The Celtic Literature Collective

King Herla and the Wild Hunt Walter Map - The Courtier's Trifles
Bodl. MS. 851


THAT there was but one court similar to this of ours we learn from old stories. These tell us that Herla, the king of the very ancient Britons, was led into a compact by another king, seemingly a pigmy in the lowness of his stature, which did not exceed that of an ape. As the story hath it, this dwarf drew near, sitting on a huge goat—just such a man as Pan is pictured, with glowing face, enor¬mous head, and a red beard so long that it touched his breast (which was brightly adorned with a dappled fawn skin), a hairy belly, and thighs which degenerated into goat-feet. Herla spake to him with no one by. Quoth the pigmy: ‘I, the king of many kings and chiefs and of a people numerous beyond all count, come willingly, sent from them to thee, and though I am to thee unknown, yet I glory in the fame which hath raised thee high above other kings, since thou art the best and the nearest to me in place and blood, and art moreover worthy of having me grace with high honour thy wedding as a guest, when the King of the French giveth his daughter to thee—an arrangement concluded with¬out thy knowledge, and Jo, his messengers come this very day. Let there be an abiding compact between us, that I shall attend thy wedding, and thou mine a year later to the day.’ With these words he turned his back with more than a tiger’s swiftness and vanished from the king’s sight. Then the king, returning in amazement, received the ambassadors and accepted their terms. As he was sitting in high state at the wedding feast, the pigmy entered before the first course with so great a multitude of his fellows that the tables were filled and more had to find places without than within, in the pigmy’s own pavilions which were pitched in a moment. From these tents servants sprang forth with vases made of precious stones, perfect in form and fashioned with inimitable art, and they filled the palace and pavilions with gold and crystal vessels, nor did they serve any food or drink in silver or in wood. They were present wherever they were wanted, and offered nothing from the royal or other stores, but a bountiful entertainment only from their own, and thus, from the supplies brought with them, they outstripped the desires and requests of all.

Everything which Herla had prepared was left untouched. His servants sat in idleness, for they were not called upon and hence rendered no service. The pigmies were everywhere, winning everybody’s thanks, aflame with the glory of their garments and gems, like the sun and moon before other stars, a burden to no one in word or deed, never in the way and never out of the way. Their king, in the midst of the ministrations of his servants, thus addressed King Herla: ‘0 best of kings, the Lord is my witness that, according to our compact, I am present at thy wedding. But if anything that thou cravest besides what thou seest here can be asked of me, I shall willingly supply it; but if not, thou must not put off thy requital of this high honour when I shall ask for it.’ Without pausing for an answer to these words he suddenly returned to his pavilion and departed with his men about the time of cock-crow. But just a year later he suddenly appeared to Herla, and sought from him the discharge of his compact. Herla assented, and having provided himself with the wherewithal for the discharge of his debt, followed where he was led. He and his guide entered a cavern in a very lofty cliff, and after a space of darkness they passed into light, seemingly not of sun or of moon but of many lamps, to the home of the pigmies—a mansion in every way glorious, like the palace of the sun in Ovid’s description. Having celebrated there the marriage, and having discharged fittingly his debt to the pigmy, Herla, with the sanction of his host, withdrew laden with gifts and with presents of horses, dogs, hawks, and all things befitting venery and falconry. The pigmy conducted his guests to the darkness and at parting gave to them a small bloodhound, to be carried in arms, strictly forbidding any one of Herla’s whole company to dismount until the dog should leap forward from his bearer. Then, having said farewell, he returned to his country. When Herla in a short time was restored to sunlight and to his kingdom, he accosted an old shepherd and asked for news of his queen by name. Then the shepherd, regarding him with wonder, thus replied: ‘My lord, I scarce understand thy language, since I am a Saxon and thou a Briton. But I have never heard of the name of that queen, save that men tell of one so called, a queen of the very ancient Britons, and wife of King Herla, who is reported in legends to have disappeared with a pigmy into this cliff and to have been seen nevermore on earth. The Saxons, having driven out the natives, have possessed this kingdom for full two hundred years.’ The king, who had deemed his stay to be of three days only, could scarcely sit his horse for wonder. Some of his fellows, forsooth, heedless of the pigmy’s warn¬ings, dismounted before the descent of the dog, and were immediately changed to dust. But the king, understanding the reason for this change, prohibited, by threat of like death, any one to touch the earth before the descent of the dog. But the dog never descended.

Hence the story hath it that King Herla, in endless wandering, maketh mad marches with his army without stay or rest. Many have seen that army, as they declare. But finally, in the first year of the coronation of our King Henry, it ceased, so men say, to visit our kingdom frequently as in the past. And then it was seen by many Welsh sinking into the river Wye at Hereford. But from that hour that wild march ceased, just as if these rovers had handed over their wanderings to us for their own peace. But if thou wishest to hear what a cause of grief is this wandering not only in this court, but in almost all others, thou wilt be pleased to observe a silence which will be at once my satisfaction and my due. Dost thou now wish to give ear to recent happenings?

Map, Walter. Master Walter Map's book, De nugis curialium (Courtier's trifles). trans. Frederick Tupper and Marbury Bladen Ogle. London: Chatto & Windus, 1924.

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