Where the Forest Murmers by Fiona Macleod

BEYOND THE BLUE SEPTENTRIONS

TWO LEGENDS OF THE POLAR STARS

The star Septentrion is, for the peoples of the North and above all for the shepherd, the seaman and the wayfarer, the star of stars. A hundred legends embody its mystery, its steadfast incalculable service, its unswerving isolation over the Pole. Polaris, the North Star, the Pole Star, the Lodestar, the Seaman's Star, the Star of the Sea, the Gate of Heaven, PhOEcenice, Cynosure, how many names, in all languages, at all times. The Mongolian nomad called it the Imperial Ruler of Heaven: the Himalayan shepherd, Grahãddra, the Pivot of the Planets: the Arab knows it as the Torch of Prayer, burning for ever at the portal of the heavenly Mecca. It shines through all literature, since (and indeed long before) Euripides wrote his superb verse of how the two great Northern: constellations which encircle Polaris, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the two "swiftwandering" Bears, " guard the Atlantean Pole," till a poet of our own time wrote the less majestic but not less lovely line relating to these constellations which gives the title to this paper. In all ages, too, the dreaming mind of man has imagined here the Throne of the Gods, the Seat of the Mighty, the last Portal of the Unknown. It is the Flatheansas of our Gaelic ancestors, the ultimate goal of the heroic spirit: the Himinbiorg, or Hill of Heaven, of the Norsemen of old, and the abode of Heimdalir, the guardian of the bridge Bifröst (the Rainbow) which unites Asgard the Everlasting with that brief whirling phantom, the Earth. It is Albordy, "the dazzling mountain on which was held the Assembly of the Gods" of the ancient Teutonic peoples: the mysterious Mount Mëru, the seat of the gods, of the Aryan dreamers of old, and the Hindû sages of later time: "the holy mountain of God" alluded to in Ezekiel --so, at least, it has been surmised.

" The blue Septentrions " . . . Boötes with Arcturus, the Great Bear, the Lesser Bear, the Pointers or the Northern Hounds, the North Star . . . what legend, what poetry, what romance, what wonder belongs to these stars and constellations which guard the marches of the Arctic North. To the mass of what is already extant, what need to add further matter? And yet there is ever new justification in that continual need of the soul to hear over and over again and in ever-varying ways even the most fragmentary runes or sagas of this unfathomably mysterious stellar universe which encloses us with Silence and Beauty and Wonder, the three Veils of God --as the Hebridean islesman, the Irish Gael of the dreaming west, and the Arab of the Desert alike have it.

I have elsewhere spoken of the legendary association of Arthur (the Celtic-British King and the earlier mythical Arthur, semi-divine, and at last remote and celestial) with Arcturus, that lovely lamp of the North, the glory of Boötes. But now, I may add what there I had to omit.

In all European lands, and above all in the countries of the West, there is none without its legend of King Arthur. The Bretons claim him as theirs, and the places of his passage and exploit are familiar, though only the echo, only the phantom of a great fame ever reached Arvôr. In the Channel and Scilly Isles the story runs that there is Lyonesse, and that Arthur sleeps in a cavern of the seas. The Cornish folk and their kindred of Somerset and Devon believe there is not a rood of ground between Camelot and Tintagel where the great King has not dwelt or passed. Wales calls him her son, and his chivalry her children, and the Cymric poets of a thousand mabinogion have sung his heroic fame. Clydesdale, that more ancient home of the Cymri, has dim memories older than what Taliesin sang: Arthur's Seat hangs above Edinburgh, a city so old that a thousand years ago its earlier name was forgotten; and from the Sidlaw to the Ocliil, from blue Demyat to grey Schiehallion, old names and broken tradition preserve the obscure trails of a memory fallen into oblivion, but not so fallen that the names of Arthur and Queen Guinevere and wild-eyed Merlin of the Woods have ceased to stir the minds of the few who still care for the things that moved our fathers from generation to generation. The snow of the Grampians have not stayed the wandering tale: and there are still a few old people who recall at times, in the fainter story-telling before farm-kitchen fires, how the fierce Modred, King of the North, made Queen Gwannolê his own, and how later, in a savage revenge, Arthur condemned her to be torn asunder by wild horses. Lancelot passes from the tale before it crosses the Border, and as it goes north (or is it not that as it comes south?) Merlin is no more a courtier but a wild soothsayer of the woods, Queen Wanders or, Gwannolê or Guinevere is tameless as a hawk, and Arthur himself, though a hero and great among his kind, is of the lineage of fire and sword.

Where is Joyeuse Gard? Some say it is in the isle Avillion off the Breton shores: some that it is in Avalon, under the sacred hill of Glastonbury: some that it is wet with the foam of Cornish Seas: others aver that it lies in fathomless silence under the sundown wandering wave and plunging tide. Another legend tells that it leaned once upon the sea from some lost haven under Berwick Law, perhaps where North Berwick now is, or where Dirleton looks across to Fidra, or where the seamews on ruined Tantallon scream to the Bass.

Arthur himself has a sleeping-place (for nowhere is he dead, but sleeps, awaiting a trumpet-call) in "a lost land" in Provence, in Spain, under the waters of the Rhine. Today one may hear from Calabrian shepherd or Sicilian fisherman that the Great King sleeps in a deep hollow underneath the Straits of Messina. And strangest of all (if not a new myth of the dreaming imagination, for I have not been able to trace the legend beyond a modern Slavonic ballad) among the Carpathian Highlands is a nameless ancient tomb lost in a pine-forest, where at midwinter a bear has been seen to rise, walking erect like a man, crowned with a crown of iron and gold holding a single shining stone magnificent as the Pole Star, and crying in a deep voice, "I am Arthur of the West, Who shall yet be king of the World."

Strange indeed, for here among the débris of the lost history of Arthur, that vast shadowy kingly figure whose only kingdom may have been the soul of primitive races, and whose sword may have been none other than the imagination that is for ever on its beatiful and perilous quest, here among that débris of legend scattered backward from the realms of the north across Europe is one, remote as it is, which brings us back to the early astronomical myth that identifies the great Celtic champion with the chief constellation of the north.

But as I have heard this fragment of our old lost mythology related in a way I have not seen in any book, I will give it here altered but slightly if at all from one of the countless legends told to me in my childhood.

At sunset the young son of the great King Pendragon came over the brow of a hill that stepped forward from a dark company of mountains and leaned over the shoreless sea which fills the west and drowns the north. All day he had been wandering alone, his mind heavy with wonder over many things. He had heard strange tales of late, tales about his heroic father and the royal clan, and how they were not as other men, but half divine. They were not gods, he knew, for they could be slain in battle or could die with the crowding upon them of many years: but they were more terrible in battle than were the greatest of men, and they had vision and knowledge beyond the vision and knowledge of the druids, and were lordly beyond all men in mien and the beauty of courtesy, and lived beyond the common span of years, and had secret communion with the noble and invisible company. He had heard, too, of his destiny: that he, too, was to be a great king, as much greater than Pendragon, than Pendragon was above all the kings of the world. What was Destiny, he wondered. Then, again, he turned over and over in his mind all the names he could think of that he might choose for his own: for the time was come for him to put away the name of his childhood and to take on that by which he should be known among men.

He came over the brow of the hill, and out of the way of the mountain-wind, and, being tired, lay down among the heather and stared across the grey wilderness of the sea. The sun set, and the invisible throwers of the nets trailed darkness across the waves and tip the wild shores and over the faces of the cliffs, Stars climbed out of shadowy abysses, and the great chariots of the constellations rode from the west to the east and from the north to the south. His eyes closed, but when he opened them again to see if a star quivering the verge of the horizon had in that brief moment sprung like a deer above the drowning wave or had sunk like a white seabird passing out of sight, he saw a great and kingly figure standing beside him. So great in stature, so splendid in kingly beauty was the mysterious one who had so silently joined him, that he thought this must be one of the gods.

" Do you know me, my son? " said the kingly stranger.

The boy looked at him in awe and wonder, but unrecognisingly.

" Do you not know me, my son? " he heard again . . . "for I am your father Pendragon. But my home is yonder, and there I go before long, and that is why I have come to you as a vision in a dream . . ." and, as he spoke, he pointed to the constellation of the Arth, or Bear, which nightly prowls through the vast abysses of the polar sky.

When the boy turned his gaze from the great constellation which hung in the dark wilderness overhead, he saw that he was alone again. While he yet wondered in great awe at what he had seen and heard, he felt himself float like a mist and become like a cloud, and, as a cloud, rise beyond the brows of the bills, and ascend the invisible stairways of the sky.

When for minutes that were as hours he had moved thus mysteriously into the pathless and unvisited realms of the air, he saw that he had left the highest clouds like dust on a valley-road after one has climbed to the summit of a mountain: nor could he see the earth save as a blind and obscure thing that moved between the twilights of night and dawn.

It seemed to him thereafter that a swoon came over him, in which he passed beyond the far-off blazing fires of strange stars. At last, suddenly, he stood on the verge of Arth, or Arth Uthyr, the Great Bear. There he saw, with the vision of immortal not of mortal eyes, a company of most noble and majestic figures seated- at what he thought a circular abyss but which had the semblance of a vast table. Each of these seven great knights or lordly kings had a star upon his forehead, and these were the stars of the mighty constellation of the Bear which the boy had seen night after night from his home among the mountains by the sea.

It was with a burning throb at his heart that he recognised in the King of all these kings no other than himself.

While he looked, in amazement so great that he could hear the pulse of his heart, as in the silence of a wood one hears the tapping of a woodpecker, he saw this mighty phantom-self rise till he stood towering over all there, and heard a voice as though an ocean rose and fell through the eternal silences.

"Comrades in God," it said, "the time is come when that which is great shall become small."

And when the voice was ended, the mighty figure faded into the blue darkness, and only a great star shone where the uplifted dragonhelm had brushed the roof of heaven. One by one the white lords of the sky followed in his mysterious way, till once more were to be seen only the stars of the Bear.

The boy-king dreamed that he fell as a falling meteor, and then that he floated over land and sea as a cloud, and then that he sank as mist upon the hills of his own land.

A noise of wind stirred in his ears, and he felt the chill dew creep over his hands like the stealthy cold lip of the tide. He rose stumblingly, and stood, staring around him. He was on the same spot, under the brow of the hill that looked over the dim shoreless seas, now obscure with the dusk. He glanced upward and saw the stars of the Great Bear in their slow majestic march round the Pole. Then he remembered.

He went slowly down the hillside, his mind heavy with thought. When he was come to the place of the King his father, lo, Pendragon and all his fierce chivalry came out to meet him, for the archdruid had foretold that the great King to be had received his mystic initiation among the holy silence of the hills.

"I am no more Snowbird the child," the boy said, looking at them fearlessly, and as though already King. " Henceforth I am Arth-Urthyr 1, for my place is in the Great Bear which we see yonder in the north."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
1
Pronounced Artli-Uir, or Arth-ur. In ancient British Arth means Bear, and Uthyr great, wondrous.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So all there acclaimed him as Arthur, the wondrous one of the stars, the Great Bear. - "I am old," said Pendragon, "and soon you shall be King, Arthur, my son. So ask now a great boon of me and it shall be granted to you."

Then Arthur remembered his dream.

"Father and King," he said, "when I am King after you I shall make a new order of knights, who shall be strong and pure as the Immortal Ones, and be tender as women, and simple as little children. But first I ask of you seven flawless virgin knights to be of my chosen company. To-morrow let the woodwrights make for me a round dais or table such as that where we eat our roasted meats and drink from the ale-horns, but round and of a size whereat I and my chosen knights may sit at ease."

The King listened, and all there.

"So be it," said the King.

Then Arthur chose the seven flawless virgin knights, and called them to him.

"Ye are now Children of the Great Bear," he said, "and comrades and liegemen to me, Arthur, who shall be King of the West. And ye shall be known as the Knights of the Round Table. But no man shall make a mock of that name and live: and in the end that name shall be so great in the mouths and minds of men that they shall consider no glory of the world to be so great as to be the youngest and frailest of that knighthood."

 

And that is how Arthur, the son of Pendragon, who three years later became King of the West, read the Rune of the Stars that are called the Great Bear. and took their name upon him, and from the strongest and purest and noblest of the land made Knighthood, such as the world had not seen, such as the world since has not known.

********************************************

Very different, a cruder legend of the Pole star, the drift of which I heard some months ago from a fisherman of Ross, "foregathered with" in the Sound of Morvern.

One day, Finn, before he was born the King of the West, a thousand years earlier than that and maybe thousands more on the top of that thousand, went hunting a great bear beyond the highest mountains in Ross and Sutherland. It came to the Ord, and then, seeing there was -no more land, it went into the sea with an awesome plunge, like Iceland in the story before it swam away from Scotland, so that the fish were knocked out of the nets and the fishing cobles were thrown on the shores like buckies, and the tides ran like hares till they leaped into the sea again at the rocks of Wick and over Cromarty Cliffs. Aye, it is said a green wave ran right through the great Kirk at Inverness; and that away across the lands of Mackenzie and Chisholm, of Fraser and Gordon, a storm of foam blew like snow against the towers and steeples of Aberdeen. At least all this might well have been, if in those old ancient days there had been any Aberdeen or Inverness to see it, or if there were cobles and nets then, as, for all you or I or the wind know, there may have been. Well, the Bear swam away due north, and Finn after it and his great hounds Luath and Dorch. It took them a month to come up with it, and then it was among mountains of solid ice with the sea between hard as granite. Then it came to the place where there's an everlasting Rainbow. The Bear climbed this, to jump to the other side of the Pole, but Luath ran up one side and Dorch the other and Finn burled his great shining spears, one after the other: so that down the bear came with a rush, and so great was the noise and stramash that the icebergs melted, and out flew thousands of solanders and grey swans and scarts and God knows what all, every kind of bird that is with a web to its foot. The hounds fell into the water, and the Bear lay on a floe like a wounded seal, but Finn never moved an inch but put spear after spear into the Bear. "Well, you're dead now," he said; "and if you're not, you ought to be," he added, seeing that the Bear was up again and ready to be off.

" This can't go on," said God Allfather, so He swung a noose and sagged up the Bear into the black Arctic sky. But the hounds hung on to its tail, and so were carried up too. And as for Finn, he took the hero-leap, and with one jump was on the Pole, and with the next was in the Northman's Torch (Arcturus), and with the third was on the Hill of Heaven itself. And that's where he went back to on the day he died after his three hundred years of mortal life. He's never moved since, and he won't move again, till Judgment Day. And by the same token, you can see the Great Bear prowling round the Pole still, and Finn the Watchman never letting him go by, night or day, day or night, and far away down are the two Hounds that herd the Great Bear and his mate. And when these come too near, Finn hurls his spears, and that's when we see the Northern Lights. And behind the streamers and the auroras and the rainbows and the walls of ice Finn looks into the Garden of Eden--Paradise as they say, just the Flatheanas of the old tales, the old songs. And who would be doubting it?


Return to Contents