Merlin and the Giant’s Dance: The Victory of Art over Strength

1212px-Stonehenge_-_Wiltonia_sive_Comitatus_Wiltoniensis;_Anglice_Wilshire_(Atlas_van_Loon)

By Blaeu, J (Atlas van Loon) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in History of the Kings of Britain  Merlin was an advisor, prophet and magician of kings.  One of his greatest feats was to dismantle a huge stone circle known as the Giant’s Dance situated on Mount Killaraus in Ireland and bring it across the Irish Sea to Britain where he installed it for King Aurelius Ambrosius as a monument to the victims of a Saxon massacre of leading Britons.  What follows is a retelling of the story of how and why Merlin brought the Giant’s Dance from Ireland to Britain beginning with the return of Aurelius and his brother, Uther.

The Return of Aurelius Ambrosius

While the usurper King Vortigern had been misruling Britain in violent times, the true heirs to the throne, Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther had been sent to  Armorica by opponents of the king being too young to rule and to protect them from him.As Aurelius grew up  he entered many of the royal tournaments around Europe and fought for Armorica in many of their battles. He gained a fearsome reputation as a formidable warrior and leader of men.

As he and Uther had come of age, with the help of the King of Armorica, they prepared for their return to Britain.  They intended to, wreak vengeance on Vortigern and defeat Hengist and the Saxons and reclaim their rightful inheritance.   They built a great fleet of ships and filled them with warriors and sailed across the sea to disembark their troops at Totnes.  News of their arrival spread like wildfire.  The remaining warlords of the Briton flocked to their cause making Aurelius the King of Britain.  After a series of battles they defeated their enemies killing Vortigern and Hengist and succeeded in driving out the Saxons.

As he had marched to battle King Aurelius had been appalled at the damage and suffering the Saxons had caused.  Now victorious, he called a council of his lords and clergy to discuss and plan the rebuilding of war-ravaged Britain.  He brought back the old laws and returned lands to those that had lost them to the Saxons.  Where there was no living heir he divided these lands among his loyal followers.

The Treachery of the Long Knives

He travelled through many towns and cities and eventually arrived in Winchester. Then he traveled to Kaercaradduc, now known as Salisbury and at the instigation of Bishop Eldad visited the monastery of Ambrius.  This was the place where the murder of the British lords and nobles took place at the instigation of Hengist.  This event had scarred the psyche of the Britons and became known as The Treachery of the Long Knives. Aurelius visited the burial place of the victims and was overcome with emotion with the terrible event that happened there.  He began to think about an appropriate monument to remember and honour the victims by so that Britons should never forget the treachery wrought by Hengist and the Saxons

Seeking inspiration he brought together the best masons, carpenters and artisans in Britain  telling them to design and build a fitting monument.   After much deliberation these worthy men went to King Aurelius and told him despite their skills and craftsmanship they could not between them come up with a fitting design.  Then the archbishop of the City of the Legions, stood up and said,

“If any one living is able to execute your commands, Merlin, the prophet of Vortigern, is the man. In my opinion there is not in all your kingdom a person of a brighter genius, either in predicting future events, or in mechanical contrivances. Order him to come to you, and exercise his skill in the work which you design.” (1)

Merlin had gained fame when he had revealed to Vortigern the  two hidden dragons that  were hidden in a pool that caused building work on a new stronghold to collapse.  He also predicted the arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther with an invasion force to take back the crown of Britain.  Merlin also forewarned Vortigern that he saw two deaths for him: one by Aurelius and the other by the Anglo-Saxons.  It so happened that Aurelius reached him first and burnt him to death in his stronghold.  Merlin also predicted there would come a king who would drive out the Anglo-Saxons from Briton and create an empire in Europe and that would be Arthur.

Merlin’s Advice

Hearing what was said, Aurelius sent messengers to find and bring back Merlin.  The messengers traveled to all parts of the country and eventually found him.  The message was given and Merlin was escorted to the court of King Aurelius Ambrosius.  Aurelius welcomed Merlin warmly and made it clear he was very pleased to see him.  He was genuinely curious about him and his prophecies asking many questions concerning them. Then he requested that he make a prophecy there and then.  Merlin declined saying,

“Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it. If I should pretend to utter them for ostentation or diversion, the spirit that instructs me would be silent, and would leave me when I should have occasion for it.” (2)

Others present urged and encouraged him but he flatly refused. Aurelius, respecting Merlin’s answer changed the subject and told him of his idea to built a fitting monument to those who died during The Treachery of the Long Knives.   He explained how the best craftsmen and masons in Britain could not think of a suitable design and requested his opinion  on the matter.  Merlin replied,

“If you are desirous,to honour the burying-place of these men with an everlasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.” (3)

King Aurelius Ambrosius was bemused and laughed out loud thinking he was not serious saying,

“How is it possible to remove such vast stones from so distant a country, as if Britain was not furnished with stones fit for the work?”  (4)

However, Merlin was very serious and told him sternly,

“I entreat your majesty to forbear vain laughter; for what I say is without vanity. They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness.

For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.” (5)

Then Aurelius and all those present fell silent at the words of Merlin.  Aurelius discussed the proposal with those present and it was agreed that such a monument to the dead would be fitting.  The king’s younger brother, Uther was appointed command of an army fifteen thousand strong.  He was to travel to Ireland to Mount Killaraus and bring the stones back to Britain using any means necessary including force.   Merlin was also sent with him as his advisor and to direct the work in uprooting and transporting thèm from the legendary mountain back across the sea to Britain and then to their final destination at Ambrius.  Once there, he would set them up exactly as they had been in Ireland.   A suitable fleet of ships was built to carry the stones and the army under the leadership of Uther, with Merlin as his advisor, set sail for Ireland.

The Taking of the Giant’s Dance

The King of Ireland was a young man named Gillomanius.  When he heard of the landing of an army of Britons  upon the shores of his kingdom be wasted no time in mustering his own warriors to counter the threat.  On being told the motive for their presence he laughed long and loudly.  He poured scorn and derision on them saying,

No wonder a cowardly race of people were able to make so great a devastation in the island of Britain, when the Britons are such brutes and fools. Was ever the like folly heard of? What are the stones of Ireland better than those of Britain, that our kingdom must be put to this disturbance for them? To arms, soldiers, and defend your country; while I have life they shall not take from us the least stone of the Giant’s Dance.” (6)

Gillomanius ordered his army into defensive positions around the stones.  Uther, seeing the Irish intent to defend the Giant’s Dance and with his mission and goal clear commanded the army of the Britons to attack.   The Britons forced the Irish to scatter preventing them from uniting. Gillomanius was routed and forced off Mount Killaraus leaving the stones to the Britons.

When at last they stood on Mount Killaraus before the Giant’s Dance, Uther and the Britons were full of admiration for what they saw and stood in awe looking at them.  Then Merlin came among the army of the Britons and challenged them saying,

“Now try your forces, young men, and see whether strength or art can do the most towards taking down these stones.” (7)

Taking up the challenge the soldiers went to work work trying all sorts of levers and pulleys with great lengths of ropes and cables.  They pulled, pushed and sweated and strained  but no matter how hard they tried they could not move a single stone one inch.

After watching their efforts for some time in quiet amusement Merlin then took command of the project.   He showed them how to construct engines he had designed and under his watchful eye and supervision the stones were taken easily from the ground and transported to the ships and placed safely on board.  When all the stones were loaded the fleet set off under a fair wind to Britain where Merlin supervised their transport to the site prepared at Ambrius.

When messengers brought the news of their arrival in Britain to King Aurelius Ambrosius he was overjoyed.  He summoned all of Britain’s noblemen and clergy to celebrate the feast of the Pentecost at the monastery of Ambrius to formally dedicate the monument to those fallen in The Treachery of the Long Knives.   The celebrations lasted for three days and in front of the whole assembly and with respect to all royal protocol, Aurelius placed the crown of Britain on his head.  Then he sent for his servants and insisted they join with the nobles and clergy in feasting as thanks for their excellent and loyal service.

The Victory of Art over Strength

He then attended to all necessary business matters and appointed bishops to the vacant sees of York and the City of Legions, known today as Caerleon.  He gave York to Sanxo and the City  of Legions to Dubricius.  After he had settled other affairs of his realm he commanded Merlin to reconstruct the Giant’s Dance around the graves of the victims of the Saxon treachery.   Merlin used the same arts and techniques he had used on Mount Killaraus to quickly install the Giant’s Dance on their new site exactly as they had been in Ireland.   Once erected the Giant’s Dance proved to be a most fitting and enduring monument as King Aurelius had intended and answered Merlin’s challenge proving “the victory of art over strength” 

When King Aurelius Ambrosius died he was buried in the Giant’s Dance and his younger brother Uther became King of Britain.  When Uther died through treachery he too was buried there and today the Giant’s Dance still stands as a monument to the victims of treachery and betrayal.

© 21/11/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 22st, 2017 zteve t evans

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