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Myth and Magic of Britain

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        The following articles are concerned with the sort of popular stories handed down from generation to generation and which often give seemingly fabulous explanations of traditional beliefs. Most of these articles were published in a magazine called Tradition, and some elsewhere (see Acknowledgements). Unlike the accompanying ghost stories, I can't really put dates on them all, but they were written at various times over the last 20 years.

      It can often be found that behind the most fantastic stories there lurks some vestige of truth. A lot of research is sometimes needed to bring out this truth from the cobwebs of legend. But in some cases it becomes virtually impossible to discover the origin of a tale, so overlaid with invention has it become. It is here that they become so very fascinating. Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. However, the fiction of folklore takes some beating. And when it has been handed down through generations as being a true account, it is indeed stranger than what we would commonly call fiction.

      I hope my fascination with the subject makes the articles interesting and enjoyable. In my piece about "The Giant's Grave" next, I mention that 19th-century novelist Sir Walter Scott used to visit the site of the grave whenever he was passing. And, of course, it was Scott - of all people - who was very much alive to the romantic appeal of popular legend.


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The Giant's Grave

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  In St. Andrew's churchyard in Penrith, Cumbria, is a curious arrangement of stones which legend says is the grave of a giant. It consists of two 10ft high pillars which stand 15ft apart and connected by four upright semi-circular stones (two on each side). It was said to have been opened in the late 16th century to reveal the bones of a huge man.
      According to legend, it is the grave of Ewan Caesario of nearby Hewen Castle, High Hesket. He was the giant in one of the colourful Arthurian stories who asked Arthur to find the answer to the riddle: "What is it a woman loves best?" The ladies at court were unable to help. And the solution was finally provided by an old hag on the condition that the King married her to one of his gallant knights.

     The answer was: "Woman loveth her own will best." The story tells of how Sir Gawain offered to marry the old woman if the King so wished. After the wedding ceremony, Sir Gawain kissed the hag who turned into a beautiful woman.

      A study of the stones was made in 1922 by W. G. Collingwood, whose findings appear in the Proceedings of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian Society. He concludes that they are several different graves which have been joined together over many centuries. The semi-circular stones are gravestones of chieftains who died in 10th century border conflicts. And the two pillars are the remains of Celtic crosses.
     We are told that the novelist Sir Walter Scott always used to stop at St. Andrew's churchyard when he was passing. It is perhaps testimony to the fascination of legend.



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