A Story From: Wales
Read Time: 6 to 10 mins.
For Ages: 8 to 14yrs.
King Arthur in his youth was fond of wrestling, and he was so excellent at the art that few dared to challenge him. Old men who had been champions in years gone by sat in the summer evening watching the youths try their skill before them. They told the king that he had no rival in Cornwall and that his only remaining competitor was one who had tired out all others.
“Where is he?” said Arthur.
“He dwells on an island,” said one old man. “He, of all wrestlers, is the most formidable. At first you will think him so insignificant as to be hardly worth a contest; you will easily throw him at the first trial. But after a while you will find him growing strong. He seeks out all your weak points as if by magic; he never gives up. You may throw him again and again, but he will conquer you at last.”
“His name! His name!” said Arthur.
“His name,” they answered, “is Hanner Dyn. His home is everywhere, but on his own island you will be likely to find him sooner or later. Keep clear of him, or he will get the best of you in the end, and make you his slave as he makes slaves of all others whom he has conquered.”
Far and wide over the ocean the young Arthur searched for Hanner Dyn. He landed at island after island. He saw many weak men who did not dare to wrestle with him, and many strong ones whom he could always throw. Until one day, he came to a far-off island he had never seen before and which seemed uninhabited. Presently there came out from beneath an arbor of flowers a little miniature man, as graceful and quick-moving as an elf. Arthur eagerly said to him, “Tell me, young man, do you know in what island dwells Hanner Dyn?”
“In this island,” was the answer.
“Where is he?” said Arthur.
“I am he,” said the laughing boy, taking hold of his hand.
“What did they mean by calling you a wrestler?” said Arthur.
“Oh,” said the child coaxingly, “I am a wrestler. Try me.”
The king took him and tossed him in the air with his strong arms, till the boy shouted with delight. He then took Arthur by the hand and led him about the island, showing him his house, gardens and fields. He showed him the rows of men toiling in the meadows or felling trees. “They all work for me,” he said carelessly. The king thought he had never seen a more stalwart set of laborers. Then the boy led him to the house, asked him what were his favorite fruits and beverages, and he seemed to have all at hand. He was an unaccountable little creature; in size and years he seemed a child, but in his activity and agility he seemed almost a man. When the king told him so, he smiled, as winningly as ever, and said, “That is what they call me — Hanner Dyn, The Half-Man.” Laughing merrily, he helped Arthur into his boat and bade him farewell, urging him to come again. The King sailed away, looking back with something like affection on his winsome little playmate.
It was months before Arthur came that way again. Again the merry child met him, having grown a good deal since their earlier meeting.
“How is my little wrestler?” said Arthur.
“Try me,” said the boy. The king tossed him again in his arms, finding the delicate limbs firmer, and the slender body heavier than before, though he was still easily manageable. The island was as green as before yet more cultivated. There were more men working in the fields. Arthur noticed that their look was not cheerful, but rather as of those who had been discouraged and oppressed.
It was, however, a charming sail to the island and, as it became more familiar, the king often bade his steersman guide the small ship that way. He was often startled with the rapid growth and increased strength of the laughing boy, Hanner Dyn, while at other times he seemed to have made little progress. The youth never seemed to tire of wrestling. He always begged the king for a trial of skill, and the king rejoiced to see how readily the young wrestler caught on with the tricks of the art; so that the time had long passed when even Arthur’s strength could toss him lightly in the air, as at first. Hanner Dyn was growing incredibly fast into a tall young fellow. Instead of the weakness that often comes with rapid growth, his muscles grew ever harder and harder. Still merry and smiling, he began to wrestle in earnest.
One day, in a moment of carelessness, Arthur received a back fall, and landed on moist ground. Rising with a quick motion, he laughed at the angry faces of his attendants and bade the boy farewell. The men at work in the fields glanced up, attracted by the sound of voices, and he saw them exchange looks with one another.
Yet he felt his kingly dignity a little impaired by the fall, and he hastened before long to revisit the island and teach the saucy boy a lesson. Months had passed, and the youth had expanded into a man of princely promise, but with the same sunny look. His shoulders were now broad, his limbs of the firmest form, his eyes clear, keen, and penetrating. “Of all the wrestlers I have ever yet met,” said the king, “this yonker promises to be the most formidable. I can easily throw him now, but what will he be in a few years?”
The youth greeted him joyously, and they began their usual match. The sullen field hands stopped to watch them. An aged Druid, whom Arthur had brought ashore with him to give the old man air and exercise from the boat, opened his weak eyes and closed them again.
As the two of them began to wrestle, the king felt, by the very grasp of the youth’s arms, by the firm set of his foot upon the turf, that this was to be unlike any previous effort. The wrestlers stood after the old Cornish fashion, breast to breast, each resting his chin on the other’s shoulder. They grasped each other round the body, each setting his left hand above the other’s right. Each tried to force the other to touch the ground with both shoulders and one hip, or with both hips and one shoulder; or else to compel the other to let go of his hold for an instant — either of these successes giving the victory. As often as Arthur had tried the art, he never had been so matched before. The competitors swayed this way and that, writhed, struggled, half lost their footing and regained it, yet neither yielded. All the boatmen gathered breathlessly around, King Arthur’s men refusing to believe their eyes, even when they knew their king was in danger. The sullen farm-laborers left their ploughs and spades and, congregating on a rising ground, watched without any expression of sympathy the contest that was going on. An old wrestler from Cornwall, whom Arthur had brought with him, was the judge. According to the habit of the time, the contest was for the best two bouts in three. By the utmost skill and strength, Arthur compelled Hanner Dyn to lose his hold for one instant in the first trial, and the King was pronounced the victor.
The second test was far more difficult; the boy, now grown to a man, and seeming to grow older and stronger before their very eyes, twice forced Arthur to the ground either with hip or shoulder, but never with both, while the crowd closed in breathlessly around; and the half-blind old Druid, who had himself been a wrestler in his youth, called warningly aloud, “Save thyself, O king!”
At this, Arthur roused his failing strength to one final effort. Gripping his rival round the waist with a mighty grasp, the king raised him bodily from the ground and threw him backward till he fell flat, like a log, on both shoulders and both hips; while Arthur himself fell fainting a moment later. Nor did he recover until he found himself in the boat, his head resting on the knees of the aged Druid.
The old man said to him, “Never again, O king! must you encounter the danger you have barely escaped. Had you failed, you would have become the slave to your opponent, whose strength has been maturing for years to overpower you. If you had yielded, although you are a king, you would have become just another one of those weary, sunburned men who tills his fields and does his bidding. For do you not know what the name Hanner Dyn means? It means – Habit; and the force of habit, at first weak, then growing constantly stronger, ends in conquering even kings!”
Adapted from "The Half-Man", from Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (The MacMillan Company: New York, 1898) pp. 74-82.
Adaptations by Elaine Lindy. ©1999. All rights reserved.
Notes on the Story:
Author Thomas Higginson, referenced in the Source, said that the legend on which the tale "The Half-Man" is based was found in Lady Charlotte Guest's translation of the Mabinogion (London, 1877), II, p.344.