The Dream Of Maxen Wledig

It would seem that the Emperor Constantine the Great loomed very large in the eyes of mediæval England. Even in Anglo-Saxon times many legends clustered round his name, so that Cynewulf, the religious poet of early England, wrote the poem of “Elene” mainly on the subject of his conversion.

The story of the Vision of the Holy Cross with the inscription In hoc signo vinces was inspiring to a poet to whom the heathen were a living reality, not a distant abstraction; and Constantine’s generosity to the Church of Rome and its bishop Sylvester added another element of attraction to his character in the mediæval mind. It is hardly surprising that other legends of his conversion and generosity should have sprung up, which differ entirely from the earlier and more authentic record. Thus “the moral Gower” has preserved for us an alternative legend of the cause of Constantine’s conversion, which forms a good illustration of the virtue of pity in the “Confessio Amantis.” Whence this later legend sprang we have no knowledge, for nothing in the known history of Constantine warrants our regarding him as a disciple of mercy, but its existence shows that the mediæval mind was busied with his personality. Another most interesting proof of his importance to Britain is given in the following legend of “The Dream of Maxen Wledig,” preserved in the “Mabinogion.” This belongs to the Welsh patriotic legends, and tends to glorify the marriage of the British Princess Helena with the Roman emperor, by representing it as preordained by Fate. The fact that the hero of the Welsh saga is the Emperor Maxentius instead of Constantius detracts little from the interest of the legend, which is only one instance of the well-known theme of the lover led by dream, or vision, or magic glass to the home and heart of the beloved.

The Emperor Maxen Wledig was the most powerful occupant of the throne of the Cæsars who had ever ruled Europe from the City of the Seven Hills. He was the most handsome man in his dominions, tall and strong and skilled in all manly exercises; withal he was gracious and friendly to all his vassals and tributary kings, so that he was universally beloved. One day he announced his wish to go hunting, and was accompanied on his expedition down the Tiber valley by thirty-two vassal kings, with whom he enjoyed the sport heartily. At noon the heat was intense, they were far from Rome, and all were weary. The emperor proposed a halt, and they dismounted to take rest. Maxen lay down to sleep with his head on a shield, and soldiers and attendants stood around making a shelter for him from the sun’s rays by a roof of shields hung on their spears. Thus he fell into a sleep so deep that none dared to awake him. Hours passed by, and still he slumbered, and still his whole retinue waited impatiently for his awakening. At length, when the evening shadows began to lie long and black on the ground, their impatience found vent in little restless movements of hounds chafing in their leashes, of spears clashing, of shields dropping from the weariness of their holders, and horses neighing and prancing; and then Maxen Wledig awoke suddenly with a start. “Ah, why did you arouse me?” he asked sadly. “Lord, your dinner hour is long past—did you not know?” they said. He shook his head mournfully, but said no word, and, mounting his horse, turned it and rode in unbroken silence back to Rome, with his head sunk on his breast. Behind him rode in dismay his retinue of kings and tributaries, who knew nothing of the cause of his sorrowful mood.

From that day the emperor was changed, changed utterly. He rode no more, he hunted no more, he paid no heed to the business of the empire, but remained in seclusion in his own apartments and slept. The court banquets continued without him, music and song he refused to hear, and though in his sleep he smiled and was happy, when he awoke his melancholy could not be cheered or his gloom lightened. When this condition of things had continued for more than a week it was determined that the emperor must be aroused from this dreadful state of apathy, and his groom of the chamber, a noble Roman of very high rank—indeed, a king, under the emperor—resolved to make the endeavour.

“My lord,” said he, “I have evil tidings for you. The people of Rome are beginning to murmur against you, because of the change that has come over you. They say that you are bewitched, that they can get no answers or decisions from you, and all the affairs of the empire go to wrack and ruin while you sleep and take no heed. You have ceased to be their emperor, they say, and they will cease to be loyal to you.”

Then Maxen Wledig roused himself and said to the noble: “Call hither my wisest senators and councillors, and I will explain the cause of my melancholy, and perhaps they will be able to give me relief.” Accordingly the senators came together, and the emperor ascended his throne, looking so mournful that the whole Senate grieved for him, and feared lest death should speedily overtake him. He began to address them thus:

“Senators and Sages of Rome, I have heard that my people murmur against me, and will rebel if I do not arouse myself. A terrible fate has fallen upon me, and I see no way of escape from my misery, unless ye can find one. It is now more than a week since I went hunting with my court, and when I was wearied I dismounted and slept. In my sleep I dreamt, and a vision cast its spell upon me, so that I feel no happiness unless I am sleeping, and seem to live only in my dreams. I thought I was hunting along the Tiber valley, lost my courtiers, and rode to the head of the valley alone. There the river flowed forth from a great mountain, which looked to me the highest in the world; but I ascended it, and found beyond fair and fertile plains, far vaster than any in our Italy, with mighty rivers flowing through the lovely country to the sea. I followed the course of the greatest river, and reached its mouth, where a noble port stood on the shores of a sea unknown to me. In the harbour lay a fleet of well-appointed ships, and one of these was most beautifully adorned, its planks covered with gold or silver, and its sails of silk. As a gangway of carved ivory led to the deck, I crossed it and entered the vessel, which immediately sailed out of the harbour into the ocean. The voyage was not of long duration, for we soon came to land in a wondrously beautiful island, with scenery of varied loveliness. This island I traversed, led by some secret guidance, till I reached its farthest shore, broken by cliffs and precipices and mountain ranges, while between the mountains and the sea I saw a fair and fruitful land traversed by a silvery, winding river, with a castle at its mouth. My longing drew me to the castle, and when I came to the gate I entered, for the dwelling stood open to every man, and such a hall as was therein I have never seen for splendour, even in Imperial Rome. The walls were covered with gold, set with precious gems, the seats were of gold and the tables of silver, and two fair youths, whom I saw playing chess, used pieces of gold on a board of silver. Their attire was of black satin embroidered with gold, and golden circlets were on their brows. I gazed at the youths for a moment, and next became aware of an aged man sitting near them. His carved ivory seat was adorned with golden eagles, the token of Imperial Rome; his ornaments on arms and hands and neck were of bright gold, and he was carving fresh chessmen from a rod of solid gold. Beside him sat, on a golden chair, a maiden (the loveliest in the whole world she seemed, and still seems, to me). White was her inner dress under a golden overdress, her crown of gold adorned with rubies and pearls, and a golden girdle encircled her slender waist. The beauty of her face won my love in that moment, and I knelt and said: ‘Hail, Empress of Rome!’ but as she bent forward from her seat to greet me I awoke. Now I have no peace and no joy except in sleep, for in dreams I always see my lady, and in dreams we love each other and are happy; therefore in dreams will I live, unless ye can find some way to satisfy my longing while I wake.”

The senators were at first greatly amazed, and then one of them said: “My lord, will you not send out messengers to seek throughout all your lands for the maiden in the castle? Let each group of messengers search for one year, and return at the end of the year with tidings. So shall you live in good hope of success from year to year.” The messengers were sent out accordingly, with wands in their hands and a sleeve tied on each cap, in token of peace and of an embassy; but though they searched with all diligence, after three years three separate embassies had brought back no news of the mysterious land and the beauteous maiden.

Then the groom of the chamber said to Maxen Wledig: “My lord, will you not go forth to hunt, as on the day when you dreamt this enthralling dream?” To this the emperor agreed, and rode to the place in the valley where he had slept. “Here,” he said, “my dream began, and I seemed to follow the river to its source.” Then the groom of the chamber said: “Will you not send messengers to the river’s source, my lord, and bid them follow the track of your dream?” Accordingly thirteen messengers were sent, who followed the river up until it issued from the highest mountain they had ever seen. “Behold our emperor’s dream!” they exclaimed, and they ascended the mountain, and descended the other side into a most beautiful and fertile plain, as Maxen Wledig had seen in his dream. Following the greatest river of all (probably the Rhine), the ambassadors reached the great seaport on the North Sea, and found the fleet waiting with one vessel larger than all the others; and they entered the ship and were carried to the fair island of Britain. Here they journeyed westward, and came to the mountainous land of Snowdon, whence they could see the sacred isle of Mona (Anglesey) and the fertile land of Arvon lying between the mountains and the sea. “This,” said the messengers, “is the land of our master’s dream, and in yon fair castle we shall find the maiden whom our emperor loves.”

So they went through the lovely land of Arvon to the castle of Caernarvon, and in that lordly fortress was the great hall, with the two youths playing chess, the venerable man carving chessmen, and the maiden in her chair of gold. When the ambassadors saw the fair Princess Helena they fell on their knees before her and said: “Empress of Rome, all hail!” But Helena half rose from her seat in anger as she said: “What does this mockery mean? You seem to be men of gentle breeding, and you wear the badge of messengers: whence comes it, then, that ye mock me thus?” But the ambassadors calmed her anger, saying: “Be not wroth, lady: this is no mockery, for the Emperor of Rome, the great lord Maxen Wledig, has seen you in a dream, and he has sworn to wed none but you. Which, therefore, will you choose, to accompany us to Rome, and there be made empress, or to wait here until the emperor can come to you?” The princess thought deeply for a time, and then replied: “I would not be too credulous, or too hard of belief. If the emperor loves me and would wed me, let him find me in my father’s house, and make me his bride in my own home.”

After this the thirteen envoys departed, and returned to the emperor in such haste that when their horses failed they gave no heed, but took others and pressed on. When they reached Rome and informed Maxen Wledig of the success of their mission he at once gathered his army and marched across Europe towards Britain. When the Roman emperor had crossed the sea he conquered Britain from Beli the son of Manogan, and made his way to Arvon. On entering the castle he saw first the two youths, Kynon and Adeon, playing chess, then their father, Eudav, the son of Caradoc, and then his beloved, the beauteous Helena, daughter of Eudav. “Empress of Rome, all hail!” Maxen Wledig said; and the princess bent forward in her chair and kissed him, for she knew he was her destined husband. The next day they were wedded, and the Emperor Maxen Wledig gave Helena as dowry all Britain for her father, the son of the gallant Caradoc, and for herself three castles, Caernarvon, Caerlleon, and Caermarthen, where she dwelt in turn; and in one of them was born her son Constantine, the only British-born Emperor of Rome. To this day in Wales the old Roman roads that connected Helena’s three castles are known as “Sarn Helen.”


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