble knights of the Round Table. And the boar that the dragon slew coming from the clouds, either betokeneth some tyrant that tormenteth the people, or else that thou art like to fight with some giant thyself, being horrible and abominable, whose peer ye saw never in your days. Wherefore of this dreadful dream doubt thee nothing, but as a conqueror come forth thyself.”
Then after this soon they had sight of land, and when they were there, a husbandman of that country came and told him there was a great giant which had slain, murdered, and devoured much people of the country, and had been sustained seven years with the children-of the commons of that land, insomuch, ‘that all the children be all slain and destroyed.
“And now late,” saith this countryman, He hath taken the Duchess of Brittany as she rode with her train, and hath led her to his lodging which is in a mountain, for to keep her to her life’s end; and many people followed her, more than five hundred, but all they might not rescue her, but they left her shrieking and crying lamentably, wherefore I suppose that he hath slain her. Now as thou art a rightful king have pity on this lady, and revenge us all as thou art a noble conqueror.”
“Alas!” said King Arthur, this is a great mischief, I had rather than the best realm that I have that I had been a furlong way tofore him, for to have rescued that lady. Canst thou bring me where this giant haunteth?”
“Yea, sir,” said the good man, “ It’s, yonder where as thou seest those two great fires, there thou shalt find him, and more treasure than I suppose is in all France.” When the king had understood this piteous case he returned into his tent.
Then he called unto him Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere, and commanded them secretly to make ready horse and harness for himself and them twain, for after evensong he would ride on pilgrimage with them two only unto Saint Michael’s Mount. And then anon he made him ready and armed him at all points, and took his horse and his shield. And so they three departed thence, and rode forth as fast as ever they might till that they came unto the foot of that mount. And there they alighted, and the king commanded them to tarry there, for he would himself go up into that mount. And so he ascended up into that hill till he came to a great fire, and there he found a careful widow wringing her hands and making great sorrow, sitting by a grave new made.
King Arthur saluted her, and demanded of her wherefore she made such lamentation: to whom she answered and said, “Sir Knight, speak soft, for yonder is a demon: if he hear thee speak he will come and destroy thee; I hold thee unhappy; what dost thou here in this mountain? For if ye were such fifty as ye be, ye were not able to make resistance against this devil: here lieth a duchess dead, the which was the fairest of all the world, wife to Sir Howell, Duke of Brittany; he hath murdered her.”
“Dame,” said the king, “I come from the noble conqueror King Arthur, for to treat with that tyrant for his liege people.”
“Fie upon such treaties,” said the widow, “he setteth not by the king, nor by no man else. Beware, approach him not too nigh, for he hath vanquished fifteen kings, and hath made him a coat full of precious stones, embroidered with their beards, which they sent him to have his love for salvation of their people at this last Christmas. And if thou wilt, speak with hint at yonder great fire at supper.”
“Well,” said Arthur, “I will accomplish my ‘message for all your fearful words.”
And he went forth by the crest of that hill, and saw where the giant sat at supper gnawing on a limb of a man, baking his broad limbs by the fire, and three fair damsels turning three spits, whereon were broached twelve young children like young birds.
When King Arthur beheld that piteous sight he had great compassion on them so that his heart bled for sorrow, and hailed him saying in this wise,
“He that all the world wieldeth, give thee short life and shameful death. Why hast thou murdered these young innocent children, and murdered this duchess? Therefore arise and dress thee, thou glutton; for this day shalt thou die of my hand.”
Then the glutton anon started ‘up and took a great club in his hand, and smote at the king that his coronal fell to the ground. And the king hit the giant again, and carved his body till his blood fell down in two streams. Then the giant threw away his club, and caught the king in his arms that he crushed his ribs. Then the three maidens kneeled down and called to Christ for help and comfort of Arthur. And then Arthur weltered and wrestled with the giant, that he was other while under and another time above. And so weltering and wallowing they rolled down the hill till they came to the sea mark, and ever as they so weltered Arthur smote him with his dagger, and it fortuned they came to the place where as the two knights were that kept Arthur’s horse. Then when they saw the king fast in the giant’s arms they came and loosed him.
And then the king commanded Sir Kay to smite off the giant’s head, and to set it upon a truncheon of a spear, and bear it to Sir Howell, and tell him that his enemy was slain. “After this,” said the king, H let his head be bound to a barbican that all the people may see and behold it; and go ye two up to the mountain and fetch me my shield, my sword, and the club of iron. And as for the treasure take ye it, for ye shall find there goods out of number. So I have the kirtle and the club, I desire no more. This was the fiercest giant that ever I met with, save one in the mount of Arabe which I overcame, but this was greater.”
Then the knights fetched the club and the kirtle, and some of the treasure they took to themselves, and returned again to the host. And anon this was known through all the country, wherefore the people came and thanked the king. And he said again, “Give the thanks to God, and part the goods among you.” And after that, King Arthur said and commanded his cousin Howell that he should ordain for a church to be builded on the same hill, in the worship of Saint Michael.
We’ve collected all 13 of the images in English Fairytales into a special mini-package which is available for $10 from our ONLINE ORDERING page with an immediate download.