The Half Man by Thomas Wentworth
King Arthur in his youth was fond of all manly exercises, especially of
wrestling, an art in which he found few equals. The old men who had been
the champions of earlier days, and who still sat, in summer evenings,
watching the youths who tried their skill before them, at last told him
that he had no rival in Cornwall, and that his only remaining competitor
elsewhere was one who had tired out all others.
"Where is he?" said Arthur.
"He dwells," an old man said, "on an island whither you will have to go
and find him. He is of all wrestlers the most formidable. You will think
him at first 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 stronger; he seeks out all your weak points as by magic; he never
gives up; you may throw him again and again, but he will conquer you at
"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 others whom he has conquered."
Far and wide over the ocean the young Arthur sought; he touched 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 at last when he was
far out under the western sky, he came one day to an island which he had
never before seen and which seemed uninhabited. Presently there came out
from beneath an arbor of flowers a little miniature man, graceful and
quick-moving as an elf. Arthur, eager in his quest, said to him, "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
"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—showed him his house and where the gardens and fields
were. 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 his favorite fruits were, or his favorite beverages,
and 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; and the king tossed
him again in his arms, finding the delicate limbs firmer, and the slender
body heavier than before, though easily manageable. The island was as
green and more cultivated, there were more men working in the fields, and
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 pinnace 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 much as before
and appeared to have made but little progress. The youth seemed never
tired of wrestling; he always begged the king for a trial of skill, and
the king rejoiced to see how readily the young wrestler caught at 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 with incredible rapidity into a tall young fellow, and 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, and one day, in a moment of carelessness, Arthur received a back
fall, perhaps on moist ground, and measured his length. 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, and hastened ere long
to revisit the island and teach the saucy boy another 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 mould, his eye clear, keen, penetrating. "Of all the wrestlers I
have ever yet met," said the king, "this younker promises to be the most
formidable. I can easily throw him now, but what will he be a few years
hence?" The youth greeted him joyously, and they began their usual match.
The sullen serfs in the fields stopped to watch them, and an aged Druid
priest, whom Arthur had brought with him, to give the old man air and
exercise in the boat, opened his weak eyes and closed them again.
As they 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 relinquish his hold for an instant—either of these
successes giving the victory. 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. A stranger group was that of the sullen farm-laborers, who 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;
and 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, and who had been
brought ashore to witness the contest, called warningly aloud, "Save
thyself, O king!" At this Arthur roused his failing strength to one final
effort, and, griping his rival round the waist with a mighty grasp, 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, who said to him, "Never
again, O king! must you encounter the danger you have barely escaped. Had
you failed, you would have become subject to your opponent, whose strength
has been maturing for years to overpower you. Had you yielded, you would,
although a king, have become but as are those dark-browed men who till his
fields and do his bidding. For know you not 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!"
The symbolical legend on which this tale is founded will be found in Lady
Charlotte Guest's translation of the "Mabinogion" (London, 1877), II. p.
344. It is an almost unique instance, in the imaginative literature of
that period, of a direct and avowed allegory. There is often allegory, but
it is usually contributed by modern interpreters, and would sometimes
greatly astound the original fabulists.