Gateway to the Classics: Ten Boys Who Lived on the Road from Long Ago to Now by Jane Andrews
Ten Boys Who Lived on the Road from Long Ago to Now by  Jane Andrews


The Story of Wulf, the Saxon Boy, Who Helped to Make England

"It is only the coward who thinks he shall live forever."

"I DARE you to run as far as the eagle tree," cried Ella, and the two boys started, bow in hand and quiver upon shoulder, for a race towards the forest.

The wind blew their fair hair back from their faces, and their flowing curls floated on the breeze; for Wulf and Ella were Saxon boys, sons of freemen; and their long hair,—the sign of their free birth,—had never been cut.

They soon left the village behind them, and neared the gloomy forest, the mark land, that spread like a broad belt around every Saxon village,—a mark, or boundary, between neighbor and neighbor, as well as between enemies.

On the outskirts of the forest the boys stopped to take breath, and Wulf threw down his bow and stooped to tighten the woollen straps that, crossed and recrossed about his legs, bound his gaiters firmly on.

The race had loosened one of them, and before the final start for the eagle's tree, Wulf would make sure that no such trifle as a loosened strap should hinder him from winning.

"Ready!" they both shouted, and, tossing back their hair, away they went, like arrows from the bow, away into the deep, dark forest. As they went on they became silent, and when they reached the great beech-tree, rudely carved with a picture of an eagle, they did not shout, but Wulf, who reached it half a minute sooner than his companion, paused for an instant under the broad branches, and thus assuring himself that his companion recognized him as victor, turned his face towards the village again; for no one would linger long near the mark tree, for it was a sacred spot which marked the boundary between two villages, always to be treated with respect, and almost with awe, by the people. Whoever stepped over his neighbor's mark must do it at his peril. So the boys had shown not a little daring in choosing the eagle's tree as their goal, and no wonder they did not care to remain under its shade.

As they tramped along homeward through the rough forest path, they heard the crackling of brushwood on their right, and a herd of pigs, guarded by a boy about twelve years old, broke across the foot-way.

The swineherd was a half-naked boy dressed only in a tunic or jacket of skin reaching nearly to his knees, and he had a metal ring around his neck. This ring was not a collar or necklace worn as an ornament. It fitted so tightly that it could not be taken off. It must have been soldered on and was meant to stay. It was marked, as a dog's collar is, with his master's mark or sign, for this boy was a slave or serf.

His hair, which was closely cropped, was less fair than the long locks of Wulf and Ella, and he carried no bow and arrows, as the other boys did.

The two boys greeted him in a friendly way.

"Do the swine feed well here?" asked Wulf.

"Yes, on the best of beech-nuts and acorns, but they will stray towards the mark tree, and lead me where great Grendel, the man-eater, may find me."

"But Grendel belongs yonder, away over the mountains," said Ella.

"Nay, but he is a mighty stepper over the mark," said the swineherd, shaking his head ominously. "There is no knowing when he may come, nor where."

"Don't be a coward, Uffen," cried Wulf. "As soon as Grendel steps over the mark, he must blow his horn, and that will give you time to prepare to meet him."

"Yes, yes," muttered Uffen, "you may well say so. With what shall I meet him? A thrall has no arms."

"I will defend you," said Wulf; "my grandfather's thrall shall not fail of a gallant protector;" and he looked to his bow-string, and, drawing an arrow to the head, faced the gloomy forest with the air of an earl's son.

"I trust my sword, I trust my steed,

But most I trust myself, at need,"

sang Ella laughingly, but he also gave a loving look of admiration at his young cousin, who was to be the head of the family by and by, and whose loyal companion he was destined to be.

Just at this instant, as if to test their courage, the blast of a horn rang out loud and clear from the forest.

"It is Grendel himself," whispered the swineherd.

"Nonsense!" cried the keen-eyed Wulf, "use your eyes, man, and see the earldorman's messenger already taking the path to the moot hill.

The moot hill was a low rounded hill just outside the village where the free mark-men or land-holders met once a month to hold their moot court and deal out justice to all men, and settle all affairs that needed not to go up to the great witangemot, or meeting of the wise men of the nation.

Within the circle of the moot court the boys could not enter, but they loved to seat themselves on rock or tree-trunk at the foot of the hill, and listen to the clash of arms by which the men gave their assent to any proposal of the earldormen, and gather from some old man too lame and weary to climb the hill, such tales and old songs as all boys in all countries and all times love to hear.

So Ella and Wulf left the swineherd to his beech-nuts and acorns, and tried another race to the foot of the moot hill.

They were just in time to see the earldorman's messenger welcomed by Erkennin, the stately grandfather of young Wulf, and they seated themselves on a mossy rock to wait for the end of the meeting.

Presently old Elric came slowly down the hill. His long white hair flowed over his shoulders, and his blue eyes looked brightly out from under shaggy eyebrows. Many a scar marked his rugged face and bare arms and hands, but he held his head proudly yet, though the spear sometimes trembled in his stiffening hands.

The seax—a short, hooked broadsword or dagger, from which some writers tell us the Saxons derived their name—hung from his girdle, and indeed he was a fine figure of an old warrior.

As he met the lads, a smile lighted his rugged face. He was fond, in his rough way, of the young Wolf's cub and his friend, and was quite willing to give them a bit of wisdom now and then from his eighty-years store of it.

"It is a good day for news," he said. "And for such news as comes to-day, most truly it is good."

"Why so, father Elric?" asked young Wulf.

"It is the day of our father Woden, the mover (Wodensday, Wednesday). To-day we divide the land anew, that no man may become so attached to his fields that he will not be ready to go out to new conquests; for it is weak and unmanly to gain by sweat what you can win by blood."

"The blood of Woden flows in your veins, young Wulf, and it is time now that you should be going out to conquer new lands."

"But why is this a good day for news, and what news?" eagerly asked the boy again.

"It is news that may concern you," answered the old man, "if you are the boy I take you to be. But your grandfather is the one who will tell it you. Wait until the moot court breaks up, and you will hear."

"Tell us about the other days, father Elric," said Ella.

"I know Thor's day (Thursday)," cried Wulf, "the day when the Thunderer lets fly his strong hammer at his foes."

"And Tuesday is Tyr's day. I count him the bravest of them all," continued old Elric.

"Why bravest?" asked the boys.

"Because he put his right hand in the wolf Fenrir's mouth as a hostage, while the gods chained him. And he did it knowing that when the chain proved too strong to be broken, Fenrir would bite his hand off. That was brave, the one-handed god is he whom I worship. I was born on his day."

"But see the court is breaking up, I must be going, and you too, my lads. Farewell, young Wolf's cub, don't forget the race that bred you. You should be following the swan-road in a good war-keel before many winters more pass over your head."

"There are only three very brave days," said Wulf to Ella, as they threw their arms over each other's shoulders, and strode down towards the village, looking and feeling as much like warriors as they could. "I shall take Wodensday for mine. Sunday is the sun's, Monday the moon's, Friday belongs to the smiling, gentle Friga, and Saturday is Seater's, and brings peace and plenty. But I say war and plenty for me."

Nearing the scattered houses of the village, the boys separated, and Wulf took his way towards the home of his grandfather.

The house was made of thick posts or logs, joined together by boards; and in the turf-covered roof was a hole which served as a chimney. The door-posts were carved with strange characters. The boy could not read them. They were runes, and protected the household from harm; for gods could understand the runes, and men would fear the sacred words and respect them.

Wulf found his mother spinning beside the door. She had a welcome in her eyes for him as she stood at her rude wheel and drew out the woollen thread between her fingers.

"Thy grandfather has news for thee," she said.

"What is it, mother," cried the boy, "am I going to war? I am twelve years old, you know, and I have proved my strength already in fight."

The mother looked at him proudly. "You are like Sigebert, your father," she said. "It is well that you were born in camp, and cradled on a shield. You were but a baby when your father was brought home dead, covered with wounds, crowned with honor, and you did not shriek and cry when I laid you on his breast, and said to you, 'It is for women to weep, for men to remember.' "

"Yes, mother," answered the boy gravely, "I remember."

"Go in to thy grandfather, now," said the mother. "He will tell thee the news."

Old Erkennin had returned from the moot court, and sat before the smouldering fire. An old man with shaggy locks and keen eyes. He wore a woollen cloak or sagum fastened with long thorn, and his tall spear stood in the corner within reach of his hand.

The boy stood beside him, and the afternoon light streaming in at the open door—for window there was none—shone on his yellow hair and bright, young face.

"Thy, uncles, Hengist and Horsa, have been out upon the seas," he said. "The swan-road is ever the road to glory. They send news that the British shore is open to conquest. The wild Picts are swarming down upon the Britons, and it is a fine chance to go in, sword in hand, and the land shall be ours. Will you go with your uncles, my boy?"


"The Swan-road is ever the road to glory."

The boy sprang high in the air with a shout of delight.

"Will  I go, grandfather? I will go, and not come back till I have won new lands with my sword. My sword!  may I have one now. I have been longing for it, grandfather. May I have it?"

"Your father went gayer into a fight than ever he did to a feast, and you are his own son," said the old man proudly.

"To-morrow at sunrise we will try the omens, and, if the gods will it, you shall go."

The next morning, at sunrise, fresh twigs are cut from a tree, marked, and solemnly strewed upon a white cloth. Then old Erkennin, with invocation to Woden and the Fates, reaches out his hand and, picking up a twig, interprets the sign upon it.

"You will go, my boy," he says joyfully. "Go, and be a conqueror and a king. May the shield-maidens stand beside you in battle, and may your weird weave for you such a web as befits a noble youth. Remember that death is better for any man than a life of shame. It is only a coward who thinks he shall live forever."

So, in the presence of the freemen of the village, Wulf is equipped with shield and javelin; and his grandfather says to him,—

"Now you are no longer a part of my household, a child in your father's home; you are a Saxon, a warrior. It may for some brief time be your lot to till the ground, and, if it be so, may our mother Hertha be good to you, and grant you plentiful harvests. It may be that, for a time, you shall gather fish from the sea, and seek the whale in the north, or the gannet among the rocks; but the chief duty of a man is to fight, and so to fight that no man can ever say 'niding' (coward) to him. Be always ready to attack one enemy; to face two; to retire only one step back from three; and never to retreat from less than four."

And then young Wulf joins the brave companions who are to meet Hengist, and sail for the "Saxon shore" of Britain.

It is a two days' march through fen and forest to the sea-shore, where three keels await them. Long flat-bottomed boats, their oaken boards fastened together with ropes of bark and iron bolts. Fifty oars and fifty pairs of strong arms drive each war-keel over the waves, and the white-horse banner floats over the horde of fierce warriors crowded upon their decks.

Wulf is counted a "companion" of his uncle. He sits with him at meat, and listens with rapture to the bold tales of sea-robbery and battle; for Hengist has met Roman legions and long-haired Gauls as well as Britons.

"The Britons are weak," he said one day. "They are herding together in cities, no man dares to live alone in his own home, surrounded by his own fields. They are cowards. If we had them in our Saxon land, we should bury them in the mud, and cover them with hurdles, that no one might see their shame. Their priests teach them to read and to sing; they are making clerks of them. They will never own the land if they waste their lives in reading."

"But the singing is good," said young Ida, whose name signified flame, as he stood near, sharpening his sword.

"No, the singing is not good. They have no battle-songs. They sing dirges for the dead, and hymns. I want no such songs," shouted Hengist, and he sprang to his feet, singing,—

"My sword is my father,

My shield is my mother,

My ship is my sister,

My horse is my brother."

and his comrades shook their long, yellow locks, and lifted their heads as they stood there on the deck of the "Sea-horse," and sang or rather roared out,—

"Cheerly, my sea-cocks!

Crow, for the day-dawn;

True heroes, troth-plighted

Together we'll die."

When Hengist's three keels touched British shores, King Vortigern sent down the Count of the Saxon shore to greet the strangers in his name, and ask whence they had come and wherefore.

He heard with delight that the bold Saxons had brought their swords for his service.

"How shall I pay you?" he asked of Hengist.

"Land!" said Hengist. "Land shall be my pay. I fight for love of fighting; but I serve you for land."

Once on shore, the Saxons were already at home.

"My plough is my sword, my treasure is my good right hand," said Hengist. "And now that I have come I will stay, and my people shall plough many hides of British soil, and win treasures on many a battle-field."

Before setting out against Vortigern's enemies, Wulf put his hands between the hands of his uncle, and took a solemn oath, "by oak, and ash, and thorn," and by the great god Woden himself, that he would be Hengist's faithful companion and serve him to the death.

Then began their march against the Picts, the wild, painted men of the North. Through the fens and the forests they marched, and at last out on the grand, old Roman roads, straetas (streets) the Saxons called them. And the boy wondered at the great walled cities, where the Britons lived, as the Romans had taught them.

And now Wulf learned to fight,—to fight on at all odds, never to be turned back by defeat, never to acknowledge himself beaten; to say to his victorious enemy, "The victory is yours to-day; it may be mine to-morrow. I will not give back. I stand where to-day's fortunes have placed me. To-morrow I will go forward."

"When the Picts are conquered we shall be ready for the Britons," said Hengist.

"But the Britons may also be ready for you," suggested Ida.

"They will find it is ill work trapping an eagle. When they have caught him, it is often the safest thing to let him go again," said Hengist proudly.

And the banner of the white horse went ever forward.

One day Hengist called the boy to come with him, as kinsman and companion, to found for themselves a stronghold on British soil. And, taking a bull's hide, he cut it round and round into one long strip, and with this thong of leather he encompassed a rocky hill, and there they built a castle, and called it Thong castle. Strong bars of oak across its doors, narrow slits in the stone walls for windows, it was a safe retreat in which to stand against British assaults; and, moreover, it was a sign that the land on every side was their own.

The twelve-year-old boy is growing into a strong, young warrior, whose watchword is, "Woe to those who cannot take care of themselves! Woe to the weak!"

It is in the Isle of Thanet, in the southeastern part of what we call England, that the Saxons have made a home. There they have set up the banner of the white horse. There they have their moot-hill, and hold their moot-court, as of old. And year by year their keels cross the sea, bringing their brothers and friends to join them. Among them comes Ella to meet Wulf again. Both boys have drawn swords in more than one battle; both love the roving life, the fortune of the day; both have learned that justice between man and man, adherence to one's oath, and, above all, courage, mark a free-born man; and to be a free man is as good as to be a king.

No reading or writing for them; no schools nor books. They study only out of the book of every-day life, and a pretty rough life it is, too.

Few days or nights of peace, but always an enemy at hand to keep their fighting powers in good practice. Wulf has earned the right to wear his father's sword, "Brain-biter," and Ella, too, loves and cherishes a sword to which he has given the name "Death-dealer."

They lie at night on the ground, or at best on a bed of rushes. They sit at the feast of boar's flesh after the battle is over, and drink great horns of mead, and sing war songs.

Sometimes they listen with wonder to the tales of the old gleeman,—tales of marvellous deeds of valor; tales of dwarfs and elves of the forest; of Beorn, the magic warrior, who could mutter runes that would stop short his enemy's vessel in its course, in spite of a fair wind, and make the rower's efforts of no avail, or could check an arrow midway in its flight. "It were useless to fight against magic," muttered the old gleeman.

The gleeman had a book,—"boc" he called it, from the beech (boc) tree wood of which it was made. A little wooden tablet you and I should call it, I think; but to them it was a very valuable book, with a few strange words carved upon it. A thorn stood for th ; ice meant i ; oak a or ac ; I—which looks to me like H turned sideways—meant hail ; and × meant man. This is all I can tell you of their written language, but even this little was known only to a few.

The king and the earls themselves could not write their names. They could only make some mark or sign for the name, and it is from that custom that we have learned to speak of signing our names.

Paper was not made in those days. A few pieces of parchment might be had whereon to write charters and other important deeds. All the books there were, were written in Latin, and Latin these Saxons did not understand; and yet they brought into our English language twenty-three thousand words. Four fifths of the common words that we use in our every-day talk are Anglo-Saxon words; all the home words father, mother, brother, sister, child, house, sun, moon, day, night, and the days of the week, as you saw in the early part of this story,—all these and thousands more they have left us.

This boy, Wulf, was our ancestor, yours and mine. It was because of him and his companions that Britain became England, for a part of the Saxons were called Angles, Engle-men, or English men.

We no longer delight in war as they did, but they had many manly virtues which we may well thank them for bequeathing to us; and how gentle manners began to grow up at last among warlike people, we may learn from Gilbert the page, who will one day become a knight.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Horatius, the Roman Boy  |  Next: Gilbert, the Page
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.